I’ll get straight to the point: Alison Bechdel’s new graphic memoir, Are You My Mother, is absolutely brilliant and you should go to your local bookstore today (its release date) and buy a copy.
Are You My Mother is an existential exploration of Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her mother and the way her childhood informed the person that she is today. To frame the narrative, Bechdel relies on different sources of information: memory; rendered photographs; present-day conversations with her mother; archived letters from the early years of her parents’ fraught marriage; transformative sessions with a therapist that Bechdel forms an immediate and intense bond with; and, details from the life and work of Donald Winnicott, a twentieth-century psychoanalyst who focused much of his analysis on the relationship between mothers and their children.
From 1983 to 2008, Bechdel published the cartoon series Dykes to Watch Out For, an original comic strip about a group of mostly queer women that Ms. magazine called “one of the preeminent oeuves in the comic genre, period.” In 2006 Bechdel published the graphic memoir Fun Home about her father — his life and his death. The book also focuses on Bechdel’s childhood and, in particular, her coming of age and realization that not only is she gay, but that her difficult and distant father is bisexual. The book was an unexpected literary hit that thrust Bechdel into the mainstream and landed her on the New York Times bestseller list.
Are You My Mother opens with an epigraph by Virginia Woolf that echoes Bechdel’s ability to weave a layered narrative and to see far beneath the surface: “For nothing was simply one thing.” The book offers a background look into the years that led up to Bechdel’s writing Fun Home and the impact that publishing those intimate details of her family life had on her already tenuous relationship with her mother, a bright, artistic woman who struggled under the shadow of a closeted husband.
Bechdel examines her complicated relationship with her mother through significant childhood moments, like the time her mother decided that at seven she was now too old to be hugged. As an adult, Bechdel continues to search for validation from her mother and often projects this need and expectation onto her therapist.
Are You My Mother is divided into chapters based on Winnicott’s psychoanalytic theories, including “The Ordinary Devoted Mother,” “Transitional Objects,” “True and False Self,” and “The Use of an Object.” Each chapter begins with a dream sequence that Bechdel then connects seamlessly and ingeniously to a story about her mother and to Winnicot. Bechdel also uses anecdotes from Woolf’s diaries and the novel To The Lighthouse to further examine her family life, anxiety, insecurity and creative process.
Bechdel is a skilled and endearing storyteller. When her beloved therapist crosses a boundary and tells her that she’s adorable — you can understand why. In one conversation, Bechdel’s mother indirectly links her to writers who can’t get beyond writing “about themselves,” and Bechdel defends memoir as a genre by asking the question, “Can’t you be more universal by being specific?”
The answer is, of course, yes. And this is exactly what Bechdel accomplishes in Are You My Mother. She delves deep into her psyche to reveal who she is as a daughter, an artist, a lover, and, in the end, an individual. I can’t imagine a reader who couldn’t learn something about him or herself in reading this book.