Monday, December 7, 2015

Family Romances

In these last few weeks of the semester as we talk about Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, Fun Home, I want you to think about how the work we've accomplished in class can be used to better understand the role of narrative in our own lives. Freud's use of the Oedipus myth and his attention to children's literature and fantasies in "The Family Romance," give us two narrative structures through which to read not only literary works, like Fun Home, but our own lives as well.

If I had to boil down the relation between Freud's work and literature into the simplest formula it would be this: Freud teaches us once again about the central human importance of reading and writing narrative. Everything that humans communicate in any way in language is "telling a story" (and this goes for conscious and unconscious thought as well). In a very real way, the contents of your head are "just stories," that is, narratives constructed in interaction with your environment and meaningful to others. There is no "outside" of narrative if you are a homo sapiens; in fact there is currently some really good work in neuroscience on how the evolution of our brains has produced the necessity for narrative in order to construct a time-bound sense of our environment and cause-and-effect rationality.

As I've said in class, I find the Freudian Oedipal Complex and the Family Romance to be intimately connected. One is the story of the child's struggle to negotiate authority and eventually capitulate to its demands. But the other speaks of the creative ways we deal with those necessary compromises, finding ways to sublimate our frustrations, empower ourselves and even, on occasion, triumph.

While thinking about the Family Romance and the various ways we rewrite the scripts of our lives through fantasy and fiction, I was reminded of an episode of the radio program, This American Life that has always struck me as a poignant example of the very real power of "fiction." It is the story of two siblings who grew up in a house controlled by a domineering and crazy mother. While the brother was allowed all manner of freedom in his coming and going, the sister, because she was a girl, was under constant restriction, scrutiny, and accusation. To gain a measure of freedom the two siblings constructed a fictional family they told their mother that they were babysitting for. Because of their mother's particular blend of paranoia, semi-agoraphobia and insanity, they were able to bring off a complex deception based on the creation of an elaborate fantasy family, one which was both a substitute for, and a means of surviving, the family they lacked.

One of the moving things about this episode is hearing it told in the siblings own voices, especially the sister's, in whose tones one can still hear the joy of those long ago freedoms. You can listen to the audio here, it is Act Three of the Babysitting Episode (you can also purchase individual episodes of TAL on iTunes to download to your mp3 player). You can also read a transcript of the episode here, again scroll down to Act Three.

So when you start thinking about your final paper, I want you to also feel free to think about your own family narratives. Freud's work suggests that there is a certain narrative universality to family life. The particulars of Alison Bechdel's story are different from mine, but there is certainly much I can recognize in the subtle power struggles, the narrative gaps of family secrets, and the eventual need to put one's parents into proper perspective: neither gods nor monsters.

Fun Home as Family Romance: Final Paper

"But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I lept."

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, is brimming with recognizable elements from nearly every text we've read this semester. It's a veritable index of Freudian particulars. We've got the intense devotion to lexical explication (i.e., looking things up in the dictionary) that we remember from Freud's essay on "The Uncanny," we've got dreams and dream analysis, Freudian slips, unreliable memories riddled with gaps and lacunae, recursive narrative structures, doubles, multiple returns of multiple repressions and above all, The Family as the harrowing forge of individual identity.

For the final paper I'd like you to discuss Fun Home as a family romance. In other words, how does Freud's essay illuminate our understanding of the family dynamic examined in this memoir? In Freud's terms, the family romance is a way of talking about the stories through which children negotiate their necessary separation from their parents. Much like the Freudian concept of Oedipal conflict, children necessarily struggle with both identification and rejection of parental authority; indeed the Oedipal struggle is premised on the death of the father. But how do you kill a father that is already dead?

In thinking about Fun Home as an active exercise of memory and narrative, it's important to consider that Bechdel has spoken about her work as not only a story about identity, but also a story about becoming an artist, an endeavor which also involves a negotiation with the influence of her father.

You can organize your use of Freud in this discussion any way you choose. I do, however, ask that your discussion include some commentary on the book's narrative structure: the relationship between text and image.

Due: Monday, December 21
Length: 4 pages

Reading Readings of H

Some quick, pre-class feedback on the last round of papers for those waiting nervously.

As a whole it was a stronger group of papers than the first round. Students who were having trouble with development and organization improved in those areas. And pretty much across the board, everyone attempted analyses of the kind required by a non-conventional narrative like H with detailed attention given to the narrative's latent information and assumptions.

In no particular order, these are some individual bits of insight and interpretation that I thought were especially solid and useful. You may recognize some (in some cases many) of your own points here:

1) The "bicycle incident" is probably the most revealing example of the limitations of the "authorities" (parents, doctor, camp directors and counselors) point of view. From their angle, Benjamin is irrational and violent, a potential threat to others. From Benjamin's angle, the context of the incident is explained as well as Benjamin's remorse and realization that he acted wrongly. Here we also see a pattern consistently reproduced: Benjamin's actions are seen in isolation and not in context by those in authority over him.

2) Mr. and Mrs. Sherman are almost diametrical opposites: distant vs. too involved, cold vs. too emotional, one insisting that Benjamin "grow up," the other desiring that he remain her little boy. They are similar however in their lack of any sense of responsibility for Benjamin's "problems."

3) As two students pointed out, Mr. Sherman's never writing to Benjamin directly is symbolic of his inability to address the situation, i.e. his letters are not "addressed" to the right person. One paper specifically compared Mr. Sherman with the absent Master in The Turn of the Screw, another figure who avoided communication by letters and whose absence powerfully influenced the actions of the other characters. Another paper brought in Freud's essay on the "fort/da" game as a way to make sense of Elliot and Elliottown as a means to deal with this parental absence---like that game, the Elliottown fantasy gave Benjamin a sense of control and a way to, as one student said, "write his own story," a story much different than his father's.

4) Benjamin's progress at camp is seemingly invisible to his parents. Can his parents even "see" Benjamin or only their own desires for him? Several students noticed that everything positive about his camp experience is overlooked by his parents, in particular his friendship with Amelia. Since they expect him to make friends with other boys, they are oblivious to the one possible friend he does make.

5) Elliottown is a compensatory fantasy. One of the things it provides that is glaringly missing from Benjamin's "real life" is trust. He cannot trust his parents: after telling him he can decide if Elliot stays at camp, they take her away anyway, Mr. Sherman listens in surreptitiously on Benjamin's phone calls with his mother, Benjamin agrees to go into the hospital, but obviously hasn't had the conditions of his release made clear to him, and so forth. One paper pointed out how Elliottown provides Benjamin with a sense of importance and meaning: he is a capable emissary from another world, sent to observe and make conclusions about Earth, as well as being some kind of "expert" able to help solve various Elliottown problems. Within the Elliottown world, Benjamin has status as a competent leader and advisor.  Another paper pointed out how important Elliot was to helping Benjamin construct an independent identity, independent of his parents and their version of a "perfect son." And many students made the point that most of the adults seem oblivious to Benjamin's sheer creativity. Whatever the ultimate positive/negative effects are, Benjamin's fantasies are deeply creative and maybe this was lost even on his doctor, a man who could help Benjamin utilize his creative play in a more positive (or socially acceptable) direction. Although, interestingly, opinion differed on the extent to which students felt Dyson handled Benjamin's case well (see 10a below).

6) Dave the counselor's perception of Benjamin is an interesting point of contrast with other authority figures. Everyone else sees Benjamin as the problem, but for Dave he is only a problem, and not the worst one at that (i.e., not as bad as the kid who continually poops his pants, or Mike "Motherfucker.") One paper argued that Dave's "matter of fact" handling of Benjamin shows how Benjamin might have acted differently in a different family. Another paper made the astute observation that it was Dave's letter about the camp reunion, and not Dr. Dyson's treatment, that most seemed to spur Benjamin's efforts to leave the hospital. Still another paper argued for seeing the camp directors as slightly different from the other "authority figures" in the first section. This paper appreciated the wise decision they made to not stigmatize Benjamin by disclosing his diagnosis to counselors and other campers, a decision which seemed to create the circumstances in which Benjamin was able to "thrive" relative to his existence pre-camp.

7) Several papers pointed out that Dave seems like a surrogate Father/role model for Benjamin. Interestingly, he is exactly the kind of "average guy" mainstream male that Mr. Sherman wishes Benjamin was. And because Benjamin looks up to him, we see Benjamin is not completely outside of even as limited a view of "normal" as his father's.

8) If being distant, lost in one's own world, and unable to communicate with others are the criteria for being "sick," then isn't Mr. Sherman as sick as Benjamin? Most papers mentioned that nearly all the initial letters encourage the reader to see Benjamin as "sick," but it is only when one views all the letters as a whole that one starts to question the validity of their individual diagnosis. Following through on our class discussions, some students argued that the Sherman family is the major "unsaid" of the text: it is only through a patient (and, of course, partial) reconstruction of the relations between Jeffery and Peggy and their relations to both Benjamin and Hannah that the reader can begin to make sense of Elliot and Benjamin's need for her. 

9) All the authorities see "the problem" as a strictly individual rather than collective one. That is, "the problem" is limited to Benjamin and his behavior, rather than reading Benjamin's behavior as a manifest symptom of a latent context: his family situation. Thus the "cure" is limited to changing Benjamin and not his parents as well (or maybe even society at large?).

10) Several students drew out comparisons between H and The Turn of the Screw as narratives. In particular, these students were interested in the way both novels seemed to them to lack a complete narrative closure, thus placing the reader in an unusual position. These papers were interested in the effects of narratives which don't adhere to traditional formal expectations: a clear beginning, middle and end, lots of narrative exposition to "explain" things to the reader, and a tight closure where a single and clear authoritative meaning is reached by the end. Instead, these two works seem to share a similar effort to engage the reader in the process of reaching final conclusions, conclusions which could play out in several directions and therefore don't really seem to be "final."

10a) Some very interesting readings of the end of the novel were produced. Clearly, it is difficult to decide whether or not the ending is some kind of triumph or failure. How do we make sense of the space Benjamin is in by the novel's end? One student argued, "The last page of the novel is the result of Jeffery and Peggy's hard work. Beat down, tired and medicated, Benjamin gives up the most special gift he had, which is his is tragic because Benjamin did not outgrow Elliot but was instead forced to do so." Most students who took this line felt Dyson was complicit in this tragic loss. However, one paper made a plea to understand the position of Dr. Dyson differently: "Eventually, the place that gave him value is gone.  His relationship with Elliot ends as well. Both are huge leaps for a special child like Benjamin. Through therapy sessions with Dr. Dyson, and with his new found confidence, it looks as if he found his own sense of self...The last letter from Dr. Dyson was most disturbing to me.  After his parent's request to have Benjamin back home...the doctor's response made me feel heartbroken for Benjamin's fate. ...(A)fter I read his last letter my heart dropped at the idea that he will be left back in his parents care, especially without the education and experience of Dr. Dyson. The doctor's letter seemed as if he felt defeated. It was the first time I felt sympathetic to anyone else other than Benjamin."