Mother’s Day Special: On Bechdel’s Second Graphic Memoir

Having spent a good portion of my teenage years at a comic shop it comes as no surprise that I’ll seek out the occasional graphic novel. While there will always be a place in my heart for hyper-masculinity in spandex fighting crime my tastes have since drifted from the humble roots of adolescent origin. Alison Bechdel’s second graphic novel Are You My Mother? examined the complications between the author (as subject) and her mother. Without having read Bechdel’s first graphic novel Fun Home which explored her family’s dynamics with an emphasis on her father’s homosexuality and apparent suicide the context of the second memoir may be a bit difficult to follow, so I recommend you read both.

I was introduced to Fun Home during my first semester at Ohio State. A friend had overheard me rambling about Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, as I was taking a class that spent the entire semester examining Fitzgerald and his most famous novel. She told me about how Bechdel examined her father’s appreciation of Fitzgerald’s work and let me borrow Fun Home. It was an astonishing account of what felt ordinary. Composed of a ‘down to earth’ mentality I haven’t read in a graphic novel since Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer and an elevated use of language (at least… elevated when juxtaposed with my judgemental opinion of the comic book market), I felt compelled to read Bechdel’s second memoir.

With Are You My Mother? Bechdel explored the depths of the rabbit hole that she had only revealed in her first graphic novel. The fragmentation of time in which the narrative is structured reads much like a novel by Virginia Woolf. In fact the second graphic novel jumps ship, from obsessing over Fitzgerald in Fun Home (her father’s favorite author) to Woolf in Are You My Mother? (an author Bechdel claimed her mother had never read). The themes of modernism explored by Woolf are reexamined by Bechdel with a quality of reflection that reveals its universal tones. Lines such as, “Then I started seeing how the transcendent would almost always creep into the Everyday” (Bechdel, 33), remind me of Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, in that it is the transcendent forces of one’s own past that haunt the present and influence the characters to feel anxiety over any sort of future. In mentioning Woolf a total of sixteen times Bechdel sought to draw parallels between the author (Woolf) and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Through the exploration of Winnicott’s work as it related to Bechdel’s relationship with her mother she came to conclusions on the complications regarding communication, “Your unconscious wants to express the pain you feel about your own lost innocence. But your ego wants to keep it repressed. So the compromise is anxiety” (Bechdel, 45). Such complication regarding communication is another reflection of Woolf’s work as Mrs. Dalloway’s husband Richard thought, “it is a thousand pities never to say what one feels” (Woolf, 116). With regards to another one of Woolf’s character’s desire to communicate such feelings, “some grief for the past holds it back; some concern for the present” (Woolf, 49).

This past semester I spent a lot of time studying the politics of gender regarding literary texts. From the Renaissance to Hitchcock critics of their time have often refered to the feminine as an object relating to man’s ‘top of the list’ desire that the ideal woman simply be a reflection of himself. Hundreds of years of criticism and that’s the correlating theme. But in chapter six of Are You My Mother? Bechdel explores the mirror from the point of view of an infant in the state of becoming self-aware, or at least separate from the entity of her mother. Though this created a sense of anxiety for Bechdel it brought me relief to see the mirror being used to present the dawning of an individual instead of imposing the demands of oppressive conformity.

The heightened prose and vivid characters have brought me to feel a sense of intimacy with the scenario. The ambiguous conclusion draws upon the sentiment of freedom, but what has Bechdel done with such freedom other than recoil into her own past as though she were a character out of a Woolf novel? The human condition is not as enduring as it is obsessive. It should go without saying that I’m looking forward to anything else Alison Bechdel may publish.