Alison Bechdel first gained a fan following with her serial comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. That strip made an indelible mark on pop culture when it introduced what’s now known as the Bechdel Test for films—to pass the test, the movie must include two women holding a conversation that isn’t about a man.
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Her critically acclaimed graphic memoir, Fun Home, explored her complex relationship with her father, a funeral director, English teacher, house restorer and closeted homosexual. She’s now published a companion volume, Are You My Mother?, which not only covers her equally complicated relationship with her actor, writer and sharp critic of a mother, but Bechdel’s own therapeutic journey to become comfortable within her skin.
Although you never mention it in your memoir, the title Are You My Mother? inevitably references the classic P.D. Eastman picture book of the same name. How would you connect the two works?
My editor and I were brainstorming title ideas, and I said “Are You My Mother?” as a total joke, it just sprang into my head. But she loved it. That was very far along in the process, when I was almost done with the writing. Honestly, I don’t know where it bubbled up from. That was not a particularly influential book on me as a child, but obviously something about it got lodged in my psyche.
Did you always intend to create the two memoirs? When did you decide on the gendered color scheme, blue for Fun Home, red for Are You My Mother?
No, I had no plan to write a memoir about my mother when I was writing the memoir about my father. In fact, for the first several years of work on Are You My Mother?, I wasn’t even thinking of it as being about my mother. I had a vague sense that I wanted to write about relationships, about the problem of self and other. I was also very consciously trying to differentiate the book from Fun Home. People kept asking me if I was doing a “sequel” to Fun Home, and I would insist that I wasn’t, but in the end I guess it is a sequel, or rather the second half of a diptych.
I didn’t think of the color scheme as gendered. There aren’t really a lot of color options if you’re only using one color for a comic book. It’s pretty much something on the blue/green end of the spectrum, or something on the red end. Green made sense for my dad because he loved flowers and plants so much. I chose the brownish red of AYMM mainly to differentiate it from Fun Home but I also liked the association with blood, with that physical connection to my mother.
Much of the book is devoted to your therapeutic journey and your reading of psychoanalytic texts. What drew you to psychoanalysis rather than more modern techniques, such as cognitive therapy?
I had a very fortunate early experience with therapy with a therapist who was a perfect match for me. I didn’t know how good she was until I moved away and tried to find a new one. Eventually I found someone who worked in a similar way with object relations therapy. It was just a coincidence that my current therapist was also becoming an analyst when I started seeing her. So our work together got more analytic over the years. I only know a little bit about cognitive behavioral therapy. It seems to focus more on symptom relief in the present than mucking about in the past. And I guess I just like mucking about in the past.
When reading this book, I was reminded of Robertson Davies’ novel The Manticore, in which a man tells the story of his life and his complex relationship with his father to a Jungian analyst. Were you influenced by other memoirs or novels in which psychoanalysis plays a major role, and if so, which works?
I read H.D.’s memoir about her work with Freud as I was doing research for my book, and also Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s memoir A Dialogue on Love, about the psychotherapy she did after her cancer diagnosis. I was impressed by how open Kosofsky Sedgwick was. H.D. was a little more opaque, but still an interesting account of an analysis. And a fascinating portrait of Freud through the eyes of this lesbian, or bisexual, woman.
Several dreams recounted in the memoir seem to explore the tension between wilderness and shelter. Why do you think that is?
I see a pattern in the dreams of a tension between civilized, social life and some kind of natural or primal element…a brook, a spider web, Stonehenge. And I think that’s sort of analogous to Winnicott’s ideas about the “false self” and the “true self.” The wild or “natural” images in my dreams are glimpses of my true self.
While your depictions of yourself as a baby, a child and a young woman really are cute and attractive, depictions of yourself in later years seem to be rendered with a harsher eye, more than the effects of age might warrant. Do you not trust the judgment of your therapist, who proclaims you “adorable”?
Well, I had an interesting graphic challenge with this book. I had to make myself clearly legible as myself at many different points in my life. My current, 50-ish self has to look different from my 40-year-old self and my 30-year-old self. My current self always has glasses on and definitely more wrinkles, which perhaps I exaggerated a bit.
I think I might also have made myself a little more haggard as a kind of overcompensation. I feel like I’ve been engaged in a lifelong battle against prevailing standards of feminine beauty, probably in part because I think my mother’s beauty, and her insecurity about it, was something that took a big toll on her. I’ve always tried in my drawings of women to not fall back on certain kinds of gendered shorthand—the exaggerated lipstick/eyelash thing, like Minnie Mouse.
In the early days of Dykes to Watch Out For I got accused of making my characters deliberately ugly, but I was just trying to draw women as real people. My mother is actually much more attractive than I’ve managed to draw her, which I feel kind of bad about, but at the same time I didn’t want to reduce her to a pretty face.
Are You My Mother? is a meta-memoir. Throughout the book, your mother is offering her critique of your work. Now that you’re done, what’s her final verdict?
It’s pretty much what she says in the book! “Well, it coheres.” She had seen pretty much everything at the point where she made that comment. And she has not, so far, elaborated. I don’t expect her to. I guess at an earlier point in my process I hoped that the book would elicit a more personal response from her, but by now I understand that it’s not gonna happen.
Do you have a next project in mind? And, the inevitable question: Would you consider continuing Dykes to Watch Out For?
I want to keep writing about my family, if I can talk them into it. I really love working autobiographically, I feel very motivated and excited by trying to find order in the messiness of real life. The fictional world of DTWOF, for some reason, has just ceased to grip me in the passionate way it used to. I haven’t really fully explored why, and it feels kind of sad. Like, I miss those characters. But not enough to go back to those biweekly deadlines!
Amy Goldschlager is an editor, writer and reviewer who lives in New York City. Visit her website at amygoldschlager.com.