Framing Frames: Reconstructing Truth in Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home”
Have you ever listened to one of your grandfathers’ tall tales and replied with an incredulous, “did that really happen?” Maybe you press further, “do you have a photograph?” Perhaps the memento satisfies your doubt, or maybe you’re left wondering, is his story true? And more importantly, how can you tell?
Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel Fun Home directly grapples with these issues and provides a unique perspective on how to evaluate the truth and fiction in family stories of the past from the vantage point of the present. Among other things, Fun Home chronicles Alison’s complex childhood relationship with her father Bruce, Alison’s coming-out story, Bruce’s closeted homosexuality and his sudden (perhaps suicidal) death. Both the violence of Bruce’s death and the shock of his homosexuality prompt Bechdel to reexamine her entire past in light of this new information.
Bechdel approaches this task in an unusual way. To discover the truth behind her father’s fictions, she extensively researches her family history through family photographs, letters, diary entries, favorite novels, and police records. Even more unusually, she draws painstaking copies of this evidence in her novel to, as she says, “keep reminding readers, these are real people. This stuff really happened.” I focus on one specific type of evidence — the family photograph — and how Bechdel reveals the stories that twist the apparent truth of photographs into lies.
In my examination of photographs in Fun Home, I take a different approach than other scholars by relying on modern and post-modern theories of photography to demonstrate how specific frames relate to the themes of the entire novel. Today I’d like to present one idea through three examples: Bruce uses photography to conceal the truth, while Bechdel uses photography to reveal the truth. This happens in three ways. The father preserves lies with the camera, the father performs lies for the camera, and the father perpetuates the lies through the family photo album.
Before diving into close readings, it’s helpful to think about what exactly photographs are and what, precisely, they do. Modernist theorists initially defined photography in contrast to painting:
Photography is indexical, not interpretive
Photography is mechanical, not manual
Photography is objective, not subjective
Walter Benjamin and Andre Bazin, in particular, argue that the essence of photography is indexicality — that is, photography reproduces a perfect copy of objects exactly as they existed in time and space. As Brazin says, “The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all picture-making.” Because no human hand interferes in the process, the image gains the factual authority of evidence. In general, they believe the photograph always tells the truth.
However, as post-modern theorists emphasize, photographs can be made to lie. Susan Sontag speaks for the group when she argues that photographs themselves never tell truths or lies “Photographs…cannot explain anything…[understanding] takes place in time and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand”. Rather, the way in which a photograph is presented is responsible for creating meaning from the document.
Let me illustrate how these theorists reveal patterns in Fun Home. In the following frame, Bruce poses his family to take a photograph of his “impeccable” ideal.
Once he triggers the shutter, Bazin and Benjamin tell us that an inherently true record will be created. Therefore, everyone who sees the photograph in the future will assume that his ideal family existed. But Alison’s wry commentary warns us to distrust the photograph — instead of actually making a happy family, Bruce only makes the family appear happy.
In the next frame , Bechdel challenges Bruce’s ideal by exposing additional evidence.
With a subtle illustration of her father eying an alter boy, Bechdel testifies that her father is not the ideal husband and father he appears, but a homosexual pedophile. By explaining Bruce’s photography in a narrative, Alison shows us the reality that lies outside the original photographic frame — thus demonstrating Sontag’s claim that only narration can make us understand.
But Bechdel doesn’t only usurp Bruce’s ideal family through narration, she also physically usurps Bruce’s role by taking his camera.
Standing in exactly the same position, down to her crooked pinkie, Alison snaps the shutter as her father’s eyes are closed and her brother wipes his nose. The visual rhetoric is clear: while Bruce imposes idealism, Alison records reality. Bruce’s camera lies, Alison’s tells the truth. But, as we’ll see throughout the rest of the presentation, Bechdel reveals the lie behind Bruce’s photograph, not by taking her own photograph, but by drawing the process of taking the photograph.
There’s another deception within photographs: by posing within the family unit, Bruce uses the camera to hide his homosexuality. Again, a theoretical background helps communicate the full import of this pretense. Post-modern theorists point out that when we pose for the camera, we adopt facial expressions and body language that present an idealized version of ourselves. Much like Plato suggested that all objects are physical copies of a mental ideal, post-modern theorists claim subjects copy their own mental self-conceptions. In Barthes’ words, “All I look like is other photographs of myself, and this to infinity: no one is ever anything but a copy of a copy, real or mental”. This self-imitating tendency frustratingly inescapable — one cannot help performing oneself.
Feminist critic Judith Butler points out a similar pattern in her area of study: “Identity is not self-identical. It requires to be instituted again and again…it runs the risk of becoming de-instituted at every interval”. She argues that every person performs their gender based on their understanding of the cultural “ideal” of masculinity and femininity. Butler claims that gender identity requires constant performance because the slightest deviation from the cultural ideal may destroy it. Connecting these two theories — that we perform our ideal selves for the camera and that we imitate cultural gender ideals in real life — reveals how Bruce can leverage the camera to “prove” the heterosexuality of his ideal self. Therefore, the biggest pretense of Bechdel family photographs isn’t appearing happy, it’s appearing heterosexual.
We see this most strikingly in pictures that contradict Bruce’s hetero-normative façade. Arguably the most important photograph in Fun Home, Bechdel’s discovery of this almost-nude picture of her childhood baby-sitter Roy convinced Alison of her father’s homosexuality and provoked her to write the book.
Instead of confirming a straightforward family life, this picture raises unsettling questions. Does Roy know that his picture is being taken, has Bruce caught him unawares or has he staged Roy like he does his family? Why does Bruce take the picture? And more importantly, why does he keep it in a box labeled “family”?
In the same box, Bechdel finds another unexpected photograph. Here Bruce mimics a woman, gracefully modeling a bathing suit that highlights his slender figure. Again, Bechdel only raises questions: was the costume a fraternity prank? If it is, why is his pose so serious? Instead of searching for deception within these photos, as she does with the staged family portrait previously discussed, Bechdel expects to find the truth. She seems to trust these photographs precisely because they raise questions about who Bruce was rather than presenting ideal husband Bruce pretended to be. Therefore, Bechdel not only reveals the lies behind her father’s family photographs by revealing the process of taking the photograph, but also by revealing photographs that challenge his heterosexual performance.
The final place Bruce manipulates photographs is within the family photo album. Instead of using the album to represent the family they were, he arranges the album to present the family he wants them to be. As current photography theorist Marianne Hirsch argues, “[The family photo album is] the family’s primary instrument of self-knowledge and representation — the means by which…the family’s story [is] told”. The family photo album creates an “official” family history that reflects what the family wants to be and strives to become.
If one of the purposes of the photo album is to continue the family legacy, then Bechdel significantly usurps her father’s ideal by publicly revealing his homosexuality. She accomplishes this through creating an alternate family photo album: Fun Home itself. Bechdel invites the reader to identify Fun Home with a photo album by including old family photographs with their corner tabs at the head of each chapter. These photographs and their captions are not the standard Christmas card testaments to family solidarity, rather, they display hidden stories and hidden photographs that tell the truth about Bechdel’s past.
However, there is one final way that Bechdel uses photography to tell the truth. As she shows the reader in her most recent memoir, Are You My Mother?, Bechdel creates her comics by photographing herself. In order to accurately capture folds of clothing and facial expressions, Bechdel poses for her digital camera to create the reference photographs which she consults for her drawings. Therefore, every figure we see in Fun Home was based on a photograph of Bechdel posing for the camera.
These reference photographs interact with modernist theory on a completely different level. On one hand, they do record Bechdel’s body exactly as it existed in time and space, but on the other hand, they create a set of performed photographs that are misleading. As Bechdel communicated in personal correspondence with me, her reference shots are mixed with all her other photographs in her iphoto library. She empathized with a future archivist attempting to sort the reference from the real: “Is that a picture of me? Or a picture of me pretending to be me? Or of me pretending to be someone else altogether?” These ‘not-quite-real’ photographs have be come an uncanny part of her own, digital, photo album and read as both ‘true’ and ‘false’ photographs.
While these reference photographs seem false in iphoto, they tell the truth in Fun Home. Insofar as they enable her drawings, these reference photos reframe Bechdel’s original family photographs by showing the reader life outside the frame. The camera now acts a tool to reconstruct memories that were not recorded. Rather than enforcing an ideal family history, Bechdel frames her father’s photographs in narratives that tell the truth, no matter how unpleasant. Instead of performing to hide herself from the camera, Bechdel acts other characters to show their true personalities. Bechdel’s narrative and photo-based-drawings usurp her father’s lies by using photography, not to conceal the truth, but to reveal the past.
By showing us how narratives manipulate the evidence of the photograph, Bechdel gives readers the power to rearrange the photographs of their pasts into stories they can live with in the future. Thus Fun Home fundamentally challenges the modernist belief in photograph’s ability to tell the truth, but shows how post-modern theories can be leveraged to recover the truth by framing frames.