In 2006, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a melancholy and devastatingly honest memoir about her father’s life and death, garnered incredible praise and acclaim and pushed the boundaries of what readers expected from the genre of graphic novels. Six years later, in Bechdel’s newest book, Are You My Mother?, she examines her relationship with her mother, the woman who was left behind when her father (maybe, probably) killed himself in Bechdel’s 20s. Bechdel’s mother is still living, making the process of writing about her a complicated and recursive process. In that way, especially compared to Fun Home, the telling of which seems to be made possible largely by her father’s tragic and, in some ways, disloyal death, it seems almost like an impossible project. But it’s clear that it was an important one for Bechdel, all-consuming even, and we watch her relationship with her mother and her own preoccupation with it develop in unexpected and deeply affecting ways.
There are two things that are universally acknowledged as boring to write about: therapy sessions and dreams. Are You My Mother? deals heavily in both. But whereas explanations of therapy and dreams usually work to try to cheat at narration, to bring the reader to the same sense of epiphany that the writer experienced in the shortest distance necessary, AYMM deals with them differently. Much as in real life, therapy and dreams aren’t avenues to instant answers; they’re part of a story about the work one puts into finding answers, and about how hard it is to ask yourself the necessary questions. Whereas Fun Home was lent something of a natural ‘arc’ by her father’s death — at the beginning of the story he was alive, and by the end he wasn’t — there isn’t as much of an intuitive structure to an endeavor like AYMM, which Bechdel (and her mother) aptly refer to as a “metabook.” So in lieu of what we would traditionally call a “story,” the book sometimes feels like a therapy session, or like a dream. The narrative loops back upon itself, obsesses over the same symbols and anecdotes over and over, and takes time to linger upon its own preoccupations. Like in the world of a dream, nothing is really linear; things happen simultaneously, and the distinctions between characters blur; Bechdel associates herself with Virginia Woolf, and Victorian psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott is conflated with her mother, as well as being referenced to her therapist, who’s compared to her other therapist, who’s maybe also her mother. Are you following?
It would be forgivable if you weren’t; the book moves between the past and present, reality and dream world, her own life and those of Virginia Woolf and Donald Winnicott, and musings on her relationship with Bechdel’s mother interspersed with actual conversations with her mother about the content of the book as it was being written. These last sections, the ones in which Bechdel depicts herself trying to negotiate the book she’s writing about her mother with her mother, are in some ways the most gripping; the fact that they were happening in the moment of writing gives them a kind of urgency that the rest of the book, with its ouroborous of a narrative, doesn’t always have. When Bechdel’s mother pointedly asserts her disdain for the entire genre of memoir, and Bechdel (well aware of the context of her mother’s disapproval) offers “Yeah, but don’t you think that… that if you write minutely and rigorously enough about your own life… you can, you know, transcend your particular self?” it carries the particular kind of very honest and very sad resonance that is only achieved by writing minutely and rigorously about your own life in the truest way you can.
Women who have dared to write about their own lives have often faced backlash — been called navelgazing, self-absorbed, petty, or just boring. Women who have dared to write about their personal lives have also faced consequences within their personal lives, with the loved ones whose names have appeared on the page feeling hurt and slandered, and understandably so. Emily Gould comes to mind — she spoke about the conflict it caused with her own mother when her book of essays, And the Heart Says Whatever, came out.
But we come up against over and over again this problem of, I want to be able to apologize to her in a way that is meaningful. And it is really hard to accept the apology of someone who is essentially saying, “I apologize to you for this thing that I may well do again.” Yeah. That’s a really tall order for my mom. …my mother will also say things to me – like, she has told me that she thinks that when we talk to each other, that I am constantly sitting outside the conversation observing it and mining our interactions for material, and this is not the case. I understand why she would think that. It is totally a natural thing to think, but I feel so insulted by it because on the one hand she is telling me “I do not trust you.” Which, okay.
(It seems worth noting that Bechdel was, in fact, taking notes on many of the conversations she had with her mother over the course of writing this book, writing down the content of their talks on the phone almost verbatim as to be able to reference them later.)
As many reviewers of this book have (accurately) observed, the relationship between women and their mothers is something that’s of enormous significance in many of our lives, and more than worth a book. But it’s also an undertaking that can potentially change that relationship forever, and be very painful to both parties. Which is perhaps the greatest success of AYMM; rather than attempting to gracefully sweep that weird and complicated reckoning under the rug, it foregrounds it. We watch the awkward, stilted attempts on both Bechdel and her mother’s part at dealing with the fact of this book, and see that there are some things that can’t be made okay by mother/daughter love, and see that on the whole, mother/daughter love is way too deep and tangled to be encompassed or conquered by a book. And that’s enormously important to see in women’s writing, I think. Because if you can’t talk about the act of trying to talk about it, then it’s hard to be as honest as you need to be to say something worth reading.
Critics haven’t necessarily responded particularly well to the book’s premise or its approach to narrative; the Guardian review “Psychology boils away the particulars of individual experience to arrive at abstract generalities,” and the LA Times said that “…she does an unwieldy dance around these issues, over-intellectualizing her story, relying on extended interior or critical monologues at moments when narrative alone, she seems to feel, will not suffice.” Which some readers will indubitably find to be true. But what some critics perhaps fail to take into account is the project of writing minutely and rigorously enough about your own life to transcend the particular self. Because truly Are You My Mother? isn’t just about this narrative, or about the particular self of Bechdel or her mother; it’s about how hard it was for Bechdel’s mother to have this book written and why, despite how much she wanted to avoid hurting her mother, Bechdel was so driven to do it anyways. It’s about why we circle back and obsess endlessly about our parents, both in therapy and in our lives. It’s about the part of growing up that is giving up on getting exactly what you wanted out of a person you love so that you can move on with your life. It’s a book about why we write books like this; more specifically, about why women tell these stories and ask these kinds of questions out loud despite the legitimate personal and professional risks it may entail. Which seems, inarguably, a story worth telling.