On Bechdel’s “Are You My Mother?”

I am just now reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother, which is (at the moment) her latest book. Bechdel is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living American cartoonists, so getting a copy of this is a treat. (I had seen a pre-publication blurb, but no notice that it had actually been published, so it was a surprise to see it in a bookstore.)

I’m having somewhat mixed feelings about the content. Don’t get me wrong; I’m enjoying it — I would rather read a hugely insulting one-page cartoon by Bechdel (or the other cartoonists on my short list) than a hundred pages of material by lesser cartoonists. (Come to think of it, although I am unaware of any cartoons by Bechdel which I find insulting, I have read every book of hers which I have owned more than a day at least twice, while I have never made it all the way through the treasury of New Yorker cartoons my parents gave me as a gift a few years ago.)

So far, a lot of the book involves Bechdel’s therapy and dreams. The latter are extremely interesting, partially because the dreams of a creative and intelligent person like Bechdel tend to be interesting and partially because Bechdel’s style works well telling stories of that sort. (At least, the style she uses when drawing non-fiction. Dykes to Watch Out For was filled with caustic sarcasm and ironic background details; although she doesn’t leave these out when appropriate, the books are non-fiction and real life is not usually so convenient for narration.)

On the other hand, it bothers me that Bechdel seems, at least so far as I have read, to treat analysis and therapy as a sort of religion. That extends both to the way she portrays herself as accepting without reservations the output of various famous Psychologists (notably Freud and Jung), and also the way she shows herself using Freud’s theory of accidents to look for hidden meanings in things which were beyond her control — the latter is reminiscent of the way in which believers in prophecy will grasp at any convoluted interpretation which allows them to claim that a prophecy has been fulfilled.

As an atheist, I am suspicious of anything which requires acceptance based on authority. I have no doubt that analysis can help people, and has helped people, but I have major doubts about the theory which currently animates the practice. I have much more confidence in neurology, and I suspect that as time passes and we gain greater understanding of neurology, psychology will undergo enormous changes; already, the things we know about the brain and the mind make some of Freud’s theories look a bit like the “four humours” theory of medicine which was current in the middle ages: only right on occasion and by coincidence, and usually actively unhealthy.

Equally, it disturbs me to see Bechdel trying to convince herself that anything which goes wrong — the “twig in the eye” incident particularly stands out — is her subconscious sending her signals. Even Freud admitted that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; sometimes accidents are just accidents. The mind does not control matter — on the contrary, there is very good evidence that the mind is nothing but an emergent property of a particular arrangement of matter.

Both problems, I think, are somewhat touched on by Bechdel herself. As she mentions, this book attempts to turn a real-life relationship (between Bechdel and her mother) into a narrative, and that process was difficult. It feels like her therapy is an attempt to transform her life into a narrative, a process which is also difficult, and which I personally think is usually impossible. The portrayals of her therapy feel like she is trying to turn her life into a novel, and that’s a very limiting notion. Even Remembrance of Things Past isn’t long enough to record all the detail and feelings in even a short life.

Of course, I doubt that in reality Bechdel accepts Freud or Jung’s writings without reservation, or sees herself as the protagonist of a novel. But that makes her own portrayal frustrating. I don’t think she’s a fool, but her self-portrayal is acting like one, and that’s upsetting me.

At least I can enjoy the quality of the artwork and writing. Bechdel has not fallen down there, at least so far — as a display of technique, this book holds up well to the standard set by Fun Home. But I’m hoping to find that my disquiet is calmed by the content itself.

If I remember and have the time, I’ll update this post after finishing the book, which will probably be tomorrow night.

And here we are again, about 24 hours after I had originally intended because I forgot about it, but nevertheless reasonably fresh from having finished the book.

Insofar as my complaints go, I picked an unfortunate place to stop and comment. The remainder of the book was much less dogmatic about the theory of analysis — or, at least, was not explicitly dogmatic, which is an acceptable substitute as far as I am concerned.

Nevertheless, the book left an impression on me of being… well, “slapdash” and “sloppily-composed” are both the wrong term. The book feels amorphous; in the first part, I was struck by how hard it seemed that Bechdel was trying to superimpose a narrative on her life. After finishing, I feel like she was not totally successful at imposing a narrative on this book.

After I finished Are You My Mother? — which I actually did in the afternoon — I went and reread, very quickly, Fun Home.

In Are You My Mother? Bechdel mentions several times how much effort she put into writing Fun Home, how she rewrote it repeatedly and reworked sections of it over and over again, working against deadlines and obsessing. And it shows — Fun Home is a masterpiece of cartoon nonfiction; it flows, and even though the ending, like the ending of Are You My Mother? is basically a halt to the narrative rather than an actual ending, it feels finished in a way that Are You My Mother? does not. (And after you read both books, you can’t possibly avoid noticing how often a certain brand of bread shows up as an incidental detail…)

Are You My Mother? is told much more in sequence than Fun Home — less flashing back and jumping forward and disconnection — but it left me feeling exactly the opposite.

I feel a bit compelled to mention that, having read both books within the last couple of days, the general impression left on me is that Bechdel is much harsher in judging her mother than her father. There is no particular episode in Are You My Mother? which invites criticism of her mother the way some of the scenes in Fun Home do of her father, but Fun Home was about the entire Bechdel family where Are You My Mother? is (with digressions into analysis; the extended segments about Winnicott were very well chosen and fit well with the narrative) mostly about Bechdel’s mother alone, and it’s something like 50 pages longer than the other book. So maybe the negative impression is merely due to the extra length.

I’m not sorry I read it, or sorry I bought it, but I must confess that it just didn’t seem as good of a book as the previous one. (The real test will be whether that impression remains in a few months’ time after I reread it. By then I doubt I’ll remember this post, but if I do I’ll come back and update it again.) (Why not?)


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