A Mother Is a Story With Neither Beginning Nor End

Alison Bechdel’s follow-up to Fun Home examines her difficult relationship with her difficult mom.

Next month, the Slate Audio Book Club will discuss Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?

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 For will 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.