“All I’ve ever written about is myself,” Bolton cartoonist Alison Bechdel tells Judith Thurman in her April 23 profile in the New Yorker, “and this book, if I finish it, may be the most solipsistic piece of insanity ever published.”
That’s quite a blurb. “This book” is Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, the follow-up to Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. It is both self-focused and insane (or, at least, insanely complex), and anyone who makes it through the first few pages will not be able to stop reading. Solipsistic or not, the author has a way of turning her obsessions into ours.
Bechdel’s first memoir was about her dead parent. Her second is about her living one — who is, if anything, a tougher subject. Early on, Bechdel depicts herself telling her therapist, “I can’t write this book until I get [my mother] out of my head.” “But,” she continues in the next panel, her hands waving in visible frustration, “the only way to get her out of my head is by writing the book!”
That scene epitomizes Are You My Mother?, which draws readers into the vortex of trying to grasp a relationship that is still evolving. It’s a work of remarkable density that, like therapy, often seems to have no proper beginning or end.
Had Bechdel told this story in text alone, it might quickly have become as tedious as reading a stranger’s dream journal peppered with erudite quotations. But her drawings transform convoluted thoughts into anecdotes of power and fleetness. Are You My Mother? is not a book one can or should race through; it is a book that intertwines itself with the reader’s own thoughts, struggles and dreams.
Bechdel layered the multiple narratives of Fun Home on a simple, compelling core: A prominent lesbian cartoonist remembers her father, who was a closeted gay man, a mortician and, quite possibly, a suicide. Are You My Mother? is harder to encapsulate. It’s a book about Bechdel’s mother, past and present — including Helen Bechdel’s reactions to the personal revelations in Fun Home. It’s a book about Donald Winnicott, the dead British psychoanalyst who Bechdel wishes were her mother. (This fantasy isn’t as bizarre as it sounds.) It’s a book about Bechdel’s years of therapy, in which her analysts, like Winnicott, become shadows of her mother. And it’s a book about the “talking cure” of psychoanalysis, a pursuit often dismissed these days as navel- gazing but once seen as a revolutionary route to a more honest life.
Bechdel revives that faith with no apologies. She quotes reams of theory. But she pairs it with pictures — not talking heads imprisoned in panels, but fluid series of images that jump cinematically from close-ups to wide shots or that transport us in a blink from continent to continent, decade to decade.
The author is a character in her own narrative, but so are Donald Winnicott and Virginia Woolf. She uses pictures as ironic commentaries on text and vice versa. She cuts through the recondite language of psychoanalysis and gives unruly life to concepts such as “mind-psyche.” That particular pathology, in which the mind declares its independence from the body, is illustrated with an image worthy of an EC horror comic: The child Alison envisions her severed head hooked up to life-support equipment while still proclaiming triumphantly, “Me!”
The body is what connects us to our mothers, the original life-support systems. But mothers are, of course, also people with minds and opinions, and those of Bechdel’s mother give the book its tart, necessary counterpoint. Are You My Mother? begins with Bechdel struggling with the prospect of telling her mother she’s writing a book about her father, then leaps forward in time to show her struggling with this book. Throughout this decade-long process, Helen Bechdel’s attitude remains constant: She will not oppose her daughter’s autobiographical projects, but she will not pretend to like them. And she will suggest archly that she thinks personal truths are best revealed under the camouflage of fiction: “Some things are private.”
Why should an adult, much less a prize-winning artist, crave her mother’s approval? That’s where Winnicott comes in. A pioneer of object-relations theory, he described the child’s relationship with the mother as a template for all relationships to come, including that of patient to analyst. To accept ourselves, Bechdel argues, we must first confront the images of ourselves we glimpsed early on in our mother’s eyes.
Those mental images have a transformative power — and so do cartoons. Before comics became respectable, they were often equated with the dumbing down of literature. But illustrations don’t always simplify a story; on the contrary, they can give it unexpected dimensions of pathos, horror and humor. That’s what Bechdel has done with this book, which is at once Psychoanalytic Classics Illustrated and a deeply personal chronicle of coming to terms with the beloved people who refuse to get “out of our heads.” By the end of the book, its protagonist may seem like a member of our own family.