Alison Bechdel's Sad, Funny, Sprawling Graphic Memoir

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With Are You My Mother?, the writer examines her past, using journal entries, psychological theories, and her own memories.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Virginia Woolf held that there are two kinds of truth: reason and imagination. "The biographer cannot extract the atom," she wrote. Fiction tells elemental truths; biography is just "the husk."

But if you're a lifelong documentarian of your own universe—say, a person compelled to transcribe phone calls with your own mother—there's a particular, true tale that wants telling. No James Frey or Mike Daisey embroidering required.

"I personally feel like it's impossible to tell a better story than the actual truth," says author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel, whose new memoir, Are You My Mother?, comes out today. "I want to believe that you can objectively quant the facts of your life that adds up to something, without fictional embellishment. I find better stories digging around in the archives and records of my life than I could possibly manufacture."

Bechdel's sprawling, searching book is an attempt to make sense of her relationship with her mother, a brilliant, sometimes unreachable woman who stopped kissing her only daughter goodnight at age 7. (It takes its title from P.D. Eastman's 1960 children's book about a little, lost bird.) It is an intensely personal, specific story, but Bechdel's imaginative narrative techniques make it easily as compelling as any fiction.

The book follows up 2006's critically acclaimed Fun Home, which explored Bechdel's relationship with her father, a closeted gay man who committed suicide when she was in college. Told through the minutely detailed comic-book frames that are Bechdel's trademark—she drew the cult serial strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" for 25 years—neither book can accurately be called a graphic novel. That would imply fiction, and both stories are fastidiously preoccupied with truth, backed up with diary entries, family photographs, and other artifacts.

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The comic medium allows Bechdel to weave primary sources into Are You My Mother with a cinematic efficiency—enabling her to flash back to her childhood, to memories of first loves, and into dream sequences jotted down in journals. Its stylistic flexibility accommodates more layers than any straight documentary or prose memoir could support. Text excerpts from a long list of works create a kind of meta-story as Bechdel lays out her life. She is always reading, pulling bits of insight gleaned from a tall stack of poets, novelists, and psychologists—particularly Woolf and Donald Winnicott, a pioneer of modern child psychology.

"I see that perhaps the real problem with this memoir about my mother is that it has no beginning," Bechdel writes early in the book. "I was an egg inside my mother when she was still an egg inside her mother, and so forth and so on." The undergirding truth of this deceptively complex comic is—as Winnicott writes in an essay Bechdel references in the book—that "at the very beginning, everyone was dependent on a woman."

One of the book's most visually arresting frames is a full-page infographic illustrating Winnicott's "object relations theory," the idea that an infant is merely the sum reflection of its caretakers. In Bechdel's case, those caretakers were her mother, longtime therapists Jocelyn and Carol, and her ex-girlfriends Eloise, Donna, Diane, Amy, and Holly. Their faces smile up from their respective spots on a bar graph, their influence and love scientifically quantified.

Still, it's Helen Bechdel's mothering that's put on display here, just a few years after having her marriage and the death of her husband similarly opened to public view by her daughter. Her unease about the project seems to stem more from a distaste for the genre of memoir than the invasion of privacy: "The self has no place in good writing," she tells Bechdel at one point. "Wallace Stevens wrote transcendent poetry, and he never used the word I."

At one point, she calls her daughter to direct her to an essay in the New Yorker by Daniel Mendelsohn. (Or, as she calls him, "the one who beat you out for that prize." Mendelsohn's memoir The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle award, for which Fun Home was a finalist.) In the essay, Mendelsohn characterizes the genre of memoir as "a drunken guest at a wedding, ... spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends—motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention."

"She's more old-school," laughs Bechdel about her mother. "She doesn't believe in confessing your problems publicly. To me, that's something very basic I learned as a young adult—the whole 'personal is political' thing. I struggled throughout this book with feeling like it was too self-indulgent, too up my own ass. But I felt like I had to go there all the way in order to come out the other side. And that's not a technique that my mother relates to or approves of."

It can't be easy to read that your best attempt at mothering landed your kid in therapy. (But really, why else is anyone in therapy?) And the neuroses Bechdel developed as a result of her upbringing—compulsive journaling, crippling perfectionism—ended up being strengths when it came to her art.

There are many moments throughout the book when the love Bechdel's mother had (and has) for her child is evident, even if the author didn't experience it that way at the time. One passage revisits a young Bechdel as she starts keeping a daily diary, but finds getting the words down to be too overwhelming. Her mother acts as stenographer: "Getting her undivided attention was a rare treat. It felt miraculous, actually—like persuading a hummingbird to perch on your finger," she writes. "She was listening to me. Whatever I said, she wrote down. I found this calming, composing."

There are other gestures of love: Her mother sent Bechdel money while she struggled to make a living from her comic strip, even though she thought the endeavor would limit her daughter's career. They talk every week, even if she avoids asking about her daughter's personal life. ("She's afraid if I get a word in edgewise, it'll be 'cunnilingus,'" Bechdel complains to her therapist.) She hands over old love letters between herself and her dead husband, telling her daughter to use whatever she wants for her book.

There is no dramatic redemption at the end of Are You My Mother?, perhaps because the book is not a parade of tortured secrets or a juicy accusation of lousy parenting. Ultimately, it's a peace offering from one flawed woman to another. "My mother composed me as I now compose her," Bechdel reflects as she types throughout another phone call. "The running tap of her life flows through my fingers." Though the book is the narrowly drawn truth of two particular lives, the characters' search for connection and identity has as much resonance as any novel.

Bechdel notes at the book's beginning that she will never be a mother herself; she began menopause the week she began drawing the story. "There's a certain relief in knowing that I am a terminus," she writes. Instead, this work is her link in the long chain connecting her foremothers and their daughters and all of the other women who shaped her.


Further Reading
Bechdel weaves text from a number of books through Are You My Mother? Below is a partial list.

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Shauna Miller is an arts writer and editor in Washington, D.C. She also works with Girls Rock D.C., a rock camp for girls ages 8-18. 

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