The Mom Problem

Heather Love

For hard-core fans of Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic—and we are legion—the publication this year of Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama is a major event. Bechdel’s beautiful, witty, absorbing memoir about her father was one of the most beloved books of the past decade. With its layered personal and social histories, its play with perspective and memory, and its sheer narrative interest, Fun Home was an instant classic. In her most recent book, Bechdel expands the intimate archive of her family, turning the focus from her father to her mother. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that many have reacted to the book with an emotion often directed at mothers: rageful disappointment.

Bruce Bechdel was an aesthete, avid reader, and closeted gay man who committed suicide while Alison was in college; Fun Home is a highly controlled, spare book, a lot like the modernist masterpieces that Bechdel’s father admires. Are You My Mother? is, by comparison, a sprawling postmodern epic. There are few dramatic turning points; the action is mostly internal as we witness Bechdel’s struggles with her writing, her lovers, her therapists, and her mother—who is, significantly, very much alive.

Given readers’ attachment to Fun Home, it is not surprising that early reviews of Are You My Mother? have been passionate—and divided. Those who love the book—as I do—tend to prefer it to Fun Home; they see it as extending and deepening the self-reflexivity, formal inventiveness, and emotional honesty of the first book. Those who do not love it actively hate it. The new book has been criticized as being shapeless, self-indulgent, and, in Dwight Garner’s review in The New York Times, “front-to-back, somewhat actively dismal.” Garner, who wrote a glowing review of a collection of Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For in 2008, begins his review of Are You My Mother? by explicitly comparing it to Fun Home, asserting that the new book “is—sometimes you need to come right out and say these things—not nearly so good.” Are You My Mother? is not a sequel to Fun Home, but it’s not not a sequel either, and critics can’t help but judge the two books in relation to each other. The negative reviews of Bechdel’s second memoir seem to reflect readers’ strong investment in the first.

The negative reactions also seem to be produced by the book’s subject matter. Bechdel has commented on the challenge of focusing on psychoanalysis, which does not have inherent narrative appeal. Long scenes of talk and silence in the therapist’s office and extensive quotations from the British object-relations analyst D. W. Winnicott pose something of a PR problem, at least for readers picking up what they may think is a comic book. In a feature in The Advocate, Bechdel commented on Garner’s review: “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 quips, “Fortunately, there are a lot of people who are not well-adjusted.”

Bechdel’s act of risky psychic exposure, her sustained probing of her mom problem, seems to be provoking a mimetic response in at least some of her readers.

There is an even more troubling subject than psychoanalysis in the book, though—Mom. As a specific biographical person, Helen Bechdel is not particularly troubling. Indeed, one of the narrative challenges of Are You My Mother? (in contrast to Fun Home) is that Bechdel’s mother is basically sympathetic, what Winnicott would call a “good-enough” mother. There are no dramatic stories of abuse, no skeletons to speak of. The trouble Helen Bechdel makes for Alison Bechdel is the usual trouble that mothers make for their children, perhaps especially for their daughters—psychic trouble. In the Advocate piece, Bechdel puts it this way: “Writing about my mom was much more complicated.… We’re part of [our mothers]. We come out of them. We’re like the same person.”

The volatility that characterizes a lot of writing about motherhood can be traced to the difficulty of stably seeing one’s mother as a separate person. And if writing about mothers is difficult, presumably reading about them is too. We might then see the keyed-up responses to Are You My Mother? as evidence not merely of negative aesthetic judgment or failure to connect to the book’s psychoanalytic themes. Instead, Bechdel’s act of risky psychic exposure, her sustained probing of her mom problem, seems to be provoking a mimetic response in at least some of her readers.

 


 

Before she published her graphic memoirs, Bechdel was known primarily for her long-running series, Dykes to Watch Out For. The strip followed a group of friends and lovers over more than twenty years, chronicling break-ups, affairs, births, moves, adoptions, gender transitions, graduations, breast cancer, lost jobs, promotion to tenure, and—did I mention break-ups? Published mostly in independent gay and lesbian newspapers, Dykes to Watch Out For was a portrait of a far-flung community. When Bechdel first started publishing in 1983, the range of lesbian representation was limited. Despite the heavy lifting the strip had to do, particularly in its early years, it never felt dutiful, thanks to Bechdel’s light touch.

Bechdel’s alter ego in the series, Mo, is a classic neurotic, and her paranoia, conspiracy theories, and self-doubt are played for laughs throughout the series. The rectitude of this intentional community is gently critiqued, often through minor details such as the specials board in Café Topaz (“wheat free, dairy-free pizza w/no tomatoes!” and “steamed French fries”) or titles on the shelves of Madwimmin Books (“Tipping the Velveeta,” “Armpits,” and “Her Tongue on My Dissertation”). As in any story that lasts long enough, Dykes To Watch Out For is marked by many reversals of fortune: the butch lothario ends up a parent and mentor to a transgender teen, buying her a Hello Kitty thong when others continue to slip on their pronouns; the perfect couple splits after their eighth-grade son posts a fight about an extramarital affair on YouTube; and Mo ends up with a character she originally hates—a pretentious gender studies professor who speaks fluent jargon but has trouble telling right from wrong.

Alison Bechdel did turn up occasionally as a character in Dykes To Watch Out For, but she was “the cartoonist,” a comedic figure rather than a developed character; the series was marked by broad humor and political satire, and the overall aesthetic was close to the work of underground comics artists like Harvey Pekar, R. Crumb, and Diana DiMassa. Fun Home and Are You My Mother? are quieter and more introspective. As her work has become more personal, Bechdel has developed a more realistic drawing style and experimented with narrative technique, page layouts, perspective, and plot sequence. The anarchy of the early comics has been refined away as Bechdel has voyaged deeper into an interior landscape of memory, fantasy, trauma, and desire.

As her work has become more personal, Bechdel has developed a more realistic drawing style and experimented with narrative technique, page layouts, perspective, and plot sequence.

While Bechdel turned out an episode of Dykes to Watch Out For every two weeks, the memoirs have been years in the making. They are beautiful books, highly finished and full of fascinating details. Bechdel developed a painstaking process in which she poses as different characters and photographs herself. Using these images as well as a large number of public and private documents, she builds panels through a combination of line drawing, ink wash, and digital finishing and colorization. A meticulous archivist, Bechdel gets the details right, recreating the look and feel of the milieus she represents: small-town Pennsylvania in the 1960s, downtown New York during the height of Gay Liberation, a radical women’s bookstore in the 1980s, a well-appointed therapist’s office in the 1990s.

Obsessive archiving was crucial to Fun Home, which bordered on the forensic in its attempt to narrate the complicated life of Bechdel’s mercurial, talented, and overbearing father, Bruce, a high school English teacher who also ran the funeral home inherited from his family. Fun Home is filled with meticulous copies of documents from a life lived obliquely: love letters written to Alison’s mother while he was in the Army; photographs found after his death, including a snapshot of one of his students lounging in his underwear; a witness report from his trial for providing alcohol to a minor. Bechdel’s obsessive attention to detail recalls her father’s: while he fussed endlessly over the architectural details of her childhood house, she recreates these details perfectly, but at a distance.

Bechdel presents father and daughter as doubles and rivals. The story of Bruce’s closeted sexuality and brushes with the law unfolds alongside Alison’s coming out in college, where her lesbianism is bolstered by visits to the HQ section of the library, LGBT meetings, and a campus visit by Adrienne Rich. In terms of gender presentation, Fun Home represents Alison as a mirror image of her father; Bechdel refers to them as inverts and inversions of each other, the dad forcing her into fussy dresses while she reads about men’s fashion.

There is an Oedipal flavor to their relationship, particularly in the competition for intellectual and artistic recognition and achievement. In an interview with Hillary Chute in the Village Voice, Bechdel recalls her father giving her his copy of Ulysses from college: “I wrote all over that copy of Ulysses. It was sort of like fuck you. A fuck you both to my dad and to James Joyce because it was such an annoying book to read, really.” But Fun Home is deeply indebted to Joyce. Like A Portrait of the Artist, the book opens with a scene of play with the father: in Joyce’s novel, Stephen Dedalus’s father tells him a bedtime story, and in Fun Home, Alison is playing airplane, an activity that, she notes, is referred to in the circus as “Icarian games.” In both cases, the question is whether the child will make it out of Crete to become, like Daedalus, a mature artist, or whether, like his upstart son, he will fall into the sea.


 Alison Bechdel’s relationship to her mother—a writer, musician, and actor—is also marked by rivalry. But the dynamics in Are You My Mother? are different. While it makes sense to characterize the relationship between Alison and Bruce as Oedipal—anxious, antagonistic, and high-risk—the relation between Alison and Helen is characterized by dynamics that Freud described as pre-Oedipal. Freud used the term to describe the period before the Oedipal crisis, when children of both sexes are utterly dependent on the mother and do not yet grasp the distinction between self and other. Freud discussed the pre-Oedipal in his late work on femininity; like femininity itself, Freud found the pre-Oedipal phase shadowy and confusing, a dark contrast to the outright aggression of Oedipal conflict. His description, it is interesting to note, takes us back to Crete: “Our insight into this early, pre-Oedipal phase in girls comes to us as a surprise, like the discovery, in another field, of the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization behind the civilization of Greece.”

Bechdel has likened Fun Home to a labyrinth, but compared to the lush, involuted underworld of Are You My Mother? it seems classical and well-lit—a Greek temple built over Minoan ruins. While there is no shortage of complexity, ambivalence, and emotional torment in Fun Home, the fact of Bechdel’s distance from her father yields a more rounded, serene work. That distance is in many ways the point of Fun Home, which in one panel and on the hardback cover presents their house from afar, with each family member in a separate room pursuing a separate activity.

Bechdel’s latest memoir can be seen as an attempt to register and repair the damage that results when one chooses aesthetic distance over direct experience.

Bechdel suggests that the silences and isolation in her family led her to adopt a strategy of cool aesthetic distance. While Fun Home, with its tight structure and high-culture allusions, embodies such an approach, Are You My Mother? can be seen as an attempt to register and repair the damage that results when one chooses aesthetic distance over direct experience.

Are You My Mother? takes the reader deep into psychic territory, exploring Bechdel’s creative, artistic, and emotional life in all its double-dealing and messiness. Both memoirs are monochromatic, overlaying a single color on black line drawings. In Are You My Mother?, though, she jettisons the green-gray wash of Fun Home for a warm red, set off in many cases against deep black backgrounds. If you are willing to venture into this murky territory, the book is intensely rewarding. And despite the many scenes in the therapist’s office, it is hardly the narcissistic indulgence Garner suggests. Are You My Mother? is characterized by Bechdel’s trademark self-deprecation, and she treats her self-absorption with tender irony. Describing how, one summer, though she “continued to function in the external world,” her life “was almost completely internal,” Bechdel pictures herself going about this ordinary but otherworldly activity.

 


Are You My Mother? is in large part about the difficulty of writing Are You My Mother? There are plenty of reasons why this might have been a hard book to write, including the deeply personal subject matter and the ethics of exposing one’s intimates to public scrutiny. Alison is also paralyzed by her mother’s critical judgment. Bechdel represents their relationship in real time, tracking her ongoing anguish about her mother’s responses to drafts of the book she is struggling to finish. Phone conversations with her mother leave her shattered and inarticulate; Bechdel pictures herself repeatedly with staring eyes and crumpled posture.

Bechdel, instead of blaming her mother for her effect on her, works at laying bare the early history of her feelings. In this sense, she follows the insight of object-relations psychoanalysts who identify resentment and ambivalence toward the mother as an inevitable result of her role as caretaker. Writing in the 1970s, and joined by many other feminist psychoanalysts, Dorothy Dinnerstein traced the psychoanalytic roots of social hostility toward women: “the early mother’s apparent omnipotence, then, her ambivalent role as the ultimate source of good and evil, is a central source of human malaise.”

It is clear that Bechdel’s mother was both an enabling and a blocking figure in Alison’s psychic, sexual, and artistic development. As a child, during a period of intense OCD, Alison begins crossing out every word that she writes in her diary; in order to ease her anxiety, her mother begins to take dictation, writing down the events of the day in Alison’s own words. Bechdel includes pages from the diary but also lovingly pictures these bedtime scenes: Alison cozy in her pajamas and her mother seated next to her, absorbed in her task, her posture expressive of care but also of a sustaining neutrality.

 

 

That neutral posture is familiar as that of the psychoanalyst. Bechdel juxtaposes past and present, interspersing these childhood images with scenes of herself as an adult, lying on the couch, talking while her therapist silently takes notes.




D. W. Winnicott’s attention to motherhood, to childhood play and development, and to the creative process, make him a resonant figure for Bechdel. Each of the chapters in Are You My Mother? is named after a key concept of Winnicott’s (for example, “The Ordinary Devoted Mother,” “True and False Self,” and “The Use of an Object”). Imaginatively recreating Winnicott’s biography, Bechdel pictures him in analysis with James Strachey, playing on the floor next to his young patients, and relaxing in bed with his lover, the analyst Clare Britton.

The concept that Winnicott is best known for is the transitional object, by which he means the kinds of things—a blanket or a stuffed animal—that a child uses to move from a dyadic relation with the mother to a relation with the world at large. The object is important for Winnicott not only because of its function in development, but also because it allows him to describe the paradoxical space—neither internal nor external—where creative life transpires. Bechdel reflects at length on the significance of transitional objects, lavishing attention on one in particular, her own childhood bear, Beezum.

One might understand this book itself as an attempt to mimic the look and feel of the transitional object. Unlike the cool, hard surfaces of Fun Home, Are You My Mother? is soft and textured. Its red wash gives it the warm, pliant appearance of fabric; through a cunning use of scale and perspective, it draws the reader in. The book’s cover, for instance, situates the reader at eye level, looking at the mother’s dressing table. Picturing everyday items in sensuous detail and at this scale gives them a magical quality, an almost uncanny sense of heightened presence.

If Bechdel’s attention to detail in Fun Home seemed driven by competition with the father, here that same quality feels motivated by care. The best proof of the child’s love for her mother is in the steady, rapt gaze she turns on her—whatever the state of Alison’s feelings, her interest, at least, is an endlessly renewable resource. 


 

In involving the reader psychically, even corporeally, in this dynamic exchange, Are You My Mother? not only represents the healing process but also enacts it.

The work of repair in the book is mediated largely through the figure of Winnicott. While Alison tells her therapist early on that she has a fantasy that he is her mother, there is also a noticeable physical resemblance between the famous analyst and her father. Fun Home begins with Alison on the floor with her father, but the scene is fleeting, a kind of fantasy prelude before Bruce Bechdel emerges as a distant, rigid manager of the household. The rug they lie on, while it serves briefly as a transitional object enabling their play, quickly loses its magical quality, turning back into another dead thing under the father’s control.

 

 

Winnicott, by contrast, drew his patients out by sustaining play with them, and throughout the book he is shown sitting, lying, and rolling on the floor.

 

 

Are You My Mother? ends with another moment of play. Early in the book, Bechdel describes the game of “crippled child” that she used to play; by pretending to be disabled, she lures her mother into a scene of injury and repair. In the final pages of the book, Alison lies on the floor, unable to move, calling out to her mother until she helps her, agreeing to provide her with the special shoes she needs to walk. While Fun Home begins with Alison’s father breaking out of the imaginative space of play, Are You My Mother? closes with an image of Alison’s mother getting down on the floor to join her in fantasy.



 

Alison’s relation to her mother is central to her creative process; this profound intimacy, here pictured as a scene of rolling on the carpet, can make it difficult to get Helen Bechdel into focus as a character. Bechdel’s ambivalent identification with her mother is shot through with desire. While we never get the perspective on Bechdel’s mother that we had on her father, the book offers something else: an experience of her presence.




Are You My Mother? grapples with the problems that attend any attempt to represent psychic life—the tricks of memory, fantasy’s warping effects on reality, and the disjunction between belief and fact. The book can be seen as a heroic effort to concretize such experiences, to make what is intangible and fleeting available for sensuous contemplation. Bechdel brings extraordinary representational resources to this task. The book is at once a family memoir, a dream journal, a case history, a documentary of the creative process, a piece of lesbian and feminist history, and a reflection on psychoanalytic theory. But there is a remainder, something that eludes representation, since the problems that Bechdel has taken on are so acute in the case of the mother. Given her role in the infant’s early life, the mother can’t be securely located inside or outside the self—is she a person or just a state of mind?

In an essay entitled “The Place Where We Live,” Winnicott considers the question of “where we most of the time are when we are experiencing life.” He suggests that creative and intellectual activity should be treated neither as purely external nor internal—it is neither behavior nor pure contemplation—but that it takes place “somewhere else.” Winnicott argues that an area for cultural experience or creative playing is produced between individuals, and between individuals and their environment. Allowing this space for the “deep dreaming that is at the core of the personality” (p. 147) depends on the maintenance of a “potential space” (p. 144) between mother and child. The deep, almost inarticulable pleasure of reading Are You My Mother? is a consequence of the fact that it is not only about the space of creative dreaming but that it also manages to bring such a space into being.