Alison Bechdel’s first graphic memoir, 2006’s Fun Home, about her coming out, her father's sexuality and his presumed suicide, was incredibly difficult to write. But in retrospect it was the easy one. Easy, that is, in comparison to the follow-up. “My father had been dead for 20 years,” Bechdel explains.
Not so her mother, who is alive and well and at the center of Bechdel’s latest illustrated memoir, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama.
“Writing about my mom was much more complicated,” she says. “We’re part of [our mothers]. We come out of them. We’re like the same person, whatever gender you are.” That deep connection to her mother made this project incredibly fearsome. “I’ve been daunted for the past six years.”
Adding to the obstacles, Bechdel has taken a medium known for relative lightness and used it to tell a nonlinear story that explores the darkest of areas, namely the history of psychoanalysis, her own therapeutic process, and the chilling lack of affection between her and her mother, which haunts Bechdel to this day. “This is a much less comic comic book,” says Bechdel, who stretches the form to tell parallel stories, often within one frame, all in the service of understanding her mother and healing their relationship.
It’s material that can provoke wildly divergent reactions. The New York Times gave the book two reviews, one a rave, the other an outright pan. Bechdel explains that the negative one was written by Dwight Garner, a critic who had previously praised a collection of her cartoons, Dykes to Watch Out For. “So I think he’s just not interested in psychoanalysis. I think people who are well-adjusted are not going to be interested in this story.” She adds, “Fortunately, there are a lot of people who are not well-adjusted.”
Are You My Mother? is a source of ambivalence even for its author. “I just talked to my mother 10 minutes ago,” Bechdel says while sitting in a Los Angeles hotel room on a stop along her recent book tour. “She was saying she thinks her friends are reading it but not talking to her about it. She’s not sure what’s going on.” Bechdel pauses. “I mean, it’s weird.” She fears that she has forced her mother into an unreasonable position, having to endure a very public portrayal of her life.
It could be said that Bechdel’s mother was as much an actor in all of this as she (see: “We’re like the same person”). Take, for example, Bechdel’s interpretation of the reason she uses drawings instead of prose as her way to tell stories: “I feel like I kind of became a cartoonist as a way of diluting my mother’s scrutiny because she was the writer. Both my parents were English teachers. I felt like she was just this powerful, critical presence and I didn’t want to have my writing destroyed by her. So I found a way to write that she really couldn’t see, kind of like how teenagers have those high-pitched ringtones that adults can’t hear.”