Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic | Study Guide

Alison Bechdel

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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic | Chapter 6 : The Ideal Husband | Summary

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Summary

When Alison is 13, Bruce's secret almost comes to the surface. Alison sees him at breakfast and is shocked and thrilled when he tells her he's going to see a psychiatrist. On one level Alison is giddy because she feels as if her life is "approximating" a New Yorker cartoon. But seeing how sad and uncomfortable Bruce is, she understands this is a bad thing. When Alison asks why he is seeing a psychiatrist, he tells her, "I'm bad. Not good like you."

Alison is still keeping a diary at this point and marks down many of the momentous events of that summer. During this time Helen has gotten a leading role in a local play. The play, a production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, causes Helen great stress. She enlists Alison to help her rehearse, but Alison begins reading the play for her own pleasure. In national news the Watergate Scandal is reaching its climax, and around the same time, the 17-year locusts show up. The noise they make, Alison learns, is their mating call. Coincidentally, this is the time when Alison has her first period. She keeps it a secret from her mother, believing it will go away on its own. The period is so brief she doesn't even mention it in her diary.

Stressed out by the upcoming performance, Helen is surprised when the Drs. Gryglewicz, the parents of Alison's friend, Beth, come to help her. They agree to take Alison and her brothers off Helen's hands for a few days so she can relax and rehearse in peace. While Alison and her brothers are having fun playing in the Gryglewicz home, Bruce is off getting into legal trouble. While driving around with a minor, Bruce gives the teenage boy a beer, and the boy's brother reports him to the police. Alison doesn't remember exactly when the court summons arrives for Bruce's trial, as her diary no longer reports facts plainly. During the same time that Bruce experiences legal troubles, Helen is stressing about her thesis as well as the play. Helen's thesis director keeps asking for rewrites, intensifying her stress. Again, the Drs. Gryglewicz offer Helen their support, this time by bringing her flowers. The first evening of the play, Helen is the best actress in the production.

The day after the last performance of the play, Alison has her period again. In her diary she takes to using the phrase "how horrid" often. She also uses the word Ning as a euphemism for menstruation. Years later she will use Ning to refer to masturbation. As the Watergate Scandal intensifies in national politics, the Bechdel family experiences greater tensions at home. As a consequence of Bruce's trial, Helen tells Alison that they may have to move away. Alison is frightened at the prospect. She feels sympathetic toward her father as he goes to court. She compares his legal troubles with the famous case of Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for homosexuality.

Meanwhile, Helen experiences a terrible setback when a freak storm floods her study and ruins her thesis on the day it is due. She works to rewrite the lost portions, and the thesis passes the next day. As for Bruce, he is sentenced by a judge to see a psychiatrist. Two days later, President Richard Nixon resigns. A few weeks later, Alison turns 14. Around this time she and Beth have one final attempt at playing pretend by dressing in men's clothes, but it fails.

In December Alison runs out of sanitary pads and is forced to come to Helen for help. To her surprise, her mother doesn't react much. The chapter ends with Alison speculating that it may not have happened in December as she stopped keeping her diary in November of that year.

Analysis

Compared to other chapters, Chapter 6 is much more linear and focused around a single swatch of time—the summer of Alison's 13th year. The intent in presenting a more unified and linear narrative is to show how life sometimes does feel like a novel. Alison acknowledges the implausible "degree of synchronicity" in the sequence of events from that summer and is glad her diary supports the account. Many of the events and threads of the chapter mirror and complement each other. Helen's part in the Wilde play allows Alison to logically introduce Wilde as a figure in the chapter. Irish playwright Oscar Wilde's fall from grace and imprisonment mirror Bruce's legal struggles, although on a much larger, more grandiose scale. Similarly, the coincidence of President Richard Nixon's fall from power serves as another parallel to Bruce's trial and punishment. Another coincidence is Alison's menstruation beginning at the same time as the emergence of the 17-year locusts. The locusts emit a piercing screech that Alison learns is their mating call and this coincides perfectly with the beginning of her transition to sexual maturity.

Courtship and sexuality are important dynamics in the chapter. Courtship figures prominently in Wilde's play, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Bruce's various affairs are the source of his legal troubles. The chapter also explores how ulterior motives figure into seemingly benign actions. Bruce is arrested for giving a beer to a minor, but Alison believes the "true" offense is too uncomfortable for the authorities to address. Bruce is having an affair with the teenager, just as he had with Roy and Bill before. As a result of his trial, Bruce is sentenced to attend counseling sessions with a psychiatrist. This is the first time in Alison's life that her father's sexual escapades nearly bubble to the surface, disrupting his "good father/husband" façade. In a bizarre twist, it is heavily implied that Bruce begins having an affair with his court-appointed therapist—or at least Helen believes they are having an affair. Additionally, the Drs. Gryglewicz, who appear to be generous and helpful friends to the Bechdels, have their own motives. Alison later learns that they were interested in courting Bruce and Helen to join them in group sex. Bruce's relaxed body language when speaking with them suggests that he may have been amenable. Their support and gifts to Helen may have been intended to sway her to agree to their proposal.

Helen features more prominently in Chapter 6 than in most chapters, and her struggles take center stage. This choice is likely because the chapter is invested in seeing how women are impacted by the troubles men cause. The chapter may be titled "The Ideal Husband," but the opening image is of a suffering wife, so the title is intended to be verbally ironic.

The sequence where Alison and Beth try to play pretend one last time by dressing up in men's clothes illustrates how age changes people. The failure of their dress-up game, perhaps more so than menstruation, ushers Alison out of childhood and into young adulthood. Similarly, Bruce's public legal embarrassment diminishes some of Alison's admiration for her father even as it makes him more sympathetic. As Bruce becomes more humanized, Alison's diary entries become less reliable. She writes things she knows aren't true and skips certain events entirely. In a classic example of anticlimax, after months of avoiding discussing her menstruation with her mother, Alison is finally forced to come clean. Helen's reaction is understated, a foreshadowing of her similarly disappointing reaction to Alison's later coming out as queer. The final panels of the chapter are significant because of Bruce's absence. Instead, the chapter finishes with a conversation between Alison and Helen and an image of Alison's abandoned diary. Bruce's omission and Alison abandoning her diary both speak to her becoming her own person and leaving childhood behind.

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