Monday, May 7, 2012

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

     Those who are familiar with P.D. Eastman's classic children's book, Are You My Mother?, may remember the sad, but touching storyline in which a baby bird leaves the nest and tirelessly searches for its mother among various species of animals.  In Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir of the same title, she knows exactly where her mother is, but she just doesn't understand her.  In fact, Bechdel can see little to no resemblance between herself and her mother, but their intense relationship has affected nearly every other subsequent relationship she has ever had.  Are You My Mother? traces Alison Bechdel's life as a writer, philosopher, artist, and lesbian - but mostly as a daughter.

     This book isn't written like your typical memoir.  It's written as a comic strip and includes a great deal of discussion on classical psychology, drama, art, and literature - especially that of Virginia Woolf.  Bechdel has spent decades in therapy and analysis trying to work out her complicated relationship with her mother - a woman who is incredibly intelligent and talented yet emotionally distant.  Much of Bechdel's childhood was mapped out in her first memoir, Fun Home, a graphic biography about her eccentric and distracted father who committed suicide at the age of 44.

     It's no stretch to say that Bechdel had an unusual upbringing and a complicated relationship with her parents, but sometimes the book felt a little too self-aware and over-analyzed.  For one thing, she takes psychoanalysis very seriously and invests a great deal of time and energy in dream analysis - which she often interprets very literally.  Don't get me wrong - I think one can benefit tremendously from attending therapy sessions.  It can be cathartic and emotionally cleansing.  But Bechdel seems unable to make any decision or comprehend a situation without first discussing it in detail with a therapist.  Sometimes her emotions just don't feel completely natural.  They take on a numbed, almost clinical vibe, which likely contributes to her original anxiety.  She also is a dedicated (if not obsessive) diarist, writing down conversations verbatim between herself and her analyst, girlfriends, and family members.  In turn, much of the book consist of conversations between herself and her therapist about Alison's dreams, Alison's feelings, Alison's life philosophy, and Alison's memories.  That's exactly what therapy is for, but it may be a little too self-absorbed for a book (even for an autobiography).

     Another troublesome aspect of the book is that Alison seems to want some sort of psychological peace regarding her mother, yet she struggles with the ability to see her mom as a human being capable of making mistakes and indulging in selfish tendencies - which is sometimes in direct contrast with her feminist platform.  She seems to hold her mother to much higher standards regarding motherhood and identity, which isn't completely fair.  We must also consider that Alison has been keeping very accurate and detailed notes since she was an adolescent, which makes harboring a grudge a little too easy.

     Alison Bechdel is obviously a talented writer and artist, but this book needed a bit more organization.  Sometimes it was a book about her mom, sometimes it was a book about writing a different book, and sometimes it felt like reading a teenager's diary.  But somewhere along the way, she begins to see her mother in a different light - perhaps it is due to the years of analysis, or maybe it's due to the therapeutic act of writing the memoir itself.  Either way, Are You My Mother? leaves Bechdel at the cusp of an opportunity for renewal and peace, which comes as a much needed breath of fresh air.

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