Alison Bechdel’s second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?, has received much criticism for not meeting the expectations set by her first book, Fun Home. Beginning with the title, everything about Are You My Mother? Is complexly introspective and universally aware. Explicitly, the memoir is about a (lack of) relationship with her mother, but always underneath, it is also about the search for someone to fill the needs she couldn’t meet.
Are You My Mother? Combines Bechdel’s journey through girlfriends, therapists, theories, and their affects on her relationship with her mother. And they affect her relationship with her mother. Near the present of their relationship, Bechdel has stopped listening to her mother’s personal phone calls in order to transcribe them for analysis (within the space of her latest text).
The major complaint for Are You My Mother? is that it doesn’t contain the complex narrative of Fun Home. Without this narrative, Bechdel has been accused of self-involved therapy transcription. Furthering this claim of self-indulgence, it is noted that Bechdel rarely draws engagement between her and her mother in a frame. The assumption seems to be that Bechdel is the only person of importance, in the frames recreating therapy sessions. Even without Bechdel clearly demonstrating her intimate relationships to these women, her therapists should be seen as humans to engage with and not merely furniture or simply a service to the patient.
To understand the importance of the isolated “I” in this memoir, the reader needs only to return to page 49 and remember Bechdel’s self-censorship of her own diary entries as a child: “By far the most heavily obliterated word is ‘I’”. Bechdel’s separation from her mother and self, especially her female body, requires a fair amount of metacognition. It is important that this happens in the space of this narrative.
Furthermore, with the same brilliant attention to narrative that Bechdel wrote Fun Home, which we all seem to agree to love, Are You My Mother? was created. The frames and dialogue are active in the book about her father, because her relationship with him was active. The interaction that readers protest for at the end of Are You My Mother? doesn’t exist to write. Had Bechdel written it, we would be outraged at the inaccuracy of it all.
Bechdel draws her mother, the performer, as something to be observed and not someone to be interacted with because that is how she experienced her. The alternative would be 289 pages of playing “crippled child.” That is not a text to engage with.
Was Bechdel’s mother a bad one? Has she healed? Bechdel exposes her relationship to her mother without answers. Answering these questions ignores the complexity of their present relationship and everything that she has gained from both the presence, and lack of guidance, that her mother offered her. And in Bechdelian honesty, readers understand that Bechdel is just as removed from their engagements as an adult. Readers also understand, once again with the aid of her drawings, that Bechdel is a lot like her mother.
There are times when Bechdel would rather offer the reader theory than a bridge to her own understanding of it in the context of her relationship with her mother, which is not only distracting, but leaves the reader with difficulty reengaging. Usually, though, Bechdel provides the reader with enough musing and memory to navigate the matrix.
This tangled narrative does more than offer readers a look into an evolving relationship of an imperfect mother and daughter pair. Without answers, Are You My Mother? invites readers on their own metacognitive journeys. Alison Bechdel is holding up a two-way mirror.
Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.