Few secrets are left unexplored in Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel‘s new graphic memoir about her frayed relationship with her mother, Helen. Bechdel’s first memoir, Fun Home, focused on the suicide of her closeted father, Bruce; Helen was little more than a disengaged figure in that book, heavily burdened by her husband’s secret. Are You My Mother? puts her center stage—while at the same time giving us Bechdel herself stripped bare and truly fearless.
Bechdel introduces her relationship with Helen in the first few pages, with a sequence that strikes a brilliant balance between illustration and text. The stilted dialogue certainly denotes a difficult relationship, but the drawings illuminate an even greater gulf between mother and daughter. Bechdel prepares to tell Helen about Fun Home and recites possible ways to break the news (“I have something to tell you. Mom, I want to tell you something” ). When Bechdel finally spits it out, Helen responds, “I can’t help you. You’re on your own.” Throughout the conversation, Bechdel illustrates herself staring nervously and longingly at Helen, who intentionally avoids her gaze.
Bechdel observes her world in exacting detail, capturing everything from phone conversations to discoveries made on her therapist’s couch. She moves seamlessly back and forth in time as she revisits childhood memories, past relationships, and readings from Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich—and often ties her experiences up together during conversations with Helen. Bechdel’s discussions can seem uneventful, her therapy sessions tiresome. The book certainly has its self-indulgent moments. But celebrating the ordinary is also what makes Bechdel brilliant. There’s no posturing, no earth-shattering plot twist. Just pieces of Bechdel’s world.
Much of the book focuses on Bechdel’s discovery of—and obsession with—psychoanalysis. Throughout, she explores her past with new insights culled from Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and, most of all, English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Some of Winnicott’s language is hard to digest, but Bechdel uses her medium to breathe energy into the text.
Among Winnicott’s more renowned theories, for instance, is that of the “good-enough mother,” who initially adapts to her baby’s needs but gradually stops doing so as the baby matures. Before explaining the theory, Bechdel tells us that Helen stopped nursing her at a very young age; she suggests that the early weaning opened a lifelong fissure between her and her mother. “I don’t think it’s going too far to claim that our ‘failure’ must have been deeply frustrating for both of us,” she writes. “Or even that a pattern of mutual preemptive rejection could have been set in motion, each of us withholding in order to foreclose future rejection.” Then she pairs her actual discussion of the good-enough mother with a drawing of young Helen feeding her with a bottle. The juxtaposition of a theoretical insight with an accessible image makes both vivid.
Bechdel also spends much of Are You My Mother? puzzling through her relationship with one of her ex-girlfriends, Eloise. And again the tension between word and image tells all: while Bechdel’s textual account of the affair is often clinical, her frames disclose a mercurial, intense connection. She may write, drily, that “Eloise was at least as ambivalent as I was about intimacy, which gave our courtship a certain compelling urgency,” but the pictures depicting their relationship are poignant and full of (literally) naked tenderness.
Bechdel’s struggle with ambivalence permeates Are You My Mother? She portrays herself as constantly negotiating between her desire for love and her self-destructive inability to embrace it. Her therapist calls attention to the problem, telling Bechdel that although she “wanted a positive mother figure. . . . the feeling that you were bad was still a part of you, so you got other people to confirm it.” That insight touches on what seems to be Bechdel’s motivation for writing Are You My Mother? Ultimately, the book is Bechdel’s attempt to understand and articulate her own contradictions.
Are You My Mother? closes with an affecting reference to Fun Home. The earlier book features a childhood game: Bechdel’s doomed father is shown lying on his back on the floor, balancing her small body over his torso and playing “Airplane” with her. In contrast, Are You My Mother? ends with a game Bechdel calls “Crippled Child.” She’d go limp, pretending to be unable to walk, and Helen would help her stand up. “Airplane” foreshadows the tragic collapse of Bechdel’s father; “Crippled Child,” ironically, conveys that something or someone can be mended.