Spectral Memory, Sexuality and Inversion: An Arthrological Study of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Equal parts kunstlerroman, psychoanalytic case study, and literary criticism, Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, frames the development of a lesbian identity through the strategic use of visual and verbal representation of memories, interpretive acts, and the use of specific literary texts as transitional objects. Bookish and nostalgic, Alison the narrator weaves a sturdy, ornate web of memory with silk strands of primal scenes, passages from novels, photographs, lines from family letters, interior décor, and reconstructed dialogue, all in the service of a central question: why am I who I am? Secondary to this essential inquiry are related questions: how closely affiliated are a daughter's open lesbian existence and a father's closeted gay one? How might one queer the family? How is gender identity formed, expressed, modified, and repressed? How can literature offer affirmation of one's predilections, choices, and theories?
To answer these questions, Bechdel frames a graphic narrative that traces, through the interaction of a set of repeated visual and verbal tropes, the formation of a daughter's sexual and gender identity in tandem with, in relation to, and in opposition to, her own father's. The choice of the graphic medium for her memoir allows Bechdel to explore primal scenes quite literally: by drawing separate scenes from her childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, Bechdel finds patterns, patterns the reader can then reconstruct by moving around the narrative in a flexible, non-linear manner. First, the artist-writer slows down focal events by exploding them into linked panels; then, the reader "closes" the gaps between those panels – Scott McCloud's "gutter", Pascal Lefèvre's "extra-diegetic [non-visualized] space" – by connecting and, in a sense, animating, these sequenced panels. Fun Home is an intensely writerly – in the Barthesian sense – text in its rich layering of non-contiguous series; the reader is required to gather the strings offered on many different pages in order to be hoisted and transported by the balloons of her tale. Thierry Groensteen's recently translated work, The System of Comics, can help us lift off.
Groensteen challenges the reader to pay careful attention to internal structure in comic texts. He presents, in The System of Comics, a framework for looking at graphic narratives that is predicated upon the relations between and among panels (the term he invents for this relation is arthrology, or the study of articulation), particularly those which are not immediately contiguous. The reader is found to employ a "wandering eye" as s/he makes his/her way through the text, apprehending myriad sequences as s/he goes. The page in front of one at a given point in time has immediacy (and its own temporal structure to which Groensteen bestows the term "hyperframe"), but is far from the only grouping of panels to which the reader is sensitive. Instead, the reader, perhaps initially below the threshold of conscious meaning-making, recognizes patterns, resonances, repetitions which bind distant panels together, in, as Groensteen puts it, iconic solidarity: "interdependent images that, participating in a series, present the double characteristic of being separatedand which are plastically and semantically over-determined by the fact of their coexistence in praesentia" (18).
These images, contained in panels both proximal and distant, are, according to Groensteen, "in debt to each other" (), and demand that the reader/viewer move forward and backward in the text as needed, grouping panels together into semantically charged units, or series. Writes Groensteen, "If there is a vectorization of reading, there is no unidirectional vectorization in the construction of meaning" (). Instead, through "retroactive determination" (), earlier panels join later panels arthrologically, and the reader is now privy to differentiated "series" (Groensteen: "'A series is a succession of continuous or discontinuous images linked by a system of iconic, plastic or semantic correspondences'") which reward careful study. Keeping in mind our focal text, Bechdel's Fun Home, we will be challenged to identify several of these series, those which most saliently represent Bechdel's interpretation of several key relations: with her father, her mother and her own queer gender and sexual identity.
A last, important Groensteenian postulate concerns the nature of the panels themselves which we are now intent upon networking: these panels need not to be apprehended as single entities which must, in their entirety, be grouped with other whole panels. Rather, each panel is composed of parts – objects, characters, foreground and background, text in both narrative boxes and speech bubbles, atmosphere, line strength, etc. – from which a single element, or several elements, may be lifted and seen distinctly and in relation to elements of other proximal or distant panels. In other words, it becomes possible to see linkage among speech balloons only, or backgrounds, or a certain character's facial expression as it is drawn in a linked series. Building on the work of Daniel Arasse, Groensteen extends this analysis to register the way in which a reader makes certain parts important:
Arasse recalls that "the Italian language differentiates that which is a particolare and that which is a dettaglio." Any small part of a figure or an object constitutes a particolare, that is to say, a detail in the objective sense. This small part becomes a dettagliothe instant where it 'becomes significant,' in the sense that it is separated out, chosen by the reader/spectator of the image, who finds in this detail a particular interest or pleasure. ()
The reader/viewer's job, then, is to choose these details suffused with meaning, and to seek their complements elsewhere in the text; "comics," writes Groensteen, "is not only an art of fragments, of scattering, of distribution; it is also an art of conjunction, of repetition, of linking together" (22). Interestingly, this very act of finding connections across temporal or spatial distance mirrors the act of constructing memory, as well as the child's desire to conflate a parent's lived experiences and self-conception with his/her own, shrinking the distance between the generations. Bechdel, we will see, is intensely wedded to this act.
What complicates matters in Bechdel's case, however, and what makes the reading of this developmental story so fascinating, is that she locates both her father and herself outside the heteronormative, procreative structure of the family, as "inverts:" sexual inverts (a Freudian term Bechdel prefers) and inversions of each other. Firmly predicating her first-person narrative on sexual and gender analysis – a rare move in autobiography – Bechdel is able to avoid the typical alienated stance of the lesbian daughter (who, in affirming her lesbianism, turns away from the [repressive, oppressive] family of origin and creates a queer nexus of her own consisting of lovers, ex-lovers, friends, the gay community, activism, etc.). Bechdel does not have to renounce the family of origin to be queer: she can queer the family. Unusual as this may seem, it is a gesture firmly in line with the most complex reconsiderations of "family" by queer theorists like Elizabeth Freeman, who, in "Queer Belongings: Kinship Theory and Queer Theory," suggests that blood ties are not the critical point of the family: "The most obvious contribution that anthropologists of kinship have made to the project of "queering" it (if such a thing is possible) is to recognize that kinship is a social and not a biological fact, a matter of culture rather than nature." ()
Freeman then opens up exciting space for us to explore in Bechdel's narrative: the creation of gendered subjects by the family, particularly when the dominantly formative parent does not occupy a clearly defined traditional gender role. Freeman continues:
Kinship makes bodies not only (or not even primarily) through procreation but also through the process of gendering them male and female. It is a regulated system for making people look like they were born into an anatomical sex that is actually an effect of particular modes of production and their attendant social relations. ()
What happens to the regulated system when the transmitting adult slimly adheres to it? When the gender identity, to say nothing of the sexual identity, of both parent and child are dizzyingly othered by each other (and thus, similarly opposed, though radically disjunct, to the normative)? If we assume that the heterosexual, male-defined father helps create a heterosexual, female-defined daughter, through this particular mode of production (the nuclear family), how delightfully queer things get when the father is neither heterosexual nor male-defined, and the daughter is neither heterosexual nor female-defined. If Bruce Bechdel, Alison's father, pushes dresses, florals, and barrettes on his tomboy daughter, new questions arise as to why he does so.
Figure 1. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Bechdel knows this and formulates a relation with her father that is both Oedipally opposed ("I was Spartan to my father's Athenian. . . butch to his nelly" ) and fundamentally linked. She posits Bruce, pictorially and verbally, simultaneously like and unlike herself. Her first extended consideration of this likeness and difference is in the Daedalus/Icarus trope she explores at the very outset of the book.
The first scene (page 3) of Fun Home depicts Alison's father balancing a nine or ten year old version of her on his foot, in an awkward rendition of the game "Airplane."
Figure 2. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Referencing circus "Icarian games" and then alluding more overtly to the Daedalus/Icarus myth, Bechdel depicts, visually, a tumbling "Alison" (thus depicting the Icarus legend traditionally with herself in the Icarus, i.e. child, position). Meanwhile, however, she lets her text box suggest something else: that perhaps it isn't only the child who can occupy the Icarus position: "In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky" (4). Not only are we notified of the future downfall of the father, we are also asked, by the combination of the visual and verbal narratives, to maintain a porous sense of mythic correspondences, as well as parent/child distinctions. I am reminded of Su Friedrich's similar work in her film, Sink or Swim – also a polyvalent study of father-daughter relations – in which she voiced the Atalanta and Athena myths over a series of seemingly non-sequitur excerpts from home movies depicting a child swimming, playing, and taking Communion.
Bechdel proceeds with the Icarus trope, casting her father, verbally, in the Daedalus position in panels one and two of page 7: "For if my father was Icarus, he was also Daedalus – that skillful artificer, that mad scientist who built the wings for his son and designed the famous labyrinthand who answered not to the laws of society, but to those of his craft" (7). We might expect to see part of what we see in the corresponding images of panels one and two – the father, Bruce, is indeed involved as he will be in many such panels, in intricate house restoration – but we also see a frustrated child holding wallpaper which mightily displeases her – note the gender coding early on – "This is the wallpaper for my room? But I hate pink! I hate flowers!"
Figure 3. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
The text, here, represents an adult narrator looking back and finding ways to interpret her father's actions; the image, emanating from another time, shows only the child's bitter experience. Bechdel's panels allow us to privilege particular details (the father's unresponsive profile, the child's stress on the word "hate," the adult narrator's casting of her father in the Daedalus role this time) and seek their parallels at other points in the text. The father's aloof face, the child's dismayed expression, the Icarian motif: all have been seen and will be seen again in this series of mythic connection.
Interestingly, the dual-track nature of graphic narrative lends itself to representing this aspect of memory creation: the experience of the child at the moment the memory was created, and the experience of the adult, interpreting a recollected earlier moment, are creatively presented and balanced against each other. Writes Dan McAdams in "The Redemptive Self: Narrative Identity in America Today,"
Autobiographical memories are encoded and retrieved in ways that serve the goals of the current working self. As such, current goals influence how autobiographical information is absorbed and organized in the first place, and goals generate retrieval models to guide the search process later on. ()
Clearly, adult Bechdel is selecting memories that conform to her belief that her father forced femininity upon her as a child. This view of past and present as intertwined and mutually referential accords with another theoretical line: one that considers the haunting of the present by the past. Carla Freccero's fascinating extension of Derrida's notion of the specter in her article, "Queer Spectrality: Haunting the Past" suggests a parallel to the doubled nature of the graphic narrative: as comic panels can juxtapose the current subject's verbal reflections with a pictured past, a recognition of the nature of the spectral can fuse past and present in queer historiography:
The past is in the present in the form of a haunting. This is what, among other things, we imagined for queer history, since it involves openness to the possibility of being haunted, even inhabited by ghosts. . . .Further, haunting, ghostly apparition, reminds us that the past and the present are neither discrete nor sequential. The borderline between then and now wavers, wobbles, and does not hold still. ()
The fact that Fun Home is also an elegy, a memorial for a dead father who is, in a sense, haunting Alison adds weight to this connection: Bechdel's "tragicomic" work, to use her own term, functions as a mausoleum to contain fragments of Bruce's life – his actions, his photographs, his marginal notes, his letters. By casting her father in various mythic, symbolic, and literary roles (here, from the Icarus legend; later, from The Odyssey/Ulysses, Freud, Wilde and Proust), Bechdel re-animates him, allows the dead man's spirit imaginary landscapes to inhabit: "The goal of spectral thinking is thus not to immure but to allow to return, to be visited by a demand, a demand to mourn and a demand to organize. Mourning is, in an important way, the work of history" (Freccero ).
Finally, and to return to our Icarus inquiry, the comic series also contributes to this blurring of past and present. Playing with time, Bechdel can place her father in different positions within a given myth (as Icarus, as Daedalus, etc.) based on his behaviors and attributes at a given moment (Daedalus in his father role; Icarus falling when shamed); playing with space, she can stagger such representations throughout her text, returning again and again to continue the metaphor, adjust or alter it.
Another sequence of panels extends and morphs the Icarus series: it is formed by six contiguous panels on p The text continues the tale of Daedalus, this time focusing on his earlier creation, for King Minos, of the Labyrinth to house the half-bull, half man monster, the Minotaur. Though the text speaks of Daedalus, the image in panel one shows the silhouette of a looming, monstrous Bruce, and panels two through four show the Bechdel house as a labyrinth to be escaped (we see Alison running through several rooms and then out the door to escape her angry father). Details in the drawing allow us now to add to our working reading of the Icarus legend's applicability to the father-daughter relationship. By page twelve, Bruce has been cast as Icarus, Daedalus and the Minotaur; Alison as Daedalus, Icarus and perhaps the Minotaur, too, or maybe Theseus. By looking at this series separately from other narratives that are simultaneously playing out in these pages, we are able to focus on the plastic nature of the Icarus legend Bechdel is employing to tell the story of her father and herself. This, in turn, contributes to our understanding of memory and the creative act which casts it, retroactively, in terms that please the current self, and may be shared with others; as Mark Howe suggests in "Early Memory, Early Self and the Emergence of Autobiographical Memory:"
Our current needs, wishes, aspirations, and intents often control what is reported to others about our life experiences, if not the actual memories themselves that are being retrievedOur self-concept iscontingent on memoryThat is, recollections of ourselves in the context of a past play a critical role in our understanding and conceptualization of who we are today. (45)
Adult Bechdel is able to scaffold a complex interrogation of power and agency onto this myth by allowing the characters of her father and herself to occupy different, and changing positionalities. The nature of graphic narrative abets this process, serving to offer opposed positions in a single panel or panel sequences (enriching the network of Icarian references significantly). The sum effect of this series may be to prepare us to recognize the less mythic, more corporeal questions Bechdel is also positing (Who is the girl? Who is the boy? Who is the parent? Who is the child?), as well as to see other manifestations of inversion, particularly those having to do with the development of lesbian subjectivity. As Gloria Johnston argues in The Formation of 20th Century Queer Autobiography, lesbian identity is particularly porous, especially with relation to standard psychoanalytic readings of a girl's development:
A century after Freud, it comes as no surprise that the lesbian does not experience the Oedipal Complex. She does not replace anyone within the model of the patriarchal family. Because she does not fit into the model, she can have no "I," no autobiography. (34)
If we don't read it as an exclusion, this is a rather spectacular statement of liberation, one which suggests that the lesbian – in constructing her family narrative as well as her own subjectivity – is free to reverse roles, shatter spatiotemporal limitations, and give birth to herself through a narrative act of reproduction. Sure enough, we find Bechdel, in another narrative line I will label the "Inversion" series, playing her father against herself: "Not only were we inverts, we were inversions of one another" (98), and, in a wonderfully literal mirror scene, the two stand side by side facing the mirror in uncomfortable, conforming clothes; present-day Bechdel muses: "While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in himhe was attempting to express something feminine through me" (98).
Figure 4. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Johnston's liberating statement that the lesbian daughter does not experience the Oedipal Complex, posited directly against Fun Home, suggests that it is not as simple as this. In Bechdel's case, an Oedipal Complex is apparent, though it is an altered or inverted one. Inverted in what sense? Is Alison a son manqué? Is Bruce a mother? What can we say about the directions of desire when both Alison and Bruce appreciate male beauty (though decidedly different sorts)? Curiouser and curiouser things get.
In The Bonds of Love, Jessica Benjamin refers to "identificatory love" for the father, "the woman's wish to be like the powerful father, to be recognized by him as like" (). Benjamin is using traditional psychoanalytic structure here, and very definitely is not talking about lesbian daughters. Still, the concept can be applied to Bechdel's relation to her father, robustly, save for one element: power. Throughout the text, Bechdel reveals her father's lack of power – his, in her opinion, effeminacy ("My father was a big sissy" ), his silence in the face of accusation, and his shame at his own early feminine gender identity ().
This indictment reads more like the alleged repudiation of the [weak, incomplete, castrated] mother in favor of the Father put forth in every phallogocentric conception of development from Lacan's nom du père to Benjamin's unquestioning linkage of "powerful" and "father." The mother, of course, is left behind in the pre-Oedipal morass of mute, emotive, undifferentiation:
From the Lacanian perspective a mother is better off lost; and language, because it is the tool of the father, of culture, of all that the-mother-is-not, is necessarily constructed out of the very reparation and schism that turns an infant into a person. (Juhasz 23)
Bechdel's presentation of her father in this light is not value-neutral: she shows discomfiture and loss at the idea that her father is not powerful (not, importantly, because his gender identity is feminine northat he engages in homosexual affairs with young men, but because he is covert and craven). She expects confidence and clarity from this parent, and questions their roles because he does not show strength:
It was not the sobbing, joyous reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus. It was more like fatherless Stephen and sonless Bloombut which of us was the father? I had felt distinctly parental listening to his shame-faced recitation. ()
The panels reinforce the abjection of this recognition by positioning the Alison and Bruce characters as rigidly immobile, confined to uncharacteristically small, linear, even-sized panels that are half black to suggest the roof of the car in which they are driving.
Figure 5. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Bechdel's relatively large, varying panels have given way to one sequence of rigidity, conformity and stricture precisely where the two characters might have found rapprochement and liberation in their inchoateness and shared predicament. Here, Groensteen's dettaglio is the shape and size of the panels themselves.
So, where is Helen, the mother, in all this, since father seems to be occupying both parental roles in Alison's quest to differentiate and self-actualize? In an earlier draft of this article, I suggested that the mother is a nearly absent figure, receiving far less coverage than Alison's father. This made sense, in that it is Bruce Bechdel whose death is being accommodated and interrogated, and who haunts both the writer and the text, Fun Home. It took several rereadings for me to recognize, against the grain, that the mother is actually quite present (visually, at least) in Bechdel's panels – looking askance, looking away, looking chagrined. The mother's relative verbal absence occluded for me, initially, her very ubiquitous presence and made me wonder why Bechdel devotes so little attention to her mother's character in her autobiographical work. This absence certainly wasn't surprising, and I suppose I was primed for it – Adrienne Rich's "great unwritten story" of the mother-daughter cathexis is, after all, a notably silent one. (Malin 40). As Jo Malin discovers in The Voice of the Mother: Embedded Maternal Narratives in Twentieth Century Women's Autobiography, even Rich herself fails to bring about a sustained voice for her mother in Of Woman Born:
Rich's chapter, "Motherhood and Daughterhood," was the mother text or motherlode of my interest in this alternative genre, this auto/biography of daughter and mother in which the maternal narrative forms the "core" of the daughter's text. However, what surprised me, with every rereading, is the brevity of the mother's narrative in this core chapter. Seven pages within a volume of pages summarily chronicles Rich's own version of "the great unwritten story." (40, emphasis added)
Nevertheless, Fun Home's status as a graphic narrative offers us additional ways to look for the mother besides listening for her voice; sure enough, a closer inspection reveals that she is solidly present in the text, appearing in many panels. Often pictured in profile, and almost always focused on something other than Alison (a script, piano keys, a book, nothing), Alison's talented but restricted mother seems alternately resigned, sad, distracted, annoyed and distant. The iconic solidarity of Alison's mother's many unhappy facial expressions, particularly those featuring an averted gaze, powerfully represents both Helen's suffering and Alison's belief that her mother is alienated from not only her husband but her daughter as well. In an unarticulated but telling response, Bechdel chooses to leave her mother's character verbally under-developed, "to the side," while she seeks rapprochement with her father between the covers of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The reader, however, does not fail to register Helen's steady physical presence in the panels, and thereby some of her eclipsed story.
Returning to the daughter's haunting by her father, a last item to note is Bechdel's use of literary texts as a meeting ground for their imaginary conversations and connections. Bechdel continuously depicts herself hunting for signs of Bruce's presence in the works of literature he enjoyed. Not just seeking him, I'd suggest, but seeking to merge with him; upon reading The Odyssey, she remarks: "And indeed, I embarked that day on an odyssey which, consisting as it did in a gradual, episodic, and inevitable convergence with my abstracted father, was very nearly as epic as the original" (). If epic, then archetypal: in establishing convergences (she with her father, her father with literary figures, herself with literary figures, the reader with literary figures, the reader with Alison, the reader with Bruce), Fun Home bridges the private and the public by making the messy, inchoate family intelligible:
The text can be used, in the Winnicottian sense of the term, by the reader as the child uses the mother, who is an entity both similar to and different from the self. I am not the first to suggest that the text can function as a transitional object: at once a part of the self and a part of the world. (Juhasz )
Here, of course, Bechdel is the first reader and the father neatly supplants the mother in the original relation. The gradual, episodic use of literary series in the text provides Bechdel with a non-linear way to build significance (remember Groensteen: "If there is a vectorization of reading, there is no unidirectional vectorization in the construction of meaning"). Initiated readers can, in turn, tether their interpretation of Alison and Bruce to their prior readings of the literary referents, and help to construct a complex, extradiegetic space for them to inhabit. Coupled with strictly internal ones (e.g. the Inversion series I noted earlier, or the one featuring the mother's gaze), these series reveal the complexity of Bechdel's depiction of a woman's attempt to frame her childhood memories in light of information which is constantly updated: new versions of the self, new insights into one's family, new understandings of homosexuality, new readings in literature. In turn, Bechdel's flexible and complex graphic narrative underscores the unique nature of the medium, and its support of narrative projects which benefit from dual-tracked exposition and non-linear, multidirectional reception on the part of reader/viewers. Finally, Fun Home provides a complex and layered answer to Freccero's question in "Queer Spectrality:" "How might the Derridean concept of spectrality reconfigure familial, nucleated, heteronormative temporalities even as it articulates alternatives to a historicism that respects sequential chronologies?" Bechdel's pictorial memoir offers an astoundingly rich possibility – a non-heteronormative, non-sequential examination of family and self.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York: Houghton Mifflin, Print.
Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon, Print.
Freccero, Carla. "Queer Spectrality: Haunting the Past." A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies. Ed. George Haggerty and Molly McGarry. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, Print.
Freeman, Elizabeth. "Queer Belongings: Kinship Theory and Queer Theory." A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies. Ed. George Haggerty and Molly McGarry. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, Print.
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics (Systeme de la bande dessinee). Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: Mississippi UP, Print.
Howe, Mark. "Early Memory, Early Self and the Emergence of Autobiographical Memory." The Self and Memory. Ed. Denise Beike et al. New York: Psychology Press, Print.
Johnston, Gloria. The Formation of 20th Century Queer Autobiography. New York: Palgrave, Print.
Juhasz, Suzanne. A Desire for Women: Relational Psychoanalysis, Writing , and Relationships between Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, Print.
Lefèvre, Pascal. "The Construction of Space in Comics." A Comics Studies Reader. Ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: Mississippi UP, Print.
Malin, Jo. The Voice of the Mother: Embedded Maternal Narratives in Twentieth-Century Autobiographies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, Print.
McAdams, Dan. "The Redemptive Self: Narrative Identity in America Today." The Self and Memory. Ed. Denise Beike et al. New York: Psychology Press, Print.
Sink or Swim. Dir. Su Friedrich. DVD. Outcast Films, Film.
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It’s remarkable that until the beginning of the 21st century, the drama of mothers and daughters remained relatively unexplored in literature. Plenty of memorable mothers populate novels and plays, from Medea to Proust’s Maman, but writing about filial relations between women is thin on the ground. One can attribute this mostly to the fact that it was men who were doing the scribbling for so long, while the best women writers, like the Brontes and Austen, often steered clear of the subject; the literature of motherhood that did exist was largely sentimental. In the 20th century, Virginia Woolf (in her essays) and Sylvia Plath (in “Morning Song”) began to make great work out of the ambivalent intensities of mother-daughter relations, which, after all, are rife with dramatic possibility. Even today, though, mothers and daughters feel like the New World of literature—a realm barely explored, waiting for its Westward expansion.
Alison Bechdel’s new “comic drama” Are You My Mother?sets out to examine the cartoonist’s relationship with her mother; not coincidentally, it ends up exploring a host of big topics, including the nature of emotional attachment and the idea of the “self.” Are You My Mother? is a sequel of sorts to Fun Home, Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir about her father, and like that book is ambitious, superbly funny, and hauntingly searching. But it’s less a portrait than a meta-memoir about trying and failing to write anything coherent about her mother. Near the start of the book, Bechdel observes that “the real problem with this memoir about my mother is that it has no beginning.” She adds, “The story of my mother and me is unfolding even as I write it.” No beginning, and no ending—it doesn’t bode well. But for most of us a mother is a story with neither beginning nor end, it turns out, and so this peculiarity is part of the strange power of this singular book.
Are You My Mother? is a kind of Möbius strip, circling back and forward in time, and never quite coming to a conclusion. Describing it won’t capture the experience of reading it in the least. That’s not just because so many of the effects are generated by Bechdel’s painstaking, expressive drawings, which convey her anxious, poignant ethos more than any words can. Anyone who read Fun Home or her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out Forwill recognize Bechdel’s astringent wit and her warmth: Her work is both bracingly skeptical and highly open to, its own emotional vibrations. She’s not so much wise-cracking as quiet-cracking. This is a deeply internal book; the main characters are Bechdel and her mother, but Virginia Woolf, the child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott, and Alice Miller, the author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, play equally significant roles in the unfolding emotional narrative. So do two of Bechdel’s therapists, Jocelyn and Carol.
Divided into seven sections—each named after a key concept of Winnicott’s theories of infant development—Are You My Mother? flouts writing-school rules. It lengthily recounts Bechdel’s dreams and her therapy sessions, which revolve around what it was like to live with parents who were narcissistically self-involved. More startlingly, Bechdel tells us that as she writes chapters, she gives them to her mother, Helen, for comment. Then she writes about what her mother says, or, more tellingly, doesn’t say. In one of the very first scenes in the book, Alison and Helen are talking on the phone when Helen rather passive-aggressively praises a New Yorker article about the narcissism of memoir-writing (“Isn’t he the one who beat you for that prize?” she asks, of the author), and Bechdel reflects on her “fear that Mom will find this memoir about her ‘angry.’ ” The stakes are all laid out, if implicitly: The daughter’s never-ending desire for the mother’s approval, on the one hand, and her recognition, on the other, of the mother’s failures and limitations, on the other. (Perhaps most painfully, Helen has never accepted her daughter’s lesbianism.)
So the core drama of Are You My Mother? is a resoundingly psychological one: The child who is hurt by her own wounded mother, and whose grown-up romantic relationships mirror this difficulty with intimacy. It’s hard to alchemize therapeutic language and modes of thinking into true literary drama, but the first half of Are You My Mother? is wonderful, a fresh, funny, and poignant exploration not just of Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, but of the nature of attachment itself. Writing the book, Bechdel became interested in the work of psychologists who study childhood trauma. It was Winnicott who invented the famous idea of the “good-enough mother,” who enables her child to survive psychically intact by modeling responsiveness and functional mirroring: If you smile I’ll smile. What Winnicott—and Bechdel—was interested in was what happened when this crucial mother-child mirroring broke down, and the child became precociously attuned to the mother’s needs instead of her own. Likewise, Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child chronicles the kinds of abuse children suffer at the hands of narcissistic parents, particularly mothers. Are You My Mother? is as much about reading them and Woolf as it is about Helen Bechdel; it’s this triangulating, filtered through the additional artifice of hand-drawn images, that gives the book much of its charge.
In Fun Home, Bechdel’s mother was portrayed as an unhappy woman with thwarted artistic tendencies—an actress and avid reader, an erstwhile poet. Are You My Mother? fleshes out that image. Aspiring actress Helen Fontana left college to study at the Cleveland Play House. Returning home to finish school, she met Bruce Bechdel, who had ambitions to be an artist and live in Europe. Instead the couple got married and, less than a year later, had Alison. They settled down in rural Pennsylvania to what appears to have been long lives of thwarted ambitions and painful secrets. For two people with artistic longings, they were utterly trapped by the conventional masks society told them they should wear. Bruce, it turned out, was a closeted homosexual. He reacted to the news that Helen was pregnant with “inappropriate laughter,” which deeply upset her.
The wounds that Helen suffered led to a kind of emotional withdrawal. In this family, nothing was spoken about openly. Helen stopped kissing Alison goodnight when she was 7 years old, after finding a picture the young Bechdel drew of a doctor examining a little girl’s “tee-tee place.” On another night, Helen, watching The Forsyte Saga alone, asks the young Alison, “Do you love me?” Although she’s a frustrated artist herself, she wants Bechdel not to write her stories as memoir, so that the neighbors won’t talk about their family and its problems (meaning homosexuality, one supposes). She doesn’t seem to understand how much of the problem she is—and yet one feels a sneaking empathy toward her: Whatever else she may be, she is also a victim of her era, a woman who might have led a different (and much happier) life had she been born 30 years later.
Are You My Mother? is animated by the idea that it is our wounds that make us artists. In the hands of another writer, this might feel schematic, but Bechdel is temperamentally averse to the touchy-feely (she has never understood the point of hugs, she writes). In her early career, Bechdel sent her mother an essay she’d written about the fact that her mother never touched her. She asked, “Do you remember this?” The essay was returned covered in red ink, with suggestions to use stronger verbs and fewer adverbs. Helen did not say whether she did or didn't remember this, but allowed that perhaps she marked up the essay so heavily because she was “jealous because you are writing and I am not.”
One of the most poignant elements of this book is the way Bechdel quietly draws out (without too much explicit commentary) all the ways that she and her mother are as alike as they are unalike. Bechdel’s mother obsessively reads about Sylvia Plath and wishes she “had been Helen Vendler,” the poetry critic and Harvard professor. Bechdel obsessively reads Woolf, who was herself preoccupied with the early death of her mother, and her father’s cool distance. Both turn to art to escape from and to understand themselves. One has made a career of it; the other’s drive to do so was thwarted. (Bechdel wakes from a particularly vivid dream of her mother with the words “thwart,” “drive,” and “laden” in her mind. She concludes that these words apply to her, but they seem far more applicable to her mother.)
A mother is our first attachment. So powerful is the connection, psychiatrists like Winnicott posit, that at first we don’t believe she is an “other” at all. Then one terrible day we grasp that we are not the creators of our own world, that the breast (or bottle) doesn’t magically appear just because we want it. And so, Winnicott believes, at some point the child has to “destroy” the mother and witness the mother’s survival of that destruction in order to venture out safely and securely into her own life. To the extent that there’s a journey in Are You My Mother?, it’s that Bechdel has, in Winnicott’s terms, destroyed the mother—by writing the book the mother doesn’t want her to write; by giving voice to all the ways that mother failed rather than succeeded—and the mother has survived the destruction, continuing to talk to her daughter, even offering grudging praise (“Well, it coheres”) for the result. Are You My Mother?, like the children’s book it’s named after, is more about searching for that secure attachment than anything else.
This is why all those meta-moments have to be written into the book: We must witness the mother’s initial observations that the book has too many strands, her wariness of the entire project, so that when she finally tells Alison that the book is good we understand this to be no small emotional victory. Helen also reads Alison a quote from Dorothy Gallagher about the fact that the memoirist has to serve her story, not her family. “Family be damned!” Helen cackles, and Alison does, in response. Mirroring—at last.
If the final third of the book isn’t quite as satisfying as the opening, it’s a predictable decline. The problem of using a therapeutic vocabulary is that it calls for a therapeutic ending, which Are You My Mother? delivers. But it doesn’t matter that much, because even when Bechdel’s storytelling falls short, her drawings retain the ability to move and surprise us. There’s a beautiful, indelible cartoon in the middle of Are You My Mother? that crystallizes how ornately a vulnerable child can create layers of self-protection, as Bechdel herself ornately weaves together the layers of texts that haunt her. Bechdel has been describing a childhood pleasure of building a secret, private “office” for herself, like a fort. She remembers seeing a “Keep Out” sign somewhere in Dr. Seuss, and, finding the image in Seuss’s Sleep Book, is struck by how much the domicile on which the sign hangs resembles a mother’s womb. It’s as if her own forts are her attempts to become the author of her own security—a self-sufficient womb.
“I would barricade myself off in the back of a closet or a corner of the dining room and work there on my drawings,” Bechdel writes alongside this evocative image, reproducing Seuss. (Both writers have an extraordinary feel for the inner selves of children.) “The sensation of being invisible, inviolable, was a kind of ecstasy.” All the infant wants—indeed all anyone wants—is, as Winnicott wrote, to go-on-being, without disruption. It was in mirroring her parents’ own figurative “Keep Out” signs that the young Bechdel felt safest, and it’s hardly a surprise that she should become an artist herself. By inventing a fresh visual vocabulary for familiar psychological concepts, Bechdel’s books remind us that good memoirs are not just about witness; they are as much about the art of memory as the fact of it.