Alison Bechdel’s “Are You My Mother?”

I just finished Alison Bechdel’s new comic memoir, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, and can’t stop thinking about it. My book group discussed her previous comic (graphic novel) memoir, Fun Home, several years ago now and we found it rich for discussion, full of lush, complex themes and images. Nick DiMartino, a former BGB blogger, also wrote about his group’s discussion of the book (and his group had the pleasure of meeting with her on her recent book tour).

In Fun Home, Bechdel explores her relationship with her father who she discovered was a closeted gay man right aroun the time that Bechdel announced that she was a lesbian; this discovery about her father’s sexuality is further complicated by the fact that he died in a decidedly odd truck accident while crossing the street. Fun Home is a meticulously drawn and remembered work about her childhood home, her domineering, perfectionist father and the literary life that both of Bechdel’s parents introduced and fostered.

Are You My Mother? is about Bechdel’s relationship with her very much alive mother. So, for a variety of reasons, it is not much like Fun Home. That has been the biggest criticism I have seen in reviews so far, and while I agree that Fun Home is a remarkable work, I found myself just as drawn in to Bechdel’s meticulous style, her self-conscious narrative (which is even more personal here) and the ways in which she explores her mother and herself.

A large chunk of the book revolves around Bechdel’s sessions with her therapists over the years and her reading of and about psychoanalysis. Alice Miller’s seminal work, The Drama of the Gifted Child, comes up again and again as Bechdel explores what she did and didn’t receive from her intelligent yet emotionally distant mother. Likewise, Bechdel finds a lot of common ground with, the psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott. Winnicott’s personal story and theories about children, attachment and self play out against the backdrop of Bechdel’s unfolding past and present.

I enjoyed Are You My Mother? for the ways in which, like in the “Wizard of Oz,” it revealed the mechanics beneath the lived experience and the artist behind the superb Fun Home. Bechdel is very clear while self-effacing about her own need to endlessly examine and reexamine. The intellectual tone and approach to this memoir matches her relationship with her mother as well as the hyper-intellectualized, under-emotionalized hotbed that was her family home.

I know that I will turn to Bechdel’s two memoirs again and again, for their layering, their richness and their frankness. Book groups who might ordinarily shy away from the comic format will find their group richly rewarded with a multitude of themes to discuss, examine and reexamine.

Thank you, Alison Bechdel, for laying your life on the line in order to help others understand and examine their own.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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