5.27.2013

Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, by Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother?
A few years ago, I read and loved Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, a moving exploration of her relationship with her father and her father's conflicted relationship with his homosexuality. It's hard to believe but her memoir Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama is an even more complicated book than Fun Home. Of course, all of our relationships with out mothers are complicated. (Otherwise, psychiatry wouldn't exist. As the Freud joke goes, "If it's not one thing, it's your mother.) But because Bechdel is hyperanalytical and anxious, her relationship is particularly fraught.

In Fun House, Bechdel used James Joyce's Ulysses to help her analyze and make sense of her father's life. In Are You My Mother? Bechdel turns to Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and the work of Donald Winnicott, a pioneering child psychiatrist. Woolf uses the Ramsays in Lighthouse to examine similar experiences from her own childhood. Winnicott, however, I think the most useful tool for her. He has a lot to say--in relatively clear language for a mid-Twentieth century psychiatrist--about how children form their own identity and sense of self apart from their mothers. He writes about different kinds of mothers and Bechdel zeroes in on the "Good-Enough Mother." The term sounds like faint praise until you listen to Winnicott explain that this kind of mother is supportive and loving, but allows her children the independence to make mistakes and learn to be self-reliant and develop their own identity.

Structurally, Are You My Mother? is a recursive conversation that Bechdel has with her mother. She talks about the extreme discomfort she felt mining her mother's past to write about her father in Fun Home. She talks about her mother's acting career, her mother's courtship, her mother's reactions to Fun Home. Bechdel talks about the uncomfortable questions her therapists and analysts asks. The whole book leaves you on edge because you can't help but ask the same questions of yourself. Are you angry with your mother? What did you want your mother to give you that she didn't give? Etc. etc. Bechdel circles back and back again, giving you as the reader more backstory to understand the importance of the moments she chooses to show you. In spite of the doubt Bechdel confesses to about how to approach a book about her mother, her book is incredibly clever.

What I'll take away from Are You My Mother? is that we all have psychologically complex relationships with our mothers. We're utterly dependent when we're born and for a long time after. But our mothers are still their own person; they're more than just moms. We need our mothers more than they need us. It's hard to articulate the emotional needs we want our mothers to fulfill. No wonder Bechdel has such a hard time even starting this book.

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