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'Mother' Dearest: Alison Bechdel's Graphic Memoir

It's a lot easier to write about a dead parent than a living one. Alison Bechdel's new "comic drama," Are You My Mother?, makes this abundantly clear. Fun Home, her amazing 2006 graphic memoir, was about her difficult, closeted gay father, who died shortly after she came out as a lesbian in college. This fascinating but demanding followup volume explores her uneasy relationship with her emotionally distant mother — who is not only alive but openly critical of Bechdel's work.

Although Are You My Mother? takes its title from P.D. Eastman's charming children's classic about infant anxiety, there's nothing whimsical about Bechdel's strenuous excavation of her life and psyche.

She retraces the genesis of Fun Home and her even more arduous path to writing the very book we're reading. Part of her challenge is that "the story of my mother and me is unfolding even as I write it." Worse, she's internalized her mother's critical voice.

She deals with this in part by weaving her mother's reactions, both spoken and oblique, into the text — "You have too many strands!" — adding yet another layer to what is already dizzyingly complex. As her mother astutely comments after seeing the work-in-progress, the result is more metabook than straightforward narrative.

Wondering where to begin, Bechdel flashes back to when she broke the news that she was writing a book about her father. She and her mother are driving home from doing errands. "You mean, this is something you have to do?" her stone-faced mother asks. "Well, yeah," Bechdel says warily. Staring dead ahead in the passenger seat, her mother responds, "I can't help you. You're on your own."

From Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel. Copyright 2012 / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

Later, six months after the highly successful publication of Fun Home, her mother, generally pictured either reading, acting in local theater, or on the phone with her daughter, complains about some poems in The New Yorker that she finds annoyingly personal. She says, "I just don't know why everyone has to write about themselves." Bechdel's wry commentary: "I suspected we were no longer discussing Maxine Kumin."

Bechdel's attempt to understand her relationship with her mother involves an analysis of her years of analysis. As in Fun Home, her densely layered comics are both astoundingly intimate and intricate, though this time with more mixed results. Her drawings, black ink highlighted with touches of various shades of mauve, are somewhat looser and less detailed than in Fun Home. Their relative simplicity is made up for, however, by an overlay of narration, dialogue and commentary, all vying for our attention.

Alison Bechdel is the author of the graphic memoir <em>Fun Home </em>and the comic strip <em>Dykes to Watch Out For.</em><em></em>
Elena Seibert / Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Alison Bechdel is the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.

Interspersed among break-through therapy sessions and dream sequences are scenes from her childhood, including her mother telling her, when she was seven, "You're too old to be kissed good night any more." The narrative is underpinned by detailed, sometimes numbing discussions of her psychological touchstones, including the work of British pediatric psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who wrote about "transitional objects" and the "good-enough mother." These repeatedly quoted texts add ballast but also break the book's emotional spell, functioning like Brechtian alienation technique.

In a way this is apt, as alienation is at the heart of Bechdel's struggle. Her drawings zoom in close and then pan way out, often presenting bird's-eye views of herself. It gradually becomes apparent that she can only write about her mother by objectifying her life and distancing herself: by putting something, whether analysis or another text, between them. Bechdel's ability to capture this complicated dynamic in a comics format is at once dazzling, intellectually thrilling — and taxing.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.