Incoming freshman to the College of Charleston, my alma mater, this fall are asked to read Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel as part of their freshman orientation. According to the College, “All faculty and incoming students are encouraged to read this selection as it will be included in the academic curriculum and in activities throughout the year.” Now even though my daughter is coming into the college as a higher level transfer student, the College still gave her a copy of the book so she would know what was going on.
I saw the book briefly when she got it, thought it was interesting because it was a graphic novel, and then thought nothing more about it. Until last week. It seems that a conservative action group and some parents are none too thrilled with the choice of Fun Home as freshman reading. In fact, Oran Smith, president and chief operating officer of Palmetto Family, went so far as to call the book pornographic. So with that kind of furor starting to brew in the papers and on TV, how could I resist reading the book to see what it was all about?
Do you want to know what I found? Well, what I found was a very well written story about a girl’s coming of age, how she dealt with finding her own identity, how she managed to love her father despite a difficult relationship with him that was only made more difficult by the discovery that he had a secret life, and then how all of this wraps around her father’s apparent suicide and the affect of that upon the entire family. Heavy, but pretty normal stuff for coming of age literature. The two things that set this work apart are that both the author / daughter and the father are gay, and that it is a graphic novel. Being a graphic novel means you get to actually see some of the situations that would just be verbally described in a regular literary work.
The issues dealt with in the book are exactly the type of things freshman in college would be dealing with: sexuality, identity, underage alcohol and drug use, independence. Because of this, and because the book is a genuinely good read, I think it is an excellent choice for use in orientation. The book being graphically produced should help pull some of the less-inclined-to-read folk through it, and you really do end up caring about the characters and wanting to know what happens. I do though think it will be a shock to some of the young kids – especially those who come from more sheltered backgrounds.
I would see the people who object to the book falling into two main camps. The first would be, as Mr. Smith mentioned above is, those of a traditionally conservative bent. I can see them objecting to the way homosexuality is treated as increasingly normal and not something to shy away from. They would, I assume, also object to the chemical use and abuse and to the graphic (as in pictures) depiction of these subjects. Again, I am not saying they are right, I can just see where they are coming from.
The second group who might object to the book is the parents who still see their newly hatched college students as children instead of young adults. To these devoted protectors their children should be reading nothing more troublesome than Harry Potter, or perhaps The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. To parents who have just spent the past 17 or so years watching over their children and are only reluctantly in most cases releasing them out to the unsupervised real world, and who are at the same time entertaining visions of what sort of bacchanalian depravity may be about to transpire, this book is a threat. It is both a warning shot to them of what may happen, a guidebook to what one might do, and an unsettling reminder that their babies are growing up. They may firmly believe that the subject matter is just too old and too dangerous for them.
Unfortunately for both of those groups, I think it is time for them to grow up. This is a good book. It handles real issues. It does it in a way that is both entertaining and thought provoking. The goal of the freshman reading this book is to get them to discuss these subjects, not to change their mind about anything or prove something is or isn’t correct. This work is a microcosm of exactly what college is meant to be – an exposure to new material so that you can expand your field of knowledge, learn from that, and grow. And then hopefully, no matter what you take away from that experience, you can put that new wisdom and growth to use in your own life.
We will all face issues. Hopefully they won’t be as serious as a parent’s suicide. But we all face issues of identity – both our own and our parents. And of how we create our own identity knowing that it is built upon the foundation our parents laid for us intentionally or otherwise.
Let the students read the Fun Home. Let them discuss it and evaluate both its message and it medium. And hopefully they will be able to progress on from being freshman with a little more self knowledge, and self assurance, that will hold them in good stead against the whims of the world.