Familial relationships are complicated. There’s no sugarcoating it. A childhood in a tense environment can spell lifelong trauma.
In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel chronicles her relationship with her mother throughout her life. The memoir is framed by the works of psychoanalyst David Winnicott, whose theories on the true and false self and transitional objects Bechdel found particularly relatable.
This memoir is nothing if not clever and meticulous. Not only does Bechdel invoke and explain many of Winnicott’s concepts, she also recalls childhood memories with her mother, outlines their current relationship, gives insight into her psychoanalytical therapy sessions, and begins each chapter with a dream she’s had that fits thematically.
Sound complex? That’s because it is. Being a graphic memoir, it doesn’t contain an exceeding amount of actual copy. But somehow it makes me feel like I’m back at college digging through theoretical texts for my English courses. Thankfully, it’s not quite that dense. However, the psychoanalytical content can be somewhat challenging. Not to understand, necessarily, but more to stay engaged in.
So here’s my cognitive dissonance. I’m really not a big fan of psychoanalysis. It can be limiting, and its prevalence has a tendency to keep outdated theories circulating well past their time. However, first off, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find the psychoanalytical content interesting and well thought out. Second of all, and more importantly, it’s not my place to question the validity of Bechdel’s own theories and personal analyses. I don’t get to make that assessment, and frankly I wouldn’t want to. As I said, there’s merit to what she says, how she says it, and how she relates theories to her experiences. It was, in spite of its depth, still pretty relatable. I think anyone with a particularly complicated parental relationship would be receptive to a lot of what this memoir covers. I found myself taken aback at times, occasionally seeing myself and my experiences reflected in those of Bechdel.
In many ways, Are You My Mother? is in strong contrast with Bechdel’s Fun Home. The latter is a smoother read, and despite being as specific as it was, managed to be very relatable for a lot of people. That’s not to say that the former is any worse or any better. It’s just different. Most people I’ve spoken to about Bechdel’s memoirs say that they loved Fun Home but didn’t like or were reluctant to read its followup. I actually think that’s somewhat unfortunate, though understandable. To me, despite their differences, the first sets the scene for the second. Are You My Mother? delves deeper into several themes that were introduced in Fun Home, the most prevalent, to me, being Bechdel’s struggle with mental health and obsessive compulsions, as well as the ramifications of Fun Home being written at all. AYMM is meticulously written, and her interest in Winnicott’s work is almost feverish.
I’m not sure I’m doing the memoir justice. My feelings on it are complicated. It’s worth reiterating the cognitive dissonance issue. It’s difficult for me to summarize how I feel about AYMM, largely because my feelings about it are so vastly conflicting. I was warned about it before I read it, and I braced myself for a challenging read. Ultimately, it was challenging, but not because I disagreed with it, but instead because I found truth and validity in it despite the fact that it wasn’t really made for me. It wasn’t. I’m not interested in psycholanalysis or any of that. But seeing a familial relationship deconstructed with such laser-like specificity was fascinating and engaging enough to keep me interested, even with the theoretical aspects fighting my own thoughts and perspectives. Throughout the book, Bechdel remains innovative, honest, and aggressively herself. That made the reading experience more than worth it.
This concludes my books of 2015. I can’t wait to get going on what I’ve read so far this year.