I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about critical thinking skills and dealing with gray areas in life. My last mental workout in this arena came up, unsurprisingly, in the context of my book group. For the last four years I’ve been a member of a local women’s outdoor recreation group that also has a monthly book discussion group. I can’t simply call myself a member of the book group because I’ve attended only three times in the last four years. But when I received an email saying we’d discuss Alison Bechdel’s two graphic memoirs this month, I cleared my calendar.
Like many queer women – and a heck of a lot of readers who aren’t queer women – I’ve been a huge Bechdel fan since the mid-1980s, when her wonderful comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For began to be published in lesbian and gay newspapers and be collected in books published by Ithaca, New York small press Firebrand Books. My bi women and lesbian friends and I made a pilgrimage to Ithaca one evening to see Bechdel give a slide talk on her work. In the late ’80s, this was a huge event for a bunch of 20-somethings.
Evidently, it still is, although since then Firebrand (since gone bankrupt, unfortunately) and Alyson Publications have released 13 collections of Dykes to Watch Out For strips and Bechdel has published two memoirs, the first of which, Fun Home, was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award and named one of the best books of 2006 by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Times of London, New York magazine, and Salon.com, among others. In June I rode to Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass. with a friend to see Bechdel’s most recent slide talk; she was on tour promoting her second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? My friend had never heard Bechdel speak and was charmed, as my friends and I had been two decades ago, by her wry humor and honest, low-key delivery. I was delighted to watch another generation of queer 20-somethings in line to have their books signed and pose for snapshots – this time with cell-phone cameras – with Bechdel, who seems as self-effacing as ever. It was clear she wasn’t being falsely modest when she said the attention Fun Home received took her by surprise.
My book group discussion wasn’t nearly as delightful, although it was as thought-provoking as Bechdel’s slide talk. At the risk of being hypocritical, I’ll say that I don’t have a lot of patience with lack of critical thinking skills, with absolutes and black-and-white generalizations. I’m lucky to be equipped with good reading skills, some critical thinking skills, and the ability to learn. (What I need to work on is patience and tolerance for others with different abilities.) It often seems to me that the voices that are the stupidest are often the loudest – witness the Republican Party these days.
A member of our book group (I’ll call her Cassandra) wanted to know why Alison Bechdel hadn’t simply come out and said that her father was a “pervert.” The group talked a bit about how the young Alison in Fun Home didn’t know exactly what her father had been doing with the high school boys – it wasn’t clear whether he’d been having sex with any of them, or just picking some up in his car and buying them beer, and photographing another, the family’s 17-year-old babysitter, while he slept in his underwear on a family vacation.
I agreed with Cassandra that Bruce Bechdel had serious problems, was psychologically and physically abusive to his family members, and abused his position of authority as a high school teacher, but I disagreed that Alison Bechdel should’ve portrayed her father as a pedophile. “These kids weren’t six, they were 17,” I pointed out.
“In the eyes of the law, it doesn’t matter!” Cassandra exclaimed.
Technically, I agreed – this is a fact, and one can’t argue with fact. But Cassandra’s vehemence annoyed me, and I left the book group meeting feeling as if she were unable to see gray areas, which I consider an essential skill for a psychotherapist. Interestingly, the other person who ventured an opinion in support of mine was the other therapist in the group, who quietly noted that there’s a tradition in the gay male community of relationships between older and younger men that in many instances includes a mentoring component. Among other things, I was trying to say that a 17-year-old has a hell of a lot more agency than a child. Sure, some older teenagers are naïve, and some don’t know what they’re getting into when they have sex and/or a romance with a person older than they. But I’ve had enough gay friends and read enough gay male fiction, memoir, and other literature to know that many gay teenage boys have known clearly for a decade or more about their own sexual orientation, and if a 17- or 19-year-old meets a man older than he who isn’t abusive, manipulative or otherwise taking advantage, I don’t see a problem with sex or a relationship between the two of them. I see the closet and the cultural attitudes that create it as the larger problem. Bruce Bechdel had serious problems, but I don’t know that he was grooming boys, and I don’t see him as a pedophile. Verbally abusive as he was, he loved his children and was protective of his two young sons. I felt as if Cassandra saw Bechdel in the same light in which she’d see a child rapist, and he was not that.
In short, let’s not Jerry Sanduskyize those who aren’t pedophiles.
Later I thought it possible that Cassandra is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, or has treated many clients who are, and that would make her more vehement than I on this topic. This has probably been the cause of many rifts between the gay male and the lesbian/ feminist communities over the decades, and it’s probably a question that makes setting the age of consent in various countries difficult. Some 16- to 18-year-olds are much more mature than others – some are in school and/or working, while some are sheltered by their parents from reality until they’re 35.
I’m not entirely sure why this discussion has stuck in my craw. Cassandra is entitled to her opinion, and I to mine, and laws exist to govern this sort of question, which is why Bruce Bechdel was arrested all those years ago for giving beer to a minor. Apparently this topic symbolizes something larger. Rigid lesbian feminist opinion has been a problem for me over the years, personally and in a larger, communal sense. I believe people should keep their noses out of what doesn’t affect them or hurt anyone, yet as an out-of-the-closet bisexual who’s been in relationships with transgender folks, I’ve had non-bi, non-trans people judge my sexual behavior over the years.
Gender and sexual identity and behavior is a consistent theme in Alison Bechdel’s work, and when I’ve read Fun Home (I’ve done so at least twice), I’ve felt sad about her father’s horribly circumscribed life, and the lives of all the characters who represent Alison and her family, and wondered what would’ve become of Bruce Bechdel had the closet not existed, had he been able to simply work as an actor, rehab and decorate old houses, live in Europe, love and have sex with younger men – to be who he was instead of twisting himself into someone his parents and small-town Pennsylvania neighbors expected him to be. It is a “tragicomic” story, as Alison writes, and perhaps becoming self-righteous about Bruce Bechdel being a “pervert” is a way to avoid the tragedy of his life and death. What’s really perverted – a man who’s attracted to 17-year-old boys, or a culture that forces gay men to marry women and have families they don’t want, because they have to hide their sexual attractions and artistic talents?
Alison Bechdel’s website: