Helen Bechdel: Alison’s Mother in Fun Home

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who is Helen Bechdel? What was her role in the book Fun Home?

Helen Bechdel is Alison Bechdel’s mother. In her book Fun Home, Alison details how her mother stayed in the marriage with her father, despite knowing the truth about his sexuality.

Read more about Helen Bechdel and her role in Fun Home.

Helen Bechdel: Alison Bechdel’s Mother

Alison began to explore her sexuality in college. She checked out books from the library that discussed homosexuality and focused on the stories of lesbians. Her studies were both informational and erotic. She joined the gay union at her university and began dating her classmate, Joan.

She came out as lesbian in a letter to her family. Helen Bechdel didn’t respond well. She sent back letters explaining her disapproval and why she thought Alison was making a dangerous choice. Though she said that she could live with Alison’s sexuality, her disappointment was clear, and Alison was shattered by the disapproval. 

Soon after coming out, Alison Bechdel’s mother revealed that her father was having affairs with men. Alison felt as if she had gone from the hero in her own story to the side character in her father’s drama. Though she hoped her coming out would allow her to distance herself from her family because of her unique identity, she was pulled back into their lives because of the realization that she and her father had an unspoken connection that linked them.

Her Parents’ Marriage

Alison’s parents met during a collegiate production of The Taming of the Shrew. Alison compares the problematic plot of Shakespeare’s play to the reality of her parent’s marriage. In The Taming of the Shrew, Katherine’s spirit is crushed by Petruchio. Later in their marriage, Helen Bechdel was crushed by her father’s behavior.

Her father joined the Army after dropping out of his graduate program. While deployed, he began to fall in love with the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Inspired by the author’s focus on sentimentality and extravagant language, he sent Helen Bechdel increasingly sentimental letters expressing his passionate love for her.

However, this passion quickly faded as their marriage began. Alison’s parents almost never showed affection for one another. In fact, Alison only remembered two instances of any kind of intimacy between the two:

  • They shared a small peck before her father left for a weekend trip.
  • Her mother put her hand on her father’s back once while watching TV.

Fighting was the norm in the household. Her father would take his anger out by destroying books and throwing things. In one instance, her father began to tear the pages out of library books while screaming at his wife.

Adding fuel to the fire, Alison’s father would bring some of his male students home, give them books, and offer them alcohol. He often focused on these boys more than he focused on his own family. For example, he once forgot to pick up his own son from Cub Scouts because he was too busy drinking and chatting with a high school student he brought into his library.

F. Scott Fitzgerald vs Henry James

Alison compares her father to Jay Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby takes pride in his ability to create the illusion of class and extravagance. He started as a farm boy but makes millions bootlegging alcohol. He uses this money to throw extravagant parties and hide his simple origins. Also, Gatsby uses his wealth to engage in an affair with Daisy (a married woman he had a relationship with before being sent off to fight in WWI). Daisy is Gatsby’s true passion, even though his relationship with her is seen as unethical.

Similarly, Alison’s father created the illusion of class and extravagance in the way that he renovated his house, particularly his library. Though he lived in Beech Creek almost his entire life, he saw himself as above the rest of the local population. He used his home and education to hide his simple origins. Also, he used his home and alcohol to engage in affairs with young men. These young men were her father’s true passion, even though his relationship with them was seen as unethical.

On the other hand, Alison compares her mother to Isabel Archer of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Isabel leaves America for Europe hoping to experience a new life following her father’s death. She marries, and although her relationship seems to start in a good place, her husband’s affection for her disappears quickly. She later learns that her husband has been having an affair throughout the entirety of their relationship. At the end of the story, she stays with her husband despite his affairs for the sake of their child.

Similarly, Helen Bechdel left New York to start a life with Alison’s father. Though their relationship seemed to start in a good place, it soon began to fall apart as her husband’s affection for her disappeared quickly. After they were married, Alison’s mother discovered that her husband was having affairs with multiple men throughout the entirety of their relationship. Despite this, she stayed in the marriage and raised three children with him.

Helen Bechdel: Alison’s Mother in Fun Home

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Fun Home summary :

  • What it's like to grow up in a funeral home
  • Why Alison Bechdel suspected her dad was a closeted homosexual
  • Why Alison believes that her father's death may have been a suicide

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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