Book Review: Are You My Mother?
I'm one of those people who reads all the time: for fun, for work, for pleasure. Reading a book is, if you aren’t aware, a great conversation starter, and Alison Bechdel’s recent book, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama is far and away my top metro-chat-activator. Ten years ago her first memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, was published about her coming out, her father’s suicide, and their complicated relationship; Bechdel spent the last decade writing this Mother.
During the week I spent reading it a lot of people came up to me with some variation of, “I’ve seen so many people reading that book, what is it?” Now, when it comes to a topic I love I can be quite the motor-mouth, and Bechdel is a much-loved topic. I generally answer with an energetic monologue saying how brilliant and readable and moving her books are and how you--whoever YOU are--MUST read both of them IMMEDIATELY.
And so I’ve come here, to WTGG, to share with you all an edited version of my ten-minute monologue:
In Bechdel’s memoirs both the images and the text are compelling : there’s just as much to look at as there is to read. She jumps between decades on the same page: childhood memories next to the history of psychology and therapy sessions mixed in with her parent’s first years of marriage. This sounds scattered, I know, but Bechdel keeps all the topics unified, gliding from sex narration to exploring psychoanalytic theory with an enviable smoothness. When you read this book you also read Bechdel's thoughts about writing this book, which she subsequently illustrated. The creation of the story is part of the story.
Are You My Mother?consists of more than any one thing I can tell you about. This means that there's bound to be something in it that you can relate to and something that you'll find interesting. If all the psychology sounds overwhelming or boring however, don't be deterred! You can even skip over those parts without losing the narrative.
Like so many queers, lesbians, and gay people of all genres, Bechdel has a complicated relationship with her mom. Are You My Mother? is nearly 300 pages, and by the end she's found a way to understand their personal and family histories. She also finds happiness, or at least acceptance, in their relationship. As I read the memoir, I re-lived the long path that I’ve traveled with my own mother, and the things that I’ve accepted about her and her own limitations. And yes, I absolutely cried at the end, so don’t finish it in public.
What this comes down to is that Bechdel is so incredibly smart (= so incredibly hot). Her connects the psycho-babble to her own experiences with stunning insight, often by contrasting a drawing with some seemingly unrelated text. But then the two begin to speak to each other and add layers of meaning.
This is how many of us move through our lives. Our personal histories aren't linear but a tangled, twisted knot of time and space. It takes years to learn every gnarl, and books like this help. On the last pages of Mother Bechdel writes about a conversation she had with her mom at the end of her Fun Home book tour about memoirists needing to serve the story. She notes that
"This is not the end of the story, of course. The story has no end. But now it's five years later, and I must manufacture one."
Writing an ending to our personal stories serves a purpose, we all crave narrative and conclusion. We write these manufactured endings at random moments that seem definitive: when the book is due, when the lease is up, when we decide we need it.
PS – Just to make you jealous, let me tell you about the time Alison Bechdel smiled at me. Just a couple of months ago she came to DC's Politics and Prose for her Are You My Mother? book tour. The entire time I waited in line for her to sign my copy all I could think about was - what would I say to her?
She says "hello,"
I say how she "must be so incredibly organized with all her diaries, photographs, notes, etc, to write a book like this."
And she resonds “The best compliment I ever got was when a librarian visited my house and told me that my books were nicely organized!”
From there I tell her that archivists are even better than librarians because they deal with all kinds of materials, not just books. AND SHE LAUGHS! and looks into my eyes- smiling- and says, “It was really nice to meet you, Mandy.”
I melted. Right there.