Myself in Translation: On the Genius of Alison Bechdel
Narratives of Coming Out and Finding Family
Alison Bechdel is appearing this Thursday, October 22, at Town Hall Seattle, as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures.
This is my memory, though it’s technically unconfirmed: my mom had seen this flag that she liked, non denominational, not especially patriotic with stripes of all different colors. On a trip to Tarrytown, New York my mom found an antique store that had a bin of these flags in the back. It was called “An All Seasons Flag” or maybe that was what my mom said it was called. The flag was wrapped in a thick plastic sheath, which my mom discarded once we came home.
“It’s great because we won’t have to keep putting different flags up,” she said as she stuck it into its holder. Maybe she felt like her full self when she looked at the rose bushes outside the house, the trimmed grass, the “All Seasons” flag waving with equal love for every stage of the year. I felt her satisfaction even as she sat on the couch in the living room, reading the paper cover to cover for hours, or just staring out the window, “thinking,” she said, as the flag whipped peacefully in its slot.
“Why does mom have the gay pride flag up?”
This was what my brother asked as we approached the house. He was visiting from art school. In a few years he would come out and tell us that he was a bear, but for now he was just an asexual artist who once made my parents uncomfortable when he gave them a painting of a naked man. This is what I remember.
I found the flag in the trash the next day. When I went up to her room to ask her why I found her lying in bed watching TV. “A wasp got in it,” she said, without taking her eyes away from the screen.
I’ve thought about this moment a lot over the years, but when I think about it now, I picture it in Alison Bechdel’s hand (maximalist detail, minimalist depiction), how Bechdel would capture the fruit basket wallpaper, the pear situated in such a way that it always revealed a clown’s face. Also, the disarray of junk on the desk, even the show my mom was watching. I picture 20/20, in memory Barbara Walter’s face looms, but it was likely a Sunday, which means it was 60 Minutes. Here again, Bechdel’s attention to detail would keep the scene more factual, more honest.
It took me years to come out—long after my mom and then my brother’s announcement shook the extended family to their born-again breaking point—partially because sexuality is complex, but it’s also possible that I didn’t understand how to construct this narrative. I didn’t know there could be a family where more than half the members were gay. At that time, growing up on the Jersey Shore I hadn’t met any queer women or even seen much representation of one and didn’t realize I could find a place among them.
It’s not that there are stories that are impossible to tell, just complicated—as storytellers we want to capture and express every nuance, to enable the reader, or the person listening to you, to fit something impossible, like the entire state of Washington in their mouth. Not in manageable bites, but the way you had to do it, stretching the skin, the corners of your mouth cracking. But when it is most successful and masterful, as it is in Alison Bechdel’s work, the state—the story—is just suddenly in there, and it’s not just my mouth that’s full, but all of me and it’s a little frightening and beautiful—How did she get all that in there? How did I have room for all of this? How did she?
We can look to Bechdel’s medium for what may be a trite answer: the effect of words and pictures together. But it isn’t just a simple double representation that’s created when Bechdel works, at least not in form, but the way the images and the words often work asymmetrically, allowing for multiple stories, or complex philosophical set ups.
Double representation is actually the phrase I use when I talk about my personal experience of her work. It’s a very nuanced visibility I never expected to see projected: the nature of my family and my own sexuality.
In an early book, The Indelible Alison Bechdel, we can trace the edges of Bechdel’s memoir work—this early process of translation and reflection—as she discusses the development of her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. The first of these comics was published in 1983, the year I was born, in the July-August issue of Womanews. Of the genius beginnings of this project, Bechdel demurs:
The quality of the drawing and writing was wildly uneven—more often than not the cartoons weren’t even funny—but lesbians were so desperate to see a reflection of their lives it didn’t seem to matter much.
I’d like to think that my enjoyment of these cartoons is greater than simple desperation or hunger, or need. It is delightful to see elements of my experience that I didn’t think to be experience, that I am used to having be invisible, presented to me, but they are also just really great cartoons. They’re funny, precisely for the reason that makes Bechdel’s work powerful: they are conscious, alive with detail, at once satirical and compassionate. Sudden visibility can be tricky if you are of a group that isn’t used to being depicted—criticism of that depiction is typical. Dykes to Watch Out For wasn’t immune to that, but there is something so gleefully joyful about this particular reflection, where lesbian sexuality or queer female sexuality, or small town politicized gay life (everyone’s a social worker!), gets translated as funny, in a ha ha way rather than funny as pathetic or the butt of a straight guy’s joke.
I’m thinking about the difference between reflection and translation, if one is meant to reveal and the other is meant to express in one language while retaining the original meaning and feel. The relationship between the two words feels closer than the definitions allow, as the result of neither reflection nor translation is exact, there’s always some distortion.
In Fun Home Bechdel presents herself and her father as a kind of translation (“as close as a translation can get”) of each other: their sexuality, their appreciation of masculinity, and also their distortions: her father’s hidden life, Bechdel’s revealed life. What I see when I read her work is the murky translation, or maybe transliteration of my own experience. My mother came out later in life, but previous to her coming out my image of her was marked by what I would later understand as repression: her own rages, the passionate fights and eventual disappearance of many female friends, and her obsession with my own sexuality. Let’s imagine a panel: I’m in the family den, lying on a tweedy couch trying to watch TV when my mom calls from the top of the stairs “Are you sure you don’t like girls?” or “There’s nothing wrong with meeting a nice girl” or, during a shakier time “Doesn’t it disgust you? The thought of two women or two men together? It repulses me.” When I told her I wasn’t repulsed, she said “so you’re gay.” My answer during this period was always an annoyed no, even though I did wonder if there was something wrong with me, by not being repulsed.
I understand now that for a time, my mom hoped that she could see a reflection of herself in me. That perhaps I could be gay if she couldn’t. But then she came out and watching her process, our Jersey Italian family’s response to it, repulsed me in its own way and kept me at the edges of my own queerness for years. And when I finally did come out I denied her any recognition or connection. I didn’t want to see myself reflected in her. First my sexuality wasn’t related to my identity, then I was queer and she was gay. Much like the scene in Fun Home of Bechdel and her father in the car, there was no joyous reunion. We were trapped in the Ulysses of our experience: fatherless Stephen and sonless Bloom.
Which is why Are You My Mother?—Bechdel’s exploration of her relationship with her mother and the nature of psychoanalysis and motherhood, is an important piece to my story too, because both books offer me a more complete vision of myself. At the beginning of Fun Home, as we witness the memory of her father bathing her, Bechdel states that the bar is lower for fathers than mothers. Isn’t the nature of mothers and children or mothers and daughters this resistance to recognize each other (you are of me but you are not me) or as the psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, posits in the relation between infant and mother: I forget you, but you remember me? It is a bond that must be broken, but both long for a time when, at one point, there was this other truth that Bechdel shares: “two separate beings to be identical… to be one.”
When my mother texted me after the repeal of DOMA—“Congratulations, honey!”—I didn’t respond, out of a kind of disappointment, out of my political stand on it being the wrong fight, out of the desire to not be her. It’s a sad drawing, me holding the phone. She wanted a different panel, a simpler drawing; a congratulations in return, to stand across from each other waving little All Seasons Flags. In a Bechdel version of this story, both panels exist, one reflecting the other. We’re both full of longing. We’re both disappointed. This is where the story starts to stretch my mouth. Maybe this is as close as a translation can get.