So, I powered through Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel in a day. It was a slow work day, and I haven’t gone through a book like that in a while.
I didn’t know what to think going into it, mostly because despite the fact that I loved her previous memoir comic work Fun Home, that one’s a weird book that’s basically a critical and thematic literary analysis of not only her relationship with her father and his death, but also her own sexuality, lesbianism, and her father’s sexuality. This one was a lot of the same, but also different, in that the relationship Bechdel has/had with her mother (who died in 2013) wasn’t the entirely abstract thing that the one with her dad was.
A lot of the book deals with the history of psychoanalysis, the application of psychoanalysis and the great minds involved in it, as well as interweaving Virginia Woolf in there as well. But when you boil it down, the really important (or at least impactful to me, but more on that in a second) elements are the ones where her intensely sloppy but passionate relationship with her mother is examined. It’s really clear that Bechdel, in trying to accurately depict her relationship with her mother, does the same thing that she did when describing what she had with her father;
Still, and for reasons I haven’t fully gotten through and been able to articulate, the story of her and her mother didn’t have the same impact on me that the one with her father did. I feel, in a way, that the form in which she writes and draws about it is why, drawing as she does on a lot of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Her intertwining her own growth (or at least mental unwinding) during therapy felt, at times, kind of draining. While I understand that in a narrative sense, her own mental well-being was tied into the growing and reinforcing of a positive relationship (as much as it could be) with her mom, I personally couldn’t really find any connection to that. However, that’s also in synch with the fact that her mother is alive through the story of this book and that Bechdel actively struggles to make a connection to her mother in a conventional child-mother way, a conventional daughter-mother way. While not all of her issues (and there are a lot of issues, many of which I can’t really understand) dealt with through the book and through her therapy relate to her mother, a lot of them seem to orbit around her, at the very least.
This of course makes me immediately jump to the conclusion that because it’s a book about therapy (in a stripped-down oversimplification), I don’t like it because therapy is boring. After all, it’s just people talking to each other back and forth,* and on a comic book page. Why would anyone want to read that?
That doesn’t mean, like I said, that it’s a bad book, because there are amazing elements that are right up there with Fun Home, which I really adore. The ending of the book has the same impact that the first did, a concise moment capturing an adult realization against a childhood visual, which creates an effective stamp of an ending, something literature in general can struggle with. It’s hard to stick a landing.
What I do think though is, what does it say about me that the elements of a book dedicated to relationships and interaction which talk about the roots of how those relationships work is what I like the least? Part of me wants to admit some anti-snobbery brutalist attitude, but at the same time, I know that’s not entirely true. Part of me also wants to express it as some kind of denial thing, like I dislike the psychoanalysis because I need it or connect to it more than I care to. Again though, not something I think is actually true.
The older I’ve gotten, the less self-introspective I’ve gotten, feeling more and more self-aware of knowing who I am, what I am, and how my brain and psyche probably work. Yeah, part of it is because I’m a simple kind of person (read: boring), but part of it is also in growing more and more certain with my own sense of self. On the other hand, in the book, Bechdel isn’t sure of herself, of her own identity (constantly feeling a need to not only be there for other people but also to push herself to the limits in terms of self-introspection and self-harm, metaphorically through self-criticism).
I am aware though, that in the end this isn’t a book meant for me. I mean, it is, it’s out there, and it’s not like it’s labeled “NOT FOR COSTA FUCK THAT GUY” on the cover. However, I’m a heterosexual white male who has a set of alligator-luggage privilege for getting through life and for building my sense of self, nevermind a relationship with my family that’s drastically different with what Bechdel has/had with hers in her work. It’s inevitable that my own lens will be skewed when reading this work and when I strain to make a connection, because my brain, so used to automatically and easily finding connections to art, is floundering here, making me work for what few tenuous connections I can find.
Basically, in this book I see the shadow of who I was and who I could have been, rather than the kind of person I feel like am now. Now, at 33, I’m more confident in my self, in my role in the world, in my own power, and in my own voice, which makes me appreciate Bechdel’s work, but not connect with it. I connect with Fun Home because it’s about coming to terms with self, in the end, as opposed to Are You My Mother‘s battle between an evolving sense of self and how that strains the limits of a difficult relationship. It’s a relationship, and a book, that I’m going to come back to over and over, that I know, but it’ll probably be a slow-going process to fully be able to empathize with it, if I ever do. And I’m OK with that.
*)Cheap shot, I know.