Are You My Mother?

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Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama
Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2012
304 pages
$22.00

This post was contributed by Kim Liao.

As a nonfiction writer, I envy visual artists. They get a palette of colors and canvases and, as a result, a vocabulary at their disposal beyond my 26 letters. And there were moments during Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama in which such envy bubbled forth, because Bechdel so skillfully uses her cartoon strip-like cells to do all of the things a successful memoir does.

She presents compelling scenes, offers insightful reflection, and also undercuts all of the above with a direct exploration of the problems of memoir as a genre: that you are living a life even as you are constructing it in narrative; that a coherent story doesn’t work in reality without serious editing, fantasy, or pure fictionalizing; and that the act of unpacking a problematic relationship with a formative figure (i.e. a parent) is not necessarily going to mend that relationship. Sometimes, the people in our lives we most want to reach with our searching memoirs are the ones we alienate the most.

Bechdel employs her cartooning prowess, gained from several decades of writing her newspaper cartoon strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” to set up scenes that bristle with cringe-worthy humor. In one section, Alison sends her mother the manuscript of Fun Home, her award-winning memoir about her father and also her first graphic memoir— which tells the story of her father’s closeted homosexuality and possible suicide. Her mother’s response comes thus:

“Hnnnn….” [Alison lies helplessly on the kitchen floor as the cat sniffs her. Her girlfriend enters, coming home from work.] “E-mail from Mom.”

“Oh God. What’d she say?”

“She said at first she couldn’t read it, couldn’t figure it out. She thought there’d be more text and not so many drawings.” [Alison’s hand is over her face, the cat is licking her hair. Girlfriend watches from above.]

“She said my brother was there knocking out a wall of her garage with a concrete cutter, and she felt like, ‘Christian is wrecking my garage, Alison is wrecking my life.’ She said she felt the dread she used to feel with dad, of exposure and scandal.”

[As Girlfriend pats her hair.] “Don’t pet me! I don’t deserve to be touched!”

After this scene, the narrator cuts to Alison reading Donald Winnicott, a child psychoanalyst whose theories intersperse the book and offer commentary. By cutting between these many voices, Bechdel constantly reframes the narrative, distancing herself from the emotional force of her mother’s ambivalent love.

This is a trickier, more complicated relationship than that with her father. And while Fun Home is breathtaking in its elegance, Are You My Mother? is more messy, more complicated, and more ambitious.

Kim Liao is a 2010-2011 Fulbright Research Fellow. Her nonfiction has appeared in Fourth River, Hippocampus, Fringe Magazine, and others. Her essays were also short-listed for awards by Bellingham Review and Fourth Genre. She is currently finishing her first book, Girl Meets Formosa, a family memoir and adventure story. You can find out more about her writing projects at GirlMeetsFormosa.com