In 1976, when Alison is fifteen, she visits her mother's friend Elly in New York City with her father and brothers. For the first time, she notices gay people all around her, including Elly's friends Richard and Tom. But Bechdel does not identify yet as a lesbian herself, nor does she put together that her father is gay.
John wanders off one morning after the family sees A Chorus Line. Father panics and goes out to look for him with Elly, but John returns on his own. Later, Bechdel would find out that her brother had almost been picked up by a strange man. The next day, they watch the tall ships sailing on the Hudson River to celebrate the bicentennial, and Father goes out, presumably to hook up with men in the neighborhood.
As she grapples with her relationship with her father during his life, Bechdel recognizes that their main bond, at least from his perspective, was on an intellectual level. Bruce had been her English teacher at one point, and he always enjoyed exposing her to literature. At first, she enjoyed his guidance in understanding her assignments, but soon his excitement became overwhelming and even stifling.
Back to Alison's first year in college. She is taking class on James Joyce's Ulysses with Mr. Avery. Her father is delighted and recommends books beyond those assigned in the class that he thinks will help her understand Ulysses better. One of the books he recommends is Earthly Paradise, an autobiography of French novelist, performer, and famed lesbian Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Coincidentally, Bruce does not know that Alison is falling behind in her Ulysses class because she'd rather focus on her growing stack of gay-themed literature.
Around this time, Alison joins the gay union on campus and begins coming out to her friends. She writes a letter to her parents about it, and her father calls her that evening. Three weeks later, Helen tells Alison about Bruce's affairs with men. During the following school break, Helen reveals to Alison that she is considering leaving Father.
During that trip home, Alison and Bruce go to a movie together. On the car ride there, he finally talks with her about being gay. She tries to make a real connection, but is disappointed with how little he opens up, and they never speak of it again. On the way home, Bruce tries to take Alison to a gay nightclub but she is denied entrance because she isn't yet twenty-one. It is horribly mortifying for her.
In concluding the memoir, Bechdel considers her last experiences with her father and compares their lives as gay people. At the end of the college semester, Alison's girlfriend Joan accompanies her on a trip home; it was the last time she saw her father. After his death, Alison is embarrassed by her gut reaction: laughter. Bechdel reflects that like Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce's Ulysses, Bruce Bechdel was a complicated antihero.
The theme of using art to interpret life appears again after Alison sees A Chorus Line at age fifteen. She recites one of the lines to herself while looking in the mirror: "You're fourteen years old and you're a faggot. What are you going to do with your life?" (191). Though she has not yet come to terms with her homosexuality, this line of the play opens her to the possibility.
This theme arises again when Alison enrolls in Mr. Avery's college course on Ulysses. Bechdel describes that time in her life as her own kind of odyssey, while she reads Homer's Odyssey to better understand Ulysses. Specifically, she realizes in the library that day that she is a lesbian; this realization becomes linked in her mind to the books she was reading at the time. One of those books is an autobiography of the famous lesbian writer Colette, fittingly recommended to her by her father.
Bechdel's self-conscious autobiographical tendency is evident as she tries to imagine what it would have been like if her father had continued cheating on her mother with men throughout the 1980s, during the AIDS crisis. She comments, "Maybe I'm trying to render my senseless personal loss meaningful by linking it, however, posthumously, to a more coherent narrative" (196). That coherent narrative would be the history of gay culture and community in the United States, which is inextricably linked to the onset of the AIDS epidemic around the time of her father's death.
Drawings of the written word continue to help Bechdel tell her story. In struggling to understand what her father meant to her, in life and death, Bechdel raises the question, "What is a father?" (197). She includes drawings of the dictionary definition, which she complains "conveys vagueness and distance" (197) and of the archaic participle in the dictionary, which is equally unhelpful. Aligning a drawing of her father's last letter to her with a drawing of a page in Ulysses makes clear the parallel between life and literature: Father wrote, "I am not a hero," just as Stephen Dedalus told Mulligan: "I'm not a hero" (230).
Gay history in the United States becomes important in this last chapter, especially with relation to the difference between Bruce and Alison Bechdel's experiences. Bruce died in 1980, right around the time that Alison came out. His death coincided with the AIDS crisis in the United States, as well as the beginning of a social shift to gay acceptance. In relating the revelation that her father had gay affairs, she draws the typed letter he mailed to her, in which he assumed she already knew. In that letter, he remarked upon how different things were for her; for much of his life, he hadn't even considered the option of being open about his homosexuality.
Throughout the memoir, Bechdel punctuates certain drawings with ironic asides. She draws them in square boxes to distinguish them from the rounded thought- or speech-bubbles. In her representation of her father teaching The Catcher in the Rye to her English class, Bechdel uses an aside to point out Bruce's "awesome capacity for cognitive dissonance" (199) as he discusses protagonist Holden Caulfield's lecherous male English teacher.