Oh, look! A review! This is interesting. Read on: Cartoonist Alison Bechdel is back with her second graphic novel. I examine her own prejudices against the graphic novel and concludes that Are You My Mother? reads like a serious piece of literature, but illustrated with lots of pretty pictures.
Here’s the thing: I am a bit of a snob. I studied English lit at university and I learnt, long ago, that ‘serious works of literature’ don’t have pretty pictures. Illustrations are for children; text is for grown-ups. So I approached Alison Bechdel’s new graphic novel with a kind of, ‘this is going to be fun’ attitude. I was therefore surprised to find Are You My Mother? so, well, serious. With its psychoanalytic approach and quotations from Virginia Woolf, it’s as angst-ridden as a teenager with her first guitar. It’s kind of the lesbian folksinger of the comic genre.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love lesbian folksingers. Melissa Etheridge? I’m totally down with her. Constant Craving? I’m right with you KD. But, even for a therapy-loving, romantic person like myself, Are You My Mother? was a bit much. Bechdel’s second memoir chronicles her relationship with her mother. It tells the story of her mother’s frustrated artistic ambition as she gives up writing poetry to bring up her three children. It feels like, having exorcised the ghost of her father through her previous memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, it is now Bechdel’s turn to write about her mother.
Bechdel layers stories. She uses psychoanalysis and the work of Virginia Woolf to examine her relationship to her headstrong mother. She writes about mother and daughter through the lens of her therapy sessions and the process of writing Fun Home. The memoir is kind of a book about writing another book as well as this book and … you see? It’s just very hard to explain.
Bechdel is obsessed with twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and Virginia Woolf. Heck, she even goes back in time to imagine the two passing each other in a London park. Bechdel copies chunks of Winnicott and Woolf’s writing into her cartoons. She frames them in her strip, even as their ideas inform and guide her work. It’s all very meta.
It may be in the nature of memoir itself, but Are You My Mother? seems to say a lot more about Bechdel than it does about her mother. Sure, we get the story of her mother’s difficult marriage and frustrated artistic career, but the focus is always on Bechdel’s therapeutic process. She is obviously haunted by her mother. At one point Bechdel moans to her therapist that she can’t write until she gets her Mum out of her head. Bechdel’s mother is portrayed as sympathetic, yet distant. It’s easy to understand how this no-nonsense character is unfathomable to our neurotic, loveable artist.
In many ways it’s tempting to read Are You My Mother? as a sequel to Fun Home. Bechdel’s critically acclaimed first novel chronicles her relationship with her closeted father, who died in a probable suicide attempt when she was 19. Like her latest book, it provides an introspective story of her childhood. Fun Home jumps about in time, drawing comparisons between the frustrated life of her father and Bechdel’s own life as an out lesbian. She seems to be searching for her roots, somehow healing the pain of her father’s death by writing her own, queer, narrative.
In Are You My Mother? Bechdel explores the nature of the relationship between mothers and daughters. It’s a cliché that sons are Mummy’s boys and daughters are Daddy’s girls. So what about mothers and daughters? Freud said that the two are in sexual competition with each other. Our fairy tales portray mothers as scary, unreliable beings who often betray their offspring. Don’t trust your mother, she’ll probably unintentionally sell you to a witch or try to eat your heart. Charlize Theron’s deranged stepmother in Snow White and the Huntsman is a recent portrayal of an older woman who will do anything to destroy her stepdaughter. The murderous aliens of this year’s Prometheus turned our anxieties about our origins into big screen horror. Are You My Mother? sets out to heal the rift between mother and daughter and in doing so navigates one of our most fraught relationships.
Although I felt that Are You My Mother? needed to be edited with a heavier hand, Bechdel’s approach to memoir is compelling. I mean, I love introspection (see above note about being romantic). I’m totally down with the therapy. I am even aiming to read, sometime in the near future, the complete works of Sigmund Freud (I don’t know if this makes me annoying or ambitious. Probably both.). So Bechdel’s exploration of psychoanalysis and the difference between fiction and memoir appeals to me. Maybe if I were less of a geek, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the book so much.
For me, a twenty-something lesbian, it feels like Bechdel has been around for, like, ever. Her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For came out in 1983 (I was only just born, yo) and ran for 25 years. I associate Bechdel with that other lesbian cartoonist, Diane DiMassa. I read DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (obviously it’s hilarious) at about the same time as Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For and now the two authors are tangled up in my head in a kind of feminist-lesbian free association. Perhaps, approaching this memoir, what I really wanted was a bit of light-hearted fun. I didn’t get it.
To sum up, I have to admit that I would read pretty much anything Bechdel writes. Her late-night poetry or scribbles on a piece of toilet paper would, for me, be a treat. Are You My Mother? is harder going than you’d expect, but it is quite fun if you want to be encouraged to run out and read some psychoanalysis or works of modern literature. Its references to other authors gave me plenty of opportunity to geek out and I got to do so while reading a comic.