Alison Bechdel wrote about her and her father in Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). She is back to write a book about her and her mother. While you could probably enjoy Are You My Mother? without having read Fun Home, I think this latest memoir works better with a familiarity with the former (also, Fun Home is really good). That said, the two comics are quite different. An important distinction is how accessible the first book is comparatively.
From the best-selling author of Fun Home, Time magazines No. 1 Book of the Year, a brilliantly told graphic memoir of Alison Bechdel becoming the artist her mother wanted to be.
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a pop culture and literary phenomenon. Now, a second thrilling tale of filial sleuthery, this time about her mother: voracious reader, music lover, passionate amateur actor. Also a woman, unhappily married to a closeted gay man, whose artistic aspirations simmered under the surface of Bechdel’s childhood…and who stopped touching or kissing her daughter good night, forever, when she was seven. Poignantly, hilariously, Bechdel embarks on a quest for answers concerning the mother-daughter gulf. It’s a richly layered search that leads readers from the fascinating life and work of the iconic twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, to one explosively illuminating Dr. Seuss illustration, to Bechdel’s own (serially monogamous) adult love life. And, finally, back to Mother — to a truce, fragile and real-time, that will move and astonish all adult children of gifted mothers. –publisher’s comments
“For nothing was simply one thing.” Virginia Woolf. This is the epigraph, and a beautiful way to begin a multi-layered narrative where it becomes increasingly evident that nothing can so simply be attributed to one thing. It seems an obvious statement, but how many stories (oral or written) fail to capture this truth. Bechdel’s story does not fail.
in which the author captures the reader’s expression as well…
Bechdel further arms herself with Virginia Woolf’s own self-examination of her childhood, referencing Woolf’s journals and her novel To the Lighthouse. Woolf is an inspiration, Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child is textual gold, and, as author Lawrence Weschler remarks in his blurb on the back cover, “D.W. Winnicott (the legendary psychoanalytic theorist […] comes to serve as her quest’s benign fairy godfather).” Bechdel records her dreams (the book begins with one), and she reads a lot of psychoanalytic theory. She transcribes childhood memories, photographs, therapy sessions, intimate moments with her partners, and exchanges with her mother (past and present). Bechdel moves back and forth along timelines in a way that those familiar with Woolf’s own translations of consciousness can appreciate. Conversations and events overlap and panels return as they are called to fore for a particular examination.
The irony is that if it weren’t for how effectively she modeled creative risk-taking, I would probably not be writing it. (234)
Bechdel tries to decode dreams and incidence, she researches the possible meanings, the causes and effects, in her relationships, particularly as they apply to her and her mother. It can become a bit weighted, a bit exhausting. Sometimes the text overtakes the illustration. Fortunately (for many) Bechdel is deft at translating theory into applicable thought. And a progression is marked.
Bechdel’s fascination with Winnicott is a fascination. the parallels she draws are key, and she moves his story, and Woolf’s, alongside her own journey to write this book and to come to some kind of conclusion regarding her relationship with her mother. Like the woman in progress, so are the comics she is shown to be writing (her strips, Fun Home, and Are You My Mother?). Bechdel captures the complicating, and a good memory will serve the reader as the layers compound and the theories dissect.The publisher’s comments make the book feel more charming than it is. I think it too raw for charm. It is finely crafted, precise, and yet not smooth, not easily navigated. The conversations regarding mirrors and reflections, transference, and subject/object are illuminating.
Here’s the vital core of Winnicott’s theory: The subject must destroy the object. And the object must survive this destruction. If the object doesn’t survive, it will remain internal, a projection of the subject’s self. If the object survives destruction, the subject can see it as separate. (267)
Are You My Mother?left me with a lot to think about.
I was tempted to lay it aside after a while. Meta can be tiring, as can personal drama (call me shallow if you will), but I was glad to have finished the book. Pieces do come together, a greater (textured) image formed. Both separations and attachments are made. Please do not give up or set aside the read for the sake of that last chapter. I did not find the read as humorous as others seem to have, comedic yes, but that last chapter, and that last two-page panel… Natalya and I were talking breath-taking final lines, Are You My Mother?will be added to my list.
I enjoy Bechdel’s drawing style and her composition of page and panel. Her images have a lot to offer, and her inclusions are what make the graphic medium so much fun for the memoir. I enjoyed the use of red and its varied implications. And as I recognized the image from the cover, I love the choice of the cover. The title is perfect. Bechdel is a powerful comic artist, she has a great sense of style and is very thoughtful in text and image. I am not a fan of memoir in general, and when I do read memoir it is in graphic novel form. Bechdel is an artist to study for anyone interested in the form.
recommendations: Fans of Woolf, Winnicott, psychoanalysis; readers of theory, memoir, feminist writings, Adrienne Rich references; contemplations on gender/sexuality, of mothers/daughters, the creative process.
of note: one can go on and on about various aspects of this book. I linked two reviews below, the first shorter than the latter for further reading, and likely better explication.
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
Hardcover, 289 pages.
A great review by William Rycroft of “Just William’s Luck”
A review by Meghan O’Rourke for The Slate (in which we disagree about little except the ‘failure’ of the last third of the story via predictability.)