Alison Bechdel’s “Are You My Mother?”, is ostensibly an exploration of her relationship with her mom. But at the same time, it is so much more. The graphic memoir explores Bechdel’s relationships – with her therapists, her girlfriends, her parents, her writing and herself. As a way to figure out what has been going wrong the people and activities listed above, she explores the intersecting lives of Virginia Woolf and Dr. Donald Winnicott.
The tricky thing with parents is that no matter how old you are and how far away you get from them, in any measure of distance, their impact remains. It colors your professional and personal lives and as Bechdel struggles to unravel her complicated relationship with her mother, she has to dig deep into her own self to get where she needs to go. This awareness has its own drawbacks in her romantic relationships as she not only has to navigate the present with an eye to the future, but her past remains by her side.
While this is a memoir about her relationship with her mother, it is also about the writing of this very book, the writing of her previous memoir and how her mom responded to having the family’s baggage exposed for all the world to see. As a reader, especially one who isn’t familiar with Bechdel’s previous work, it takes a while to catch up with what feels like a pre-established narrative at the beginning of the memoir. The memoir kicks with a dream and jumps to the middle of a phone conversation between Bechdel and her mother while the author is driving to Pennsylvania.
Some of the most interesting moments come when Bechdel shares her experiences with her therapists. Three are featured in the memoir and they all play different, but important roles in her life. As someone who recently started seeing a psychiatrist, its amazing to read the thoughts of someone who has been in therapy for most, if not all, of their adult life, talk about the powerful impact it can have. It’s a testament to Bechdel’s willingness to share so much with her readers that we can see how her therapist’s world views eventually shape how she handles her own life.
“Are You My Mother” is broken up into a handful of chapters that all begin with the retelling of a dream. While these dreams give the reader an indication of what the chapter will cover, the more interesting feature about these dreams is that a few years pass after she has the dreams and only years later does Bechdel piece together the meaning of the dream and the role that lesson has in her life.
Inevitably, the story comes back to the mom. Even when Bechdel is writing about Virginia Woolf’s writing or Winnicott’s research into parent-child relationships, it all goes back to her efforts to create something with the mother who stopped kissing her goodnight when she was seven-years-old. While I won’t give away Bechdel’s realizations at the end of the memoir and where her and mom are at that point, tagging along with her as she gets to that destination, makes the ride worthwhile.