Are You My Mother?
Created by: Alison Bechdel
Published by: Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618982507 (Amazon)
So here’s a dilemma. How do you talk about a book deeply concerned with something you don’t understand and therefore can’t really respect? Like, pretend you’re an atheist (or maybe don’t pretend if you’re already there). You’re reading this book in which the protagonist just doesn’t feel the call of the Holy Spirit so much as she’d like. So she talks to all these different people who give her all sorts of spiritual advice on what the Holy Spirit’s like, how the Holy Spirit feels, how best to invoke the Holy Spirit, what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit, how it’s okay that she doesn’t speak in tongues because the Holy Spirit doesn’t manifest in that way. And all that jazz.
Now you’re a patient, careful reader, and you know there’s more to the story than just this character’s difficulty with what she considers an essential part to her life and lifestyle. But still, she’s yammering on about the Holy Spirit and you (for the life of you) just cannot relate. You’re an atheist, after all, and she’s profoundly bothered by not experiencing what you consider to be a faery tale. It would be like if you read a book where everybody seemed overly concerned by how Richie Rich would react when posed with various ethical dilemmas.
That’s kind of how I felt while reading through Are You My Mother? I tried, of course, to distance my skepticism with the book’s central tenet from the reading experience, but when is it possible to do this entirely? See, the sad fact of the matter is: I put no stock in psychoanalysis and Are you My Mother? is virtually governed by the stuff.
It really does show a little.
Where Bechdel’s prior biographical work Fun Home was ruled by a series of literary allusions, Are You My Mother? is built from a fabric of Bechdel’s experiences with therapists, dreams, and allusion to works of the analyst’s discipline. Ostensibly a recollection of her mother as Fun Home was her coming to grips with her father, Bechdel’s latest is more the story of her own manias11Mania in a non-technical sense. If there is one. And I’m sure there is. and her attempts over the years to resolve these and get to the bottom of their existences. The book only ever tangentially involves Bechdel’s mother insofar as her mother plays a role in some of the author’s struggles.
Bechdel begins each chapter with a dream and then follows with some manner of psychoanalytical interpretation that then informs the rest of the chapter. Are You My Mother? is thoroughly peppered with quotations from a variety of psychological texts. And many of Bechdel’s anecdotes are reccountments of her therapeutic sessions from the past couple decades or so. In trying to learn the story of Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, it’s virtually impossible to escape the thumbprint of Freud’s successors.
But that… that’s crazy!
And for that reason, I found it hard to stay interested. This is most likely my own fault but I don’t exactly know how to tell. The craft Bechdel employs to draw, colour, and otherwise visually tell her story are of a match with Fun Home. Her verbal chops excel to the caliber of the prior work as well. So it’s mostly only the content that got in my way.
Because I just don’t put much stock in any of the kinds of therapy in which Bechdel puts so much stock. When the interpretation of dreams insinuates itself into Bechdel’s narrative, the readings always seem (to me, at any rate) outlandish and contrived. And the eagerness with which Bechdel’s in-story avatar seeks affirmation of her interpretations seems to sit heavy with confirmation bias.
What kind of environment creates this kind of internal tension in a kid when she’s confronted by the question, “Do you love me?” Really, my heart kind of breaks for Bechdel here, whether she intends it or not.
It’s really a matter of suspending disbelief. I could read a story in which a boy is forced to live under the stairs and is stolen away on his eleventh birthday to live at a sorcerer’s school and be totally taken in because the story makes stepping away from believability easy and natural. For me though, Are You My Mother? is meant to play straight and Bechdel sells the story as something turgidly real—and because of my own biases, I was continually removed from the narrative experience.
And as I said, I can’t tell whose fault that is. Probably mine because I’m sure that if I happened to put any much stock in psychoanalysis, I’d probably be right there with Bechdel. It’s really too bad for those of us who can’t get on board, because I was pretty interested in hearing about Bechdel’s mother, her history, and how her identity develops alongside or in opposition to Bechdel’s father’s.
Oh! Oh yeah! Silly me to forget!
As much as it’s in any way my place to judge this very personal and familial work22And I’d say that it wasn’t my place save for the fact that this very personal and familial work is being packaged and sold as a product for consumer consumption. Which of course changes everything., I’m torn by the responsibility. Do I major on the fact that the work is quite competently accomplished and a mark of superior craftsmanship or instead lean on the fact that I didn’t enjoy the book or get nearly so much out of it as I did her earlier memoir? I’ll leave it to you to judge my choice even as I judge Are You My Mother? Fairly or unfairly, that’s up to you.
I actually adore this.
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