It is always dangerous to go spelunking through your own brain and then write a book about your findings, but Alison Bechdel is frequently the person to do it. Her last graphic novel, “Fun Home,” was such a profoundly moving, insightful story that it had the capacity to totally spoil the reader for the graphic memoir genre, which is perpetually teeming with overqualified entrants. Her gentle, soapy weekly comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” remains a pleasure to read long after its ended its serialized run.
With “Are You My Mother?” (Houghton Mifflin, 289 pp.), Bechdel attempts a kind of sequel to “Fun Home,” which focused on her relationship with her father John, who came out of the closet around the same time as his daughter and later killed himself. The new book is about Alison and her mother Helen, who is a much more subtle and complicated character than John who seems to be less of a strong presence in Alison’s adolescence, and Bechdel knows less what to do with her, personally and narratively. “Are You My Mother?” is more about the author than anyone else—her study of Virginia Woolf, her life in therapy, and her trouble with romantic relationships. It’s in her struggles with the latter that we most clearly see Alison trying to deal with her mom, and those are the best and saddest moments in the book. Helen troubled by her daughter’s lesbianism and resents being asked to approve of it; it doesn’t help matters that Alison pursues relationships that won’t or can’t work, or seems to sabotage them. To cope with all of this, Alison gets psychoanalysis—classical, Freudian psychoanalysis—over the course of her life from two analysts, first Jocelyn and then Carol, who try to help her understand what her life means.
I’m sorry to say that because of this, large sections of “Are You My Mother?” simply don’t work. The book’s therapists appear to be peddling the silliest and most reductive, magical aspects of Freudianism, to the extent that when the author whacks her head on a plank she wonders, with no irony at all, what her subconscious is trying to tell her. “Trust me,” she says during an aside about the much more plausible psychic trauma of weaning a baby, “I am aware of the dangers of this sort of thinking,” but this is the only such caveat in the volume, and it doesn’t really ring true.
It is possible to ignore a lot of this stuff—the musings on whether the subconscious is making the author miss the bus don’t take up the entire volume—but Bechdel is a tremendously gifted weaver of themes and in this book, she elects to blend musings on Adrienne Rich and Virginia Woolf with a worshipful study of psychologist and pediatrician Donald Winnicott, so during a lovely sequence about, say, “To the Lighthouse,” you’ll run across Winnicott, muttering about transitional objects and penis envy.
The art here is beautiful, incidentally—black, white, gray and shades of red and pink, with some gorgeous spreads like a two-page recreation of Alison’s childhood photos and a full-page, outline-free watercolor of the author in the snow. Even the endpapers are lovely.
But given the elephantine presence of psychoanalysis in literary criticism, the sum of “Are You My Mother?” is a book that attempts to self-interpret, and does so in such a pat way that it becomes a little like hearing a smart, interesting friend talk at great length about the breakthrough she had in therapy this afternoon. “Don’t you think that, if you write minutely and vigorously enough about your own life, you can, you know, transcend your particular self?” Alison asks her mother about ¾ of the way through the book. The answer is a resounding yes, and the question describes perfectly the problem with “Are You My Mother?”
Bechdel’s memoir very convincingly suggests that Alison’s own fate is tied up with her mother’s, and certainly one of the reasons the book refuses to work as narrative is that the story of Alison and Helen isn’t over. It’s impossible to write “minutely and vigorously” if you’re not yet sure what details will turn out to be most important to the characters after the end of the tale.
The book’s theoretical and therapeutic trappings feel as though they’re supposed to substitute for the epiphanies that Bechdel might have been able to locate, had she the distance she used so well in “Fun Home”—here, she’s particularly invested in the notion of the transitional object, such as a teddy bear, that a baby uses to absorb some of the emotion it can’t yet internalize as it separates from its mother. More than once, Bechdel suggests that this book itself, familiar-sounding therapeutic breakthroughs and all, is a transitional object for her. Thus it’s both too specific to her and not specific enough; a cherished teddy bear like all the other cherished teddy bears.
In the P.D. Eastman children’s book of the same title, a baby bird falls out of the nest and asks everything from a dog to a steam shovel the question of the title. It’s a profoundly simple story, and yet it rings wholly true: in the absence of a mother, we look for substitutes in the wrong places.