Are You My Mother? By Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel portrays, in graphic novel format, the author’s attempt to come to terms with her fraught relationship with her mother.

We see mother and daughter, in the present, through phone calls and visits, and in the past, through flashback scenes from the author’s childhood.  She describes a game of pretend she remembers playing with her mother.  The little girl would pretend that her legs stopped working and her mother would play along, offering her an imaginary leg brace. She remembers the game very fondly and credits those moments with igniting her power of imagination and inspiring her writing career. Those are sweet memories, and you sense that there are more of them, buried under the resentment and hurt.

There’s no way around it, the mother is too blunt. She is forever hurting her daughter’s feelings with insensitive remarks. There is a telling scene where the daughter mentions the critic, Daniel Mendhelson, and the mother says, “Isn’t that the person who beat you out for that award?” The author captures the scene beautifully. I could see her slumped, rumpled body on the page and feel the mother’s pointed jabbing physically register in my own body.

The mother herself had artistic ambition, at one time, but she put it aside when she had children. Maybe that is the reason she is so stingy with the praise the author seems to long for, and never get. You can’t really blame the mom, though.  She’s tough, which is how she’s survived. The daughter is a lot more sensitive and easily wounded. That isn’t anybody’s fault, necessarily, it is just how it is. Mother and daughter love each other, but their personalities are so different. Still, you have to credit the two of them for trying. They talk every single day on the phone.

The author mentions feeling like she is parent to her mother, which when I read that, a little alarm went off inside me that said,  “Alert! Boilerplate psychobabble.” I can’t stand that sort of thing. Listen, there are interdependencies in all families. Modern therapy wants to pathologize those interdependencies. Modern therapy wants to blame your parent for whatever is wrong with you. But that is absolutely a losing game, in my opinion.

I do admire the way the author made an intellectual commitment to the analytic process, reading lots of books on theory and including several passages from her reading in the story. But the theories she describes, on Object-Relations, and others, though titillating, are hard to take seriously as any kind of natural law. The author seems to be reading these psychology models as though she were uncovering great truths. As a jaded psych major, I’m inclined to dismiss most of it as made up fluff. But I could look past the fluffiness if the process didn’t wind up being such an all-consuming, never ending project. There’s a two-page layout that shows the author in her therapist’s office and you can see a tree outside the window as it buds, flowers and drops its leaves through the seasons. Month after month, she keeps coming back for more, but toward what end?

The emotional world of the author seems mostly unchanged throughout the book. She’s stuck in a limbo state. Her mother exerts a tremendous power over her and she can’t seem to get a handle on that. She is fixated on this frustrating and unsatisfying relationship even to the detriment of her romantic relationships. She mentions the bouts of OCD that have troubled her since she was little. It seems almost like the fixation on her mom could be a manifestation of those obsessive patterns. Of course, we can all get stuck like that, obsessing over a relationship. Parents, exes, enemies. The brain can get stuck processing a troubled relationship over and over. Whether years of therapy is the answer, or pharmacalogical intervention,  hard, repeated exercise, or some artistic creation, the important thing is to get over the emotional hurdle.

In the end, she does have a breakthrough, she feels that she has been gotten out from under the oppressive, angsty weight of the relationship with her mom.  And when she gets there, you want to say, “Good! Now its time to move on.” (A message we all need to hear, myself very much included.)

In spite of the limited scope of the book, I still found it fascinating. I’m a big noobie to the graphic novel genre, but what I’ve seen of Alison Bechdel’s work, in this and in her earlier work Fun Home, I find mesmerizing. The graphic novel is such a great medium. There is so much it can do, and seemingly no realm, however esoteric or ethereal, that is beyond its reach.

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