I have just read Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? for the second time and I still do not completely understand it. (FYI: There is also a famed children’s book by P.D. Eastman and a CD by Kathryn Calder, keyboard player for Canuck indie rock heroes The New Pornographers, with the same title.)
I also read informed critiques by various reviewers and, for the most part, I didn’t understand them either (although I did like Guardian reviewer Laura Miller’s description of the cartoon character representing Ms. Bechdel as “a sort of lesbian Woody Allen, equally prone to seizure by doubt or by the giddy, centrifugal force of some idea.”)
On the back cover Gloria Steinem refers to the book as “a graphic novel”. The misnomer is understandable since the work is in the form of drawings and text. (Ms. Steinem invites us to imagine “a comic book by Virginia Woolf.”)
Actually, the correct term is “graphic memoir” since the contents are autobiographical. A “graphic novel” usually deals with fictional characters and situations. (Works like Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning Holocaust narrative Maus are based on fact and are in a class all of their own).
Graphic novelists are fond of claiming they can do things with narrative and character in a visual format that are impossible to portray using the mere printed word. Certainly that is true of Ms. Bechdel’s memoir. (I don’t think I could have gotten through the whole volume in traditional printed form – let alone perused it twice.)
Near as I can figure, the book is about Ms. Bechdel’s quest to untangle the roots of her complex relationship with her mother (still alive and active) and the effects of Mom’s peculiar parenting on her psyche as Alison transitioned from childhood to adulthood. The narrative skips back and forth in time, sorta like an Atom Egoyan film. The text is peppered with quotes from a variety of sources which provided succor to the author and helped to illuminate some of the more challenging passages in her inner journey.
Alison’s father, a closeted gay man who committed suicide, is the subject of an earlier book, Fun Home. Her mother stopped touching or kissing her daughter good night, when the author was seven years old, even though she lavished attention on Alison’s two younger brothers. In addition, Alison mentions she suffered from OCD as a young woman. Obviously, she has a lot of issues. (Her therapists also play pivotal roles in this real-life “comic drama”.)
Does her mother blame her daughter for her thwarted artistic ambitions? Good question. Mom married young and, shortly afterwards, became pregnant with Alison. (Mom channels her creative urges by acting in local plays and writing for the local newspaper but it isn’t enough. Examining some poems in The New Yorker magazine she says to her daughter “I could have done that … I could have gone on after I got my Master’s.”)
Parents often do not realize the awesome power they wield over their offspring. Even as an adult Ms. Bachdel is still trying to impress her mother. In one especially poignant passage Alison tells her mother she is having a book published. Mom is initially enthused (“Really? That’s fantastic!”) until she learns about the subject matter. (“I would love to see your name on a book but not on a book of lesbian cartoons.”) Later Alison writes in her journal,” I don’t know what I expected. I guess I was hoping vaguely that she would be happy anyhow. I really can’t expect that of her, I know, but I hadn’t quite steeled myself to cope with that. Silence between us; an emotional gulf, of which my lesbianism is only a minor inlet.”) Kind of reminds me of that Neil Gaiman quote (in Ocean at the End of the Lane) about “children wrapped in adult bodies”.
Each of the seven chapters in the book begin with a dream sequence. Ms. Bechdel has vivid dreams fairly rippling with symbolism. ( “I had the spiderweb dream two years after the one about the brook and immediately after starting to read Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams.“)
I was aware of Virginia Woolf (a former girlfriend was an avowed fan of her work) but I had never heard of poet and activist Adrienne Rich (and after seeing all of the awards she won in her lifetime I am properly embarrassed). Award-winning author Lawrence Wechsler (in a back cover blurb) describes Donald Winnicott, another literary figure mentioned prominently in Ms. Bechdel’s book, as “legendary”. Shows you how much I know about the subject. I had never heard of the noted psychoanalyst and pediatrician until I read Ms. Bechdel’s book. Or Alice Miller’s The Drama of a Gifted Child, another of Ms. B’s favorite books. (Let’s face it. The web is full of instant experts on every conceivable subject. But I figure if I can’t be upfront in my blog, where can I be honest?)
So why did I read the book twice if I didn’t “get” all of it? Well, for one thing, the narrative held my attention, the drawings were well-crafted and imaginative and, frankly, I liked Ms. Bechdel’s company. She’s like a friend you meet at the local coffeehouse. You don’t always understand what what she is saying (or identify with it) but you like her wit and you admire her intellect.
(Although my conscious mind was a little clouded by some of the text, my unconscious mind may have found it insightful and entertaining. Still no richly textured and metaphorical dreams, though.)
To find out more about the author and access some of her archived work try this link: