15 December 2022
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
It’s funny to me now looking back how long it took me to pick up Fun Home and actually read it. It was recommended by my best friend, Gretchen, and so I should’ve known better than to set it aside – yet I did. For someone so used to reading gritty, undiluted words on a page, I think that perhaps I resisted taking the comic format seriously. Huge mistake. Those who know memoir, those who know more modern writing (admittedly, I was so deeply entrenched in the Elizabethan and Romantic and Victorian Eras that modern literature was predominantly foreign to me), know Alison Bechdel. She’s a household name, anymore, at least in certain circles (what a meaningless thing to say – what a fucking platitude). Ok. But she’s a groundbreaker of graphic memoir – comic drama. These are not comic strips…or they are, but they’re not base, vapid, or slapstick comedy. They’re so laden with content that they'll give “comic” a whole new meaning for me for the rest of my life. Learning that Bechdel had written a companion book to Fun Home (about her father) called Are You My Mother? (about her mother) – well. It was a treat. A foregone conclusion.
This book differs from Fun Home in part because it is so heavily infused with outside references. I love the idea of weaving nonfiction info tidbits throughout a story. It sort of makes the content interdisciplinary, but it also contributes a bit of clout, real-world credibility. Greg Martin did this in Stories for Boys with the Spokesman Review and the chapter “A Well-Made Man,” among others. Bechdel does it throughout with Jung, Winnicott, Woolf, etc. In my most recent essay, I do the same with Gabor Maté, Elaine Aron, and excerpts on sleep training and nondualism. Although the idea brewed within me well before I began reading Are You My Mother?, seeing the way that Bechdel executes it in this book gave me the confidence to try it myself. I think I most appreciate it because I do not see myself as separate from anything; I am an amalgam of all the things I read. My understanding of how my brain works is clearly and critically derived of my understanding of the world – and most of my world is books. I can only imagine myself continuing in this manner as I move forward.
Another part of Bechdel’s memoir craft unique to this book is her extensive recounting of events from her therapy sessions with three (or four??) different therapists across the span of her adult life. It blew my mind that she’d report on her psychotherapeutic progress over time. What I anticipated might rob her of credibility – or perhaps readability –bestowed more of both! I could not get enough of those moments with her therapists because I’ve been there. I know what that space is like for me…and in that sense, it bound me to Bechdel. I became her sister. There is nothing more engaging than a protagonist who is intensely flawed, yet equally intensely desperate to heal. It’s a critical engagement with the ego that Bechdel accomplishes, here, and I cannot but applaud anyone willing to do that kind of work (let alone write about it). We all need to read this, to learn the value in the process. I’ve attempted to write bits of my own therapy before…even recently…but still before I read Are You My Mother?, and now I know that there is no good goddamn reason to avoid it – if it serves the story, as Bechdel’s did.
One more point on memoir, specifically, since at its heart, I think this book is a defense of the craft of memoir. Of course, at this moment, as I’m forming the foundation of my own craft in the world of memoir, this might be the most important lesson from the book – thus I have to give it due space and time in this review. Bechdel’s mother, throughout, was skeptical about writing personal, true life. She says often how she wished Bechdel had written heer father’s book as fiction, or at least used a different name (nom de plume). Early, Bechdel’s mom derides poets who write of private matters. She says, “Some things are private” and “I just read these poems in here that were so annoying. They’re too personal.” To which Bechdel responds (wisely), “Um…I dunno…can’t you be more universal by being specific? Everyone regrets something, right?” (198). I have no choice but to agree with Bechdel here, specifically because my classmate Robin said precisely these words in our memoior class about three weeks ago – and I agree with her.
But the message I loved most – a message that ironically did come from Bechdel’s mother – was this: “The writer’s business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve the story” (283). Do books give you goosebumps often? Because they do for me, and this was one of those moments. As a memoirist, perhaps these are words to live by. I’ve mentioned to Gretchen before in discussion about my published essay, “Just a Lamp,” that of course what I’d written on the page was not the whole truth. As a memoirist, our obligation is to recount a story given a certain lens so that it may make the most sense for the reader. It’s not about me being right or my mom being right – or about either of us being wrong or culpable or ashamed. It’s about service to the story itself, and I think that’s why Greg told us that a successful memoirist must have a splinter of ice in their heart (a concept borrowed from Graham Greene, I believe). Because you maybe need to butcher relationships and people and real life in the process of unearthing a true story well told.
That brings me to my final point: psychotherapy. My god, there are some deep concepts here – and I cannot bore myself by recounting them all. So let me choose just a few: people hate me, the mirror, and gratitude. All of these come out via Bechdel’s therapy sessions and her research into trad psychotherapy of Freud, Winnicott, etc.
People Hate Me: So throughout the book, Bechdel carries this theme of “everyone hates me,” and perhaps of all the psychoanalytic themes in here, that one hit closest to home for me (especially as a memoirist, now). It plays out most specifically in Bechdel’s love life, where these lovers of hers perpetually fail her, yet she blames herself. She tells her therapist, “I guess I can’t blame her,” when she recounts how her relationship with Eloise is failing again. But her therapist (Jocelyn) calls her out on it: “Do you see what you’re doing? You want Eloise’s love, and when you fail to get it, you decide it must be because of some fault in you” (266). Well if that didn’t hit like a ton of bricks for this here girl who never got her mother’s approval – and was perpetually convinced she was wrong or broken or at fault simply for being herself. Whoof, am I right? There were times as a child that I’d walk into a room of strangers – literally, strangers in a restaurant – and be convinced that they telepathically knew how horrible I was and they hated me. You think I’m making this shit up. I’m not. Bechdel even mentions this somewhere in the book (although I cannot find it now) about believing the people passing you on the street are speaking ill of you as they walk by and laugh. That’s totally happened to me – and you know what? It took years of hard work to unprogram that bullshit: nobody cares about me. Strangers do not care about me. They’re not sneering at me. They aren’t talking about me. They’re not laughing at me. To think all those things is to allow my own ego to grow beyond manageable proportions. It’s a lie. I’m glad I know that now. I’m fucking delightful – just like Jocelyn tells Bechdel (well, she uses the world “adorable”). I know that because my husband, at this point in our marriage, has said it often enough (and forcefully enough) for me to finally believe it. I’ll end this paragraph with a linked quote/moment, here. Therapist Jocelyn asks, “You’d rather die than feel anger at your mother for not giving you what you needed?” (268) Why in the name of life would we do this to ourselves? Nevertheless, I’ve done it.
Mirror: This brings us to the mirror concept. The mother is supposed to be a mirror from birth. Her job as a mirror for her infant is fundamental between birth and age two (Bechdel covers this throughout via Winnicott). Where a “dead mother” fails is in not giving the infant sufficient mirroring within infancy so that the child develops a sense of self simultaneously linked and separate from the mother. What’s insane is that this is so literal! I think of it…with my own children when they were infants…picking them up, seeing their smile, I smiled back. When they cried, certainly my face registered their distress. We see this all the time with new mothers! For me, it was natural. Yet the more that I learn about my own mother, the more this particular quote from Winnicott rings true: “I can make my point going straight over to the case of the baby whose mother reflects her own mood or, worse still, the rigidity of her own defenses. In such a case, what does the baby see?” (232) If the mother’s ego stands between herself and the baby, the mirror fails – that is to say, if the mother perceives the baby’s pain as her (the mother’s) own fault, she cannot mirror the baby’s mood, so the baby’s pain is mirrored by the mother’s rage. Pain = rage. Good sweet Moses, my friends. It’s almost enough to make a woman’s womb shrivel. I know what I likely experienced; I can only hope that what my children experienced was a slightly more accurate mirror. Hope is all I have.
Gratitude: I guess the overarching message of this book is one of gratitude. At the end, Bechdel is grateful for all of the things her mother could not do for her because they made her the person that she is today. Similarly, she is grateful to her therapist, Jocelyn, for being the mirror for her that her mother could not have been in infancy. It turns out, this might very well be the role of a psychotherapist for any patient…since in psychotherapy all roads lead back to mother.
Gratitude. Yeah. I’ll take that and run with it, for my own part, too.