Sometimes I think half of what drives the narrative behind every story we’ve read is how each character copes with fear and confusion. Alison Bechdel and her father are both prime examples of characters who use their control over small aspects of their lives to try and control their larger problems. Somehow, they both believe, if they can keep their environments exactly right, they will create a magic space of perfect safety.
Alison as a child has no words to explain the fear and confusion she experiences in a household run by an unpredictable father. Early on, in the incident with the lamp on page 18, and on the next page when her mother creates the rule, “No comments on his appearance,” she learns that her father’s outbursts result from her own actions (19). In fact, her father’s anger, perfectionism, and issues with control have nothing to do with her. However, like many children growing up in unpredictable households (and I can attest to this from personal experience) she begins early to self-censor her own behavior and becomes hyper aware of the tension and atmosphere in her home.
Her OCD functions as a direct result of this. Reading pages 148-150 of Fun Home, I wanted nothing more than to give young Alison a hug. After her father shows her the body of a child her age who died a violent death, she writes only, “My diary entries for that weekend are almost completely obscured” (148). Her inability, even when looking back, to openly acknowledge her emotional state at the time heightens the sense of fear and confusion that permeates her seemingly innocuous diary entries. Alison’s list of deadlines on her wall calendar show us a few of presumably many behaviors that she has adopted in order to create a sense of safety and control in a life that has been characterized by denial, shame, and unpredictability. Centered among specific goals like “Toss shoes” and “Stop folding towels funny,” she writes the simple instruction, “Don’t worry. You’re safe” (149). Does Alison ever learn to feel safe? Does her father?
Alison’s attempts to control her uncontrollable life with OCD (caveat: I’m not saying that OCD is voluntary here, just that it can be a coping strategy) do temporarily make her feel safer, but in the long run, as her OCD worsens, it seriously inconviences and complicates her life. Her father’s attempts to deny his sexuality by creating the facade of a perfect husband and father probably also temporarily eases his guilt. In his constant fixing of the house and quest to control others he, like Alison, turns his emotional turmoil outwards. Unfortunately for both of them, not even their immediate physical environments can be controlled completely. Even in Alison’s own diary there exists the potential for errors and the chaos of the outside world infringes on all her attempts at structure. And her father, no matter how perfect his house, cannot change the simple fact of his own body and desires.