[This intimate, intricate graphic memoir is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Alison Bechdel

2012, Houghton Mifflin

Filed under: Memoir, Graphic Novel, Literary

This impressive graphic memoir is a great book, but not in any way I think I’ve read before. The bulk of the novel consists of Bechdel’s therapy-related endeavors. She remembers episodes from her childhood in terms of various infant-development theories, she recounts her own therapy sessions as an adult, she interprets her dreams, she recounts conversations with her mother, and she quotes frequently from academic papers about psychoanalysis. In fact, the act of creating the book itself might have been therapeutic for Bechdel, because, as she says, “for both my mother and me, it’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.”

Are You My Mother? is not funny, and the events it recounts are never earth-shattering—especially not compared to the central events of her first book, Fun Home, about her father’s closeted bisexuality and his suicide soon after Bechdel herself came out to her parents.

Instead of relying on these more traditional elements of story, Bechdel indulges her considerable talent for eliciting Nabokov-like patterns from the randomness of the world. She weaves a web of interconnected narrative tidbits—plucked from the entirety of her own life, as well as the lives of her parents, the memoirs and novels of Virginia Woolf, the work and life of Donald Winnicott, and many others—that echo and expand the smallest narrative hiccup until it ripples across the entirety of her existence.

Here’s a small example. One passage finds Bechdel discussing her mother’s affinity for Norah Vincent, a right-wing lesbian stunt-pundit who had begun to draw cartoons and had once beaten Bechdel for a prize. Bechdel finds herself paralyzed by jealousy, and expounds on this jealousy. On its own, that’s a small, somewhat overblown moment.

But later she recounts her mother’s pregnancy with her, how it might not have been planned—she notes that the pill was approved by Congress six months after her conception. Reading her father’s letters to his mother, she finds him a doting, generous man, with big plans to travel with his young wife as soon as he got out of the Army. This is nothing like the man she remembers, seen most frequently in this volume delivering cruel one-liners or in the marks he’s left on the house from throwing things during his rages.

Bechdel remembers a conversation she had with her mother, and surmises that her father might have asked her mother to get an abortion—children would’ve ruined their plans for travel. This moment, she hypothesizes might have crystallized her mother’s pro-life philosophy… the philosophy that, all those years later, led her to gravitate toward a pro-life lesbian thinker that her daughter hated and envied. It’s this kind of whorl, performed over and over through the book, that makes it special.

Bechdel also repeatedly uses themes beyond therapy. She plumbs the lives of Virginia Woolf and Donald Winnicott, noting various ways in which they were linked—geographically and by publishing house, for starters—though they never knew each other. Bechdel also returns to touchstones as varied as the theater, the transitional object, her habit of retouching her cheeks in pictures to make them appear pinker and healthier, and the practice of evacuating children from wartime London to houses or hostels in the countryside where they would be safe from bombs.

She peppers the narrative with informational tidbits about each of her hobbyhorses (the Narnia series began in a countryside child-evacuation house, Winnie the Pooh was the archetypal transitional object, etc). But the book really becomes something special when Bechdel braids all these themes together in certain twisting passages.

One of them begins during a flashback, when Bechdel (then 26 or so) goes to pick up her longtime girlfriend, Eloise, who’s a mechanic. Bechdel has just begun therapy, having that day returned from her first session with her new favorite therapist, a woman named Jocelyn who has essentially relieved her depression in one visit. Bechdel subsequently went out and bought the book The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, which will not only change her thinking but will also lead to her decades-long interest in psychoanalysis, and it introduces her to the work of Donald Winnicott, one of the load-bearing columns of this book.

This is what the next two pages looks like (click any image for a full-size version):

Beyond the discovery of Winnicott, these pages begin Bechdel’s search for her own “true self,” another major theme. Winnie the Pooh is a transitional object, and reading that book will lead to Narnia, from which Bechdel jumps into a discussion about the practice of evacuating children from wartime London to children’s hostels in the countryside. As it turns out, Winnicott worked as a therapist at such children’s hostels—a later anecdote gets into that.

Additionally, Eloise and Bechdel call each other “Beezum,” after Bechdel’s childhood teddy bear—another transitional object. And Bechdel’s refusal of sex and ignoring Eloise in the first page (even as she’s reading about the true self’s “state of noncommunication”) foreshadows their messy split.

These kinds of nested connections can continue in patterns for pages at a time, and the result is captivating.

Even so, this book is far from flawless. Bechdel has a tendency to over-intellectualize a lot of what happens, and she can be wincingly self-indulgent and dramatic at times, like this two-page spread about the guilt she feels when her mother calls her old number one night and can’t get ahold of her.

In fact, Bechdel might be the least likeable memoirist whose memoir I’ve really liked.

As for her drawing style, she says of it, “The kind of drawing I do has to be meticulously planned, every line has to convey some information.” I can see that, but the subject matter in this book does not often lend itself to such meticulous planning. There are hundreds of panels of her talking on the phone or to a therapist, panels that could be virtual Xeroxes of each other. Only a rare few are really beautiful or eye-catchingly creative.

In a sense then, this book is riveting, unique work. In another sense, it’s the dry whining of an overprivileged suburbanite with few real problems. I found it to be the former, but I couldn’t argue hard against the latter.

In the end, Bechdel’s whirling, braided tangle of patterns and connections won me over. A narrative continuum like this, so precise and intricate, so creative and yet so logical, is a wonder to behold. And perhaps that wonder is caused more by beholding Bechdel’s indirect effort—the years of her journal-keeping, the hours of transcribing her conversations with her mother—than by real enjoyment of the story at hand.

Still, even if it’s not for everyone, it’s a remarkable book.

Similar reads: Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli; Blankets, by Craig Thompson; Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel; Big Questions, by Anders Nilsen