Colleen O'Neill Conlan's Reviews > Are You My Mother?

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
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May 17, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: bio-memoir, illustrated-graphic
Read in May, 2012

Well, Bechdel's mother says it—in these pages—after previewing several chapters—of this book— pre-publication: "It's a metabook." It's a book about—among many things—the creation of this book about her mother, and her mother is commenting on the creation of this book about her. How meta is that?

A dream sequence opens each section, and is usually revisited with greater insight later in the chapter. Psychology and psychoanalysis play a massive role here, with Alison's sessions with two different counselors giving us an intimate and ongoing look into her personal struggles. Parallel to this is her self-imposed (and almost obsessive) study of the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. His books, his papers, his biography—all give her another lens to view her conflicted and evolving Self through.

Another Bechdel feature is how she refers to and draws on other literature and writers: Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, and a fabulous aha moment with Dr. Seuss.

And mom. A gifted actor, a stunted writer of poetry, a woman married for many years to a closeted gay man, and a mother who learned from her own mother that "boys are more important than girls." There are some heartbreaking moments here (I won't share and spoil it). At times mom seems to purposely seek to diminish her daughter by referencing other authors, other memoirists, or other cartoonists, understandably triggering envy. And sometimes she seems to do this unconsciously. Not sure which feels worse when you are on the receiving end. On the other hand, there is absolutely a bond here. The two speak often by phone, visit, do a trip to the city together. So in their own ways, they do keep trying.

The book itself slips back and forth through time, and it's confusing at first to feel rooted in the narrative. Younger Alison looks very much like older Alison; a couple girlfriends look similar, even the two therapists resemble each other. Sometimes the action focuses on Fun Home, her earlier book about her father, and sometimes it's centered on this book-in-the-making. It keeps folding in on itself again and again, then opening back up, only to be refolded another way, like origami. Next thing you know, you have a beautiful and intricate crane. It all comes together in a spectacular way, so stay with it.

I've got to comment on the artwork. As I mentioned, each section opens with a dream. They end with a tight close-up in a thick black frame. The details in the cartoons—the personal artifacts on her desk, the tree outside the therapist's window, the book and movie titles—are worth slowing down for. And I love the addition of color here! All red and variations of that color. Bloody reds, clotted reds, muddy pinks, muted mauves, all very effective. When Alison talks to her mom on a land line, it's red like a Cold War presidential hotline linked to Russia.

It can't have been easy to write a book about someone you love who is still living. Her mother's sense of privacy is embedded in many of these pages, and this is a relationship that they are both continuing to co-create, off the page. This isn't a revenge memoir by any stretch. It's very thoughtful, very careful, and very brave. I'm sure it treads a space that makes both mother and daughter a little squeamish, at times. Ultimately, it's a loving exploration that ends on a sweet and generous note. I loved it. I even loved the dedication.
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