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.
You can see in the image below an example of her art, where after finding a sequence of photographs of how she performed literal mirroring of her mother as a baby. She’s placed them in what she perceived was the correct sequence and has drawn them into the comic. Overlaid with the images, she narrates her own actions as a baby, while she quotes from Winnicott’s work on mirroring, and incorporates part of a phone conversation with her mother. Many, many layers, all in just two pages.
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.