Review: Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

mother bechdel

Near the end of Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel describes the comic as a “meta book”—an exploration of Bechdel’s relationship with her mom and Bechdel’s grappling with how to write about her mom as she’s writing the comic. It’s probably the most apt description anyone will ever come up with for this title, so I’m going to run with “meta book” as the phrase that encompasses everything Are You My Mother? is and chooses to be.

Only a few weeks ago I published a gushingly positive review of Bechdel’s first graphic novel Fun Home, and it ended up being one of my favorite reads of 2015. Going into Are You My Mother? I was expecting to having a similarly positive reaction. Dear reader, this did not occur

The comic, a deconstruction of Alison Bechdel’s relationship with her mother written in a similar manner to how Bechdel wrote about her father in Fun Home reads very much like the latter’s sequel. The book assumes a familiarity with the contents of Fun Home, specifically the Bechdel family’s history and interpersonal dynamics (how her parents met, details about Alison’s childhood, etc.) Instead of Bechdel’s youth and college years forming the backdrop (although bits and pieces peek through), >Are You My Mother? focuses on Bechdel’s adulthood, her job as a cartoonist, her romantic relationships, and her adventures in therapy and growing fascination with psychoanalysis. It’s this latter subject that especially sets this comic apart from its predecessor—while Fun Home used a mix of Victorian and early modern 20th-century novelists and playwrights to find insight into her father’s behavior and attitudes, Are You My Mother? leans heavily on the writings of various psychoanalysts, particularly those of mid-20th-century analyst Donald Winnicott about Object Relation Theory.

The book’s use of psychoanalysis was primarily where it lost me for two reasons: one is the result of my personal bias towards psychoanalysis as a realistic means of understanding peoples’ behavior and past experiences, especially as infants and small children. To put it bluntly, I think it’s a load of nonsense. Especially given how rooted in traditional ideas of the nuclear family Winnicott’s theories are and the presumption that children inherently desire and form identities around a mother. (How do you explain a child’s development using Winnicott’s theories if they were raised by two men? Does Winnicott ever talk about fathers at all? I have no clue.)

The second reason was the heavy use of passages of psychoanalytic theory written by Winnicott and his colleagues. These passages were all particularly dense, and were difficult for me to parse as a layperson. The inclusion of panels consisting of short passages of relevant texts is a technique Alison used extremely effectively in Fun Home, where the inclusion of each passage was used to provide parallel and insight into Bechdel’s father’s upbringing, rationale, and behavior. The difference is that while the quotes used in Fun Home elevated the story, the story in Are You My Mother? relies on them for its final shape. I found that I did not care for this at all—it was frustrating that the quotes were even necessary for me to begin to follow the trajectory of Bechdel’s journey, and that the quotes themselves ended up being a slog to try to fully understand.

Another huge difference between Fun Homeand Are You My Mother? is that, unlike in the former, Bechdel is writing about her personal relationship to a parent who’s still alive and a part of her life. There is no clear beginning, middle, or end, a frustration Bechdel herself voices throughout the comic. Bechdel was constrained by her comparatively limited access to her mother’s past and insight into her thought process than she did when writing about her father—fewer photos, fewer stories, and her mother’s own reluctance to share anything about herself as Bechdel was penning the script. As a result, the conclusions Bechdel draws about her mother feel like they are based more off of probability given the available information as opposed to facts, for which Bechdel had aplenty about her father.

The part of me that loves narratives about the creation of narratives appreciated with how Bechdel incorporated into the story her own struggle to even write the comic and hash out its structure. But the part of me that ultimately does prefer stories with clear beginnings, middles, and endings was left feeling unsatisfied. The lack of a clear narrative was compounded by the actual portrayal of Helen Bechdel as a distant, vibrantly artistic but incredibly unhappy woman in a loveless, hurtful marriage. The issue for me was not so much Bechdel’s portrayal, but that her own lack of satisfactory understanding of her mother, combined with the obtuse (and personally hard to swallow) psychoanalysis inherent to the story’s final structure, left me feeling cold about the entire thing.

It was fascinating to read Fun Home and Are You My Mother? back-to-back and observe the similarities and differences side-by-side , as well as Alison Bechdel’s development as a writer, researcher, storyteller, and artist. I would definitely not suggest reading Are You My Mother? without reading Fun Home, as the latter provides a lot of the necessary context of the family dynamics Bechdel grew up with. For me, Fun Home was far and above the more fulfilling book, and more successful at achieving what it set out to do. Which isn’t to say Are You My Mother? is poorly written or constructed—quite the opposite. Rather the story Alison Bechdel had to tell in Fun Home and its execution worked much better for me as a reader than Are You My Mother?. Other people might find or have found this comic more fulfilling than I did, and if so, I understand why they would.

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