Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her mother is not, immediately, a memoir about her mother. Or at any rate, it’s not only that. Bechdel—whose previous book, 2006’s excellent Fun Home, centered on the volatile presence of her closeted gay father and the funeral home where she grew up—here delves deeply and bravely into her own complicated psyche as well as her mother’s. More than anything, Are You My Mother? is an excavation, digging into Bechdel’s relationship with psychoanalysis and, in particular, with the work of a groundbreaking doctor named Donald Winnicott.
As she struggles to come to terms with her mother, Bechdel writes about the emotional and psychic fallout from her first book, the periods of depression that she and her mother and (she discovers) her grandmother all endured, her difficulties in romantic partnerships with other women and, above all, her yearning for some sign of validation or approval from her mother. In other words—though Bechdel is as scathingly funny as ever—this is not exactly light reading. Even structurally, the book is far from straightforward; it is, as her mother notes in the final chapter, “a meta book.” Each chapter begins with a dream Bechdel recalls, the significance of which becomes clear bit by bit as the story moves along.
Epiphanies in real life don’t necessarily happen in chronological order, and they don’t here, either; often it’s not until she checks a date in one of her old journals that Bechdel realizes how two events fit together, how they inform her view of herself. In flashbacks and “photocopies,” she recreates therapy sessions, diary entries, her father’s letters to her mother, her own conversations and arguments with lovers, memories of plays her mother acted in when Bechdel was a child and relevant writings by Virginia Woolf and the fascinating Winnicott. These form a pastiche, kind of a psychic map, which might have been confusing for the reader except that Bechdel’s narrative control is so strong. And visually, the book is so consistent and the drawings so clean that the pages never look messy or disorganized, despite the level of detail on each.
Though the material she’s working with is incredibly rich and multilayered, both intellectually and emotionally complex, Bechdel makes it easy to follow her journey inward. You’ll be glad you did.