Highly Prized

Alison Bechdel: Genius to Watch Out For

The cartoonist creator of ‘Dykes to Watch Out For,’ graphic memoirist, and originator of the ‘Bechdel Test’ for movies, has been awarded a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant. We celebrate why.

09.18.14 9:45 AM ET

In her charming, illuminating video accepting her $625,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” alongside 20 others, the cartoonist Alison Bechdel—famous for her strip Dykes to Watch Out For and more recently her graphic (in both senses of that word) family memoirs—said: “When I got the call from MacArthur Foundation, I thought I was kind of faint. It was crazy. It was like someone had almost hit me, like a physical blow. I feel I have been in a state of shock.

“I think getting this kind of recognition…I can feel it already, like, changing my life. I’m having to adjust to the fact that this has happened—therefore I must be doing something worthwhile. To have that kind of confidence put into my work is a huge gift, and I am going to work very, very hard to live up to those expectations.”

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The award caps a professionally golden period for the 54-year-old Bechdel. Her much-acclaimed 2006 memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which traced her own sexuality alongside her relationship with her father, Bruce—who was secretly gay, and who later, she believes, committed suicide after being hit by a truck—was made into a prize-winning, much-lauded musical, which ran at New York’s Public Theater late last year into early this year.

“When I came out to my family and told my parents I was a lesbian, I learned to my total surprise my father had relationships with other men over the years and was very secretive about it,” Bechdel says. “Eventually my father killed himself. It was painful at times to go back and remember things, to go back and re-create his character, and feel that loss.”

“Its [Fun Home’s] universality comes from its awareness of how we never fully know even those closest to us,” wrote Ben Brantley in The New York Times, “and of the undercurrent of grown-up secrets, intuited by children, that exists to some degree in every family.”

In 2012, Bechdel published a second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, which, as the title suggests, took the family’s story forward after its patriarch’s death by examining Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, Helen.

Meanwhile, Bechdel is best known to pop-culture grazers, who don’t know her cartoons and memoirs, as the inventor of the ingenious (and instantly shaming to so many movies) “Bechdel Test,” which a film can only pass if: “(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.”

Last year, Bechdel wrote: “Many young people only know my name because of the Test—they don’t know about my comic strip or books. I’m not complaining! I’m happy they know my name at all!”

Making sense of her life on the page, deploying raw emotion alongside humor and wry mischief, has long been a Bechdel pursuit.

“My name is Alison Bechdel and I am a cartoonist,” she says with a little laugh at the beginning of her MacArthur video. “What I love about cartooning is that I have access to two different kinds of communication.”

There is verbal language, she says—she loves words, writing, and crafting sentences—“but language remains symbolic. It has to be filtered through my brain, whereas drawing is right there. It’s immediate, you just assimilate it without having to think about it. I love having access to both kinds of communication when I tell my stories.”

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People often ask Bechdel, she says, whether she writes or draws first. “I do both at once,” she says. She writes on a computer in a drawing program, creating panels and word balloons. Then she takes photographs and “steals” images from the Internet to create rough sketches, and draws all the images out by hand.

When I interviewed Bechdel in 2012 for The Times of London, Bechdel told me that at one reading event for Fun Home, a man had stood up, a friend of her father’s, clearly upset, she thought, “because I had betrayed my father’s memory by writing about him.”

The gentleman had news to impart: The man and her father, who died aged 44, had a friend in common, the doctor on call when her father arrived at the hospital. “I learnt my father was alive when he got to the emergency room. I’d always thought he’d died instantly,” says Bechdel. “Over 20 years later I find this out on stage, in front of 200 people.”

Bechdel grew up in Pennsylvania inspired by Tintin, Mad magazine, and the work of the writer and artist Edward Gorey. At the time of his death, Bruce was coming to terms with Helen’s desire for divorce and his daughter’s coming out, with his sexuality its own echo chamber.

Bechdel told me she imagined her father had casual affairs and relationships. I asked why she thought his death was a suicide. “Because it’s less painful that way,” she said. “He didn’t leave a note. I have no proof. It just makes psychological sense. My coming out dislodged something. My parents were managing this secret of his, then I shone a light on it.”

I asked if she had blamed herself in any way for his suicide. “Oh, yeah, I feel completely responsible, even though I know intellectually it’s not my fault,” she said. “I feel as though if I had just kept my mouth shut things might have been different.” Her mother’s grief “happened off stage,” she said. “The family carried on but something was shattered.”

The memoir about her mother doesn’t answer the questions that Bechdel still mulled, she told me in 2012. Why did Helen stop kissing her but continue kissing her sons after Bechdel was 7? What did she think of her husband’s sexuality, his death? How did she grieve? Bechdel told me she couldn’t ask her mother these questions directly: “I’m afraid to. I know we seem close, but we’re quite distant and have a very formal relationship. The book is my attempt to get her to respond to me.”

At 13, Bechdel went to see her mother after getting upset by a novel. “Well, life is rough,” her mother told her, and Bechdel left “knowing we couldn’t talk about anything emotional.” It took Helen 10 years “to come around” to Bechdel being gay.

“All our families are mysteries,” Bechdel told me. “It’s so strange that little bits of answers come to us over the years.” She admitted to vetting material according to her subjects’ sensitivities and also that her father was more playful than she drew him in Fun Home: “It feels kind of bad I didn’t provide a three-dimensional picture of him.”

Writing about her father dead, she said. was easier than writing about her mother alive, which Bechdel described as “vacuuming under a rug while someone’s still standing on it.” Bechdel told me a planned third memoir would look at her family as “a system” focusing on her two younger brothers. John, she told me, felt that she has been too negative about her father, while Christian “is not completely functional in the world” and has obsessive compulsive disorder. Bechdel said she and her mother both had the disorder as children. “I think we all have Asperger’s,” she said.

Her mother, Bechdel told me, bustled around a later life of amateur dramatics and writing for a newspaper: She wondered whether these were attempts to fulfill some kind of professional destiny left in the mist of earlier years by having a family. Her mother died last year, just as Fun Home was drawing crowds at The Public. Bechdel told AfterEllen: “It’s weird to have all this loss going on at the same time as this very exciting thing with the play happening.”

She became a cartoonist, Bechdel told me, “because no one was watching this lowbrow populist arena. All the characters in Dykes to Watch Out For” (my favorite character is the spiky-haired, fretful Mo), “a little subcultural group of lesbian friends,” as Bechdel put it, are “thinly disguised versions of myself. No matter what they look like, they’re all basically me.”

She secretly nursed ambitions that Dykes would become a crossover success: “It never did, but it’s been absorbed, grandfatherly, into the canon.”

The strip ran from 1983 to 2008, though Bechdel told me in 2012 she was planning to reunite the women for more adventures. She says she had fun “playing them all off against each other,” debating the political issues of the day—and as this was the 1980s and 1990s, far from the relatively sunny uplands of today’s increasing climate of lesbian and gay equality and acceptance, there was much to debate, laugh mordantly, and grizzle over.

The advance of lesbians and gay men in pop culture has a depressing price, Bechdel said. “When I see what’s on television, it’s sad that queerness has become as commodified as heterosexuality,” she said. “The rough edges have gone. I have nostalgia for the bad old days.”

Bechdel lives with her partner, the artist Holly Rae Taylor, outside Burlington, Vermont; the rest of the family is in Pennsylvania. “If I lived closer to them I wouldn’t be able to create,” Bechdel told me. Therapy, which she said she had had for 25 years (“almost half my life”) had been “completely life-saving. I was never suicidal, though depressed and cut off from myself. I don’t know what would have become of me without it.”

Well, as Wednesday’s MacArthur “genius” award shows, we can see what became of Bechdel—and all the success she has enjoyed is squarely down to her own creative invention and ability to engage with her many readers. It’s an award richly, deliciously deserved.