With Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?, some might believe the appeal extends only to those with parental problems and acts as a self-prescribed dose of therapy. Everyone has mommy and daddy issues to some varying degree, but Bechdel is hardcore when it comes to confronting these issues. She applies psychological, austere theories and literary references to microscopically examine her relationship with her mother, thereby, to extrapolate some kind of profound meaning to make sense of who she is. Are You My Mother? won’t take it easy on you. Readers can expect a challenging yet difficult story when they dive into the malleable mind of Alison Bechdel.
The premise is simple enough: it’s Alison Bechdel’s analysis of her relationship with her mother. Mother significantly contrasts with Bechdel’s first book Fun Home (and if you’ve never read Bechdel’s Fun Home, do yourself a favor and get on that.) Mother ostensibly seems like a sequel because it covers events later in Bechdel’s life, but while the events that occur have some overlap with Fun Home, the two memoirs are fundamentally different in style and content. In fact it’s fascinating that Bechdel has almost adopted an entirely new persona in her second book. Mother is a self-contained piece that utterly immerses itself in psychoanalysis and delivers an untidy confessional of her inner child and of her subconscious.
To say the least, Mother underscores the effects of having an emotionally negligent parent. Bechdel’s feelings toward her mother surface while she’s researching and working on her first graphic memoir Fun Home, which is interesting to say the least. Bechdel divides her graphic memoir into sections and introduces each piece with a dream sequence capturing some kind of untethered, abstract emotion related to her mother. Mother avoids a linear chronology, which actually makes for a very coherent telling. Rarely do any of us study our relationships from beginning to end, and I think it works really well for a subject presented with already the challenges of the murkiness of the human mind.
It’s also subsequently that her graphic memoir, buried in exhaustive psychoanalytical theories, sometimes feels more like a psychology course than a memoir. The theories of Donald Winnicott, Sigmund Freud, and other psychologists should only act as footnotes but end up overshadowing a glut of the content, waterboarding us with theories and studies that Bechdel’s own story is lost.
Bechdel is an interesting person. It’s not necessarily her circumstances and influences that draw us to her story, although significant considering [spoiler: her father was a closeted-gay man who may or may not have (but probably) committed suicide.] Bechdel’s own interpretations are outstandingly critical and leave her vulnerable. It’s not something many of us would be willing to expose ourselves to; yet, Bechdel’s own treatment to her life has always felt like an experiment. Revealed in Mother, she avidly records and archives everything, preserving as much of her experiences as possible. The art of memoirs are rooted deeply in the author’s perception of those experiences and obscures accurate retellings. She references this same phenomenon in Fun Home when she tries to retell what happens but frustratingly knows that her own biases and emotions will ultimately interfere. With Mother, it’s very much about Bechdel’s reception of these events and lack of affection.
Mother evokes a dream-like ambiance with the color stripped to the most relevant. Red jumps out at us and usually the first color we register, so it’s clever Bechdel how she sparingly incorporates this into her illustrations. Bechdel enacts a kind of curious eye that makes us gravitate toward certain images with her use of color, with it also being more symbolic. When a chapter is complete, the last remaining panel is reduced in size and framed by a flat black, suggesting the memory is returning to the black regions of our subconscious. There are layers of meaning behind each of her illustrations that, when I take a second glance at them, I discover something different.
Mother accumulates extensive and reasoning and originally sets out to explain who Bechdel is today through a cause-and-effect argument, but it doesn’t pan out. What’s more is Bechdel’s epiphany won’t change who her mother is, even though many of us harbor this delusional notion (myself included) that when an epiphany knocks at your noggin, then everything changes around you–or so it feels. It’s a slow and sometimes painful realization, but alas that’s really the only option when finding closure.
For fans of the Fun Home, Mother sets a different criteria and aims to explore what is arguably one of the hardest, contentious topics to discern. Much of what is discussed is theoretical, no more proven than the existence of the Jersey Devil. With that said, it’s also the lack of evidence that bolsters the graphic memoir’s ability to probe such an intriguing subject and yield gratifying answers.