It’s remarkable that until the beginning of the 21st century, the drama of mothers and daughters remained relatively unexplored in literature. Plenty of memorable mothers populate novels and plays, from Medea to Proust’s Maman, but writing about filial relations between women is thin on the ground. One can attribute this mostly to the fact that it was men who were doing the scribbling for so long, while the best women writers, like the Brontes and Austen, often steered clear of the subject; the literature of motherhood that did exist was largely sentimental. In the 20th century, Virginia Woolf (in her essays) and Sylvia Plath (in “Morning Song”) began to make great work out of the ambivalent intensities of mother-daughter relations, which, after all, are rife with dramatic possibility. Even today, though, mothers and daughters feel like the New World of literature—a realm barely explored, waiting for its Westward expansion.
Alison Bechdel’s new “comic drama” Are You My Mother?sets out to examine the cartoonist’s relationship with her mother; not coincidentally, it ends up exploring a host of big topics, including the nature of emotional attachment and the idea of the “self.” Are You My Mother? is a sequel of sorts to Fun Home, Bechdel’s best-selling 2006 graphic memoir about her father, and like that book is ambitious, superbly funny, and hauntingly searching. But it’s less a portrait than a meta-memoir about trying and failing to write anything coherent about her mother. Near the start of the book, Bechdel observes that “the real problem with this memoir about my mother is that it has no beginning.” She adds, “The story of my mother and me is unfolding even as I write it.” No beginning, and no ending—it doesn’t bode well. But for most of us a mother is a story with neither beginning nor end, it turns out, and so this peculiarity is part of the strange power of this singular book.
Are You My Mother? is a kind of Möbius strip, circling back and forward in time, and never quite coming to a conclusion. Describing it won’t capture the experience of reading it in the least. That’s not just because so many of the effects are generated by Bechdel’s painstaking, expressive drawings, which convey her anxious, poignant ethos more than any words can. Anyone who read Fun Home or her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out Forwill recognize Bechdel’s astringent wit and her warmth: Her work is both bracingly skeptical and highly open to, its own emotional vibrations. She’s not so much wise-cracking as quiet-cracking. This is a deeply internal book; the main characters are Bechdel and her mother, but Virginia Woolf, the child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott, and Alice Miller, the author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, play equally significant roles in the unfolding emotional narrative. So do two of Bechdel’s therapists, Jocelyn and Carol.
Divided into seven sections—each named after a key concept of Winnicott’s theories of infant development—Are You My Mother? flouts writing-school rules. It lengthily recounts Bechdel’s dreams and her therapy sessions, which revolve around what it was like to live with parents who were narcissistically self-involved. More startlingly, Bechdel tells us that as she writes chapters, she gives them to her mother, Helen, for comment. Then she writes about what her mother says, or, more tellingly, doesn’t say. In one of the very first scenes in the book, Alison and Helen are talking on the phone when Helen rather passive-aggressively praises a New Yorker article about the narcissism of memoir-writing (“Isn’t he the one who beat you for that prize?” she asks, of the author), and Bechdel reflects on her “fear that Mom will find this memoir about her ‘angry.’ ” The stakes are all laid out, if implicitly: The daughter’s never-ending desire for the mother’s approval, on the one hand, and her recognition, on the other, of the mother’s failures and limitations, on the other. (Perhaps most painfully, Helen has never accepted her daughter’s lesbianism.)
So the core drama of Are You My Mother? is a resoundingly psychological one: The child who is hurt by her own wounded mother, and whose grown-up romantic relationships mirror this difficulty with intimacy. It’s hard to alchemize therapeutic language and modes of thinking into true literary drama, but the first half of Are You My Mother? is wonderful, a fresh, funny, and poignant exploration not just of Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, but of the nature of attachment itself. Writing the book, Bechdel became interested in the work of psychologists who study childhood trauma. It was Winnicott who invented the famous idea of the “good-enough mother,” who enables her child to survive psychically intact by modeling responsiveness and functional mirroring: If you smile I’ll smile. What Winnicott—and Bechdel—was interested in was what happened when this crucial mother-child mirroring broke down, and the child became precociously attuned to the mother’s needs instead of her own. Likewise, Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child chronicles the kinds of abuse children suffer at the hands of narcissistic parents, particularly mothers. Are You My Mother? is as much about reading them and Woolf as it is about Helen Bechdel; it’s this triangulating, filtered through the additional artifice of hand-drawn images, that gives the book much of its charge.
In Fun Home, Bechdel’s mother was portrayed as an unhappy woman with thwarted artistic tendencies—an actress and avid reader, an erstwhile poet. Are You My Mother? fleshes out that image. Aspiring actress Helen Fontana left college to study at the Cleveland Play House. Returning home to finish school, she met Bruce Bechdel, who had ambitions to be an artist and live in Europe. Instead the couple got married and, less than a year later, had Alison. They settled down in rural Pennsylvania to what appears to have been long lives of thwarted ambitions and painful secrets. For two people with artistic longings, they were utterly trapped by the conventional masks society told them they should wear. Bruce, it turned out, was a closeted homosexual. He reacted to the news that Helen was pregnant with “inappropriate laughter,” which deeply upset her.
The wounds that Helen suffered led to a kind of emotional withdrawal. In this family, nothing was spoken about openly. Helen stopped kissing Alison goodnight when she was 7 years old, after finding a picture the young Bechdel drew of a doctor examining a little girl’s “tee-tee place.” On another night, Helen, watching The Forsyte Saga alone, asks the young Alison, “Do you love me?” Although she’s a frustrated artist herself, she wants Bechdel not to write her stories as memoir, so that the neighbors won’t talk about their family and its problems (meaning homosexuality, one supposes). She doesn’t seem to understand how much of the problem she is—and yet one feels a sneaking empathy toward her: Whatever else she may be, she is also a victim of her era, a woman who might have led a different (and much happier) life had she been born 30 years later.
Are You My Mother? is animated by the idea that it is our wounds that make us artists. In the hands of another writer, this might feel schematic, but Bechdel is temperamentally averse to the touchy-feely (she has never understood the point of hugs, she writes). In her early career, Bechdel sent her mother an essay she’d written about the fact that her mother never touched her. She asked, “Do you remember this?” The essay was returned covered in red ink, with suggestions to use stronger verbs and fewer adverbs. Helen did not say whether she did or didn't remember this, but allowed that perhaps she marked up the essay so heavily because she was “jealous because you are writing and I am not.”
One of the most poignant elements of this book is the way Bechdel quietly draws out (without too much explicit commentary) all the ways that she and her mother are as alike as they are unalike. Bechdel’s mother obsessively reads about Sylvia Plath and wishes she “had been Helen Vendler,” the poetry critic and Harvard professor. Bechdel obsessively reads Woolf, who was herself preoccupied with the early death of her mother, and her father’s cool distance. Both turn to art to escape from and to understand themselves. One has made a career of it; the other’s drive to do so was thwarted. (Bechdel wakes from a particularly vivid dream of her mother with the words “thwart,” “drive,” and “laden” in her mind. She concludes that these words apply to her, but they seem far more applicable to her mother.)
A mother is our first attachment. So powerful is the connection, psychiatrists like Winnicott posit, that at first we don’t believe she is an “other” at all. Then one terrible day we grasp that we are not the creators of our own world, that the breast (or bottle) doesn’t magically appear just because we want it. And so, Winnicott believes, at some point the child has to “destroy” the mother and witness the mother’s survival of that destruction in order to venture out safely and securely into her own life. To the extent that there’s a journey in Are You My Mother?, it’s that Bechdel has, in Winnicott’s terms, destroyed the mother—by writing the book the mother doesn’t want her to write; by giving voice to all the ways that mother failed rather than succeeded—and the mother has survived the destruction, continuing to talk to her daughter, even offering grudging praise (“Well, it coheres”) for the result. Are You My Mother?, like the children’s book it’s named after, is more about searching for that secure attachment than anything else.
This is why all those meta-moments have to be written into the book: We must witness the mother’s initial observations that the book has too many strands, her wariness of the entire project, so that when she finally tells Alison that the book is good we understand this to be no small emotional victory. Helen also reads Alison a quote from Dorothy Gallagher about the fact that the memoirist has to serve her story, not her family. “Family be damned!” Helen cackles, and Alison does, in response. Mirroring—at last.
If the final third of the book isn’t quite as satisfying as the opening, it’s a predictable decline. The problem of using a therapeutic vocabulary is that it calls for a therapeutic ending, which Are You My Mother? delivers. But it doesn’t matter that much, because even when Bechdel’s storytelling falls short, her drawings retain the ability to move and surprise us. There’s a beautiful, indelible cartoon in the middle of Are You My Mother? that crystallizes how ornately a vulnerable child can create layers of self-protection, as Bechdel herself ornately weaves together the layers of texts that haunt her. Bechdel has been describing a childhood pleasure of building a secret, private “office” for herself, like a fort. She remembers seeing a “Keep Out” sign somewhere in Dr. Seuss, and, finding the image in Seuss’s Sleep Book, is struck by how much the domicile on which the sign hangs resembles a mother’s womb. It’s as if her own forts are her attempts to become the author of her own security—a self-sufficient womb.
“I would barricade myself off in the back of a closet or a corner of the dining room and work there on my drawings,” Bechdel writes alongside this evocative image, reproducing Seuss. (Both writers have an extraordinary feel for the inner selves of children.) “The sensation of being invisible, inviolable, was a kind of ecstasy.” All the infant wants—indeed all anyone wants—is, as Winnicott wrote, to go-on-being, without disruption. It was in mirroring her parents’ own figurative “Keep Out” signs that the young Bechdel felt safest, and it’s hardly a surprise that she should become an artist herself. By inventing a fresh visual vocabulary for familiar psychological concepts, Bechdel’s books remind us that good memoirs are not just about witness; they are as much about the art of memory as the fact of it.
Comic literature is truly an exciting field, as it expands its canon to include more than the super-hero genre that got things started in the 1930s and ’40s. Today, creators are taking advantage of this form to explore their own inner psychology. These writers and artists introduce readers to oft-times disturbing visual narratives, and since the reader is directly responsible for internalizing and synthesizing “action” in a comic, he or she is more directly engaged on a far more personal level than a cinematic representation would otherwise do where the audience simply views the film. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is one such example of a graphic novel making use of comics as a means of opening a discourse about the scars family members leave on their children and finding some form of closure through sharing these stories with others. This novel expertly shows how comics are moving in new directions and demonstrates a willingness to engage readers in new and challenging ways. And make no mistake about it: there are times when readers would do well to bring their literary credentials with them when pitted against Bechdel.
Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home contains many challenging experiences for readers, as she unfolds the details of her life as a young girl who discovers not only that she is a lesbian but also that her father is a closeted homosexual whose marriage to her mother proved stifling — at best — and downright damaging for everyone in the family. While it would be particularly relevant to analyze this book from the perspective of Queer Theory — the book is certainly well suited to such literary analysis — it is not something I am particularly interested in doing at this time. This is no acquiescence to Bechdel’s claim that “literary criticism is a suspect activity,” as she essentially subjects herself to a form of meta-criticism. This book does serve as an important entry in LGBT canon building within the field of comics, and studying it from this perspective would be a worthwhile pursuit. However, there are other, less obvious aspects to Fun Home that set it apart from the rest, things which readers should be aware.
Instead, it is particularly interesting to note how this novel engages readers in a serious discussion of the ways our parents can scar us. While Bruce Bechdel is shown to have an explosive temper and be prone to the occasional violent outburst, it is the distance he creates in the household that seems to cause the most harm: “It was a vicious circle, though. The more gratification we found in our own geniuses, the more isolated we grew…and in this isolation, our creativity took on an aspect of compulsion” (134). Bechdel then goes on to show the period of time in which her obsessive-compulsive disorder took hold of her as a sort of coping mechanism for the underlying tensions in her home. The response from her mother is cool in tone, as Bechdel’s representation of her mother is with a pursed mouth, sideways glances, and body positioning that has her leaning away from young Alison — all indicative of someone who is unable or unwilling to physically make contact with her daughter. This is confirmed one page earlier when Bechdel informs her readers that, while she takes compulsive turns in kissing her stuffed animals, “no one had kissed [her] good night in years” (137). Furthermore, one need only look at the typical facial expressions Bechdel uses to present herself and her family members — they are ones that are often pensive with small dots for mouths reflecting tightened lips and eyebrows that are either furrowed in deep thought or lifted upwards as if anxious. At the risk of appealing to cliché, the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” truly finds meaning in this book. Bechdel’s art makes full use of image to convey emotion and feeling in each member of her family.
At an initial glance, Bechdel’s art does not possess the ultra-realistic style one might find with more commercially successful artists such as a Jim Lee or Alex Ross; however, Bechdel clearly makes use of style to suit her purpose. In most panels, the readers encounter a more cartoon-like style. This is effective because it serves two purposes: universality and subversion. With regards to universality, Bechdel makes use of the notion Scott McCloud discusses in his formalist text Understanding Comics when he explains the difference between iconic & simple art and complex & realistic art — where the former allows the reader to reconfigure the lines in his or her own imagination thereby encouraging greater self-identification (44-46). Bechdel draws the reader into her story with her simple — but not simplistic — art. Again, McCloud astutely points out “a simple style doesn’t necessitate [a] simple story” (45). And this leads into Bechdel’s second purpose in her choice of style where she subverts reader expectations.
Readers who look at the body of Bechdel’s artwork and fail to give her credit as a skilled artist equally fail to recognize some of the most poignant moments in the novel. Bechdel’s detailed photograph sketches are used sparingly in Fun Home, dividing each chapter with depiction from a moment from her life, in addition to the double-page spread of her father’s young lover — and Bechdel’s babysitter — Roy. These images eschew the cartoonish style employed throughout the bulk of the novel for a very clear purpose. Each image seems to convey a very specific emotion that is carried throughout that given chapter and the novel as a whole. In the opening of the first chapter, we see an image of a younger Bruce Bechdel that is both sexual and masculine; yet there is also a longing in his eyes as he stands at a doorway to some unknown place. New to the novel, most readers will not think much of this picture and begin immediately reading about the stern and polished looking man on the next page. But after reading Fun Home, these images take on new meaning. The lack of polish with which Bechdel depicts her father seems to indicate Bruce as he may have been — or wanted to be — apart from his family and the imposing role of heterosexual patriarch.
Even in chapter four’s dividing page, the image Bechdel produces of her father in the woman’s bathing suit is a beautiful one. What reader would have expected this was Bruce Bechdel before the start of the chapter? How many were fooled into thinking this as an image of the innocent and beautiful Helen Bechdel only to discover it was the innocent and beautiful Bruce? Certainly Bechdel’s awareness of the mutability of identity and the performance of identity comes out here; but more significant than being a “good Queer Theorist” is that Bechdel highlights the scars Bruce must have had inflicted on him when we look upon his past, inner self and compare it to what we have seen of him up to this point in the novel. Readers might not agree with or be comfortable with the lifestyle of transgender and cross-dressing, yet no one can deny the fact that Bruce is no longer the innocent person that he was in the picture Bechdel painfully and beautifully renders.
Each of these pictures contains elements of beauty, longing, nostalgia, regret, and hope. The picture of Roy carefully depicts the beauty of the photograph that Bruce composed and took — a sort of David for the Appalachian Michelangelo that will never truly be realized because it would out him as being not only a homosexual and adulterer but also a pedophile. And yet, the most painful picture is the one readers encounter at the close of the book in the divider for chapter seven with the young girl preparing to jump into the arms of her father. The action is suspended, and unlike a movie or traditional text that would deliver resolution to the reader, Alison and Bruce will forever remain in a stasis apart from one another, locked in an eternal jump without ever reaching each other. Perhaps this interpretation comes across as heavy-handed, and yet, it is interesting to note that, while Bechdel thanks her mother and two brothers twice, nowhere does she make any reference to her father. Fun Home appears to be Bechdel attempting to reach closure with her father, but as the painstaking details of her and her father in these images suggest, there is still an unresolved space between them both despite her claim in the final panel that “he was there to catch me when I leapt” (232). He might have caught her, but it’s not an image Bechdel allows us to witness, and I’m not sure we can trust her words when her images don’t completely match up.
Finally, it’s worth noting that readers who do not carry a certain literary background may find themselves somewhat confused and left out at times. Bechdel makes many literary allusions to Hemingway, Faulkner, and especially Joyce who serves as the primary vehicle for the closing chapter of Fun Home. Furthermore, readers bringing stereotypical preconceptions about comic books, as being the “stuff of kids,” will be sorely mistaken at the complexity of the vocabulary and philosophy Bechdel deftly weaves into her memoir. Although each reader’s reaction to a novel is nuanced, I believe there are three common responses to this use of complicated vocabulary, philosophy, and inter-textual referencing. First, readers from an academic background may find themselves in familiar territory and well equipped to traverse the difficult territory Bechdel lays before them. Second, casual readers may be turned off from the continual unfamiliar references and complexities contained in Fun Home, making the title something of a misnomer. These two responses would seem to be fairly common, yet it is a third response that I suspect underscores the very response Bechdel had in interacting with her father when she was younger. And it is this response Bechdel aims to elicit from her readers that highlights the sophisticated level at which Fun Home operates. She is doing more than simply trying really hard to act serious for literary critics — she elevates form to elicit the an emotional response from her readers similar to that which her father continually evoked from her — distance.
Had Bechdel employed these “academic trappings” unconsciously, it would come off as somewhat pretentious and ostentatious in nature. I argue that she consciously uses these words and concepts to create a space, at times, between the reader and herself in a way not dissimilar from the way her father distanced himself from his family through his academic nature. The third response, then, is to become aware of this distancing and relate to Bechdel on an intimate level. Furthermore, Bechdel’s inconsistent adoption of this style suggests it is not necessarily natural to her, though she becomes adept at it by the end of the novel paralleling the “Ithaca moment” of the final pages of the last chapter (222). Clearly, they grow closer when she adopts his language, as seen during their discussion of literature when she is a student in his class and in her college English courses: “Dad didn’t have much use for small children, but as I got older, he began to sense my potential as an intellectual companion” (198). She goes on to reinforce the learned nature of her father’s language when she tells the reader: “We grew even closer after I went away to college. Books — the ones assigned for my English class — continued to serve as our currency” (200). Yet, Bruce goes too far as “his excitement left little room” (201) for true discourse with his daughter. It’s a subtle point but one that disaffected readers should not overlook — Bechdel does not allow herself to become overly obtuse in her literary references and complex terminology because it was an unpleasant experience that she went through with her own father. Through experiencing this occasional distance she places between the reader and herself, we experience the scars she bears; however, she does not impose the full separation from author to reader as her father did with her when he indulged in his intellectual pursuits while failing to think about whether he lost his daughter in the process. In this regard, readers might feel confused at times, but Bechdel, our literary parent figure through her role as storyteller, does not wholly abandon them.
Fun Home, like Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The World’s Smartest Kid and David Small’s Stitches, is an exceptionally complex graphic novel that explores the problematic nature of family and its effects on its creator. Many readers might not be familiar with the inner workings of Joyce’s pre-postmodern masterpiece (but who is really?); yet, how many people have experienced strained and dysfunctional relationships with their parents? It is no surprise these books continue to garner both critical and popular attention. Super-hero comics are not the things of the past — they still possess a significant amount of potential for academic discourse; however, the works of creators like Bechdel, Ware, and Small provide additional outlets for the developing literary canon of comics. Not only are comics able to operate apart from the cape but they can also succeed where other mediums, such as conventional literature and cinema, might fall short. In their approach to these heady discussions, comics can demonstrate the sophistication and nuance expected from high literature while maintaining a certain level of accessibility for casual readers.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. New York: Mariner Books, 2006. Print.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper, 1994. Print.
. Recommended reading would be Adrielle Mitchell’s “Spectral Memory, Sexuality and Inversion: An Anthological Study of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.” http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v4_3/mitchell/
 See the initial dedication page in the beginning of the book as well as the Acknowledgements.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.
See more, including free online content, on Forrest Helvie's author page.
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