On Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?

Alison Bechdel is a great cartoonist. She has been doing important work on the visibility of lesbians for decades, and achieved massive success with 2006’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. She has recently returned to longform graphic novel form (I hate that term, but I think Bechdel is well-described that way) in Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama.

On the surface, AYMM? is a continuation of Fun Home‘s project. Whereas the latter was an  analysis of Bechdel’s often difficult relationships with her closeted father, AYMM? applies the same distant-yet-personal lens to her mother. The lensing that occurs in the construction of the work is important–we are seeing a world interpreted through Bechdel, but also bigger in some way, playing at infinite connections into the past. These connections, mostly to modern writers and early 20th century psychologists, provide a grounding theoretical base for Bechdel to interpret her familial relationships through. In Fun Home it was Proust, Homer, and James’ Portrait of a Lady. In AYMM? it is Woolf, Winnicott, and the cadre of 20th century interpreters of the mind. All of these serve to distance both Bechdel and the reader from the events that are happening on the page–we are often shown solitary moments in overcoded with quotes from various authors. They are interpretations, ways of understanding the complexity of the moment that is occurring–it seems that Bechdel is asserting the that only possible thing we can do is look outside the experience for meaning, for an interpreter that pulls it all together.

And this is why, at the end of the day, I don’t like Are You My Mother? It is, as her mother puts it, a “metabook.” It is a book about the writing of a book. The nature of Bechdel’s metabook is so deeply entrenched in her own attempts to psychoanalyze herself that I can’t see around it. There are a number of pages in the work that are dedicated to drawn out sessions with therapists or psychological textbooks–they dominate the visual landscape as well, with dreams and visual depictions of Winnicott’s experiments and life being more analyzed and talked about than Bechdel’s actual relationship with her mother. Ultimately, I believe that it is deeply fragmented and rushed–it is a book written because, contractually, she had to write a book. Without the conflicts and unanswerable questions of Fun HomeAYMM? feels like a pale imitation of former work.

Lee Konstantinou, writing for The New Inquiry, addresses the metabook as well, saying that

The difference between writing about getting hit by a truck and writing about the symbolism of almost getting hit by a truck — the difference between a literal and figurative “brush with death” — is the perfect emblem of the difference between Fun Home and Are You My Mother? In Fun Home, the truck hits Alison’s father, motivating a sort of illustrated detective story, an inquiry into whether his death was a suicide or an accident. By contrast, Are You My Mother? insists on being a metabook, telling the story of how writing Fun Home affected Bechdel’s relationship with her mother alongside the story of her struggle to write the new book.

And we are in agreement here, though I certainly don’t think that Bechdel pulls it off “masterfully.” Konstantinou goes on to explain that the book shines as a work attempting to find its own form, and that a search for the center, for something unifying, is reflected in a number of different ways, most particularly in Bechdel’s constant psychoanalysis. However, I have read enough autobiographical comics to recognize when these things come together and when they don’t–David B.’s Epileptic manages to tell a difficult story about his still-living brother while maintaining a narrative center; Chester Brown and Joe Matt do this as well.

SIDE NOTE: Konstantinou ends the review this way: “Comics combine the urgency of the image with the intimacy of the page, the concreteness of the object with the fluidity of the subject.” I have no idea why this is true or what it means. I certainly don’t think it applies to most comics. What about Milk and Cheese?

I will admit that there are probably simply biographical issues that prevent me from accessing certain parts of a book–I have no personal experience with being a lesbian with a disapproving mother, a struggling cartoonist, or someone who has gone through psychoanalysis. I imagine that, for those who have undergone those struggles, that this book is important–it is an acknowledgement of those issues in a very public way, which is very much needed.

There are also beautiful moments in the text–terrible moments of indecision, of opaqueness between a mother and a daughter that Bechdel is very clearly attempting to puzzle out in front of us. Those are the moments when the book is shining. For example, there is a moment where Alison’s mother asks her point-blank is she loves her. Bechdel, a child, simply stands awe-struck for a moment, a full-page spread in a book full of cramped pages. Later in the book, her mother is on stage in a play, being far more authentic and open than we have ever seen her with her own daughter. Who is this person? we ask ourselves, and in these moments, I understand why Bechdel had to write the book.

But those moments are few and far between, and the self-indulgent writing often gets in the way of these authentic-feeling moments. I think that Bechdel is an amazing artist and writer. I think she is one of the most important creators working in comics today. I do not think Are You My Mother? is a good comic.

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2 Responses to On Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?

  1. Thanks for this insightful blog post–though obviously we disagree on whether Bechdel is successful with her book. To address the quote you mention, my point was that comics can combine the visual urgency or immediacy of (say) film, because it uses specific images, with the intimacy and privacy of holding a book in front of your nose. Another way of putting it is that comics can be especially good at combining what a character is thinking (the subjective) with exterior or external action (the objective). Not sure if putting it that way makes it clearer.

    • kunzelman says:

      Thanks for the response and clarification on the quote! I’m not super big on subject/object binaries, but I understand where you are coming from. Do you write more broadly on comics in other places or is Bechdel a specific kind of pleasure?

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