“Fun Home,” by Alison Bechdel — the bestselling graphic memoir that became a Tony-award-winning Broadway musical — was also the book mailed to all incoming Duke University freshmen, who were encouraged to read it this summer.
But not everyone was on the same page.
One matriculating student refused to read the book and posted his objections on the class of 2019 Facebook page, saying, “I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it.” Others objected to images of nudity and sex; one called the book “pornographic.”
I’m not surprised that Bechdel’s book triggered strong responses. The memoir details the author’s childhood in a small Pennsylvania town, in a family that runs a funeral home (the “Fun Home” of the title), headed by a mercurial father, who — Bechdel learns only in adulthood — is a closeted gay man.
Shortly after her own coming-out, while in college, Bechdel’s father killed himself. So while the pages of “Fun Home” may resemble a comic book (albeit one with subtly shaded, obsessively detailed drawings and text that incorporates diary entries, dictionary definitions and excerpts of “Ulysses”) the themes are sober: sexual awakening, family secrets, suicide.
It’s a perfect book for incoming college freshmen precisely because it’s so unsettling. It forces us to think about identity and family allegiance; what we inherit and what we invent; the role of art, fiction and falsehood in fashioning a life; the risk and exhilaration of seeking the truth.
Please, be offended
It’s too bad that some Duke students recused themselves from Bechdel’s book. The “Common Experience” program, with a book chosen by a committee of students, faculty and staff, is meant to give 1,700 freshman — the small-town kids and the urban ones, Muslim and Christian and Buddhist and Jew, straight and white and queer and of color — a bit of shared intellectual stomping ground, a catalyst for conversation. It’s hard to talk about a book you haven’t read.
But what’s more disturbing is the belief implicit in students’ objections to “Fun Home”: that they have a “right” to not be offended. It’s the same impulse underlying students’ calls for “trigger warnings,” red-flag indicators that certain books contain traumatic material and that students should be able to opt out of reading them.
I think it’s good human practice to avoid offending people unnecessarily (Are you listening, Mr. Trump?) by calling them names or disparaging their accents, their ethnicities, their home countries or their gender expressions.
But “Fun Home” isn’t a personal attack. It’s not meant to be prescriptive. It’s not a sex manual or a self-help book. It’s a memoir, one writer’s intimate, tangled, poignant story of trying to understand herself, her father and the forces that shape us into the people we become.
If those incoming Duke freshmen are so easily rattled by words and images on a page, what will they do when confronted by a classmate whose ideas or politics or self-presentation poses an in-your-face challenge to their belief system? If they’re so appalled by two pages depicting (hilariously, I might add) a lesbian seduction scene, what will they do when they find (as I did) a first-year dorm mate showering with her boyfriend in the communal, co-ed bathroom?
Who says college is the place we go to never feel offended? Isn’t the core of higher education a grappling with ideas — sublime ones and repugnant ones, the jostle of conflicting interpretations — to help us clarify who we are and what we think, and to understand others who think differently?
I landed, my freshman year at Yale, in a suite with two African-American classmates (one from tony Riverdale, New York, one from the wrong side of the tracks in Memphis) and a white girl from a suburb of Toronto who had never met a black person or a Jew.
In four years of English seminars and history lectures (not to mention late-night, coffee-jolted conversation), I bumped up against plenty of challenging, discomfiting ideas. Machiavelli. Nietzsche. Malcolm X. Maxine Hong Kingston. There was nihilsm and Trotskyism and fascism. There was the “Bible as Literature” class, with its voiceless women and no-problem acceptance of slavery.
There was, jeez Louise, the U.S. Constitution itself, a patchwork in progress, with its assertions of white supremacy and enshrinements of male power.
Anyone smart enough to be accepted to Duke (admit rate 12.4 percent for the fall of 2013 entering class) surely has the intellectual chops to withstand a few blows to her belief system. If you’re not packing curiosity and open-mindedness along with your iPad, then why go to a university like Duke? Why go to college at all?
I had to wait until I was 44 to read “Fun Home.” But with my 14-year-old daughter, I’m starting early; I took her to see it on Broadway, gorgeously transformed for theater in-the-round by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, just last month.
Afterward, we talked: about androgyny, identity, the corrosive power of secrets, the differences between growing up gay in the 1940s and the present. We wondered aloud why Bechdel’s father chose that moment — just months after his daughter’s coming-out — to kill himself: Was he forced to contend with the truth he’d repressed for so many years? Was he anguished over the life he might have had? Was he unable to absorb the pain his secret had caused to his wife and children?
My daughter couldn’t talk long, though; her own summer reading beckoned. For high school, she was assigned “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal,” a meticulously researched expose by Eric Schlosser. The other day, she read a portion out loud to me. It was about the people — mostly undocumented immigrants, lacking English or opportunity — whose job it is to clean American slaughterhouses, brutal work that exposes them to toxic chlorine spray and machines capable of grinding a person to death.
Talk about offensive! The book documents corporate greed and governmental neglect (not to mention the list of unpronounceable ingredients in a Burger King strawberry milkshake). I lost my appetite, listening to the slaughterhouse section. Still, I’m glad she’s reading the book, glad she’s learning the unsettling story behind a brisk trip to the drive-thru.
Maybe when she’s finished, if there’s any leisure left in the summer, I’ll leave “Fun Home” on the coffee table. It won’t be bundled in brown paper. It’s a book we’re lucky to have, a book I wish I’d read in college. It would have shocked me, back then. It would have whispered comfort. It would have changed my mind.