Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama

by Alison Bechdel

Hardcover, 2012

Status

Available

Publication

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, (2012)

Description

Depicts the author's mother as a voracious reader, music lover, and passionate amateur actress who quietly suffers as the wife of a closeted gay artist and withdraws from her young daughter, who searches for answers to the separation later in life.

User reviews

LibraryThing member zzshupinga
First off "Are You My Mother" is nothing at all like "Fun Home." So if you've come looking for that same type of feeling when reading, just go and reread "Fun Home." If on the other hand, you're looking for a book that will make you think and rethink and give you some insight into Bechdel's life, then pick this one up. And then read it and then reread it again to let things sink in. And then reread it a few more times to see what you missed.

Unlike "Fun Home," which focused primarily on Bechdel's relationship with her father, "Are You My Mother" is focused primarily on Bechdel's examination of herself. Yes, her relationship with her mother plays a crucial role in the book, but more than anything it's a starting point for Bechdel to examine her life, the decisions she's made and how she got there. In many ways this book is an examination of self, of the inner psyche and how it functions. Bechdel takes us on a nonlinear journey of her life, how her mother has impacted decisions she made and impacted how Bechdel feels about herself--seemingly overwhelmed with the world around her, and it's also Alison's search for those that she wanted as a mother (hence the title), those that would provide her with the love and the encouragement that she so desperately wanted and needed.

Bechdel depends heavily on psychology in this book, sometimes a bit too heavily, to analyze her dreams, her relationships, and the paths that she's taken in life. At times it almost feels like we need a psychology textbook next to us to understand some of the terms and definitions she tosses us and at other times it feels like we are reading a textbook and sometimes overwhelming in cases. It's the one reason why I marked the book down to four stars is that I often felt like I was getting lost in a psychology class that I didn't sign up to take. And yet...the psychological elements in the book provide insight into how Alison sees herself, which is what book is really about. It's her journey, perhaps even a healing process, to help her understand herself and the world that she lives in. In many ways the book reminds me of "Stitches," another artists attempt to use a book for healing.

Bechdel's artwork is still powerful and beautiful. Continuing to use the pen and ink and blue gray inkwashes she used so effectively in "Fun Home," Alison adds a new twist with using red ink washes to give in greater depths to the images that she draws. Her characters come to life, often seemingly to move of their own free will and in the scenes when Alison plunges into deep waters it feels like we're there with her. And I've always loved how she has the ability to capture facial expressions, especially with the young children in the books. You can feel the joy, the confusion, and the sadness coming off of the pages.

This is probably one of the most complicated books I've read in a long time. It's one that I had to stop every so often and go back and reread pages to see what I missed. And it's going to be a book that's going to be difficult to recommend because the psychological analysis is going to make people uneasy as we plunge into Alison's mind to see how she sees the world. And yet I'll recommend it anyway and it's one that has a permanent spot on my shelf.
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LibraryThing member andreablythe
Are You My Mother? is a meta-memoir in graphic novel format, which on the surface is about Bechdel's mother. However, it is also about Bechdel's therapy process, her relationships with her lovers, the history of psychonanalysis (particularly in regards to Donald Winnicott), Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, and the act of writing memoirs itself and how it effects the lives of those you write about.

This book has layers upon layers. How we feel about the past and our family is not linear. Disparate events, having no immediate relation to one another in reality, come together in out mind and combine into an emotional arc. The narrative here explores and loops, more like a thesis than a story. Sometimes Bechdel presents a conversation with her mother, then drifts away to talk about Winnicott's work and writing on to a few scenes of her in therapy sessions, only to come back later to that same conversation with her mother, which now has a new light based on the new information.

The tone of the narrative is analytical, and Bechdel seems to be distanced from her own history as she tries to put the pieces together. There is no melodrama here. Bechdel neither condemns nor idolizes her mother in these pages. Nor does she condemn nor idolize herself.

One of the major themes of this book comes from Winnicott and his work on self-other, specifically how the mother becomes the self for babies and vice versa, as well as the concept of mirroring. I remember thinking while reading how strange it was that Bechdel was writing a memoir about her mother that turned out to be more about herself. But as I continued and learned more about Winnicott's work on self-other and mirroring, this began to make perfect sense. Are not memoirs truly about the self, being from our own perspective anyway? And if as children we incorporate the mother into the self, then by writing about herself, Bechdel is also writing about her mother. This book seems to be a way for her to disentangle her self from her mother.

Another aspect of mirroring is revealed in the ways Bechdel projected her need for mothering onto her therapists and her lovers. Behavior that is only understood after the fact, through this kind of analysis.

I was deeply fascinated by this book, which may not have moved me emotionally, but had the gears of my mind churning. I'm sure reading it again would reveal new layers to the narrative, new understandings. And now now that I've read this book, I'm dying to read her first memoir about her father, Fun Home (which she discusses in Are You My Mother?). If this is a sign of the quality of her work, I definitely want to read more.
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LibraryThing member CaseyStepaniuk
Alison Bechdel’s second graphic memoir Are You My Mother? (2012) certainly has an huge mountain of success to live up to: unbeknownst to Bechdel herself and all her leftist, alternative lesbian Dykes to Watch Out For fans, her first memoir Fun Home (2006) became a best-seller, was named Time magazine’s number one book of the year, and was deemed a best book of 2006 by a ton of other prestigious—and, significantly, non-queer—publications like The New York Times. I absolutely loved Fun Home in all its neurotic glory, literary nerdiness, and heartbreaking exploration of the connections between Bechdel’s queer sexuality and her father’s—latent and closeted as it was. I thus had high expectations for Are You My Mother?, which I’m sad to say weren’t exactly met, although perhaps that was inevitable. Like Fun Home, Bechdel’s new book is an examination of her relationship with a parent, this time her mother. Bechdel’s mother is certainly a worthy character to study: eccentric, artistic, complex, and troubled in many of the same ways Bechdel’s father was. Are You My Mother?, however, doesn’t have the same urgency as Fun Home because it lacks anything close to the burning question that preoccupies Bechdel’s first memoir: is Bechdel’s coming out as a lesbian causally related to her father’s (assumed) suicide just four months later? This isn’t to say that Bechdel doesn’t explore some intellectually fascinating questions about the nature of the mother-daughter relationship in this book, such as the kinds of misogyny that mothers inherit from their own mothers and pass onto their children. In a heartbreaking scene, Bechdel’s mother Helen tells her that the main thing she learnt from her own mother was “that boys are more important than girls”; Helen admits freely that she carried on this pattern of favouring male children, to the obvious detriment of her daughter.

Are You My Mother? follows a circular pattern, as did Bechdel’s first memoir: each section begins with a recounting of an important dream, then meanders through a dizzying narrative moving back and forth in time, recalling different eras of Bechdel’s life, doing close readings of psychoanalytic texts and thinkers, and returning to previously examined scenes and thoughts. The incidents of her life that she chooses to focus on are, obviously, often momentous—at least in psychological terms—events with her mother from her childhood as well as adulthood: one telling such scene is when Helen abruptly tells her daughter, at age seven, that she is “too old to be kissed goodnight anymore.” Here and in other scenes Bechdel expertly captures the rawness and immediacy of childhood emotional injury: when her mother leaves her tucked in bed with a mere “goodnight” Alison feels as if her mother has “slapped her.” The drawing shows Alison shocked and still tucked in her bed with wide open eyes; a thick line of wall divides the two and her mother’s back faces the reader as she walks away. The black and white, red-accented drawings here and everywhere in the memoir are truly exquisite. They’re beautifully expressive, and do a fantastic job of illustrating a narrative that is largely an introspective, inward journey.

Other than her relationship with her mother, the other theme around which Are You My Mother? revolves is Bechdel’s therapy sessions, linked to her obsession with psychoanalysis. Again like Fun Home, this memoir is a highly allusive text: instead of the literary references, like the Icarus and Daedalus myth, however, we have psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s works. I have to say I agree with Danika’s review that I simply didn’t enjoy these allusions as much as the ones in Fun Home. I’m a huge fan of Bechdel’s work and have taken graduate-level courses in psychoanalytic theory and literary and queer theory, but some of the psychoanalytic discussion took a fair amount of concentration for me to follow. Moreover, I found a significant part of it simply not that interesting. A student of psychoanalysis would have a field day with this memoir, as will English and Women’s Studies professors. I’m not sure, however, how much fans of Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home, or queer women readers in general, will really enjoy the psychoanalysis and the concentration on Bechdel’s therapy sessions. I found myself feeling impatient with the amount of the book that focused on these topics. Maybe I’m not a child of the 80s enough to sympathize with the impulse for obsessive and life-long therapy (I’m reminded of a Dykes to Watch Out For strip where Sydney tells Mo “I know it’s so 80s, but you have considered therapy?”). I wanted to know more about Bechdel’s “serially monogamous” adult relationships and more about her mother as an individual; Bechdel seems to have made peace with Helen, reconciling herself to the person her mother is by cathartic means of the book, but I left the memoir still unsure as to what exactly made Helen the woman she was (and is). Ironically, Bechdel dedicates the book to her mother, “who knows who she is.” Maybe this dedication means that Bechdel had to let go of any desire she had to know who her mother is, something that readers have to relinquish as well. Cathy Camper at the Lambda Literary site seems to feel left without answers by the memoir as well. Despite my mixed feelings about Are You My Mother?, I would still recommend it to readers who like Bechdel’s other work; I would just advise them to put on as much of an academic, intellectual lens as they have available to them when they pick it up.
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LibraryThing member gbill
Much as I love Alison Bechdel, this follow-up to her masterpiece ‘Fun Home’ was underwhelming. The artwork is fantastic, and her intelligence, introspection, and sensitivity all come through. Unfortunately they are mired down in Freudian psychoanalysis, the interpretation of symbolism in events or dreams to an absurd degree (my opinion anyway), and the theories of Donald Winnicott, whose texts are quoted far too often. If you’re a believer in those things, this book may resonate with you, but for me, it degenerated into psychobabble. Bechdel also wrote too much about her writer’s block and her writing process, I think to the book’s detriment. It’s with regret that I give it only three stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member CasualFriday
I was beyond excited to read Allison Bechtel's second graphic memoir after the magnificent Fun Home, but I was disappointed. Perhaps because I am so skeptical about psychoanalysis, I was annoyed and /or bored with the long passages about Bechdel’s therapy and her infatuation with the theories of Donald Winnicott. When Bechdel reaches into the past with clarity and concentrates on specific details about her mother, it was interesting. Much of the rest left me cold

I remember at the end of Fun Home I had tears in my eyes, but with this one I’m sorry to say I was emotionally unmoved by the story and intellectually confused. That possibly reflects my intellectual shallowness. But I'm not sure that it does.
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LibraryThing member rarewren
I cringe at my arrogance. Actually, cringing at my arrogance is just another, more rarified, level of arrogance. (180)

To be a subject is an act of aggression. I put the odds on a psychic deathmatch between Attila the Hun and Virginia Woolf at fifty-fifty. (258)

"'The writer's business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve the story.'" (Bechdel's mother quoting Dorothy Gallagher, page 283)… (more)
LibraryThing member lissabeth21
This was NOT Fun Home. It was the same family, the same author, but she herself was writing at a different time in her life about, what was for her, a very different subject. This was a smarter book in a way. More cerebral, less emotional. I was intrigued and sometimes frightened by the insights I saw into my own life as she discovered her own truths in works of academics. Wow.… (more)
LibraryThing member kittyjay
Like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home before it, Are You My Mother? is the deeply personal memoir of her relationship with her mother. Like Fun Home, this book is not about her mother herself, but more about Bechdel's complicated feelings and relationship with her mother - if this sounds like an invitation to a Freudian joke, brace yourself.

Like Proust, Joyce, and other authors that she used to try and connect with her father, Bechdel sees the relationship between her mother and herself through the work of a psychoanalyst named Donald Winnicott, and the sessions she has with her therapist in which they discuss Bechdel's mother. This leads to such "breakthroughs" as dream interpretation, Freudian slips, and other pieces of psychoanalytic jargon that have largely been debunked. While I try to keep an open mind, some of the breakthroughs seemed to be almost a parody of the therapeutic session. As one of my friends who studied psychology once dryly told me, "You learn Freud so that they can tell you how wrong he was."

One session includes this scene:

CAPTION: I had made two copies of the manuscript. One for Mom, and one for me to refer to when I talked to her. I put my copy in a re-used folder.

BECHDEL: Then I noticed it's the folder I took notes on in our "reaction formation" session a couple months ago. Remember? I was talking about my awful gnawing envy of other people's success?
JOCELYN: I remember!
BECHDEL: You said I'd reversed my own aggression, turned it on myself, and I felt this immediate relief! I wonder if writing the book is a way of directing my aggression out instead of in? And that's why I put it in this particular folder? (pg. 164)

To quote somebody or other - sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

This same premise was used for Fun Home; Bechdel saw parallels in her reading with her relationship and how she felt about her father, which worked in tandem to show and elucidate her complicated feelings. But what was charming in that one was annoying and tiresome here, unless you happen to devoutly believe in dream interpretation.

That said, the same reliance on Freudian and Jungian symbolism is precisely what makes Bechdel's artwork so powerful. In one scene, a memory from when she was young and joined her mother in watching a show, the background chatter of the characters illuminates the subtext of a tense exchange between her mother and herself:

CHARACTER: It's a hard question, the hardest I've ever had to answer.
MOTHER: Do you love me? (pg. 86)

Every detail of her drawings, even the faintest suggestions of colors (reds and pinks, whereas Fun Home had a blue theme), are symbolic and highlight what is being said beneath the dialogue. Bechdel's artwork in general, as always, balances flawlessly between realism and cartoon. She intersperses her scenes with pages of books, letters, photographs, and other ephemera, which seems more like a collage or scrapbook than a flat book - which is appropriate, given the subject of family.

My annoyance with the constant analysis - there is a reason aspiring novelists are often told that no one cares about someone else's dreams - softened toward the end, when I began to see it in a more metaphorical light. Maybe that's what Bechdel was going for originally, and maybe not; I cannot say. But she uses To the Lighthouse as a framing device later and there is a note that is significant, which links Winnicott's theories on objects and subjects, as well as the resentment she feels toward her mother for not supporting her the way she wants, but also the dependence and reliance (that is, mothers: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em).

While still glittering with a sharp intellectual mind, smudged with beautiful drawings, and sinking in subtext, I cannot say that Are You My Mother? lived up to my expectations after following the - in my opinion - superior Fun Home*.

* If we're delving into symbolism, is it meaningful that I prefer the memoir-of-the-father over the mother's, considering Bechdel accuses her own mother of showing preference to the men in the family over her? Ah, well.
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LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
I think some people don't like this as much as Bechdel's other books because there's a complete lack of humor. She uses her cartoons to explore her relationship with her mother, psychoanalysis, child psychology, Virginia Woolfe, the demise of her comic strip due to decreasing newspaper circulation, and her continuing struggle to support herself through her art. It's a very serious, interesting book but it kind of makes me worry about her state of mind right now.… (more)
LibraryThing member jasonli
"Are You My Mother?" is the sequel to Bechdel's bestselling "Fun Home." The latter was about the relationship between the author and her father, told through two parallel tales of her coming out story and his suicide. "Are You My Mother?" takes it a step further to tell the story of the author's relationship with her still-alive mother. Bechdel does so by chronicling her personal history of partners, therapists and jobs in parallel with her evolving relationship with her mother. And all this is conveyed lovingly in a graphic novel form, with hand-painted illustrations and some of the most beautiful page layouts I've ever seen.

The book may sound like a self-absorbed endeavor, but if you can manage to stomach just a little of it, it is an immensely pleasurable read. Bechdel mixes in critical theory subtly, making often obfuscated ideas seem simple, and in doing so pushes the format of the graphic novel memoir substantially. In addition, "Are You My Mother?" is an intensely personal and gripping book, and as a memoir; Bechdel engages with it in a way that makes "Fun Home" seem distant and analytical. Yet it's never self-indulgent.

A must read of fans of the memoir, graphic novels or "Fun Home."
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LibraryThing member heterotopic
This one felt a bit fragmentary and forced. You can see it in the text, as the author tries to explain her process of writing the memoir. Perhaps it is the result of the stronger tension between her and her mother, and how she still can't escape the gaze of her mother? Her earlier memoir about her father was probably more successful as she was able to distance herself from him, as she was writing from memory.… (more)
LibraryThing member E.J
I wasn't quite as fond of this as Fun Home but it still packed a punch that hit me right in the gut. Bechdel is a genius at sentimentality. And I mean that in a good way.
LibraryThing member mochap
Much more ponderous and heavy than her earlier memoir about her father, this book ostensibly about her mother is framed throughout with references to DW Winnicott and Virginia Wolfe. A bit much.
LibraryThing member bobbieharv
Having resisted graphic novels till now, I was blown away by Bechdel's book and was very sorry to see it end. I never realized the power of this format in presenting many themes at once - and I don't agree with her mother at all that there were "too many threads." I loved every bit of it: the writing, the exploration of psychologists' theories, her therapy sessions, the conversations with her mother, and most especially the drawings. Can't imagine how she is able to do all of this.
Now I can't wait to read her previous book, about her father.
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LibraryThing member peggygillman
Wow! This was a tour de force. She explores her relationship with her mother with great intensity and psychological insight. Some of it went over my head and someday I will read it again. It was fantastic. 5/23/12
LibraryThing member Lacy.Simons
Knocked it out in one night. So good.
LibraryThing member AmronGravett
Are You My Mother? tackles Bechdel’s troubled relationship with her distant, unhappy mother and her experiences with psychoanalysis. Both autobiographical novels set the mark by this important artist and writer.
LibraryThing member quantumbutterfly
After looking at her father's history in Fun Home (which I cannot recommend enough), Bechdel has turned to her relationship with her still-living mother. We look into Alison's psyche, dreams, history, therapy, and watch her unravel this core part of her life. I confess it breaks my heart to look at a family so messed up and dealing with the issues they've had.
For Dykes to Watch Out For fans, you'll find scenes which were most likely fodder for stories in the comic.
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LibraryThing member timjones
Another wonderful combination of graphic novel and memoir from Alison Bechdel. After "Fun Home", which centred on her father, the focus of "Are You My Mother?" isn't a surprise: this time, the parent is seen primarily through the prism of psychoanalysis rather than literature, but the result is just as thought-provoking, involving and moving. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
I have a sneaking suspicion that the 3 stars says something about my mother/daughter relationship with my mother rather than this. It's sa look at Alison and her mother and the ups and downs of their relatioships with each other, including the writing of the previous book, Fun Home. It also includes some of her therapy sessions and relationships. It would probably appeal to people who enjoy reading about navel-gazing, I don't happen to be one.… (more)
LibraryThing member LizaHa
thoughts while reading this:

1. is there some kind of anti-feminism that makes us be able to see our fathers as people but not our mothers? like, my father's story is about my father but my mother's story is about what i want from her? seriously, i read a review of this saying that bechdel couldn't help it if her father's story was inherently more interesting than her mother's, and it was like: father's story inherently more interesting than mother's, seriously?

2. the drama of the gifted child is like the most obnoxious name for anything ever.

i didn't think that i liked it but have been trying to get other people to read it since i finished, so.
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LibraryThing member Jessica_Olin
I'm still disentangling the emotions this book kicks up from Bechdel's skills as a memoirist, so I may come back and revise this review if I change my mind about anything. However, I don't think I'll change my mind about one thing: this book felt disarmingly honest. If you've read her previous memoir, Fun Home>, then you know Bechdel had a somewhat complicated childhood. Are You My Mother? isn't easy to read. It's convoluted and difficult at times, but it was worth the work for me.… (more)
LibraryThing member kgib
Really enjoyed the artwork/layout. The story was less engaging than Fun Home, but still interesting.
LibraryThing member mockturtle
More challenging to read (for both technical and personal reasons) than Bechdel's phenomenal Fun Home, this one ends up punching just as hard, while telling the rest of the story.
LibraryThing member bluepigeon
Are You My Mother? is not, if you ask me, about Bechdel's mother. It is mostly about Bechdel, her creative demons, her childhood, her relationships with lovers and, yes, therapists. Bechdel writes well and the whole book is drawn beautifully with a lot of attention to detail. Panels flow well and they tell a story in physical space as well as in several moments in time. She often has a narration going on as she is having a conversation with someone while, say, she is driving somewhere. The work is meticulous and polished. Her mom calls the book a meta-book, which is very apt. Most of the book concerns itself with psychoanalysis and psychology. Freud, Jung, Winnicott, and Virginia Woolf dominate the text. Beyond that there is a personal life that is very much like most personal lives: love, hate, deceit, anxiety, regret, brilliance, career woes, insecurities, money problems, gender issues... There are some very funny moments, but the overall feel of the book is anxious and slightly claustrophobic. Bechdel does a very good job in telling the story and using her art to break down, almost crystallize, certain feelings and moments.

All in all, Are You My Mother? is an intellectual delight to read with some great art. It is also an act of bravery and self-indulgence. I do not recommend it to people who cannot multitask, who have short attention span, or who do not like to read about lofty complex psychological concepts. Highly recommended for intellectuals, moms, dads, and artists ("the humanities people," as I like to call them!)
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Language

Original language

English

Barcode

10488
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