Author’s Note: The following review was published in the Yellowknifer on August 31, 2012. I was assigned with reviewing the book after I won the book on an LBGT Day draw from the Yellowknife Public Library.
“To My Mother, who knows who she is.”
With these simple words, graphic novelist Alison Bechdel sums up her relationship with her mother in her latest graphic novel, Are You My Mother? Known for the dry stinging with she perfected in her weekly comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel gained critical acclaim with Fun Home, an honest memoir about her childhood in a funeral home and her closeted father. Her newest work, a second memoir, focuses on the matriarch of the family.
Actually, it is not so much a memoir as it is a psychoanalytical essay. Bechdel attempts to gather information on her mother and gain some understanding. It proves a challenge considering her mother believes, “The self is no place in good literature.”
Bechdel gets so desperate that she types up her mother’s phone calls.
“I would have had more scruples about this if I didn’t suspect that she was not so much talking to me as drafting her own daily journal out loud” she writes.
The book seems to be divided into various segments. The first part looks at Bechdel’s childhood. Well, anyone who grew up with a closeted father and an emotionally distant mother is not going to have the most decent childhood. But like every family, the relationship is more complicated. Despite her reluctance, Mother not only gives Bechdel the go ahead to write the memoirs but also gives her some old letters from her father. Her mother does have some harsh comments- “I’d love to see your name in a book, but not a book with lesbian cartoons”- but she also confesses her own depression when Bechdel states that she is going to therapy.
In other parts, Bechdel focuses on her psychological state. More often than not, she goes overboard, attempting to find symbols in even the smallest act.
When she runs into a 2X4 and gets a red mark between the eyes, she sees it as a sigh not look at her subconscious. Then she gets slapped with a twig, scratching her corneas. When asked, “What happened?” Bechdel states, “The psychopathology of everyday life.”
It is hard to say whether or not she is the best person to analyze herself. On one hand, anyone who admits, “I’d give anything for a Ritalin” is not at her most emotionally stable. On the other hand, she is very self-aware of her flaws and admits her less-than-sympathetic acts.
Like Woody Allen, readers will be divided by their opinions of Bechdel herself. Some will think her character a comic genius of brutal honest. Others will find her pretentious and whiny. To each their own.
Bechdel draws in a simple yet detailed manner that proves effective for a memoir. Considering the material, it would have been easy for her to go to the melodramatic to make herself appear more sympathetic. But instead, she draws each memory in a straightforward manner, giving the readers the facts and let them make their own opinions.
Are You My Mother? is well done, but it is not as good as Fun Home. The former is better structured and there is more confidence in the storytelling, while the later falters in some areas. Despite these flaws, most of the book flows to create a soul-searching journey to the past to understand her future.