Lesbian Cartoonist Alison Bechdel Counters Dad’s Secrecy by Being Out and Open

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Lesbian Cartoonist Alison Bechdel Counters Dad’s Secrecy by Being Out and Open


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It All Comes Back


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NPR’s FRESH AIR on August 17, 2015

Lesbian Cartoonist Alison Bechdel Counters Dad’s Secrecy by Being Out and Open


An interview with Terry Gross, Alison Bechdel, Jeanine Tesori, and Lisa Kron

NPR’s FRESH AIR on August 17, 2015

Lesbian Cartoonist Alison Bechdel Counters Dad’s Secrecy by Being Out and Open




The Bechdel family home in 2006


“Fun Home” page 5



“Lesbian Cartoonist Alison Bechdel Countered Dad’s Secrecy By Being Out And Open” is an interview between NPR’s Terry Gross and Alison Bechdel, Lisa Kron, and Jeanine Tesori. It first aired on Monday, August 17, 2015 at 2:45 PM ET on NPR’s FRESH AIR. The following is a transcript of the interview interspersed with lyrics from the Broadway musical “Fun Home.”


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Alison Bechdel at her home in Jericho, Vermont / “Dykes to Watch Out For” 1993 “Coming Out Story”


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Caption: My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town.

ALISON:

And he was gay, and I was gay. And he killed himself. And I... became a lesbian cartoonist.

It All Comes Back

That’s the story at the center of the Broadway musical “Fun Home,” which won this year’s Tony Award for best musical. It’s adapted from the graphic memoir of the same name by my guest Alison Bechdel, who first became known for her comic “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Last year, she was the recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award.


ALISON:

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My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town.

And he was gay,

And he killed himself,


and I became a lesbian cartoonist.

It All Comes Back

and I was gay.


Bruce Bechdel / Alison Bechdel

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Alison didn’t find out her father was gay until after she came out at the age of 19. After she told her parents, her mother delivered the shocking revelation about Alison’s father Bruce. Alison’s mother Helen had always been aware that there were men his life, but she’d stayed married to him in spite of that. His death came shortly after Alison learned the truth.



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Lisa Kron (left), Alison Bechdel (middle), and Jeanine Tesori (right) celebrating the musical’s anniversary for one year on Broadway in 2016


The songs for “Fun Home” were written by composer Jeanine Tesori, who also wrote the music for “Caroline, Or Change,” and lyricist and playwright Lisa Kron. They’re joining us, too. They won a Tony for best score, and Kron, who wrote the adaptation, won a Tony for best book of a musical. In the musical, ALISON is at her desk, writing her graphic memoir. And as she writes and draws, the action flashes back to the periods of her life and teenage years that she’s illustrating. Three different actors play Alison at these three different stages of her life.

It All Comes Back


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Alison Bechdel and her wife Holly Rae Taylor at the Tony Awards in 2015


IT ALL COMES BACK (OPENING) Original Broadway Cast of Fun Home featuring Michael Cerveris, Sydney Lucas, and Beth Malone

remembers herself, as SMALL ALISON, demanding that her father play “airplane” with her while BRUCE sorts through a box of junk and valuables he has salvaged from a barn.

ALISON


Daddy! Hey, Daddy, come here, okay? I need you. What are you doing? I said come here! You need to do what I tell you to do. Listen to me. Daddy! SMALL ALISON:

Come here! Hey, right here! Right now! You’re making mad. Listen to me. Listen to me. Listen to me. I wanna play airplane. I wanna play airplane. I wanna play airplane! I wanna put my arms out and fly! Like the Red Baron in the Sopwith Camel! No, wait—Like Superman! Up in the sky! ‘Till I can see all of Pennsylvania... BRUCE:

Hey! Gimme a hand

SMALL ALISON: What’d you get,

Daddy? ALISON:

Right, right, right

It’s from Clyde Gibbon’s barn. What a haul! BRUCE:

He said, “Take what you want.” I said, “Clyde, are you sure?” He said, “It’s all junk to me.” I said, “Okay, Clyde, okay!” C’mon. Take a look. You go to auctions, yard sales, comb the dump. There’s crap, there’s crap, there’s—


Hey... What’s this? SMALL ALISON: BRUCE:

More crap?

No.

Linen! This is linen! Gorgeous Irish linen! See how I can tell? Right here, this floating thread, you see. That’s what makes it damask. And the weight, the weight, this drape! And the pattern, crisp and clear! See how it’s made from matte and shine? It’s tattered here, but all the rest—How beautiful! How fine! Okay, okay. What else? Oh, crap... crap... oh, dead mouse... SMALL ALISON: BRUCE:

Ooh, can I have it?

It’s all yours.

What’s this? Silver? Is this silver? Is this junk or silver? With polish, we can tell. I love how tarnish melts away, opening to luster. And the mark, is there a mark? Yes, this stamp, you see, right here. That’s how the craftsman leaves a sign that he was here and made his work. So beautiful, so fine!


This has traveled continents to get here. And crossed an ocean of time. And somehow landed in this box, under a layer of grime. I can’t abide romantic notions of some vague long ago. I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who, and what, and why, and when. Until now gives way to then. Did you ever imagine I’d hang on to your stuff, Dad? Me either. But I guess I always knew that someday I was going to draw you... in cartoons. ALISON:

Yes, Dad, I know. You think cartoons are silly. But I draw cartoons, and I need real things to draw from. ‘Cause I don’t trust memory. But, god, this thing is ghastly! You were so ecstatic when you found it at a yard sale. No, no, wait—in Mr. Gibbon’s barn. It all comes back, it all comes back, it all comes back! There’s you. And there’s me. But now I’m the one who’s forty-three, and stuck. I can’t find my way through! Just like you. Am I just like you?


BRUCE: A sign that he was here!

I can’t abide romantic notions Of some vague long ago.

ALISON:

BRUCE: And made his work

I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who, and what, and why, and when. ALISON, BRUCE:

Until now gives way to then! ALISON: What is true? SMALL ALISON: Daddy! Hey Daddy,

come here, okay? I need you.

BRUCE: This has traveled to get

here. So beautiful

SMALL ALISON: What are you

doing? I said come here. ALISON:

I wanna play airplane.

SMALL ALISON:

airplane. ALISON:

I wanna play airplane.

SMALL ALISON:

airplane! BRUCE:

I wanna play

I wanna play

Beautiful!

ALISON, BRUCE: What is true?


Caption: My dad and I were exactly alike. ALISON:

SMALL ALISON:

I see everything!

Caption: My dad and I were nothing alike. ALISON:

SMALL ALISON: ALISON:

I’m Superman.

My dad and...

My dad and I... SMALL ALISON:

back!

But, Daddy, come



“IT ALL COMES BACK (OPENING)” Lyrics written by Lisa Kron, courtesy of Genius Lyrics Song bio by Genius Lyrics user ClarissaWee


Signed copy of “Fun Home” on Ebay for a whopping $595.95

It All Comes Back


COLE GREY AS CHRISTIAN ZELL STEELE MORROW AS JOHN ROBERTA COLINDREZ AS JOAN

EMILY SKEGGS AS

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MEDIUM ALISON


JOÉL PÉREZ AS MICHAEL CERVERIS AS

ROY

BRUCE JUDY KUHN AS HELEN

ALISON

SYDNEY LUCAS AS SMALL ALISON

It All Comes Back

BETH MALONE AS


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Her childhood home is an important part of the story. Located within it was the Bechdel Family Funeral Home, which her father had taken over. The house was a great source of pride for him because he’d renovated it and furnished it with antiques—collecting them was his passion. This scene from the cast recording begins with adult ALISON at her desk, writing a caption for a panel of her memoir about her childhood.


“Fun Home” page 5 / The Bechdel family home

It All Comes Back


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It All Comes Back


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Alison Bechdel visiting the Bechdel family home in 2006


WELCOME TO OUR HOUSE ON MAPLE AVENUE Original Broadway Cast of Fun Home featuring Judy Kuhn, Michael Cerveris, and Beth Malone

ALISON frames her father’s

relationship with his house as closer than that with his family. Meanwhile, HELEN along with the KIDS prepare the house to BRUCE’S demanding aesthetic standard.


Caption: Sometimes my father appeared to enjoy having children. But the real object of his affection was his house.​

ALISON:

BRUCE: I just got a call—Eleanor

Baulkner, Allegheny Historical Society. She’s calling about the house tour.​ HELEN:

Oh! That’s wonderful.​

She’s on her way over right now. I don’t know what to do! The... the place is turned upside down. I’m not dressed.​ BRUCE:

HELEN:

Go take a shower.​

BRUCE: But I— HELEN: Take a shower and get

yourself dressed! BRUCE:

Okay...

HELEN: Kids. Kids! There’s an

important lady on her way over to look at the house. Listen to me please! This is one of those times you need to do what I say quickly, without any shenanigans.​ He wants the Hepplewhite suite chairs back in the parlor. Move the G.I. Joe. It can’t be on the floor. HELEN:


He wants the Dresden figurines back in the breakfront. A slinky messes up the period decor. Get the Lemon Pledge and dust the—They should face the same direction. He wants it vacuumed, the surface gleaming. He wants it closer to the door. He wants, he wants, he wants— He wants the brass candelabra set at an angle. The crayons and the glue should go back in the drawer. He wants the bust of Quixote square on the mantel. Sweep that lint away, it’s what a broom is for. Gently wipe the eucalyptus. Polish up the crystal prisms. When he comes down here, he wants it ready. We’ve got to get it done before. He wants, he wants, he wants— BRUCE: Where’s my bronzing

stick? HELEN:

It’s in the—

[BRUCE slams door]


ALISON: Welcome to our house

on Maple Avenue! See how we polish and we shine? We rearrange and realign. Everything is balanced and serene, like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.

Every need, we anticipate and fill. And still…

ALISON, HELEN:

He wants the real feather-duster used on the bookcase. SMALL ALISON, HELEN:

Find all the books we read, and carefully restore.

JOHN, HELEN:

CHRISTIAN, HELEN: He wants them

alphabetized by classification. HELEN: A volume out of place

could start a third World War. KIDS, HELEN: That’s an inch out of

position! Watch it, that’s a first edition! HELEN: What are we missing?

What have we left out? When he comes down here, what’s in store? HELEN, SMALL ALISON: He wants,

he wants, he wants—


HELEN, KIDS, ALISON: Welcome to

our house on Maple Avenue. See how we polish and we shine? We rearrange and realign. HELEN, KIDS, ALISON, BRUCE:

Everything is balanced and serene. Like chaos never happens if it’s never... seen. ALL: We’re a typical family

quintet.

HELEN: And yet…

Not too bad, if I say so myself. I might still break a heart or two. BRUCE:

Sometimes if the fire burns so hot, I don’t know what I’ll do. Not too bad, if I say so myself. BRUCE, ALISON:

Not too bad.

Mrs. Baulkner! It’s a pleasure to meet you. Come on in! Obviously it’s still a work in progress. BRUCE:

Ah, yes, yes, I did all the work myself, That’s how we were able to afford the place. No, no. Historic restoration is an avocation.


That is very flattering! I teach English at Beach Creek High, and the Bechdel Funeral Home is our family business, so I’m also a funeral director. You have a keen eye! This, I found yesterday. KIDS: What is he after? BRUCE:

In the dump! Isn’t it, uh—

KIDS: What are we doing? BRUCE: Actually, I believe— KIDS:

Right foot is tapping—

BRUCE:

Rococo Revival.

KIDS: that means he’s stewing. ALISON:

It all comes back.

BRUCE: Absolutely! KIDS:

Stay very still and—

BRUCE: Would you like one— KIDS:

maybe we’ll please him.

BRUCE: with the family?

Make one wrong move, and— KIDS:


BRUCE: Kids! Mrs. Baulkner

would like to take a photo! KIDS: demons will seize him. ALISON: ROY:

It all comes back!

Hello! Anybody home?

KIDS: Try hard, what else is

family for?

I’ll be there in a minute! Oh, a young man who helps out with the yard work. BRUCE:

He wants, he wants, he wants— KIDS:

ALISON:

He wants more.

Caption: My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay. And he killed himself. And I… Became a lesbian cartoonist.


“WELCOME TO OUR HOUSE ON MAPLE AVENUE” Lyrics written by Lisa Kron, courtesy of Genius Lyrics Song bio by Genius Lyrics users ClarissaWee and jazzjo


Alison Bechdel, Jeanine Tesori, Lisa Kron, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Alison, let me start with you. What was it like when you first heard your story sung?

So, like, your father was gay but very closeted. You came out at the age of 19. Do you think it’s a coincidence that he was gay and you’re a lesbian? Like, what do you make of that?

[Laughter] Do I think it’s a coincidence? I don’t know. I mean, my family was certainly very odd in its psychological dynamics. But I do feel like in many ways, my life, my professional career has been a reaction to my father’s life—his life of secrecy. I’ve been, like, all about being out and open about being a lesbian since I came out in, like, 1980. It’s been my career. Like, I wrote this lesbian comic strip for many, many years. That was my job—a little bit to my family’s horror at first, but they all got used to it, eventually.

Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue

I was kind of blown away. I was not at all prepared to hear the music that Jeanine and Lisa had made. I somehow thought a musical—you know, I knew the musical was happening. I was preparing on some level for it. But I thought it would be somehow lighter, a kind of arm’s-length take on my life. But listening to these songs of people singing as my family was—it was just really visceral, just really hit me in the stomach. It was much more emotional than I had been anticipating.


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I didn’t. I mean, no, I was floored. I was—literally, I had to lie down on the floor when my mother told me that. But then I immediately started reviewing my entire life so far and, yeah, I started seeing lots of clues. My father was a dandy. He always wore kind of fancy clothes. He had more clothes than my mother did. He loved buying clothes for my mother. You know, and then all these stereotypical ways that he was, you know, gay—that he collected antiques. He didn’t watch sports. He didn’t go hunting. You know, he was kind of a stock character in a way.

Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue

“Fun Home” page 58, 59

You found out that your father was gay only after you came out at the age of 19. You were in out-of-town college. You told your parents by writing them a letter. After getting the letter, your mother told you that your father had had affairs with men throughout his life and that she had known all along. But did you have any clues that your father was gay?


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Alison Bechdel in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois


“Fun Home” page 15

Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue


What did it say to you about your mother that she managed to stay in the marriage with him all those years knowing that he was gay?

Well, my mother was a complicated person and a very, very duty-bound person. She—people didn’t get divorced in our small Pennsylvania town. It just—I mean, it was starting to happen culturally in the broader country, but no one we knew did it. And she wasn’t prepared to break up our family.

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I feel like my parents really are—they’re kind of tragic figures. They both were ready to have different kinds of lives than were available to them in the culture. But they came along too soon. They both came of age before the women’s movement, before Stonewall. They weren’t able to take advantage of those liberation movements. They were already stuck, married, living, you know, in this tight-knit, little community. They didn’t have a lot of options.


“Fun Home� page 31 / Helen Bechdel

Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue


It doesn’t seem like it was a very loving or warm marriage, judging from the book. In the musical, he would kind of order her around. He wasn’t very grateful for the things that she did for him. Did you ever ask her what it was like for her in the marriage, knowing that he was gay?

I don’t think I ever asked my mother that, directly. I was always very careful about what I asked her—you know, how much I was going to impinge on her privacy. She used to tell me a lot very freely in the years after my father died and before. At age 40, I started to write this book about him. She told me a lot. But once she knew I was writing about him, she sort of cut me off from that flow of information. I think she didn’t want to be complicit in the project, although she, you know, made it clear that she understood that I had to do it, and that was okay.

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So she didn’t force you to choose between a relationship with her or doing your art?

No, my mother was amazing in that way. I mean, that would have been a very easy thing to do and I think a lot of parents would have done that. But my mother understood writing, understood the creative process, understood the imperative of, you know, creativity. And she was able to put those things in different compartments. I was going to tell the story. She would just live with it. It was not her story. It was my story.


RING OF KEYS Original Broadway Cast of Fun Home featuring Sydney Lucas and Beth Malone

SMALL ALISON and BRUCE

are in a diner, and he asks her to get the waitress. On her way over to the waitress, she sees the delivery woman enter the diner and identifies with the woman’s butch presentation.


BRUCE: I need more coffee.

Where is Betty?

She went home. Lorna is on now. SMALL ALISON:

Oh. Where is your barrette? Put it back in. It keeps the hair out of your eyes. BRUCE:

SMALL ALISON:

cut.

So would a crew

If I see you without it again, I’ll wail you. Now go get Lorna. I need coffee. BRUCE:

ALISON: You didn’t notice her

at first, but I saw her the moment she walked in. She was a delivery woman. She came in with the handcart full of packages. She was an oldschool butch. Someone just came in the door, like no one I ever saw before. SMALL ALISON:

I feel—I feel—I don’t know where you came from. I wish I did. I feel so dumb. I feel— Your swagger, and your bearing, and the just right clothes you’re wearing. Your short hair and your dungarees and your lace-up boots. And your keys. Oh, your ring of keys.


I thought it was supposed to be wrong, but you seem okay with... being strong. I want to—it’s so—It’s probably conceited to say, but I think we’re alike in a certain way. I— Your swagger, and your bearing, and the just right clothes you’re wearing. Your short hair and your dungarees and your lace-up boots and your keys. Oh, your ring of keys. Do you feel my heart saying “hi”? In this whole luncheonette, why am I the only one who sees you’re beautiful? No, I mean... handsome! Your swagger, and your bearing, and the just right clothes you’re wearing. Your short hair and your dungarees, and your lace up boots. And your keys, oh. Your ring of keys. I know you. I know you. I know you.


“RING OF KEYS” Lyrics written by Lisa Kron, courtesy of Genius Lyrics Song bio by Genius Lyrics user jazzjo


“Fun Home” page 118

Ring of Keys


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“Fun Home” page 118, 119


Alison, before you knew that you were a lesbian, you knew you didn’t want to wear dresses and very feminine clothes. But your father wanted you to fit in and look like the perfect daughter from the perfect family, so he’d make you wear clothes that you didn’t really want to wear.

Yes. How did it feel to wear clothes that didn’t fit your sense of who you were and didn’t have the power to just say, “No, that’s not me, I’m not going to wear it”?

It just felt very powerless. I felt like I was living some kind of lie. It was not pleasant. In “Fun Home,” you write about the first time you saw a butch lesbian. It was at a diner. You were there with your father. Would you describe that experience for us?

Yeah, this is one of my earliest memories. I think I must have been 4—no more than 4 when this happened. I was traveling with my dad, probably to pick up a body for the funeral home. And we were in Philadelphia, like a large city, a much larger city than where we lived. And we were having lunch in a diner and this woman came in, this big, burly woman with short hair and men’s clothes. And I was spellbound. I was—my jaw dropped. And my father saw me looking at this woman and he whipped his head around and said, “Is that how you want to look?”

Ring of Keys

You know, that struggle was so—came so early in my life. It’s like, one of the first things I remember is wanting to wear boys’ clothes and fighting with my dad about it. And, you know, sometimes I would win, [laughter] which testifies to, you know, the strength of that feeling in me. But mostly, you know, when I did have to knuckle-under and dress up for a party or something, it just felt—terrible.


And, you know, there was so much going on in that exchange. Like, in that moment, I recognized that woman. I identified with her. I wanted her. I wanted to be her. And I knew that that was completely unacceptable. My father didn’t, you know—he just exploded that.

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So there’s a great song in the show “Fun Home” that describes this experience from the 9-year-old Alison’s point of view. And this is—for anyone who saw the Tony Awards, this is the song from “Fun Home” that was performed on the Tonys. Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, I want you to talk about writing this song. The song is called “Ring Of Keys,” and, you know, in the drawing in the book “Fun Home,” you know, we see this, like, large woman with short hair and jeans and a plaid shirt and work boots on. But she does have this ring of keys hanging from her belt. And it’s not—it’s not a detail that’s especially called attention to in the drawing. But that’s the focus of attention in the song. Why did you make the ring of keys, like, the symbol of everything that the 9-year-old Alison is feeling as she sees a butch lesbian for the first time?

Well, I think both of us—I think, Lisa, you know, when we were talking about it, I remembered thinking, to a kid who is in school, that keys—and especially a lot of keys—to me meant access. I didn’t know that word probably when I was that young, but I knew that those people—that those keys opened a lot of doors, which meant that there are a lot of places that they were going to, even if it was in one building, that that meant some kind of power. And I think, as an object, they’re fascinating things, and you see babies playing with rings of keys. And the fact that she would have that on, that detail in it, I think it was one of those objects that I knew that Lisa and I were talking about is, what is—what would be the event? And the way that it built to—it’s, like, the greatest thing ever. It just felt both childlike without being childish. And that distinction is so important when writing from a kid’s point of view.


From the very first moments that I thought about adapting this book, what I was really worried about doing well was portraying butchness. And portraying exactly what is meant by that, and what is felt in that. Because in mainstream culture, the way that it has often been expressed is as a stock character of ridicule. And I was very worried about how we would put this story, and that character, and specifically that moment, on stage without triggering that ridicule and that sort of reflexive response. And so, Jeanine said, “We need to write a song about this panel,” and I said, “We can’t, because there’s not going to be a way to do it that people won’t laugh at that character, and I couldn’t bear it.” And Jeanine said, you know, “We have to.” And then I said, “Okay,” because I do what Jeanine tells me, so.

Alison, were you concerned in the same way that Lisa Kron was concerned that a song about this moment, where the young version of you sees this woman and recognizes her and feels something, that if it wasn’t handled really carefully that it would be offensive and be taken as ridicule?

Well, I didn’t know that they were working on that song. That all came as a surprise to me. Lisa and I had had many conversations before that, like, early in the process about the whole problem of this butch character, about making her, you know, positive and appealing to an audience because we just don’t see butch women portrayed as appealing characters. But this is the great power of allies and the power of Jeanine as a straight woman, just barging right in there and saying we got to do it. She could see that it had to happen.

Ring of Keys

[Laughter]


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“I recognized that woman. I identified with her. I wanted her. I wanted to be her.

And I knew that that was completely unacceptable.�


Alison Bechdel at Center for Cartoon Studies, where she was crowned as Vermont’s Cartoonist Laureate in 2017

Ring of Keys


It’s what straight women do, Alison, barge right in. [Laughter] And we’re glad you do. And I should mention that Lisa Kron is a lesbian. And, Lisa, do you think you were especially sensitive about this ‘cause you know butch women and you were trying to see how they would respond to the song too and want make sure that they would not feel personally offended by lyrics of the song?

Yes, the butch women and their femme girlfriends.

64

[Laughter] Well, look, I was at a play with Lisa, and there was a character who came on and in a typical way. And I turned to the side to just see what was happening with her ‘cause as I got to know her—and she’s a sister to me now—and she was crying. And I thought, This—that’s what she’s talking about. You know, we had been discussing it, but to really sit next to it, I thought, Oh, I get it now. You know, so I can bring a kind of dramatic entitlement, but I saw—it destroyed her, and it was like, Oh, there it is again. There it is. And it was all it took for her to stay in her seat.


CHANGING MY MAJOR Original Broadway Cast of Fun Home featuring Emily Skeggs

in her dorm room at Oberlin College, sings this revelation as she awakens from her first time having sex with a girl. While “Ring of Keys” is a revelation on identity and validation, “Changing my Major” is her epiphany about her sexuality. MEDIUM ALISON,


MEDIUM ALISON: What happened

last night? Are you really here? Joan, Joan, Joan, Joan, Joan. Hi Joan! Don’t wake up Joan! Oh my God, last night. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, last night. I got so excited, I was too enthusiastic. Thank you for not laughing. Well, you laughed a little bit. At one point when I was touching you and said I might lose consciousness, which you said was adorable, and I just have to trust that you don’t think I’m an idiot or some kind of an animal. I’ve never lost control due to overwhelming lust. But I must say that I’m changing my major to Joan. I’m changing my major to sex with Joan. I’m changing my major to sex with Joan, with a minor in kissing Joan. Foreign study to Joan’s inner thighs, a seminar on Joan’s ass in her Levi’s. And Joan’s crazy brown eyes... Joan, I feel like Hercules! Oh God, that sounds ridiculous. Just keep on sleeping through this, and I’ll work on calming down, so by the time you’ve woken up, I’ll be cool. I’ll be collected.


And I’ll have found some dignity, but who needs dignity? ‘Cause this is so much better. I’m radiating happiness. Will you stay here with me for the rest of the semester? We won’t need any food, we’ll live on sex alone. Sex with Joan! I am writing a thesis on Joan. It’s a cutting edge field, and my mind is blown. I would gladly stay up every night to hone my compulsory skills with Joan. I will study my way down her spine, familiarize myself with her well-made outline. While she researches mine. I don’t know who I am. I’ve become someone new. Nothing I just did is—anything I would do. Overnight, everything changed. I am not prepared. I’m dizzy. I’m nauseous. I’m shaky. I’m scared. Am I falling in to nothingness? Or flying into something so sublime? I don’t know. But I’m changing my major to Joan. I thought all my life I’d be all alone. But that was before I was lying prone in this dorm room bed with Joan.


Look, she drooled on the pillow, so sweet. All sweaty and tangled up in my bed sheet. And my heart feels complete. Let’s never leave this room. How about we stay here ‘till finals? I’ll go to school forever. I’ll take out a dementedly huge high interest loan. ‘Cause I’m changing my major to Joan.

“CHANGING MY MAJOR” Lyrics written by Lisa Kron, courtesy of Genius Lyrics Song bio by Genius Lyrics user jazzjo


Alison, you came out when you were in college—out-of-town school. And you write in the book, “Fun Home,” that until you came out, you— and had an actual relationship with another woman that your homosexuality was theoretical, an untested hypothesis.

[Laughter] Yeah. Go ahead.

Was there a part of your mind where you were thinking, “Okay, what if I make love to another woman and it turns out I’m not gay and I don’t like the experience, then what?” Did you have any doubt like that?

Well, [laughter] I read a lot more books after that first book. And I was getting a pretty clear sense that it was going to work out and be okay, but of course I didn’t know that. I hadn’t had sex with anyone at that point. So, yeah, it was still kind of up in the air for me until I actually did it. It was actually very awkward the first time, but I still knew it was okay.

Changing My Major

I came out by reading books, not by having actual experiences with other people. I had this very formative moment. I was browsing in my college bookstore, and I found this book called “Word Is Out.” It was a book about a documentary film that had been made which was interviews with a whole bunch of gay men and lesbians. I think it was made in the late ‘70s. And I was spellbound by this book. And as I was reading it, I had the simultaneous realization that, Oh, my God, I am one of these people in this book. And also that it was okay. Like, just like that, I accepted that in myself. I didn’t have any long period of struggle. I had this great opportunity because of the moment. You know, the generational moment when I came out, it was okay to be gay in 1980.


70


“Fun Home” page 74, 214

Changing My Major


So the song that’s sung about ALISON’S first time making love to a girl is called “Changing My Major.” It’s kind of like a comic number, you know, and it’s just filled with her just kind of exhilaration and your dizziness from this experience. Jeanine Tesori, Lisa Kron, why did you make this a more comic number?

72

The book is drenched in this kind of heartbreaking, elegiac tone. And we had to excise that from what we were writing. Because moving forward, the adult Alison knows that her father is going to kill himself. But the characters—the Small Alison and the college-age Alison, moving forward, her brothers, her mother—they don’t know what’s going to happen. And Alison had given us her work journal from when she was writing “Fun Home.” And in that work journal, she had copied sections of her actual college journal. And, you know, we could really see that in action that she didn’t know what was going to happen. And all of a sudden, we realized that before you know what happens to her in the story is that she comes out. Four months later, her father kills himself. And so her coming out becomes, in retrospect, bound with that tragedy. But moving forward, she didn’t know what was going to happen. And so in that moment that she has sex for the first time, it’s an incredible feeling of opening out. In the moment where she’s first coming out, she’s not thinking about her parents. Her world is opening up. And we realized that, dramatically, it was going to be so powerful to have that opening happen and to have that kind of lightness. And then there’s this—you know, she’s never dated. She’s never experimented sexually. She’s never—you know, ‘cause she’s a lesbian. So there was no way to do that. So all of this passion, this sort of backlog of passion, is just going to shoot out at this person in this moment in a way that is just, you know, comedy gold, as they say.


At the 2015 Tony Awards, Lisa Kron won Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical. Jeanine Tesori won Best Original Score.

Changing My Major


“I had the simultaneous realization that,

74

Oh, my God, I am one of these people in this book.


And also that it was okay. Changing My Major

Just like that, I accepted that in myself. I didn’t have any long period of struggle. I had this great opportunity because of the moment. You know, the generational moment when I came out, it was okay to be gay in 1980.�


Jeanine, this is a waltz. Why did you want to write this song in three quarter time?

76

Alison Bechdel and wife Holly Rae Taylor at the 2014 Lambda Literary Awards

Well, I like the idea of dramatically putting something which, you know, there was all this language that Lisa wrote, and it was really jumbly. And I think in those moments, it’s the search for like [speaking gibberish]. And then ultimately, it’s such a romantic, beautiful moment. It’s truly—they’re doing a dance, and she’s jumbled, and then she’s finding something. And there’s this wonderful moment that Lisa wrote of—and she really, in this character—and it’s very strange to be talking while I know that Alison is listening because we’re talking about Alison’s life—But I just imagined it to be this moment when she said, “I was—I really thought I would be alone for the rest of my life.” And that’s real. And then suddenly, there is this peace that comes with knowing that that’s just not true. And I think there’s nothing more beautiful or calming than a waltz like that. It’s so romantic.


TELEPHONE WIRE Original Broadway Cast of Fun Home featuring Beth Malone and Michael Cerveris

While in reality Medium Alison was meant to go on the car ride with Bruce, Alison takes her place instead. The two struggle to get their words out to each other as ALISON tries desperately to talk to BRUCE about her sexuality.


ALISON: Telephone wire. Run and

run. Telephone wire. Sundown on the creek. Partly frozen, partly flowing. Must be windy, trees are bending, Junction 50 field needs mowing, feels like the car is floating.

Say something! Talk to him! Say something! Anything! At the light, at the light, at the light, at the light. At the light, at the light, at the light, at the light. Like, you could say, “So, how does it feel to know that you and I are both—” BRUCE:

Hey!

ALISON: Yeah? BRUCE: Where do you want to go? ALISON:

Oh, I don’t know.

I know a bar that’s kind of... hidden away. A seedy club for folks like… you know. Could be fun. BRUCE:

ALISON:

But Dad, I’m not 21.

BRUCE: Yeah, right. ALISON: Telephone wire. Long

black line. Telephone wire. Finely threaded sky. There’s the pond where I went wading, there’s a sign for Sugar Valley.


On the mountain, light is fading. I go back to school tomorrow! Say something! Talk to him! Say something! Anything! At the light, at the light, at the light, at the light. At the light, at the light, at the light, at the light. Doesn’t matter what you say. Just make the fear in his eyes go away. BRUCE: There was a boy, in

college, my first year there. Norris Jones. He had black, wavy hair. Norris Jones. Where is he now? Fourteen years old. In Swanson’s barn. It was cold. Lots of boys messed around. You know, for them, it was a game they outgrew. But I always knew. Dad, me too! Since, like, five, I guess. I preferred to wear boys’ shirts and pants. I felt absurd in a dress. I really tried to deny my feelings for girls. ALISON:

But I was like you, Dad. Me too. BRUCE:

Norris Jones…

ALISON:

Dad?


BRUCE:

Norris Jones…

ALISON:

Dad.

Hey, did I mention that new project I’ve taken on? You’ve seen it, Al, that old house out on Route 150? It’s been standing empty forty, fifty years at least. BRUCE:

ALISON: Telephone wire. Stop!

Too fast! Telephone wire. Make this not the past! This car ride! This is where it has to happen! There must be some other chances! There’s a moment I’m forgetting, where you tell me you see me! Say something! Talk to me! Say something! Anything! At the light! At the light! This can’t be our last— BRUCE: Well, that was fun. It’s

earlier than I thought. Are you coming in? ALISON: Telephone wire.

That was our last night.

“TELEPHONE WIRE” Lyrics written by Lisa Kron, courtesy of Genius Lyrics Song bio by Genius Lyrics user jazzjo


Alison, after you came out, you went home to your parents’ home and you wanted to talk with your father because at this point your mother had written you the letter saying that your father was gay. So you went there to talk with him. Judging from the musical and your memoir, it didn’t go very well, that he was not prepared to have that conversation.

And it was kind of overwhelming, you know, and I wanted to talk about me too, and there just wasn’t room for that. He was so filled with pain and shame that it just was all about him.

Telephone Wire

Yeah. I knew that I wanted to establish contact with him. I wanted to have us both acknowledge this to each other. It had been all, you know, through letters and through my mother talking behind his back to me. But I wanted to have a direct conversation with him, and I was terrified to broach it. I didn’t know how it was going to happen. We finally—at the end of this week, we finally ended up in the car together going off to a movie. And I was doing that thing where you see a sign. Like, I was—when the streetlight changed, I was going to say something, so that’s how I forced myself to finally broach the topic with my dad. And he was very shameful. It was like—it was as if we had suddenly had this parent-child role reversal. He became very sheepish and also very confessional. He started talking to me about being a little kid and wanting to wear girls’ clothes and about his first experience with another boy when he was 14.


So this is another song in the musical “Fun Home” in which

ALISON and her father are in the car having the kind of conversation that she’s just described. That’s a difficult one to make into a song. Jeanine, Lisa, do you want to describe that process?

You know, I write musicals for a living. And after a while, where the sweet spot is for a song just pops out whether or not you get to write it. And this was very, very obvious that this had to be musicalized. But song form AAB it couldn’t be, because it didn’t have a form.

82

I always think that—and Lisa and I talked about this endlessly—that form and structure were always fighting in this musical because they were characters who couldn’t find a way to sing and children who were trying to sing the song of the parents who didn’t have the form and structure to sing. And so they are both searching and the accompaniment has the row going [imitating song structure]—and then there’s the waiting and the repetition of “I’ll do it here, I’ll do it when we get there, I’ll do it when we get here.” And then the hesitation from the parent to the child and then the child who sees an opening and it’s just not in song form. And it’s very hard for me to go see the musical now because I’m not noting it and my head isn’t inside—oh, that’s out of tune, and I find this particular section unbearable because of my own relationship with my father who’s not alive. You know, the things that were left unsaid and the silence just—the presence of that silence in my life is—makes it—I literally just shut my eyes when this goes by because there’s so many things. It would have been easier had certain things been said, and it’s too late now. And watching the attempt and the incompleteness of the moment is—I find it really wrenching to watch. It’s almost like I didn’t write it with Lisa. It goes into another space for me.


Lisa, is it as emotional a song for you as it is for Jeanine?

I don’t think in the same way. It’s one of my favorites, I have to say. And it was clear to me at some point, you know, I read Alison’s book many, many, many times. And we were inside of it for six-and-a-half years. It took me a while, but at some point I saw that it’s a two-page series of panels—that car ride. And reading straight through it one time, when I’d been working for the book for a long time, I realized that there’s this sort of increased tempo going to that moment. And then this horrible stillness after it. And I’m talking about inside of the book. It’s the emotional climax of the book.

I just wanted to say that when I first saw that moment on stage in an early workshop version of Bruce turning to not college-age Alison, but the adult Alison—that was—that was so emotional. I totally teared up and I don’t—I’m not a crying person, but that was really powerful—that the adult Alison and the father finally were connecting on stage before me. Which you didn’t get to do in real life.

Yes.

Telephone Wire

And so I think then we knew that there was some way that that had to be true of the play. And one of the things that happens is that that car ride is taken with Alison in college. And there’s a moment right before where the character of her dad is talking to the college-aged Alison as our adult Alison looks on, as she’s doing as we’re sort of moving all those three time periods simultaneously. And then the character of Bruce just sort of—with not too much fanfare around it, thanks to our subtle director Sam Gold—turns to the adult Alison and says, “Are you ready for that car ride?” So the person who sings it is the adult Alison.


84


“Fun Home” page 219

Telephone Wire


86


“Fun Home” page 220

Telephone Wire


88


“Fun Home” page 221

Telephone Wire


90


“Fun Home” page 222

Telephone Wire


92


“Fun Home” page 222

Telephone Wire


94


After you came out, your mother filed for divorce. Do you think her filing for divorce was related in any way to you coming out?

Well, I do. I feel like this whole sequence of events was somehow my fault, even though I might know intellectually it’s not. I—it’s very hard for me even now to separate them. But I feel like if I hadn’t come along blithely announcing that I was a lesbian, my parents would’ve comfortably gone on in their—well, not comfortably, but they would’ve gone on the way they had been in this difficult, secretive, repressed situation. But no one would’ve jumped in front of a truck. No one would’ve gotten divorced. So I feel like I precipitated all that. I don’t—you know, I wouldn’t change it. I don’t think it was my fault, but somehow I can’t see it outside of that sequence of events.

Well, that my mother had asked for a divorce, that my father had been behaving so erratically. My mother would call me upset. He’d just thrown a painting down the stairs. And so something—in some way, he started to—I don’t know—decompensate. Like, there was something he was just having a very hard time managing. And so—there are other little clues I would find. He was reading a book by Camus called “A Happy Death,” underlining certain passages about love, and, and not being able to love...

It just seemed like his life had become impossible.

Telephone Wire

Your father was hit by a truck and you believe it was suicide. What leads you to that conclusion?


96

Your family had a funeral home. Was that where your father’s body was?

Yeah, that was another really disturbing thing about my father’s death, was that he was laid out in our family funeral home, where I had seen many—you know, my brothers and I would play in the funeral home when I was growing up. We’d see these old people, all embalmed in the caskets, and we just thought it was such a crazy ritual. And then all of the sudden, here’s my father, embalmed in a casket in our funeral home. You might think that being raised around that, all that, you know, everyday kind of experience of death would prepare you better for it, but I feel like it made it more surreal for me.


“Fun Home” page 51, 52

Telephone Wire


“I feel like if I hadn’t come along blithely announcing that I was a lesbian,

98

my parents would’ve gone on the way they had been in this difficult, secretive, repressed situation.


No one would’ve gotten divorced. So I feel like I precipitated all that. I don’t—you know, I wouldn’t change it. I don’t think it was my fault, but somehow I can’t see it outside of that sequence of events.”

Telephone Wire

But no one would’ve jumped in front of a truck.


100


FLYING AWAY (FINALE) Original Broadway Cast of Fun Home featuring Emily Skeggs, Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone

ALISON, newly reconciled to her

past, remembers and draws a moment of perfect balance: playing “airplane” with her father, while reminiscing about the past with SMALL ALISON and MEDIUM ALISON.


Caption. Caption. Caption. Caption. Caption.

ALISON:

...I’m the only one here. This is what I have of you: You ordering me to sweep and dust the Parlor. You steaming off the wallpaper. You in front of a classroom of bored students. Digging up the dogwood tree. You working on the house, smelling like sawdust and sweat and designer cologne. You calling me at college to tell me how I’m supposed to feel about Faulkner or Hemingway. You standing on the shoulder of route 150 bracing yourself against the pulse of the trucks rushing past. You succumbing to a rare moment of physical contact with me. ALISON: Daddy—comma—Hey,

Daddy, come here, okay— question mark—

Daddy, hey Daddy, come here, okay? I need you. SMALL ALISON:

ALISON: I need you.


MEDIUM ALISON: At the light,

at the light, at the light, at the light. ALISON: What are you doing—

comma—I said come here. You need to do— SMALL ALISON: What are you

doing? I said come here. You need to do what I tell you to do. ALISON: What I tell you to do.

Listen to me! Daddy, come here. Hey, right here, right now! SMALL ALISON:

MEDIUM ALISON: At the light. SMALL ALISON: You’re making

me mad. Listen to me. Listen to me. MEDIUM ALISON: How does it feel

to know?

SMALL ALISON:

airplane.

I want to play

MEDIUM ALISON: That you and I— SMALL ALISON:

airplane.

I want to play

MEDIUM ALISON: That you and I—


SMALL ALISON:

airplane.

I want to play

I want to put my arms out and fly.

ALISON:

Like the Red Baron in a Sopwith Camel! SMALL ALISON:

MEDIUM ALISON:

I was like you.

No, wait. Like Superman! SMALL ALISON:

ALISON:

Up in the sky.

MEDIUM ALISON:

Say something!

‘till I can see all of Pennsylvania.

ALISON:

MEDIUM ALISON:

Say something!

Put your feet here like this. Daddy, do what I say. SMALL ALISON:

ALISON: There you are, Dad. SMALL ALISON: Take my hand,

give me yours, bend your knees—not that way. ALISON: There you are.

SMALL ALISON: When I say go,

you start pushing me up. Okay? MEDIUM ALISON: SMALL ALISON:

a little—

Don’t let go yet.

Okay, higher, just


Don’t let go yet. And now I’m flying away. ALISON:

MEDIUM ALISON:

fly away.

SMALL ALISON:

and cape! ALISON:

Look at me

In my wristband

Fly

SMALL ALISON:

Fly up so high

MEDIUM ALISON:

Fly

Our house is over there, and there’s our car. The Fun Home, I see it! I’m up so far! Daddy, there’s your school! And there’s Grandma’s house. There’s Uncle Pete’s farm. SMALL ALISON:

MEDIUM ALISON:

So far.

I can see all of Pennsylvania. SMALL ALISON:

ALISON:

Pennsylvania.

MEDIUM ALISON:

I can see—

Pennsylvania.

ALISON: All of Pennsylvania.

I can see all of Pennsylvania. SMALL ALISON:

ALL:

Fly away


SMALL ALISON: This is the best

game! Up in the air!

ALISON: A picture of my father— SMALL ALISON: And I don’t

even care that it pushes my stomach in ALISON: Made of little marks. SMALL ALISON: Fly up so high MEDIUM ALISON: ALISON:

Fly

Fly

SMALL ALISON: Fly up so high MEDIUM ALISON: ALISON:

Fly

Fly

SMALL ALISON: Fly up so high.

I can see all of Pennsylvania. ALISON: Caption: Every so

often there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.



“FLYING AWAY (FINALE)” Lyrics written by Lisa Kron, courtesy of Genius Lyrics Song bio by Genius Lyrics user ClarissaWee


“Fun Home” page 59, 230

Flying Away


110


Flying Away


112


“Fun Home” page 3

Flying Away


114


“Fun Home” page 4

Flying Away


“When I first saw that moment on stage in an early workshop version of Bruce turning to not college-age Alison, but the adult Alison— that was so emotional. I totally teared up and I don’t—I’m not a crying person,


but that was really powerful that the adult Alison and the father finally were connecting on stage before me.�


118


“Fun Home” page 231

Flying Away


120


“Fun Home” page 232

Flying Away


122


Flying Away


124


Bruce Bechdel playing Backgammon with son John Bechdel

Flying Away


126


Alison Bechdel

Flying Away


128


Alison Bechdel, Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori, thank you all so much. It’s really been such a pleasure.

Thank you. Thank you.

Flying Away

Thank you, Terry.


Photos p. 1-128: Alison Bechdel, appearing in “Fun Home,” 2006. dykestowatchoutfor.com p. 9: Alison Bechdel, appearing in “Dykes to Watch Out For,” 1993. p. 2, p. 29, p. 32: Nicole Bengiveno for The New York Times, 2006. p. 8: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The Boston Globe, 2017. p. 13, 19, 26, 27, 49, 61, 99: Joan Marcus, 2015-2016. p. 33: Robert Gauthier, 2017. p. 17 (right): Robert Giard, 1995. Alison Bechdel, Grand Isle, VT. Gelatin silver print. From “Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers.” p. 17 (left), p. 117: courtesy of Leanne Keefer Bechdel, uploaded to Bruce Allen Bechdel’s page on findagrave.com in 2006. p. 30-31: Alison Bechdel for Seven Days Vermont, 2014. p. 22: Steven A. Henry, courtesy of Getty Images, 2016. p. 24: Walter McBride, courtesy of Getty Images, 2015. p. 25: nomoredayjob on Ebay, 2015. “Alison Bechdel ~SIGNED & DOODLED~ Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic ~1st/1st HC+Photos!!” p. 44: Greg Ruffing/Redux, courtesy of Rolling Stone, 2012. p. 47: courtesy of Leanne Keefer Bechdel, uploaded to Helena Augusta Fontana Bechdel’s page on findagrave.com in 2013. p. 55: courtesy of Impact Marketing, from an interview with Alison Bechdel by The Young Vic, 2018.


p. 59: courtesy of Center for Cartoon Studies, 2017. p. 69: Jemal Countess, courtesy of Getty Images, 2015. p. 72: courtesy of Lambda Literary, 2014. p. 73: Sara Krulwich, courtesy of the New York Times, 2013. p. 93: Jenny Anderson, 2015. p. 121: Elena Seibart, 2012.

Transcript Copyright Š 2015 NPR, at www.npr.org. All rights reserved. NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lyrics All song lyrics are courtesy of The Original Broadway Cast of Fun Home on Genius Lyrics, at genius.com/artists/original-broadway-cast-of-fun-home. Song bios are courtesy of Genius Lyrics users jazzjo and ClarissaWee.



Colophon Miles “Bread� Lee designed and produced this book under the mentorship of Becca Leffel-Koren in the class Design Capstone: Form and Function in Fall 2020 at the Sam Fox School of Visual Arts & Design at Washington University in St. Louis. It was coptic bound by hand Typefaces used are PT Serif designed by Alexandra Korolkova, Olga Umpeleva and Vladimir Yefimov for ParaType, Halyard Text and Halyard Micro by Eben Sorkin, Joshua Darden, and Lucas Sharp for Darden Studio, and Lapture by Albert Kapr and Tim Ahrens for Just Another Foundry.






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It All Comes Back