Esther Lee

Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama

Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama.. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). Hardcover, 304 pages/$22.00.

I recently overheard a young woman say to a friend, “My mother thought that coming to my events when I was a kid was enough. She thought she was present. She was but she wasn’t at the same time.” Like this woman, most of us have probably felt, at one point or another, deeply conflicted about our mothers, that the narratives involving our mothers may have included heartbreaking disappointment or betrayal, as well as unparalleled moments of support and tenderness.

In her graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, Alison Bechdel unearths her multifarious feelings about her own mother—a once-aspiring actress of deadpan humor and sometimes inscrutable interiority—who later helped Bechdel’s father manage a funeral home in rural Pennsylvania. To illuminate familial dynamics, Bechdel navigates brambly, emotional terrains and reveals the ever-tenuous, ongoing negotations she has with her mother. While doing so, her work implicitly asks: In what ways are we shaped by these interactions with our mothers, and from where do these familiar mother-daughter plots arise? Is it possible for us to recognize the family romances that we unwittingly perpetuate and, in particular, how might we re-imagine those family narratives that have deeply affected our sense of selfhood?

Imbued on every page, a poignant meta-narrative about the difficulties and paradoxes of writing a memoir emerges, underscored by Bechdel’s central dilemma of writing and illustrating the text: “the real problem with this memoir about my mother is that it has no beginning.” As a result, Bechdel’s story avoids any easy pinpointing of causality, finger-pointing with blame, or predictable chronological structure. Her collage-like story aims for something beyond tidy happy endings or simple catharsis, instead searching for “mutual cathexis” between mother and daughter wherein they can recognize each other’s invisible wounds.

Fans of Bechdel’s previous graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic—about her closeted gay father who is later suspected of committing suicide—will likely admire this sequel for its familiar portrayal of a narrator endearingly racked with self-doubt and self-deprecating humor (“You smarmy, self-indulgent, solipsistic piece of shit.”). Bechdel creates a painstaking and comical portrait about the intimacies of family relationships. Her cartoon version of herself is obsessive-compulsive with “a tendency to edit [her] thoughts before they even t[ake] shape.” As if this weren’t enough for one author to handle, Bechdel focuses on the troubled bond with her mother, who is not only very much alive and full of critical commentary, but she also offers Bechdel at best a “mixed blessing” for the memoir, a genre she considers “suspect.”

Influenced by a host of literary heroes, ranging from Sigmund Freud and Adrienne Rich, to Dr. Seuss and Alice Miller, Bechdel is most notably obsessed with the British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott, a pioneer of Object Relations Theory who argued that “the particular way we relate to objects—indeed, the way we relate to the entire outside world—is determined.” Each chapter is titled and framed around a particular Winnicottian concept while Bechdel also incorporates Freudian dream interpretation and psychoanalysis, lenses through which she analyzes former love affairs and therapy sessions, as well as conversations with her mother. In this pastiche of beloved sources, Virginia Woolf looms as another literary godparent. Bechdel lovingly scours and folds in Woolf’s diary passages about the cathartic relief she felt after writing To the Lighthouse: “when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother.” Subsequently, Bechdel writes about the challenges of laying her own mother to rest: “I can’t write this book until I get her out of my head. But the only way to get her out of my head is by writing the book! It’s a paradox.”

Bechdel’s stunning illustrations—monochrome in color with red accents—reveals her incredible ability to render facial expressions, subtle body language, and meaningful subtext with an acute, cinematic eye. Curiously, within this melange of visual storytelling, Bechdel reflects on another medium, that of photography. Allusions to photographic technique and illustrations of photos and cameras are everywhere: Bechdel using a camera to photograph her work; framed portraits in the background; drawn ‘snapshots’ of computer screens, book passages, letters, journals; and newspaper clippings baring photographs of her mother and grandparents.

At one point, Bechdel analyzes a particular photograph from her childhood and, in a Barthian sense, scrutinizes a photo of her mother taken on the day of her first communion: “She’s dark, pale, shy. All the things I disliked about my own appearance.” Later, we see a panel of Bechdel crying but then, in an adjacent panel, the image is almost identical, but with a digital camera in the foreground, its LCD screen documenting what we now learn is a recreated memory.

Another nod to photography—and one of the most moving sections of the book— occurs at the end of the first chapter. A double-page spread features a masterful collage that primarily consists of six snapshots in illustrated form. Each reproduced ‘photo’ in the sequence reveals Bechdel as a three-month-old infant, held by her mother whose facial expressions she presumably mimicks. Bechdel admits that she doesn’t have the negatives to confirm the order the photos were taken, but explains that

I’ve arranged them according to my own narrative .... In my arrangement of these photos, the rapport between mom and me builds until I shriek with joy. Then the moment is shattered as I notice the man with the camera. At three months, I had seen enough of my father’s rages to be wary of him.

On removing the book’s dust jacket, you can discover two more surprising illustrations that explore photography and the complex nature of memory. The front and back covers feature drawings of a young girl staring apprehensively as she is photographed by an older female figure. We are prompted to ask: Who is the young girl? Who is the photographer? What is their relationship? What is the occasion for the photograph? Can we assume that the young girl represents Bechdel?

There are, however, no captions or background information that accompany the illustrations and, therefore, no particular narrative is imposed, but rather, we are compelled to use our own imagination to fill in the blanks, to create our own narrative. The text, literally bookended with an image of someone being photographed, serves as a reminder of how traditional sources of historical authority (i.e. photography, maps, etc.) are intimately— and problematically—connected to memory-making and notions of truth. Here, and throughout the memoir, Bechdel enacts what is most fascinating about memory. She illustrates how our imagination is crucial to how we interpret the evidence of our lives and, therefore, how malleable and subjective one’s own history can be.