In her fragmentary memoir “Moments of Being,” Virginia Woolf writes that she was obsessed with her mother, who died when Woolf was 13, until the age of 44, when she finally laid her to rest in her novel “To the Lighthouse.” Woolf shows up in the first chapter of Alison Bechdel’s inventive graphic memoir “Are You My Mother?”, strolling with her dog through a double-page spread depicting Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury in the mid-1920s.
The book is full of these surprises and diversions as Bechdel unravels her relationship with her own, still-living mother, with the help of therapists and thinkers both living and dead — most prominently the child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who tips his hat to Woolf in the Tavistock Square drawing. “I want him to be my mother,” Bechdel explains, lying with her head on a pillow on her therapist’s couch and wearing Harry Potter glasses. Winnicott was known for his compassionate approach to the relationship between mother and child, arguing that children did not need perfect parents but could thrive with an “ordinary devoted mother” — a phrase Bechdel borrows, rather longingly, for her first chapter title.
Like Woolf, Bechdel sat down to write about her mother in her mid-40s, at the moment when Bechdel knew for sure that she would not have children of her own (“I’m running out of eggs”).
Envious of the “annoying rapidity” with which Woolf claims to have composed “To the Lighthouse,” Bechdel recounts in her book the laborious, halting process of its creation. But it lacks the explosive premise that gave shape to her previous memoir, “Fun Home,” published in 2006. In that book Bechdel discovers, just after her father’s apparent suicide and shortly after having come out as a lesbian to her parents, that he had had secret affairs with young men and boys throughout his adult life. No such inherently dramatic discovery and quest for answers structures this story, but it is perhaps the more challenging examination of family, not least because its subject can talk back, contradict the author and refuse to stay in the frame.
The book’s seven chapters begin with dreams, looming up out of black pages. These images of mirrors, lakes, spiderwebs and Bechdel’s gothic childhood home invite Freudian analysis, into which she dives with abandon. Her body and psyche are laid bare: She draws herself in therapy, at work, in bed with her girlfriends, naked, weeping, bleeding and flat on the floor in despair. She appears as a wide-eyed, mop-haired child and a harried adult, within a tightly controlled visual framework. In “Fun Home,” neat lines of text and image were etched over cool blues and greys; in “Are You My Mother?” the tint is warmer: soft rose to deep red, the color of blood, brick or the psychoanalyst’s leather couch. The book is heavy with text: e-mails from her mother, newspaper clippings, extracts from Winnicott and Woolf, letters and diaries, all meticulously transcribed. Bechdel turns words into spidery, painstaking art and imbues even soulless computer typefaces with a consistent personality, so that her presence is palpable in every tiny, wavering line.
There are big, lavish images, too, created out of scenes like her mother’s amateur dramatic performances, but much of the book is made up of ordinary moments that would seem to offer an artist little to work with: thinking, reading e-mail, talking on the telephone. Yet it’s in these mundane moments that the deadpan wit and honesty of Bechdel’s writing shines. Taking issue with one of Freud’s theories of female sexual development, she concedes a point: “I admit that at first glance my family appears to be a case study for these dubious conclusions,” but she’s not prepared to rest as a case study. Instead, she insists on pushing further and deeper into herself, making her case tentatively to her mother at one point, “Um . . . I dunno . . . can’t you be more universal by being more specific?” In her quiet, rigorous, self-deprecating way, she succeeds at this, creating a world in which we are bound to recognize some part of ourselves, and our mothers.
Are you my mother?
A Comic Drama
By Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 290 pp. $22.
Scutts is contributing editor of PEN America and teaches writing at New York University.