Books | Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

B.J. Epstein delves into the latest graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?, by the American cartoonist, Alison Bechdel.

First, a confession. After all, Alison Bechdel is very honest and open in her work, so perhaps a reviewer can be too. The truth is that I was prepared to love her latest graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? I’m a long-time fan of Bechdel’s and I teach her first graphic memoir, Fun Home, in my queer literature and theory course at the University of East Anglia. So in my own biased way, I was sure that whatever she produced, I’d enjoy reading it, and that is exactly what happened. While some readers might consider this book too solipsistic or therapy-based, there is nonetheless much to find entertaining and thought-provoking.

Whereas Bechdel’s long-running cartoon, Dykes to Watch Out For, focused on lesbians and worked against an essentialist, homogenised view of the queer community, and Fun Home looked at Bechdel’s relationship with her closeted father, Are You My Mother? is about her interactions with her mother. Bechdel’s mother had only a side role in Fun Home and seems to have had ambivalent feelings about being the star here, understandably enough.

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel review
Are You My Mother?
by Alison Bechdel
304pp, Jonathan Cape, £16.99

The book takes its title from the well-known picture book, where a newly hatched chick attempts to figure out who its mother is. Like that chick, Alison Bechdel has struggled with her relationship to her mother, to whom she is still tightly connected (by telephone wires if not by the umbilical cord). That struggle has included many years of therapy, some of which Bechdel portrays in the book, as well as in-depth study, or at least re-reading, of psychological and psychoanalytical works, including that by Donald Winnicott. In fact, Bechdel’s feelings for Winnicott run so deep that she seems to wish he were her mother, or at least that her mother had followed his suggestions for what a “good enough” mother should be.

Winnicott is just one of the many authors who Bechdel alludes to; literary allusions are frequent occurrences in her work, although not in the manner of a show-off, but rather because sometimes the work from which she quotes or to which she refers (Freud, Milne, Dr Seuss, Adrienne Rich, among others in this memoir) can explain what she is thinking or feeling. It also serves to help make the work bigger than Bechdel, which seems to have been a concern for her; though the book is very inward-looking, links to other thinkers contribute to readers feeling that they are able to think about their own parental and romantic relationships too. In an odd sense, through Bechdel’s therapy, then, the reader attends counselling too, and perhaps that means that Are You My Mother? is therapeutic to read.

In other words, Are You My Mother? manages to be both specific and universal, so that the book isn’t simply a therapeutic analysis of one woman’s relationship with her mother but rather explores parenting in a larger sense. Are children echoes or mirrors of their parents? If they are mirrors, does that mean they are in reverse? Can children parent themselves? And what does it mean if children end up parenting their parents? How does that affect them as adults? And can parents live through their children? If not, is it fair of them to resent what their children do and are? These are some of the larger questions that Bechdel ponders here.

The book is hard to put down. A reader somehow develops trust in Bechdel, at the way she puts herself under a microscope but also comes out from under her ‘plexiglass dome’, as she puts it. Her intelligence, humour, and talent are appealing. She takes herself seriously, but not narcissistically, and she uses her writing and drawing as both a way to explore the self and as an act of aggression (‘To be a subject is an act of aggression’ as Bechdel writes). For some, especially those in the lesbian community, Bechdel’s oeuvre serves as a transitional object, but for all readers, there is much to think about in Are You My Mother?