*This post first appeared on Mark O’Connell, LCSW’s Psychology Today column, Quite Queerly.
The Tony Award-winning musical, Fun Home, begins and ends with a child, Alison, demanding that her father play “airplane” with her. In between those bookending moments we see Alison grow up, come out as a lesbian, and take flight as a lover, while her father sinks into the closet as a gay man. As Alison blossoms into her life, her father hides, wilts, and loses his to suicide. The poignant, quiet, tragedy of this true story–based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel–is a powerful contrast with its salvational message: that sharing our truth is crucial to living a livable life.
Having won the Tony for Best Musical, Fun Home itself now has the chance to come out, to blossom, and to soar around the country, sharing Alison’s deeply affecting story with all of America. Hopefully it will encourage audiences to make leaps of empathy toward characters we rarely (if ever) see in mainstream theater or film (e.g., women protagonists, gay dads, lesbians), inspire them to talk more about such stories and to tell truthful stories of their own. And if we’re lucky, perhaps Broadway will continue to nurture and launch brazenly truthful shows like this one.
The central tug-of-war at the heart of the story between Alison and her dad– to be truthful or not to be truthful–is one we are all caught in at some point with our families, with our communities, and with society overall. Especially when something about us deviates from the norm. And as the script–adapted by Tony award winner Lisa Kron–makes clear, the oppressive aribiters of conformity, like Alison’s dad, frequently have something queer of their own to hide (Dennis Hastert or Josh Duggar, anyone?).
For example, in an evocative scene we see Alison’s dad angrily insist that she wear a dress to an event though she has told him she’d be more comfortable in pants. Does her father lack an understanding of her internal dilemma? Hardly; he knows it all too well. In fact he feels he’s being a good, protective, parent, by teaching her to survive the way he always has–to hide, to fit in, to camouflage himself among his “normal” peers. As Alison discovers that her father is wrong–and that openly living her truth is the key to survival, as opposed to hiding in silent shame–she finds herself haunted and heart broken by being unable to take him with her.
Like Alison, many of us who are queer, or non conforming in some way, eventually come to understand why our parents attempt to regulate us. (That is if we have sufficient self reflection, good friends, and a good therapist). In time we discover that the reflexive need our caregivers have to keep us in line has less to do with them being the epitome of normal but more to do with what I call their own spotlight ambivalence: a fear of exposing one’s truth when it challenges the norm, often causing people to object when others seek recognition for who they are. We learn that even though many of our parents are unable to encourage our queerness on a conscious level, they might instead connect with us quietly– and even provide a launching pad from which we can try our wings. Although sometimes this comes at the cost of having to in some way leave them behind.
Take my client for example, whom I’ll call David. A gay man, David was a gender nonconforming child who liked to play with dolls. Sometimes he would also enjoy impersonating his favorite characters from film or television, who were often female. David’s mother would give him dolls as presents and applaud his impersonations when they were alone. However, when he tried to express himself this way in mixed company she would discourage him–abruptly, icily, and shamingly. She would suggest he “play ball” with the other boys at these times, whereas in private she would read him Ferdinand the Bull–a story about a bull who prefers to play alone with flowers instead of getting rowdy with the his brothers. It would take years for David to understand that during these disorienting moments of reprimand he was not only feeling his own shame but his mother’s as well. Her spotlight ambivalence.
However, his mother’s truth was abruptly thrust into the spotlight when David was in his twenties and his father died of an accident. His mom, who had always appeared to be stable and reliable as a mother, wife, and school teacher on the surface, quickly began to regress. She became reckless both financially and sexually–allowing herself to be taken advantage of. She would offer various men loans that they never paid back and she engaged in unsafe sex with some of them.
David’s mother had surrendered her agency and autonomy to the point where even David’s brother coerced her into some very compromising financial decisions. This was a blatant case of elder abuse that David was helpless to prevent as Adult Protective Services kept telling him, “We can’t tell your mother who to be friends with or how to spend her money.”
Nightmarish as it was for David to watch his mother surrender all of her power, at the same time he was charging into his own life. As an adult he was finally able to really live–finding love, marriage, and a career that allowed him to be an outspoken gay advocate. His mother on the other hand, continued to suffer without a voice.
By voice I mean point of view, because she surely used her voice. Since his father’s death David’s mother would talk openly, repeatedly, and completely uncensored about an episode of incestuous sexual abuse that she had experienced as a child. She had been too afraid to tell this to anyone when it happened, for fear of drawing unwanted attention to herself or being the cause of a family disruption–a tragic and all too common reality for many victims of child abuse. David’s mother had kept this trauma hidden underneath her manicured exterior for her entire life–which ended up manifesting into severe migraine headaches. But after losing David’s father she could no longer keep it down.
However, rather than seek help–which she was never able to do as a child–she instead reenacted the abuse she had experienced as a child with men in her adult life. David’s efforts to encourage his mother to talk this through with a psychotherapist were futile, as she always insisted she was “fine” and that he simply had a problem with her “lifestyle.” In other words, she was unable to free herself from her trauma and her shame. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s quote comes to mind here, “‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Much of my work with David was to help him identify his mother’s inconsistencies in raising him–buying him dolls, but discouraging him from playing with them in public–to understand her limitations and to accept them. From there he could mourn her inability to continuously hold and encourage his authentic expression of self. He also learned to accept that her choices to be taken advantage of by the men in her life at this point were her own, and he eventually began to release his need to save her, devastating as that was for him.
Though connecting to his mother in a mutually recognized way was not possible at this point–like Alison and her dad in Fun Home–we found ways for him to connect to her emotionally without her even knowing it. David learned to hold onto the dreams his mother had for him in those private moments when she would let him play with dolls. We decided that these moments revealed her dream for him, and for herself for the two of them to have voices. Voices that would allow them to be known, and to live openly, honestly and free of shame. David learned to be nurtured by this part of his mother– a part that she had disavowed, or perhaps dissociated from herself–but had somehow fostered in him.
Fun Home is a very queer child to have been parented by Broadway, an industry that typically seeks to produce normative shows with an eye toward mainstream success. But clearly The Great White Way had a closeted wish to feature a rare show with an authentic and vital voice. (And five Tony awards later it clearly paid off). Let’s hope that more plays like Fun Home will be discovered, attuned to, nurtured, recognized, and launched.