What does it mean to write a story of our lives and relationships as it is unfolding? How can we represent ourselves as both our own subject and object simultaneously? What is holding us back from feeling like we are living a "real" or "authentic" life? In Alison Bechdel's new graphic narrative Are You My Mother? she attempts to answer these questions, weaving her own understanding of her sense self with the relationship between her and her mother from the time of childhood to the present day, as she did in her previous graphic narrative Fun Home with her father.
But Are You My Mother? is a departure from her earlier work's playful, often darkly comic tone. Though Bechdel titles it "a comic drama," the work strikes a decisively more serious, sometimes academic tone, making it feel heavier and often times clinical. Throughout, as she interrogates interactions between her and her mother, she weaves in her own sexual relationship with other women, her therapy sessions, and a close, sometimes line-by-line analysis, of authors including Virginia Woolf's diaries and literary works, and the papers by English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, particularly known for his contributions on the relationship between a child and her mother.
As such, it's easy to see how the work might fight to captivate audiences. Fun Home was more of an immediately recognizable story: her father's death, revealed to be an apparent suicide, sets off a series of memories that unfold to reveal his relationships with other men, and how Bechdel came to understand her own sexuality as a lesbian. The best way to describe Are You My Mother? is embedded in one of the book's later panels, in which Bechdel's mother comments, after reading a draft, "It's...It's a metabook." To this statement, we see her smiling reaction as she say replies, "Yeah! It is!"
Despite her enthusiasm, however, Bechdel seems oddly detached at many points throughout the narrative. Seven different "chapters" each open with separate dream sequences that bleed into the respective themes anchored by Winnicott's theories. Layer upon layer of text and image, often of painstakingly recreated letters or photographs, reveal Bechdel as the narrator of her own life, a sort of psychoanalysis of herself in a story that is unfolding.
This is often captivating, but doesn't allow for the same satisfaction that came from a spatial uncovering of troubling or revelatory memories in her childhood house in Fun Home. Such a suspension of immediate pleasure in the narrative has revealed some gross misreadings in reviews, most notably by Dwight Garner of the New York Times, who called it "an undistinguished edifice by a builder who forgot to remove the scaffolding."
But the scaffolding, the way in which Bechdel traverses the inside and outside of her sense of self as it relates to her blossoming understanding of her mother, is what elevates Are You My Mother? beyond the standards that she and Marjane Satrapi set in the mid-2000s for the graphic narrative as a tool of feminist or queer personal narrative writing. Bechdel is able to show us the value in this detachment, which emerges in several points throughout the narrative with exacting technical proficiency.
Early on, as she mulls where to began her narrative, the meta-text that sits above one panel is disarming, "You can't live and write at the same time." And later, sitting in front of a mirror as a child, she remarks, "The self in the mirror was opening out, in an infinite unfurling," The past page reads, "I am the one whose drive is being thwarted," and, in a separate text box, "And I am the one who is thwarting it." In order to reveal these often profound and easily universal understandings, she has to break from her life entirely, or at least try to. For in all the moments of detachment, she seems to re-emerge, particularly at point when thinking about her mother as an actor, she comments how "instead of playing a character, I'm playing myself."
Does Are You My Mother? have a sense of finality that necessarily gives us answers to the ways in which Bechdel plays herself? No, not exactly. But it offers something greater: it shows how we come to fear the very power and urgency our stories have because we are afraid, like looking in the mirror, of these moments of unfurling. With this realization, we are not ultimately detached, but more profoundly alive as the subjects of our lives. This is not the the same satisfaction we derived from Fun Home, but is instead something more transcendent and lasting if we are willing to see beyond detachment to this moment where we can innovate our sense of ourselves.
With gorgeously rendered drawings that slink seamlessly through time, Bechdel demonstrates how the graphic narrative genre is uniquely positioned to handle this realization.