Fun Home

Fun Home Summary and Analysis of "That Old Catastrophe"


Bechdel begins this chapter by describing the ways in which her fathers death was "queer" (57). She reveals that she came out to her parents as a lesbian via a letter sent from college not too long before Bruce's demise. Her mother's response to Alison's letter was to reveal some "queer" information of her own: Bruce Bechdel had been having affairs with men for years. 

Bechdel believes that her father's life can be understood through the books he loved most. He joined the army after dropping out of graduate school. While he was away, Helen had sent him a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which he quoted in his letters to her. Alison speculates that Bruce saw himself in Fitzgerald's characters and took great pleasure in sharing his insights about the author with anyone who would listen.

In particular, Alison describes how her father used to take pride in loaning out his personal library books to high school students, particularly boys with whom, in retrospect, he was likely having affairs. In a drawing, Bechdel reveals that Bruce would often neglect his family duties in order to spend time with these boys, in particular, Roy. This certainly took a toll on his marriage; Bechdel notes that Helen and Bruce Bechdel rarely showed affection toward each other and fought often. As a witness to this dysfunction, Alison had decided at a young age to never get married.

The chapter then returns to Alison's realization at the age of nineteen that she is a lesbian, and her subsequent exploration of her sexuality. She reads as much feminist literature as she can and joins the gay union on campus. Finally, she decides to write the letter to her parents. In response, her father calls her, seemingly pleased with the news, but her mother sends back a typed letter voicing her general disapproval. 

Alison writes about her parents' reaction to her coming out in her diary, smearing her own blood on the page after accidentally cutting herself with her new Swiss army knife. She responds to her mother's letter and, a few days later, speaks with her on the phone. It is then that Helen reveals Bruce's gay affairs, including the one with the children's former babysitter, Roy.

Alison starts becoming more confident in her sexuality and eventually moves in with her first serious girlfriend, Joan. That summer, Alison's mother calls her with the news that she is divorcing Bruce. Two weeks later, Alison gets the call that her father has died. She brings Joan back to the family house whens the returns for the funeral. Helen gives Joan a book from Bruce's library as a gift: a collection of poetry by Wallace Stevens.

Bechdel ends this chapter by returning to the comparison between her father and F. Scott Fitzgerald - focusing on the author himself and his most famous character, Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby. Like Gatsby, Alison reflects, her father preferred fiction to reality. Like Fitzgerald, Bruce died at age forty-four. Bechdel interprets these eerie coincidences as proof that her father's death might have been a perfectly-timed suicide.


Bechdel continues to explore the theme of multiple meanings when she describes her father's death as "queer in every sense of that multi-valent word" (57). She goes on to explain that it was "queer" because Bruce was gay and tried to hide his sexuality from the world; but it was also queer because of the ambiguous circumstances surrounding it. 

Bechdel includes a drawing of the word "queer" as it appears in the dictionary, which is an example of her tendency to represent ideas as they appear on paper - especially when she is pointing to the intricacies of their meanings. Bechdel revisits this technique in her drawing her of her younger self typing the words "I am a lesbian" in a letter to her parents. At the end of the chapter, Bechdel includes a drawing of her thirteen-year-old self looking up the word "lesbian" in the dictionary, hoping to find a definition for the feelings she is just starting to discover. 

Throughout this chapter, Bechdel uses letters as another way to explore the impact of written words. In a drawing of a typed letter from Helen Bechdel to her daughter, the reader learns that Helen responded to Alison's coming out with mild disapproval. While Bruce was in the army, he quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald's biography, "The Far Side of Paradise" by Arthur Mizener, to Helen in his letters. These letters and Bruce's tendency to see himself reflected in Fitzgerald's short story characters also point to the overall theme of explaining the ambiguities of life through literature.

Bechdel has established in earlier chapters that her father's tendency to live through his artistic pursuits was best reflected in the family's home. Now, Bechdel hones in on Bruce's library as a physical representation of the artifice in his life. Although Helen does not necessarily have the same tendency to see her own life reflected in literature, we learn that she was an actress by profession. Bechdel draws a connection between her mother and the lead in The Heiress, a play based on Henry James's novel Washington Square and a role that Helen herself once portrayed"My mother stepped right out of Henry James -- a vigorous American idealist ensnared by degenerate continental forces" (66), Bechdel observes. She describes the early days of her parents marriage by alluding to James's The Portrait of a Lady. In fact, Bruce and Helen met during a college production of The Taming of the Shrew, a play that Bechdel sees as reflective of the later years of their marriage, wondering, "I speculate on what attracted my father more -- the role, the actress, or my mother herself" (69). 

Throughout her memoir, it becomes clear that Bruce and Alison Bechdel share this habit of distancing themselves from tragedy and confusion. When Bechdel describes how she felt after coming out to her parents and finding out that her father was also gay, she writes, "I'd been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parents' tragedy" (58). The fact that she refers to herself a "protagonist" and "comic relief" is evidence of the fact that Bechdel is able to maintain a "cool aesthetic distance" (67) from her dysfunctional past by thinking about it as a performance. In fact, Bechdel is straightforward about her reasons for using so many literary allusions when describing her parents: "my parents are most real to me in fictional terms" (67), she writes. She later alludes to a philosophical idea to express the latent guilt she feels about her father's death: causality. Bruce's death followed "so hard on the heels of this doleful coming-out party, I could not help but assume a cause-and-effect relationship" (59). Even though Alison knows that Bruce's death was not her fault, she once again distances herself from her feelings of guilt by pointing to fact that these two events - her coming-out and his death -- are inextricably linked in her mind.