Review of Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama.
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Alison Bechdel's new graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, inevitably will be compared to her first one entitled Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Named the best book of the year in 2006 by Time Magazine, Fun Home was a bestseller and garnered numerous honors including a Lambda Literary Award and an Eisner Award. The new book Are You My Mother? is fundamentally a meditation on and mediation with perhaps the one reader of Fun Home that matters most to Bechdel—her mother, Helen Fontana Bechdel. A powerful, but elusive presence in Fun Home, the textual Helen remains somewhat of a mystery in Are You My Mother? but representative, perhaps, of a woman of her generation (born in 1930s) in several significant ways. Are You My Mother? tells Alison's story of writing the new memoir about her mother in the wake of Fun Home. Moving back and forth between those five years of working on the new book and incidents in the past, Bechdel also recursively depicts her long-term relationships with two therapists and several lovers. As in Fun Home, Bechdel again illustrates how integral reading is to the life of an artist by weaving in commentary by writers like Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich, psychoanalysts like Freud, Jung, Donald Winnicott, and Alice Miller, and children's book authors like A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss. As serious readers understand, Alison's relationship with writers and texts interact with Alison's relationships with individuals in her life. The price of entry to Are You My Mother? is steep, but the rewards are also great.
Bechdel opens the new memoir with the problem of telling her mother about the first book about the father. A meta-book about the writing of both memoirs, Bechdel's discourse reflects on therapy in her use of Donald Winnicott's work but also embeds psychoanalytic method in the very structure of Are You My Mother?. While it is not necessary to have read Fun Home to understand Are You My Mother?, reading the first book infinitely adds to the experience. Entering the new memoir is like visiting the house of a childhood friend, where time has made the experience less and more intense. As a child, one often thinks that his or her family is the norm, and visiting a friend's house can provoke the first experiences of comparison. How do children first realize that other families are different than theirs? Reading Are You My Mother? elicits that kind of comparison through the lens of memory while the text provides the very model for analysis. While in her twenties, Alison submits an essay about a childhood incident to a feminist literary journal, and Adrienne Rich responds in a letter that Bechdel reproduces in the book; Rich states, "Even for yourself, I think it would be useful to go back and ask yourself some real questions as to the meaning of each incident, and its context" (180). Taken to heart, this directive propels both of Bechdel's memoirs, and most of the time, the questions increase in complexity while answers dissolve into more questions. This type of narrative may not appeal to all readers, but the readers who pursue the questions with Bechdel are positioned by the book to raise similar inquiries about their own lives.
The need to analyze Bechdel's memories in relation to your own lingers long after the visit to the book is over. The questions of Are You My Mother? feel unresolved because they are fundamentally rhetorical, and because of that, the book provokes you to apply those questions to your own experience. In Fun Home, Bechdel cycles though the question of her father Bruce's life and death: "What, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, were Dad's thoughts about my thoughts about him, and his thoughts about my thoughts about his thoughts about me? He thought that I thought that he was a queer. Whereas he knew that I knew that he knew that I was too" (212). In the new memoir, Bechdel points these questions toward her mother but they remain universal —what do our parents think about our lives? What would they think about how we see their lives? And how do we ever get to a point where we stop questioning those imagined or actual responses? In Are You My Mother? Bechdel still asks, How do you write about being a daughter?, but this time, Helen responds where Bruce could not. Helen, the voracious reader, offers a quote by Dorothy Gallagher, "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) And yet, while the question is still universal, the compelling Bechdel story is still elusive despite how bravely explicit this book is. The question remains unanswered by both Alison and Helen: How do you write about being a daughter to a mother who was married to an angry, closeted man who may or may not have committed suicide when the mother asked for a divorce and the daughter announced her sexuality? The partial answer: You write about how hard it is to write about it. Carefully. Brilliantly.
Each of the seven chapters opens with a dream. Considering Bechdel's representation of her work with psychoanalysts, these dreams are a natural frame and signal immediately the internal focus of the book. Opening with the dream that Bechdel has before she tells her mother about the first book, the reader is immediately inside the drama yet held off from it. In stunningly rendered, page-sized scenes, the beginning of each chapter invites the reader to linger over the visual details, which, as in dreams, beg interpretation. The black background of the subsequent pages signals graphically the duration of the sleep produced illusion. Each chapter also ends with another single image set in a two-page spread that is thickly framed by the black background. These two elements —the dream and the framed image— connect graphically and provide the symbolic lexicon to Bechdel's narrative. Lynda Barry writes about the power of image in her book What It Is and suggests that one can begin the narration though a series of images which can tell the larger story such as in Bechdel's examination of the seven dreams. Bechdel bookends these dreams with the seven objects isolated with the black frames: a blinking word on a computer screen, the mother's hand that writes down the events of the day, a teddy bear with a ripped foot, an unanswered phone, the turned back of the mother, a double mirror, and ultimately, a mother playing with a child who pretends to be crippled. These images echo and refract the patches, webs, silence, words and artifice that permeate the rest of the narrative and bind the mother and daughter. As Barry might say, each image also has significant trouble behind it.
A narrative frame requires much from a reader, demands the ability to hold several threads and layers in mind simultaneously. Bechdel has adapted the frame to comics and on a graphic level illustrates the power of this particular literary form. On the textual level, the technical psychoanalytic writing of Winnicott, Miller, Freud and Jung is often juxtaposed with scenes of Alison and Helen interacting. The disjunction between the image and text purposefully holds the reader off, forces one outside of the emotional personal interaction, by providing commentary sometimes from one of these theorists, sometimes through quoted texts of Woolf or Rich. At times the commentary overwhelms the personal images. The effect is a little like switching the channel off and on or holding a hand to your eyes during a scary scene on television.
Although these juxtapositions can be problematic, they also create interesting dialogues within the narrative. One of the running threads of Are You My Mother? is Helen's discomfort with Alison's sexuality which seems to manifest in the mother's inability to ask Alison to talk about herself. Instead of speaking about her day, Alison listens to her mother and types what Helen says as they talk daily on the telephone. Bechdel depicts Alison essentially interviewing Helen while she types the resulting monologue into her computer. These scenes construct an odd parallel to the scenes of Alison's therapists taking notes and asking Alison about her life. If Helen does not ever ask Alison about her life, the therapists' main job is only to ask Alison about her life. The contrast between telephone calls with Helen and therapy sessions is complicated further when Alison describes her calls with Helen in her therapy session. Bechdel shows Alison explaining: "I always call her. She never calls me. I listen to her go on and on about people I don't know, I support her, encourage her. But she doesn't want to hear about my life. I know it is partly the lesbian thing. Like she's afraid if I get a word in edgewise, it'll be ‘cunnilingus.’ But it feels deeper than that. It's like I'm the mother" (62). The witty wordplay has no humor in the panels, because of the blank but attentive expression on the therapist's face. Ultimately, despite all the other kinds of financial and artistic support that Helen offers Alison, this rejection of the day-to-day details cuts deep. While Bechdel often uses text boxes to comment on ironic moments, she does not comment on the therapist's position in this scene as someone who also "listen[s] to her go on and on about people," "support[s] her, encourage[s] her" but, as the therapist, is never asked to talk about her own life. The question of the memoir's title Are You My Mother? has multiple interpretations and begins to collapse under the weight of the implicit question. In addition, both of these recurring situations —the daily one-way phone calls and the weekly one-way therapy sessions— are preceded by scenes that appear in both memoirs in which Helen and Bruce teach Alison to write a daily journal. If no one is there to ask you about your day, does a journal fulfill that role? As an idyllic alternative to the telephone or the therapist's couch, Bechdel draws the childhood journal scenes as intimate bedtime rituals where the parents attentively ask Alison about her day and record the events in a daybook. Entangled in Bechdel's text, journal and therapist become surrogates for parental attention. And a writer emerges.
The graphic density of Fun Home is repeated in Are You My Mother? where Bechdel again reproduces handwriting, newspaper clippings, typed letters, archival manuscripts, photographs, and pages from books too numerous to list. Bechdel's memoirs recreate her personal material archive, which lend a gravitas to the reconstructed conversations she depicts. Reading these images of other documents, the artifice is hidden in the details rendered. In her public events, Bechdel has spoken extensively about her method of recreating points of view through digital photography so that she can draw from herself as model. In Are You My Mother? she even documents this process, and depicts the artist staging one of the most emotional scenes of the book. The scene of Alison weeping on the telephone when her mother rejects her is followed just four pages later with Bechdel's illustration of how she staged the image in order to draw it (232). The documentation of the process serves the deeper veracity of the book's ambition to explore the truth of the story while calling attention to the impossibility of its reconstruction in art or archive.
As Fun Home documented the social history of both Alison's and Bruce's generational experience of homosexuality, Are You My Mother? positions Helen in relation to second wave feminists like Adrienne Rich. Growing up during the Depression and post-war era, as a young adult Helen does exceed some of the gender expectations of her time and attends college, apprentices in a Cleveland theater, and moves to New York to work as a secretary and write poetry. She has ambition to be an actress and has talent to match, but she starts dating Bruce and as Bechdel writes, "By the time The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, Mom was stuck at home with two small children. I guess I would have been pretty angry too" (172). Eventually Helen has a third child, but earns a master's degree, teaches high school, and continues to star in local productions at the community theater. In contrast to Rich's career, Bechdel implicitly suggests the effect that the era's complicated limits on women like Helen may have had. The dream which launches chapter five shows Alison climbing a mountain of ice, which has melted and shrunk significantly by the end of the dream. If the glacial mountain represents the gender limitations of Helen's generation, the long conversation between Alison and Helen that ends this chapter disintegrates also into an messy argument about regret, confessional poetry, privacy, and Alison's book about Helen's husband. The relation between narration and image breaks down dramatically in this section. Exposition boxes reproduce Winnicott's text that, using clinical language, jarringly explains child separation theory. Bechdel's images of Helen show her withdraw more and more and become passively hostile as she turns away from Alison and buries herself into the newspaper. The disjunction between these separate threads—and between the image and text— enact the gulf between generations and their choices, between mother and daughter.
Although focused on the experience of Bechdel's textual self almost as much as on Helen, the readers are invited into a contemplation of their own relationships. Do you raise questions about your childhood? Can you pinpoint the moment your mother stopped kissing you goodnight? How have these things influenced your own ideas about families or your romantic relationships? Our parents are sometimes the most familiar people in our lives as well as the most mysterious. Ultimately, through the book, the daughter is finally able to talk to the mother about her own life.
Although readers and critics may disagree about some of the subject matter of Bechdel's Are You My Mother?, Bechdel undeniably pushes the limits of the graphic narrative form. Her use of point of view, panel design, line, shading, and even color remain distinctly masterful and unique. Very few comics artists are working at this level of expertise. More than in Fun Home, Are You My Mother? depends on the subtlety of facial expressions for much of its dramatic emotional impact. Because the book as a whole is so recursive, the visual details included in the panels deserve a second reading since different features will diverge, change meaning, and resonate over the course of the book. The page-sized images and double-page spreads are exquisitely rendered and open the space for the reader to experience the image's significance. Linger over these rare, gorgeous pages.