Book Review: Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel
I love Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, Fun Home. The story of her closeted gay father's suicide and how it coincided with her own coming out is told beautifully, both in the writing and the illustrations. I got overly excited when I found out Bechdel was coming out with another graphic memoir, this time about her mother. Are You My Mother? got great reviews and a lot of press, so I had unreal expectations about it. This kind of excitment always turns out to be roblematic for me.
Bechdel loves allusions, loves using literature and history as mirrors of her own experiences and those of her family members. Some people complained that she used too many literary allusions and referenced too many books in Fun Home, and I thought all those whiners were ridiculous. Well, now I kind of know how they feel. Are You My Mother? is as much an investigation into Bechdel's obsession with psychoanalysis as it is an investigation into her relationship with her mother. The famous psychoanalysts she talks about here - in particular, Donald Winnicott - are just as important as Bechdel and her mother as memoir "characters." I learned a lot about psychology and parent-child relationships in this book (I've never read Freud and haven't been into psychology texts since I was a teenager), but I found the emotional impact of the story to suffer a bit under the weight of all the quotations and historical background. This book doesn't feel as tight or as urgent as Fun Home, and it just didn't connect with me.
This could be a personal problem, of course. I try not to read books - especially memoirs - through a prism of my own life experiences, but that's an impossible order. And here, I just couldn't get into a story about a cold mother and a woman who needs her mom's approval at every turn. My own relationship with my mother is so opposite from Bechdel's that it's almost laughable. Where Bechdel's mother is self-centered and withholding, mine is selfless and open. I've never felt an ounce of disproval from my mom ever, and I realize that's rare. Even most loving moms can be harsh at times. Because I have a high-functioning relationship with my mother, I found it really hard to put myself in Bechdel's shoes. I feel bad about this, but there's only so much I can do. And I'm sure Bechdel could give me a major lecture on how my own parental relationships are screwy.
I'm not saying I disliked this book; I'm just not sure I particularly liked it either. I love Bechdel's art, especially when she contrasts the more cartoon-y "life" frames with those of recreated photographs. I love the way her hard work of constructing her art and text gives her books a very intelligent, self-propelling feel. I just can't connect to the emotional strands of the book, and in the long run, it doesn't punch me in the gut Fun Home does when I read it.