17 September 2012

My Thoughts on Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?

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It was only my lesbianism, and my determination not to hide it, that saved me from being compliant to the core.

I may have gone into reading Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel's second graphic memoir, slightly shaded by reading other reviews (like this one from Brenna). However, I still really wanted to like it.  After all, I loved Fun Home, and I really like psychoanalytic theory, something that is much referred to throughout the book.  In the end, there were things I liked about it, and things that I took serious issue with.

I'll start with what I didn't like, so that I can end on a positive note.  In Fun Home, Bechdel's writing about her father seems like a genuine vehicle for better understanding her father and their fraught relationship. This book, instead of really struggling with who her mother is, or even with their relationship, is focused quite intensely on Alison's personal struggles with herself.  I understand intellectually why she is making this move: the Adrienne Rich intertext, "the personal is political, and so on.  However, it just doesn't work particularly well.  The book has long dream sequences and snapshots of Bechdel's therapy sessions, inviting us to psychoanalyze her ourselves.  I don't like it when my friends tell me about their dreams; I don't want to read about a total stranger's.  It all just seems very solipsistic. Sometimes I found myself agreeing with Bechdel's mother's criticism that no one wants to read what really seems like an exorcising of personal demons. This is particularly pronounced in the first hundred pages of the book.

And the book is very meta.  In fact, Bechdel calls the book meta near the end.  I don't have a problem with this.  In fact, I really like the references to other texts in many parts of the book.  Bechdel references Virginia Woolf, Donald Winnicott, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Adrienne Rich, Adam Phillips and at least one more psychoanalytic text.  In this list, you might be able to see the problem.  There is frankly, too much going on, which makes it difficult to do the work of putting it all together and extracting some kind of larger meaning.  The parts with Woolf and Rich and even Freud have wonderful moments. As someone who studied psychoanalytic criticism, I really wanted to enjoy the interweaving of these texts throughout the narrative.  However, the clunky literalism of some of Winnicott's theory, and the repeated reference to dream analysis left me wanting.

So, what did I like.  Bechdel's characterization of herself, when portrayed in relationships with other people instead of texts, is revealing.  In fact, the premise of struggling with ramifications on one's family of personal writing, is an intriguing topic.  When the personal intersects with the public, where is it appropriate or advisable to draw the line?  How valid are concerns about privacy from a writer's family members?  How does the writer navigate the relationship with his or her subjects?  Interesting, right?  And in moments, it really is.  And Rich and Woolf make wonderful referents for exploring these questions.  The second half in the book opens up and little, and explores more than just Bechdel's psyche, and that is when I like to read her. However, she does that all the way through Fun Home, and only in moments in Are You My Mother?, making the first book a much tighter, stronger read.


Title:Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama
Author: Alison Bechdel
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date: 2012
Genre: Memoir, Graphic Novel

287 pages.
Where I got it: Library
 Challenges: None
 

4 comments:

  1. Yeah, I pretty much agree- there were moments where I was like 'ooh, intriguing' but mostly I was like 'YOU ARE SO NARCISSISTIC, STOP IT!' Cause, who needs that?

    Also, I want to add cause I found this out a while ago and haven't repeated it cause it's never come up BUT on this TV show they said that psychoanalysis has been proven to make anxiety disorders, like OCD, WORSE, because it makes the anxious person think about things that might in turn make them more anxious.

    I feel like someone needs to tell Bechdel this...

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    Replies
    1. I know...and BOO. I really wanted to like it. I liked Fun Home soooo much.

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  2. I really wanted to like this. I love her. I've been reading Bechdel since I was in high school and love how successful Fun Home was, but this was kind of flat for me. It just didn't have the strong narrative drive that Fun Home did. I couldn't even finish, sigh.

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    Replies
    1. It actually gets better towards the end. However, I just wish that they whole thing had lived up to Fun Home.

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