A Mother Is a Story With Neither Beginning Nor End
Alison Bechdel’s follow-up to Fun Home examines her difficult relationship with her difficult mom.
Next month, the Slate Audio Book Club will discuss Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?
It’s remarkable that until the beginning of the 21st century, the drama of mothers and daughters remained relatively unexplored in literature. Plenty of memorable mothers populate novels and plays, from Medea to Proust’s Maman, but writing about filial relations between women is thin on the ground. One can attribute this mostly to the fact that it was men who were doing the scribbling for so long, while the best women writers, like the Brontes and Austen, often steered clear of the subject; the literature of motherhood that did exist was largely sentimental. In the 20th century, Virginia Woolf (in her essays) and Sylvia Plath (in “Morning Song”) began to make great work out of the ambivalent intensities of mother-daughter relations, which, after all, are rife with dramatic possibility. Even today, though, mothers and daughters feel like the New World of literature—a realm barely explored, waiting for its Westward expansion.
Alison Bechdel’s new “comic drama” Are You My Mother? sets out to examine the cartoonist’s relationship with her mother; not coincidentally, it ends up exploring a host of big topics, including the nature of emotional attachment and the idea of the “self.” Are You My Mother? is a sequel of sorts to Fun Home, Bechdel’s best-selling 2006 graphic memoir about her father, and like that book is ambitious, superbly funny, and hauntingly searching. But it’s less a portrait than a meta-memoir about trying and failing to write anything coherent about her mother. Near the start of the book, Bechdel observes that “the real problem with this memoir about my mother is that it has no beginning.” She adds, “The story of my mother and me is unfolding even as I write it.” No beginning, and no ending—it doesn’t bode well. But for most of us a mother is a story with neither beginning nor end, it turns out, and so this peculiarity is part of the strange power of this singular book.
Are You My Mother? is a kind of Möbius strip, circling back and forward in time, and never quite coming to a conclusion. Describing it won’t capture the experience of reading it in the least. That’s not just because so many of the effects are generated by Bechdel’s painstaking, expressive drawings, which convey her anxious, poignant ethos more than any words can. Anyone who read Fun Home or her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For will recognize Bechdel’s astringent wit and her warmth: Her work is both bracingly skeptical and highly open to, its own emotional vibrations. She’s not so much wise-cracking as quiet-cracking. This is a deeply internal book; the main characters are Bechdel and her mother, but Virginia Woolf, the child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott, and Alice Miller, the author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, play equally significant roles in the unfolding emotional narrative. So do two of Bechdel’s therapists, Jocelyn and Carol.
Divided into seven sections—each named after a key concept of Winnicott’s theories of infant development—Are You My Mother? flouts writing-school rules. It lengthily recounts Bechdel’s dreams and her therapy sessions, which revolve around what it was like to live with parents who were narcissistically self-involved. More startlingly, Bechdel tells us that as she writes chapters, she gives them to her mother, Helen, for comment. Then she writes about what her mother says, or, more tellingly, doesn’t say. In one of the very first scenes in the book, Alison and Helen are talking on the phone when Helen rather passive-aggressively praises a New Yorker article about the narcissism of memoir-writing (“Isn’t he the one who beat you for that prize?” she asks, of the author), and Bechdel reflects on her “fear that Mom will find this memoir about her ‘angry.’ ” The stakes are all laid out, if implicitly: The daughter’s never-ending desire for the mother’s approval, on the one hand, and her recognition, on the other, of the mother’s failures and limitations, on the other. (Perhaps most painfully, Helen has never accepted her daughter’s lesbianism.)
So the core drama of Are You My Mother? is a resoundingly psychological one: The child who is hurt by her own wounded mother, and whose grown-up romantic relationships mirror this difficulty with intimacy. It’s hard to alchemize therapeutic language and modes of thinking into true literary drama, but the first half of Are You My Mother? is wonderful, a fresh, funny, and poignant exploration not just of Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, but of the nature of attachment itself. Writing the book, Bechdel became interested in the work of psychologists who study childhood trauma. It was Winnicott who invented the famous idea of the “good-enough mother,” who enables her child to survive psychically intact by modeling responsiveness and functional mirroring: If you smile I’ll smile. What Winnicott—and Bechdel—was interested in was what happened when this crucial mother-child mirroring broke down, and the child became precociously attuned to the mother’s needs instead of her own. Likewise, Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child chronicles the kinds of abuse children suffer at the hands of narcissistic parents, particularly mothers. Are You My Mother? is as much about reading them and Woolf as it is about Helen Bechdel; it’s this triangulating, filtered through the additional artifice of hand-drawn images, that gives the book much of its charge.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.