Alison Bechdel's memoir begins with a scene of the writer as a young girl playing airplane with her father, Bruce. She uses this childhood game to set up a recurring comparison between her relationship with her father and the mythical relationship between Icarus and Daedalus.
Bruce Bechdel is obsessed with restoring his family's old, Gothic revival mansion in Pennsylvania. He finds and refurbishes antique furniture, often enlisting the help of Alison and her two brothers to clean and restore it. Despite his love of restoration, Bruce has a day job as a 12th-grade English teacher. Using the film It's a Wonderful Life as an analogy, Bechdel draws a parallel between Jimmy Stewart's rare moment of frustration with his family and Bruce's frequent outbursts. In order to avoid Bruce when he is angry, young Alison often takes walks outside.
In contrast to her father's studied aesthetic taste, Bechdel calls her own style "unadorned and purely functional" (14). She points this out as another major difference between hers and her father's approach to life. To make sense of her father's obsession with "embellishments" (16), Alison begins to think of these beautiful things as a way for Bruce to make the Bechdels' life look beautiful from the outside, even though it is deeply dysfunctional.
In fact, Bruce becomes distraught at any suggestion that he might not be perfect. Therefore, Alison's mother, Helen, makes a rule: no comments about Dad's appearance. Bruce's insecurity creates constant tension around the house, and his children never know whether to expect anger or kindness from him. His aloof behavior hurts her Alison more because she knows what his kindness feels like. Bechdel uses the metaphor of her father giving her a bath to describe the contrast between the warmth of his love (the hot water he pours over her head) and the chilliness of his usual demeanor (the sudden cold she feels when she stands naked in the bathtub).
Here, Bechdel casually reveals to the reader that her father killed himself when she was twenty. Now that he is gone, it is difficult for her to imagine her childhood without looking back through the lens of his suicide. "His absence resonated retroactively," she writes, "echoing back through all the time I knew him" (23).
Bechdel introduces the Greek myth about Icarus and Daedalus as an analogy for her relationship with her father; she threads this image throughout Fun Home. In the myth, Daedalus is a craftsman who constructs a pair of wings using feathers and wax. His son, Icarus, wants to use the wings but before he allows him to do so, Daedalus warns him not to fly to high or too low; the sun's heat will melt the wax and the ocean's moisture will clump the feathers, causing him to fall. However, Icarus is overcome with hubris and flies too close to the sun, which melts the wings, sending him plummeting to his death. Bechdel compares her father to Icarus, the risk-taking son, and Daedalus, the weary craftsman.
To explain the side of her father that was a responsible family man, Bechdel invokes the theme of life as art. In this first chapter, Bechdel draws a frame that depicts her sitting around the Christmas tree with her brothers. Their father's darkened silhouette is in the foreground. He is holding a wine glass and observing the scene. The description of the drawing reads, "Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. A sort of still life with children" (13). Here, Bechdel gives the impression that her father appreciated his life only to the extent that he could manipulate it and make it beautiful, rather than understanding how imperfect it was beneath the surface.
She speculates that Bruce Bechdel had the same attitude towards the restored furniture with which her decorated their home; she links the idea of life as art to artifice. Bechdel explains, "I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture" (14). She believes that Bruce Bechdel is detached, curating a life by restoring old furniture and beautifying the family home in a way that there was no emotional space for the actual family that actually lives there.
Bechdel uses one of the main differences between herself and her father, a preference for function over design, to further explore the theme of artifice. As a child, she is suspicious of her father's decor because, as she says, "they were lies" (16). He sets up their old house more as a museum than as a home, with non-functional artifacts and furniture on display. Bechdel even suggests that the huge antique mirrors decorating the home were meant to distract visitors and confuse people so they won't notice Bruce Bechdel's personal shame.
Bechdel personifies her father's shame in this chapter, and foreshadows the extent of his denial. She writes, "His shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany" (20). The reader learns abruptly in the words over a drawing of the family attending church just what Bruce Bechdel is ashamed of: he has sex with teenage boys, despite his outward appearance of a perfect husband and father. Despite this knowledge, Bechdel is hesitant to call her family life a sham outright.