My Mother, My Other: Alison Bechdel's Comic Drama
November 27, 2012 5:14 PM   Subscribe

Named as one of the New York Times's 100 Notable Books of 2012, Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, "Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama," calls on memory, Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse," Donald Winnicott's psychoanalytic work (.pdf), Alice Miller's "The Drama of the Gifted Child," and the shade of P.D. Eastman's classic short book about a baby bird in search of its mama to explore her fraught relationship with her mother, Helen. It's art. It's theory. It's self. It's meta-memoir in search of a mother.

Alison Bechdel talks about what the book is:
In Are You My Mother? I’m kind of zooming in on the very act of reflection. Why is it so crucial, how does it work? How does it affect the way we become ourselves? Why does false reflection go hand in hand with oppression? How do you undo internalized oppression? The book, as my mom observes near the end, is a metabook, a book that’s about its own creation. It’s also as detailed a self-portrait‚ as detailed a reflection of myself‚ as I can muster.
(She also talks to the Wall Street Journal, Jezebel, and Vermont Public Radio. Her earlier comic strip, the long-running "Dykes to Watch Out For," set the stage for using cartooning as a means to explore and represent a self.)

The graphic memoir is a follow-up to Bechdel's "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic," which invented a means for her to explore her own childhood in a Pennsylvania funeral home and the mystery that was her father--a funeral director and closeted gay man who came out a few weeks after Bechdel herself had, and who was struck and killed (in a possible suicide) by a Sunbeam truck shortly afterward. Says Bechdel, "I felt like no one really knew the truth about my father. ... And I really thought I was telling the truth in the book about my dad, I thought there was such a thing as truth, and I was very earnestly going to relate it. But since finishing it, since it’s been out in the world, I’ve realized that was naïve. There are lots of different truths, and this was just my version."

And the mother she discovered?
AB: ...Whenever I talk in public about Fun Home, people are always very curious about my mother and want to know more about her. But I didn’t intentionally set out to answer their questions by writing a book about her. Are You My Mother? came out of my own organic desire to understand more about her myself.
Please enjoy the "lucid comic anguish" of Bechdel and her drawn-from-life art.
posted by MonkeyToes (15 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I have this weird thing about Alison Bechdel where I'm bitter that she's now popular. I know this is stupid and equivalent to saying, I liked Sonic Youth before they sold out, but on the other hand, some of Dykes to Watch Out For is just so beautiful, so exquisitely drawn, so funny, and so true, it's like nothing else can quite stand up to it for me. Fun Home was meticulous and affecting, but I can't help feeling that her crossover appeal was made possible by writing something that didn't have the word Dyke in the title.

Anyway, I feel embarrassed confessing that. She is so deserving of the critical acclaim (and what I hope is at least some kind of reasonable income) that she is finally getting. And it's not like she's closeted now! It's just maybe that it was really special to read someone telling my story, when no one else was telling it, at least not so well.

So carry on Alison!
posted by latkes at 5:53 PM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't have known about Dykes to Watch Out For if it hadn't been for Fun Home; I'm sure I'm not the only one!
posted by ocherdraco at 6:05 PM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I adore Fun Home, but was left a bit cold by Are You My Mother. It seemed to me it was too derivative of the first book to really stand on its own, but not so self-consciously or metafictionally derivative to be interesting for that reason. I think I would have liked either a real departure or a Maus II style deconstruction more than the book we actually got.

Bechdel's great, though. Can't wait for the next thing.
posted by gerryblog at 6:34 PM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I can't help feeling that her crossover appeal was made possible by writing something that didn't have the word Dyke in the title.

...and yet, still pretty dern queer. so.
posted by entropone at 6:39 PM on November 27, 2012

It always a bit odd to me that Dykes To Watch Out For is obscure because it was in the Burlington (VT) alt-weekly - it's not like it was in the daily paper or anything, but I thought it was just syndicated and popular.

Of course, turns out that was just a pretty good alt-weekly too.
posted by maryr at 7:05 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am a huge fan of Alison Bechdel - I practically proselytized with Fun Home - lending it out to coworkers and recommending it at every turn. Even so, I disliked Are You My Mother rather intensely. I have mostly blocked from my memory the specific reasons, I just get a twinge of pissed-and-slightly-baffled when I think about it. I think it seemed self-indulgent to me, and the way she used therapy as a through-line was annoying. But the art and overall writing are still good.

If you want more Bechdel after Fun Home, Dykes to Watch Out For is amazing. You can watch her writing and drawing skills develop beautifully over the the twenty-year saga. She hits her stride around Spawn of Dykes... (1993-ish) and it just gets more and more brilliant after that. There's a collected edition, but it's missing the special long features she included at the end of each book, so get your hands on the individual titles if you can.
posted by expialidocious at 7:35 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Perhaps I've been working backwards: I read "Are You My Mother," and then "Fun Home," and then bits and pieces of "DTWOF," and still enjoyed "Are You My Mother" the most because I was fascinated at the way Bechdel was trying to get her mind's movement down on the page, simultaneously experiencing, framing, theorizing, creating and commenting on moments. Just by luck, I read it directly after "To the Lighthouse," so Woolf was fresh in my mind; I had read a little about Winnicott years ago, but it was Bechdel's juxtaposition of the theory with personal enactment that jarred me into seeing it afresh. My analytical side kept fist-pumping in the air. But holy crow, did I have to read "Are You My Mother" late at night because (ha ha) I didn't want my kids to interrupt the experience. And I especially didn't want them to see me crying over the ending.

I'm thrilled to see that this book made the NYT's list, and a little embarrassed that I neglected to add The Bechdel Test (previously) to the post. I hope more people will seek out her work.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:51 PM on November 27, 2012

Ha, I just finished reading this today. My initial reaction, besides that I generally liked it, was that she was overintellectualizing but good. Then just now I read the Library Journal interview and she says: "I’m using ideas in order to get at my own feelings, in order to feel." That's a pretty good definition of literature, and a pretty good defense against those who think "graphic novels" aren't literature.
posted by scratch at 8:32 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a huge fan of Alison Bechdel - I practically proselytized with Fun Home - lending it out to coworkers and recommending it at every turn. Even so, I disliked Are You My Mother rather intensely. I have mostly blocked from my memory the specific reasons, I just get a twinge of pissed-and-slightly-baffled when I think about it. I think it seemed self-indulgent to me, and the way she used therapy as a through-line was annoying. But the art and overall writing are still good.

This is pretty much exactly how I feel.
posted by aspo at 8:37 PM on November 27, 2012

Yeah, I love Bechel - especially fun home, but I honestly have not been able to finish Mother. There seems to be no joy or laughter in it and it is less about her mother than herself. I haven't finished it, despite my attempts, so perhaps I am unkind. I want to like it as it merges so many themes I am interested in but it just keeps leaving me cold and bored.
posted by saucysault at 8:48 PM on November 27, 2012

I love Are You My Mother?. I think one of the things it gets just right is how hard it is to work through major life issues and make art about them simultaneously. I love the Winnicott stuff and the Woolf stuff and the dreams.

But I can also see why it's not everyone's cup of tea, because it is really focused on art and psychoanalysis in a very hermetic way. I found that to be a feature rather than a bug, but can understand why others wouldn't.

(And OH SNAP because it just happened to be the book I was Tweeting about today.)
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:58 PM on November 27, 2012

I liked Are You My Mother much better than Fun Home. I feel like FH bogged down halfway through-- despite the intimate details, it seemed excruciatingly dry and devoted more to dragging in not entirely relevant bits of literature than to telling its story.

While AYMM is no less bookish, the books are all thematically relevant, as the book is the story of a therapeutic process. There's an awful lot of psychoanalysis, yes, but that's what worked for her and I think she does pretty well explaining what it was telling her.

Plus as her mother is very much alive and gets a chance to talk and comment throughout, it feels much less like a monologue.

The narration + comics format is a little narrow, but I think she loosens it up a bit more this time. The dreams provide a periodic escape, and the little segue between Woolf and Winnicott was clever.
posted by zompist at 10:51 PM on November 27, 2012

I'm a long-time fan of Bechdel. (I actually recently realized that I still think of Sydney as "the new" Dykes to Watch Out for" character. Sydney was introduced in 1995.) I loved Fun Home, but thought that Are You My Mother had too much technique and too little direction - or perhaps too many directions.

Incidentally, if you like Bechdel's stuff, you might want to consider checking out the works of Ariel Schrag ... especially since their later works went in a somewhat similar direction. In my opinion, at least, Potential is a darn-near perfect work of comics literature, while Likewise got so caught up in using stream-of-consciousness technique that it suffered for it. I kind of wonder if those who like Are You My Mother best of Bechdel's work would also like Likewise the best of Schrag's.
posted by kyrademon at 4:31 AM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

Fabulous post! I have her new book on my shelf (next to the DTWOF anthology and Fun Home,) waiting to be read slowly over the holidays.
posted by Theta States at 8:11 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I liked Fun Home. What I wrote about Are You My Mother when I read it:

Not enough about Bechdel's mother. Way too many "meaningful" dream sequences. Cringeworthy therapy sessions. Much more static art than we're used to from Bechdel, who normally puts enormous effort and detail into interesting perspectives--too many nearly-identical panels of her sitting across from her nearly-identical therapists, or sitting at her desk writing. Way way way too many panels that are long blocks of text from works on psychoanalysis, or Virginia Woolf, or nearly-illegible letters from her father to her mother. Bechdel is clearly much more interested in both herself and her father than she is in her mother; the glimpses of her mother that we get in this book made me want to know much more about her, and her life, and how she coped in her complicated marriage, and how she felt about where her acting career went, and what motherhood was like for her. That would have been an interesting book.

Instead, Bechdel does her mother a disservice by relegating her to primarily a voice of approval or disapproval of Bechdel's memoir projects, and writes a book that is primarily about her own fretting about the writing of the book--it even starts with an "I don't know how to write this" introduction, something that is tired and trite when college freshmen do it with their essays. I kept getting a vision of the snake that eats its own tail as I read, as Bechdel's book circles in tighter and tighter on her anxiety about the book itself. It is a raw exposure of her inner emotional life, and as such painful and distressing in its unremitting anxiety, depression, and insecurity about her work.
posted by not that girl at 6:01 PM on November 28, 2012

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