Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
For many artists, the sophomore effort can be more difficult than the first. After all, you’ve had years and years to put together your first piece, but now you’ve got to do it again, hopefully better, in a shorter span of time. Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? is not a traditional sophomore effort, considering the long-running Dykes to Watch Out For, but it is Bechdel’s second graphic memoir after Fun Home, whose deserved accolades put her on the mainstream map. The fact that it seems to be a matched set with the first memoir—one for her father, one for her mother—invites further comparison.
But the two are only tangentially related by their subjects. Bechdel’s relationship with her father was a finite thing, capped by his mysterious death. Thus limited, she could quantify their relationship, his life, and her life while living with him, examining it at all angles. But Bechdel’s mother is still alive. Their relationship cannot be resolved (or as stunningly unresolved as Bechdel’s relationship with her father), because it is not over. Bechdel does have plenty of unanswered questions about her mother, about her attitude towards homosexuality and her early relationship with Bechdel’s father, but there’s not much room to explore when you can ask the woman herself and, without too much drama, she provides the answers. This gives the graphic memoir a sprawling, loose, and vaguely unsatisfying structure, like reading a story without a proper ending.
So Are You My Mother? is not the mother version of Fun Home. Instead, the actual heart of the piece is Bechdel’s relation with therapy and her therapists, who, she theorizes, come to symbolize more perfect mother figures to her. Inspired by her therapy, she begins investigating the theories of Donald Winnicott, the British child psychoanalyst. Winnicott’s major theories are the theory of the false and true self and the theory of the transitional object. False selves, Winnicott argued, are created to protect the true self. Optimally, these false selves are things like being polite in company, but they can be damaging when a child feels that they can ever express their true self to that which validates their identity—their parent. Babies, of course, have no concept of their own individuality; they’re dependent wholly on their parents. Winnicott argues that babies see themselves and their parent as a whole, and transitional objects—like a teddy bear—help children as they grow to distinguish “me” and “not-me,” as well as an identity of their own.
Bechdel encounters these ideas in The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, and it’s easy to see why they appeal to not only Miller’s gifted (in the sense of sensitive) children, but also a queer audience. Queer children are so often told that they are in a phase or making things up or will grow out of it by their parents that it leaves us hesitant. We are taught that our true, queer self must be hidden by a false, straight self. Bechdel’s mother is uncomfortable with the fact that her daughter is using her real name for Dykes to Watch Out For; my own mother told me I’d grow out of it when I asked her, at twelve, if it was alright to have crushes on other girls. But, eventually, as it did for Bechdel and I, that true self must win out if you’re going to survive whole at all. That moment often coincides with realizing that your parent cannot give you everything you want. With realizing, at the same time, that you a person all to yourself and they are a person all to themselves, no matter how you began. What is past is not invalid because of this, but, at last, you must recognize that it is past.
Perhaps that is what growing up is.
Obviously, Are You My Mother? is a book that makes you reevaluate your own life through Bechdel’s therapy, both verbal and textual. One of her therapists states that Bechdel’s anxiety stems from her unconscious wanting to express pain about her childhood and her ego wanting to never reveal weakness. I promptly took notes for another way to punch my anxiety monster with cold, hard facts. But as theurapetic as that is, it doesn’t a story make. Instead, Are You My Mother? is a glimpse into Bechdel’s mind—the connections she makes, the way she looks at the world, the way she interacts with her mother. Bechdel, as always, is fearless and wry with both words and pictures, but this feels much more like journaling than a complete and coherent story. A little more Dykes to Watch Out For, if you please, which is by no means a bad thing, but also means that it’s a little less Fun Home.
Bottom line: Are You My Mother? is not the mother version of Fun Home—instead, it’s much more of a journaling experience than a coherent and complete story. It’ll make you reevaluate your own relationship with your parents, but that does not a memoir make. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.