Elizabeth's Reviews > Are You My Mother?

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
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's review
Aug 08, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: lesbian, lesbian-author

Very interesting book. It's Alison Bechdel so it's written with the pretentious intellectual navel-gazing I love her for. It's kind of a sequel to Fun Home. Fun Home is about her relationship with her father, whom she discovered upon revealing her lesbianism to her parents, had had several affairs with men while remaining married to her mother. His infidelity, violent outbursts, and emotional distance had finally pushed her mother to ask for a divorce. At which point he promptly killed himself by stepping out in front of a truck. The substance of Fun Home was the way in which she had chosen to relate to, deal with, and get closure on the many facets of their relationship and the many unanswered questions left by his suicide.

Are You My Mother? deals with her relationship with her mother, which is by far a much more sticky wicket. For one, her mother is alive. Alive to respond to the publishing of Fun Home, alive to respond to the publishing of this book, alive and unresolved and able to answer back. Alison cannot project a meaning onto the absent figure of her mother because she is not absent.

And yet she is. And that's really what the crux of this book is all about. All the ways her mother was able to be there without actually being there. All the utterly emotionless interactions without nurture or understanding or validation. The feeling of never really getting to know her mother because her mother was never present as herself in all the time she knew her.

I'm gonna state my opinion right out the gate. I would a thousand times chose to be born into a family that swore, and smacked, and drank, and cried, and hugged, and laughed, and danced, and played, and kissed goodnight, goodbye, and for no reason at all. I would a thousand times rather be born into all the supposed vices of a working class family than be brought up in this repressed, silent, mirthless, middle class nightmare. Middle class, respectable, professional, decent families are just as fucked up as everyone else's families, they just hide and repress all their screaming and fighting. Until one day you jump in front of a fucking truck. Jesus, it's not enough to be fucked up, you've got to be polite about it too? You've got to unlearn the words that express exactly how you feel? Like FUCK YOU. You've got to smile sweetly and pretending you don't hear, don't see, don't know, and yet always tread carefully in full knowledge of where the mines are buried? I couldn't abide that. When people drive by an estate they might look out the window and go, "Oh, look at them, all fucked up". Well we just wear out fucked up on the outside. We're not afraid of being real.

Jesus, I know that sounded like a rant, but you should read this book. It basically charts her years and years of therapy to resolve her difficulties with her mum, and the book, like the relationship it describes, is very open-ended. The degree to which anything has been resolved is open to interpretation. And it is a book weirdly devoid of dramatic incident. Because their relationship, unlike her father's public self-annihilation, is an ongoing process and not a climax or crescendo. This might seem like a criticism, but it is not. It is a nod of respect at the difficulty of telling a story that has no end in a way that still seems emotionally satisfying. And it also stands as a testament to the utter absence and distance of her mother that Alison can be in therapy for years and years and yet their interaction displays so little in the way of dramatic confrontation that there are few real 'incidents' to relay.

Alison fills in so much of these holes, this ever-present absence, with screeds and screeds about psychology, psychoanalysis and various theories on maternal relations. It's like she's trying to plug the absence of emotion with intellect.

This is a good book to read and thought-provoking. It'll definitely make you reflect on your own family - in my case to get down on your hands and knees in gratitude for a family that, whether it was in good times or bad, never required me to be silent about it.

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