Book Review of Alison Bechdel’s Latest Memoir “Are You My Mother?”
Alison Bechdel’s latest graphic novel is terrific. I give it 5 out of 5 stars. The book is appropriately not titled “About My Mother.” This is not primarily a biography about the author’s mother; rather, it is more an introspective multi-media recounting of the author’s perceptions and understanding of her mother and her relationship with her mother.
The quotes on the back of the book jacket, from the authors Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything Is Illuminated” & “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”) and Gloria Steinem are fitting, because the book’s narrative structure is a complex metabook, interweaving different timelines and narrative voices (like a Safran Foer story), and the book is infused with ideas similar to ideas long championed by Steinem.
This is a story of one lesbian’s relationship with her mother. The book is also a retelling of Alison Bechdel’s extensive reading into psychoanalytic theories (of Freud, Jung, and particularly the lesser know Donald Winnicott) and how she has interpreted her relationships and development using psychoanalytic theories. Much of the book is an enjoyable survey of some of the developments and debates within psychoanalysis.
I loved this book. I also loved the book’s predecessor “Fun Home.” They are two of the best books I’ve read from any category: graphic novel, novel, non-fiction, or compilation. Advocates of the graphic novel medium have long argued it should be included with more commonly perceived “serious” literary formats. Bechdel’s two memoirs are two great examples why the graphic novel format should be considered on the same level with other literary formats. She capably uses the multi-media format’s efficiencies, clarity, and simultaneously-layered complexities.
Some nurturing, feminine, and affectionate mothers of lesbian daughters might be cautious or take issue with this story, because Bechdel’s narrative fits into assumptions and stereotypes that were sometimes used in the past by behavioral theorists to explain why a young woman’s environment (with a lack of affection from the mother at a young age, coupled with latent, quiet, or unspoken hostility toward the daughter) might “cause” a daughter to become a lesbian. Doctors and therapists sometimes attempted to make mothers feel guilty about their parenting choices and techniques, suggesting the mothers’ behaviors contributed to their children’s “choice” to become gay. Bechdel’s tale could easily be turned (perverted) into support for that kind of theory.
As with most memoirists, Bechdel tells a story that portrays herself in a positive light. Sure, there are some warts shown, but I suspect Bechdel left many of her personal failings unmentioned. In the loose timeline of this book, which covers her whole life, she admittedly is a serial monogamist. There’s nothing inferior about being a serial monogamist when compared to being a singular monogamist. While Bechdel recounts affairs she had, we don’t fully understand her relationship shortcomings with her significant others. We see her angry. We see her wanting to see other people. But we don’t get a clear understanding of why or how her romantic relationships developed or why they fell apart. And while this kind of critique might often be misplaced, this book is specifically a memoir focusing primarily on the author’s relationships and relationship theories. I would have liked more revealing observations on those primary topics. In this book, they are often omitted or treated with kid-gloves.
Which leads to something very positive about this memoir: Bechdel does not write, as her mother refers to in this book, a memoir about “Oh, you know, inaccuracy, exhibitionism, narcissism, those fake memoirs.” While no memoir can ever be “the whole truth,” I get the sense this memoir is at least “nothing but the truth” – even if it, like all writing, is selective in what is included and what is left out. Bechdel also consistently takes considerate care to conceal the identity of people in her past who are still alive and may not wish to have their private matters publicly discussed from one point of view.
When evaluating Bechdel’s self-analysis, I admire that she is very selective, not trying to solely follow any one therapist’s theories. Nor does she solely try to interpret and frame her life through the religious frameworks handed down from her family. While I admire her intelligent and discriminating selection of different ideas from different theorists, I sometimes felt she was always looking for ideas from outside of herself – as if for an idea to be valid, it had to come from some other brilliant person’s body of work – whether it be Virginia Woolf, Winnicott, or some other artist or playwright. Sometimes it felt like she was writing an essay to explain her philosophies, and to give her chosen ideas sufficient support, she felt she had to make regular “appeals to authority,” frequently quoting and citing the ideas of some famous writer. I’d enjoy a book where she did even more synthesis to express her best ideas in her own, carefully crafted words.
I’m not sure, like any person or patient, that Bechdel makes the best conclusions about her own life. She regularly tries to interpret her life’s events by fitting them into someone else’s (often psychoanalytic) speculative theories or paradigm. As I read the book, I thought: A very educated modern therapist may be able to make some more accurate conclusions about Bechdel, from the wealth of introspective data Bechdel provides, than Bechdel has yet made about herself. But this maybe could be said about any good, complex, and introspective literary work.
It’s interesting that Bechdel regularly heavily looks to or relies upon psychoanalytic theories to attempt to understand and interpret her relationships with others. Of the long-standing therapeutic theories, psychoanalysis, especially its early theories, turned out to be more speculative than scientific. Bechdel writes “Freud had been out of fashion when I was in college.” I’m not sure that accurately explains why psychoanalysis was not being commonly taught. Freud was not simply “out of fashion” – as if the study of psychology was something left to popular opinion. Freud’s speculative theories had been either thoroughly discredited or had fallen into a category of “not provable or verifiable using scientific or empirical methods.”
Freud still is seen as an interesting writer and as someone who correctly suggested sexuality should be considered as a stronger factor in understanding human drives and behaviors than generations of cultural messages had previously belittled. But his Oedipal theories and many of his other speculative theories about human motives and drives have not stood up to peer review or the tests of time. So, I’m not sure trying to make sense of your life, by trying to interpret it through a psychoanalytic theory, may be the healthiest route. For example, even Winnicott, who Bechdel seems to favor more than other psychoanalysts, had some suspect methods and interpretations. While he was very creative and probably a great listener, creativity is not always the healthiest path to shaping good behaviors or determining better parenting or relationship skills. This Winnicott story troubled me:
When good people try to make sense of their relationships by trying to fit them into invalid paradigms, such as “Oedipal Complex” theory, inaccurate and unhealthy conclusions can be made. In Bechdel’s case, she thinks Winnicott’s theory that “The subject must destroy the object. And the object must survive this destruction” has weight, and she both explains and rationalizes her creative and interpersonal actions using that framework. Personally, I’m just not sure the “destruction” has to take place in our primary relationships.
In the final and concluding chapter of the book, Bechdel also seems to find some merit in Dorothy Gallagher’s theory about memoirists: “The writer’s business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve the story.” I don’t think I can agree with that assertion. But I can see how the idea might be appealing to a psychoanalyst or a believer in psychoanalysis. Traditional psychoanalysis, like religion, often required a follower to interpret their life through a pre-existing paradigm – often requiring a leap of faith into an unproven theory.
In contrast, I think a writer, scientist, and therapist’s priorities should include serving the truth, the family, and the greater community. Sigmund Freud’s (the patriarchal psychoanalyst) theories may be interesting and imaginative, but it should be noted that even after he achieved great acclaim, fame, and wealth, four of his close, younger relatives committed suicide – and even though he used his wealth and connections to get himself, his wife and his children out of Vienna during the Nazi occupation prior to WW II, he was unable to first get his 4 sisters out, and they all ended up being murdered in concentration camps after he left. Freud may have been powerless in all these close events – and he did not do the eventual harm. But sometimes I’m as interested in the health of the people closely around a believer of a particular therapeutic theory as much as I’m interested in the health and well-being of the believer. I want to know the benefits and detriments that happen to a person’s community as a result of their beliefs as much as I want to know how the beliefs effect a specific believer’s life. Like a self-serving memoirist who seeks to support “the story” more than “the truth,” Freud’s interpretations of his patients’ dreams and narratives, were often interpreted only in ways that supported, or could be argued to be consistent with, his original hypotheses. He favored loyalty and praise over scientific verification – and when a writer’s priorities are in that order, the results can often be, at the least, misleading. At worse, very dangerous.
I love that this book is a visual feast and an easy to follow introspective exploration. As with any good writing or fiction, it’s not essential the protagonist draw all the correct conclusions or find all “the best” answers. Often, the sincerity and artful depth of the investigation is more than worthwhile. This book is ultimately about finding good qualities in those around her and making them known to others. And in that regard, Bechdel succeeds.
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