Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
I should have known better. When I saw the subtitle ‘A Comic Drama’, I thought, ‘this looks like an interesting combination’ completely forgetting that Alison Bechdel is a famous lesbian feminist author of comic strips (‘Dykes to Watch Out For’) and graphic novels of which this is the sequel to ‘Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic’ which explored her life before and after her father’s suicide – a gay man in a straight marriage, a high school teacher and part-time funeral home provider. Clearly, Bechdel titles with thought.
She is also known for the Bechdel test – a short test that is used as a way “to call attention to gender inequality”, and to assert that women are under-represented in films due to sexism. It was introduced in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule”, ‘an unnamed female character says that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements: The movie has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something besides a man’ (Wikipedia)
The test relates back to Virginia Woolf (“To the Lighthouse”) who is a mentor for Bechdel and is one of many strands in this memoir. Looking back over her life with her Mother, the author utilised strands of memories, photos, letters, dreams and musings over her relationship experiences on therapy and analysis, especially her appreciation of analyst Donald Winnicott’s theorising on childrens’ emerging sense of self through separation. It could almost be seen as a grownups version of the original 1960 children’s book of the same title.
There is no sparing of blunt personal insight nor some pretty heavy analytic language and discussion and it is this that make the book a winner for me. In plain text form it would have been very heavy weather at times. However, the chapter structure which focuses on particular issues allows the multi-layered examinations to be enlivened with the drawings which have great subtlety and insight.
I started off with my doubts and was concerned by the layers of references to therapy and analysis. But, I must confess I was drawn (no pun) into her deeply personal struggles and the character of her Mother. I found myself reading more voraciously as I got deeper into the text and appreciated the conclusion as a temporary truce.