Posted on 16th October 2012

By Sophie Jones

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Are You My Mother?

Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother? is American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s second graphic memoir. Coming six years after Fun Home, which took Bechdel’s relationship with her father as its subject, Are You My Mother? is anything but a neat step from one parent to the other. For a start, there are multiple maternal figures in this book besides Helen, Bechdel’s mother—notably Jocelyn and Carol, the author’s therapists. Even Bechdel herself is something of a maternal presence as she struggles with the conception and birth of her memoirs: first ‘the dad book’, as Bechdel calls it here, and then this dense, rewarding meditation on what happens to the self when it collides with others.

Hints of this conceptual probing emerged in Fun Home, which invoked the relationship between Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as a model of spiritual rather than physical fatherhood. Still, for all its allusions to Joyce and Homer, James and Proust, Fun Home was a relatively self-contained story about Bechdel’s relationship with her father during her childhood and early adulthood. Are You My Mother? employs a dramatically different approach to narrative time, taking bigger leaps between various points in the recent past, distant past and present. We see Alison as a child in her family home before her father’s suicide, returning after his death to watch her mother in a play, transcribing her mother’s phone conversations as research for the book we are reading, breaking up with a long-term girlfriend in her twenties, visiting that girlfriend and her new partner years later, imagining her parents’ courtship, talking to her therapist about her trouble writing ‘the dad book’ — you get the idea. The character of Alison can be distinguished from Bechdel the author, although this distinction is suggestively muddied as the plot slips in and out of the present day. Literary allusions are inflated until Bechdel’s influences, particularly D.W. Winnicott and Virginia Woolf, become significant characters in their own right, both fracturing and extending the book’s focus.

Chief among these literary characters is British psychoanalyst Winnicott, another maternal figure whose work gives Are You My Mother? its chapter titles. He pioneered the theory of the transitional object, which mediates the space between the infant’s imagination and her sense of independent reality. The transitional object, as Bechdel explains in one of the book’s substantial sections about Winnicott’s ideas, occupies the territory ‘between me and not-me’. In many ways, this border between the subjective and the objective is the true subject —and, perhaps, location—of Are You My Mother? In a scene set shortly after the publication of Bechdel’s memoir about her father, Helen wonders aloud: “I just don’t know why everyone has to write about themselves.” Helen’s unsubtly voiced dissatisfaction with her daughter’s literary method also occupies a border: that between prohibition and inspiration. If Bechdel’s decision to intercut her autobiography with biographical studies of Winnicott and Woolf capitulates to her mother’s desire for privacy, it also rebuts the charge of narcissism. After all, aren’t we all composed of the people we encounter and the books we read? Is it ever possible to write only about oneself? These, as Woolf’s work demonstrates, are questions with literary as well as psychological implications.

In one episode, eight-year-old Alison starts using her mother’s make-up in secret. Far from rehearsing adulthood, Alison, whose mother stopped kissing her goodnight for good when she was seven, is trying to perform childhood more convincingly.  ‘I liked how hale and hearty I looked with pink cheeks. Like a real child,’ the narrative caption recalls, above an archetypal image of the young girl furtively exploring her mother’s dressing table. Bechdel’s subversion of this feminine initiation cliché crystallises the book’s radical approach to the territory that lies between subject and object. Alison soon translates these experiments in self-construction to the page, taking school photographs and shading her pale cheeks with a red crayon. Varying tones of the same matte red are the only use of colour in Are You My Mother? but unlike her mother’s blusher, which bestows reality, Bechdel’s red ink gives the grey, black and white of the images a heightened sense of unreality. The connection between the blusher on the fleshy cheek, the crayon on the school photograph and the red ink on the book’s page suggest that we might sketch our own realities but we could never accomplish such a feat without imagining others—and, perhaps especially, without imagining mothers.

Fun Home used a similarly limited colour palette, but combined the greys, blacks and whites with a muted greyish blue. This is the colour author Rebecca Solnit has invoked as the ‘light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue’ in her A Field Guide to Getting Lost. If blue is the colour of loss it is the right colour for Fun Home, which approached the life and suicide of Alison’s father, a closeted gay man, through memory and the family archive. Bechdel’s father was passionate about interior design and Fun Home drew on the house as a vehicle of both artifice and authenticity: simultaneously an extension of the proverbial closet and a real home for a real family. Are You My Mother? takes this conceit further. An environment does not just hide, expose or house the individual, it also constitutes the individual, and in pregnancy the two are indistinguishable. Red is the colour of the body’s insides: the heart, the blood, the uterus. Red is also the colour of lipstick and blusher: the face we present to the world. It is the right colour, then, for a book so concerned with testing the boundaries between inside and outside. Where Fun Home used documents and memories to build its story, Are You My Mother? uses dreams, another border between the self and the world. Each chapter begins with a dream that is then decoded with the help of psychoanalysis.

The comic strip form is beautifully suited to an exploration of borders. The frame is always visible as a stark frontier that continually gestures beyond its boundaries. While readers of Fun Home and Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For might be initially struck by this new book’s complex structure and lengthy digressions into psychoanalytic theory, Are You My Mother? rewards re-reading. With this rich and intricate work, Bechdel occupies and challenges the boundaries of the memoir.

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