If there’s one comic from Alison Bechdel’s illustrious Dykes to Watch Out For that’s spoken to me, it’s the “The Long War” of 2006. In it, a couple — Mo and Sydney — attends therapy to discuss Sydney’s habit of being too cerebral, too stuck in her own head for the good of the relationship. When the therapist predictably asks Sydney (a college professor) how she feels about that, she replies in earnest, “I feel sort of discursively dispersed, you know? Decentered, untheorized… even a tad hyphenated.”
The scene’s stuck with me over time because, well, it’s funny, first of all. Also, I’m sure I confuse intellect with feelings sometimes (a trait that probably doesn’t help me much at parties). But mainly, it planted this rude notion in me: the idea that Bechdel herself has heard some therapy-speak in her lifetime — typical things like, “Try to be present in your body,” “What are you feeling?” and the obvious classic, “Tell me about your mother.”
Bechdel’s new memoir, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, essentially splays her therapy notes on the table — along with fiercely academic clips from the likes of Virginia Woolf, Donald Winnicott, Sigmund Freud, and Alice Miller — in order to portray her relationship with her mom. It’s all quite a process. “I’ve been in therapy for nearly my entire adult life,” she writes near the beginning, “and have not laid my deeply felt emotions about my mother to rest.”
Like her previous memoir about her father — the acclaimed and prismatic Fun Home — this new book blends textbook academia, beautifully emotive drawings, and generous confessions to find some familial recovery after years of discord. In Fun Home, she found common ground with her closeted gay father as she discovered her own lesbian identity, and the book ended with a sweetly satisfying conclusion.
What’s different (and tricky) about Are You My Mother? is that Alison has a more superficial relationship with Helen. Hence, instead of witnessing a growing bond between mother and daughter, readers watch Alison make the best of the hand she’s been dealt. It’s less about unity and more about the artist’s struggle to become her own person, even if that means disappointing (or betraying) Helen; it’s about deepening their intellectual bond and readjusting expectations about the emotional stuff. In other words, it’s harder to cheer.
Maybe that’s why Bechdel enhanced the book with reflections on making Fun Home and the nature of memoir itself. Because even more than in Fun Home, Are You My Mother? is about the mind (and self, and failure to connect), so the self-consciously “meta” quality is so apt here. It’s a smart move, but one that doesn’t necessarily catch the artist in her best light. After all, Are You My Mother? begins with Alison preparing to drop a serious bomb on Helen: the news that she’s writing the book about her father, one that will expose his sexuality, infidelity, combativeness, and possible suicide, all insinuating that Helen’s marriage was basically a sham.
It’s just the kind of wild betrayal critics cite when slamming memoir as a genre. Why would a daughter expose her parents’ private life that way? Is it anger, narcissism, opportunism? And is the story even “true”?
Bechdel confronts those issues head-on, and even within the first five pages of the book, she calls herself “self-indulgent” and “solipsistic” with the vaguely crazy eyes of a person deep in her own head. And while that honesty is necessary, it creates another challenge: she compromises likability as a character by exposing that ambitious, needy side.
In past self-portraits (in Fun Home and the introduction to The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For), Alison-as-a-character comes across as endearingly neurotic and voraciously curious, a natural achiever but still an affable slacker, reclined languidly with a bong or her latest girlfriend when she isn’t plowing through stacks of library books. In Are You My Mother?, she’s a jealous, competitive perfectionist. Even her childhood bed has a toy snake draped over the headboard.
Of course, there are reasons for all that. Like everyone in therapy, she has issues to explore, and that journey to self-discovery, to the source of her anxiety, is where the story lies. It really is a vague and mental story, too, like a Virginia Woolf novel conveying life itself going on; “autobiography it might be called,” as Woolf wrote in A Writer’s Diary. It’s a long war — with herself, her significant others, her therapists, and naturally, with her mother.
As for the mother in question, Helen Bechdel is drawn as a smart, productive go-getter, to be sure. But she disappoints, as mothers do. In an early scene, Alison calls Helen sometime after Fun Home was published, and Helen describes an article in The New Yorker about “inaccuracy, exhibitionism, narcissism, those fake memoirs.” Helen says it was written by Daniel Mendelsohn and throws in, “Isn’t he the one who beat you for that prize?”
That scene echoes in various forms throughout the book. Helen gushes about journalist Norah Vincent (whose views oppose Alison’s) and emphasizes how smart Vincent is. Helen asks Alison not to put her name on her lesbian comics to avoid family embarrassment. It’s tempting to assume Helen is just homophobic, and that’s the source of the rift that fuels the novel. But the kicker in those previous scenes is that Mendelsohn and Vincent — the writers who trump Alison in Helen’s view — are both gay themselves.
Then there are the stranger, darker rejections between mother and daughter. Namely, Helen stops kissing Alison goodnight when the child is just seven years old. As an adult, Alison sifts through texts (most valuably Winnicott’s psychoanalysis) and family relics, searching for clues. Maybe it was depression, she reasons, or the birth of a new child, or more likely, a deeply ingrained lesson about the importance (or lack thereof) of daughters.
The therapeutic and feminist answer might be for Alison to just, you know, get in touch with her anger about all this. But that isn’t easy for the sensitive writer. On the other hand, conventional decency would frown on writing memoirs about parents. But that’s not fair, either — she needs to make a living, follow her calling, and pay what I assume are enormous therapy bills.
So Are You My Mother? performs quite a tightrope act, managing to be both violently honest (as far as I know) without destroying Alison’s relationship with her mother (also as far as I know) or compromising the integrity of the story. She doesn’t get angry in a conventionally expressive way, but even the act of writing lets her throw some elbows, and not just at her mother. Alison surely took inspiration from Mendelsohn’s article about “those fake memoirs” to write this book, and with a few brushstrokes, she reduced the physically intimidating Norah Vincent to a girly beach bum. No doubt, writing the memoir is an act of aggression — but better out than in, right?
Incidentally, I stumbled on Mendelsohn’s January 2010 New Yorker article while weeding magazines from my home bookshelf. (It was a chance and creepy coincidence, hand to God.) In “But Enough About Me”, Mendelsohn sites Freud’s claim that “what makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity,” because it’s hard to measure the truth about a person’s interior life. But the audience needs memoirs be “true” (or as objective as possible) so we can believe in the redemption that comes at the end, when the alcoholic recovers or the family reunites, or whatever hopeful nugget the happy ending brings. We want the author to tell us it gets better.
So, do the Bechdel women redeem themselves in Are You My Mother? In some ways, yes, although it’s kind of unnecessary. No one’s right or wrong here — just different, and hurting, and slowly recognizing their unmet needs. Helen may not give Alison what she longs for, but it’s clear she gives everything she has. Alison takes it all — everything she can get from her mother — and adds it to her reserves as she continues on the path to discovery, of the self and otherwise. Like the act of writing itself, it’s a long and messy process.
As far as truthfulness goes, Bechdel certainly does the research to justify her version of the truth; she pulls up letters, family photos, and journal entries to support her interpretation. Any “mendacity” here might be irrelevant, anyway. In Are You My Mother?, the memoir isn’t a model of redemption so much as a vehicle for it, and it’s a brilliant one, at that.