Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Are You My Mother?

Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? (2012) cannot help but be read against her memoir about her father, Fun Home, and Bechdel offers her own opportunities for putting the two projects up against one another within the text itself, but it may not always be in the best interest of the newer book. I don’t mean that the first book makes the latter one look bad by comparison, rather that it is easy to want Are You My Mother? to be about Bechdel’s mother as much as Fun Home was about her father. In fact, while her mother does play a major role, there is less of her here than there was of her father in the previous work, partially because Bechdel spends so much time thinking about the surrogate mothers she has looked for in her therapists and girlfriends. Where the earlier book seemed to be about a struggle to figure out who her father was, the newer book features more the struggle to figure out what she wants from her mother and what is fair to expect. The title comes from a children’s book about a baby bird looking for a mother it has never met and trying to make various other animals and objects its mother until it finds it real thing. Bechdel’s book is more a riff off this concept than a strict repetition—Bechdel already has the real thing, but the real thing isn’t quite what is wanted, leading to a search for the mother in a variety of other people.

She has better luck with the therapists than the girlfriends, and maybe this is why the psychoanalytic theory is the roughest part of this book: not because it is terribly difficult to understand but because Bechdel embraces it to the point that we get glimpses of its silliness along with its validity. But this is a rich graphic memoir that has opportunities for rereading and increased insight. Bechdel uses the graphic form expertly to repeat moments at different points in the text in order to show them in a different light, revealing how memory is framed by the context of remembering. Some of these events also appeared in Fun Home, which means these texts can enrich one another as well—not just be compared.

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