Memoirs are, to paraphrase Run DMC, tricky-tricky-tricky. Either you have lived a life that has been so interesting people won’t be able to help but read all about it – or you have a way of expressing yourself that transforms the humdrum and the everyday into something special. Alison Bechdel’s first book, Fun Home, concerned her childhood, largely, growing up in a funeral home. Her father, a semi-latent homosexual, killed himself – which, of course, had an impact on Bechdel in a variety of ways, not least the fact that she herself was gay. As ‘pioneering’ as Fun Home was felt to be, it was arguably a lot more straightforward than Are You My Mother?
Are You My Mother? is a second graphic memoir, then, this time centring on the relationship between Bechdel and her mother. The book charts the day to day back and forth between mother and daughter (including such strange details as the fact that Bechdel sits at a computer while she talks to her mother, typing their conversations up as they happen), whilst at the same time overseeing – in distinctly non-linear fashion – Bechdel’s path through therapy this last few years and presenting Bechdel as a sort of psychiatric hypochondriac, forever reading around her therapists and self-diagnosing. There are also slight fictional side-steps – into the life of Virginia Woolf and a therapist who was a contemporary although not a member of her set, Donald Winnicott – but Bechdel is always quick to reassert herself and qualify that she doesn’t feel confident in fictional terrain.
As much a chart of Bechdel’s psychogeography as an attempt to understand who her mother was and why Bechdel feels the way she does, complete with a dream sequence and post-dream analysis in each chapter, Are You My Mother? is a very curious beast. Riven with doubt and self-conscious to the extreme, Bechdel is still a person who regards her doubt and self-consciousness as something that should be caught between covers and read – and this dichotomy (Who am I? / Someone who should be read obviously) is a fundamental part of the reading experience. Bechdel’s mother admits early on that she regards the memoir as a genre suspiciously and Are You My Mother? feels like a book that warrants suspicion. There is a sense in which we know Bechdel’s story – that Fun Home was Bechdel’s story – and that this is almost Bechdel saying no, no, you don’t understand, let me put it another way. If you think it’s hard having a father who struggled with his sexuality and then killed himself imagine what it was like to have a mother who… what? Supported you throughout your early twenties when you were trying to make a name for yourself as an artist? Forgive me if I keep the old bleeding heart in its box up on the shelf.
At the same time, though, there are large portions of the book that are fascinating. The role that therapy plays in Bechdel’s life and in the book, and her eager articulation of its ups and downs, is interesting. Similarly, the insights we get into the writing of Donald Winnicott. As an artefact, Are You My Mother? is not a million miles away from the kinds of things Harvey Pekar was doing with American Splendor – and without a doubt presents an argument that says all lives are interesting enough to warrant biography, in a way. The problem lies in the fact that there is a sententiousness at work here – no action or event is without symbolism or relevance to the greater whole, nothing happens without a reason (Bechdel is hit in the face by a branch? Her subconscious is sending her a message). It all gets a bit exhausting. Have a day off you think. Sometimes shit happens. Buy a helmet.
It’s worth viewing Are You My Mother? alongside Bryan and Mary Talbot’s recent work, The Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes which presented a memoir coincident with a biography of Lucia Joyce and worked hard with half the length Bechdel apportions herself here. If Bechdel had had either the confidence or the lack of hubris to make this more than a book about herself (had found some way to present Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her mother alongside her own), it would have made for a better, less solipsistic read.
As it is, one can’t help but hope that Bechdel is done with her own story for a bit now and either gives us something made-up next time or starts to work with collaborators. As self-referential a form as graphic works are (second only to hip hop in thinking that the life of the artist warrants continued and perpetual investigation and assessment), it may be that Are You My Mother? is the tipping point.
Any Cop?: Whilst it’s not without interest and is even at times genuinely fascinating, Are You My Mother? is a little bit too navel-gazey for this reader’s liking.