Saturday, June 23, 2012

"Are You My Mother?", by Alison Bechdel

In 2006, Alison Bechdel, writer and artist of the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out for,” published the book “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” a bestselling graphic memoir about growing up in a funeral home and, especially, about her closeted homosexual and eventually suicidal father. The drawings in the book are intricate and the family story wrenching; Bechdel’s stance is to be completely candid, yet thoughtful and considerate of her family, and throughout, to try to figure out what it all means. Now this author has published a sort of companion graphic memoir focusing this time on her mother: “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama” (Houghton Mifflin, 2012). Bechdel was and is close to her mother, speaking with her on the phone almost every day, yet feels that they have never understood each other. She feels she has never had her mother’s full attention and unstinting love. For example, her mother decided when the child Alison was seven years old that she was too old to be hugged. Bechdel explores their relationship through the years, cutting back and forth in time. She writes of her own writing and relationships, her lesbian identity, and her long years in therapy. She uses the ideas of the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, as well as the writings of Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich, to help her understand her relationship with her mother. The book is complex and rich; the reader’s eyes are attracted to the drawings and to the words at the same time, and one truly needs to slow down to take it all in. It seems there would be a danger with this kind of material of the writer seeming solipsistic, but the persona of the writer is so patently open and eager to learn that one does not feel her work is self-indulgent. And despite the mother’s obvious lack of true connection and understanding, one has to feel sorry for her too because of her long difficult marriage, and the thwarting of her own dreams of being an actor and a poet. She does in fact act in small local productions, and starts writing poetry again in her later years, and we are happy to see her having these outlets. Somehow, despite all the problems and history between them, and despite Bechdel’s having to accept that her mother will probably never truly understand her or deeply connect with her, the two come to a sort of accommodation and continued conversation and relationship.

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