Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama – Alison Bechdel
This heavy, unfocused, somewhat dreary “graphic memoir” (I suppose that must be the term) contains no actual story, unless you find plot and drama in the account of someone else’s largely uneventful psychoanalysis. It wasn’t uneventful for Bechdel, of course, but that is precisely the point. Bechdel makes quite clear in Are You My Mother? that she believes the specifics of individual suffering can be transformed by art into a universal message—a belief shared by thousands if not millions of other writers whose work similarly misfires.
Unfortunately, though that solipsistic strategy may be a necessary condition for certain kinds of creative writing, it is not a sufficient one, and Bechdel’s neurotic suffering remains essentially meaningless to anyone who isn’t Bechdel, as do the constant, intrusive snippets from Freud, Winnicott, Melanie Klein, Alice Miller, Adrienne Rich, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few. In fact, all that obsessive quoting (because you *must* understand, don’t you see, precisely what Bechdel was thinking about her relationship with her mother at every single moment in her various therapies) gives the project a sense more of commonplace book than of memoir, of bellybutton-gazing more than enlightenment, of a reflexive, not entirely consensual “sharing” of family minutiae more than of a careful writer’s judicious sifting of experience.
The “problem” of Bechdel’s fairly benign relationship with her fairly benign mother remains an entirely internal drama that Bechdel tries womanfully to render external (here’s the gist of it, and spoiler alerts aweigh: they have boundary issues). Her mother is not crazy or violent or blatantly neglectful enough to have been a monster or an eccentric; in fact, her major sins seem to have been two: first, she was a textbook narcissist and, second, she wasn’t wild about the idea of having a lesbian daughter. So, as they say, sue me.
What becomes painfully clear is that the extent to which Bechdel was counting on some sort of Tolstoyvian grace note to redeem this unfocused and occasionally incomprehensible memoir (on the theory that her unhappy mother-daughter relationship must have been uniquely unhappy, but it wasn’t; it was just normally unhappy). Alternatively, what may be true is that all the genuinely interesting family weirdness and psychopathology resided in her father—presumably closeted and presumed suicide—who is the subject of Bechdel’s fertile and rather brilliant Fun Home.
What Fun Home also had going for it, it’s worth saying, is that it was sweetly, ironically, bitingly funny; the lack of any discernible sense of humor circumscribes Are You My Mother? like a squall line, its subtitle (“A Comic Drama”) nothwithstanding. Perhaps that was only to be expected in a book that relies so heavily on quotations from those Katzenjammer Kids of psychology, Freud, Winnicott, and Miller but, with the possibly exception of Roth’s Portnoy, it’s also true that few writers have managed to pull off a full-length performance of neurosis. Turns out it’s a lot more interesting to be neurotic than it is to read about it.
Alison Bechdel is so smart and so talented and so young (as seasoned writers go; she’s barely in her fifties), and she’s only going to get better. Here’s hoping, with this book, that she’s finally gotten her family out of her system.