“You Have Too Many Strands:” A Review of Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?

April 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

By page 28 of Alison Bechdel’s new memoir, Are You My Mother?, the author’s project is undermined by its own subject, the author’s mother, Helen. “You have too many strands,” she’s proclaimed, laughing over the phone in conversation with Alison. (15, 28) “The narrative is what they want.” (28) The reader can’t help but worry that the criticism is already entrenched, and that the skeptical reader might give up now. No Sunbeam bread trucks are going to crush us with realizations about mortality here. This time, the subject is the messy work of living, specifically, the parts of it about which the general readership, as embodied by a single criticism from Bechdel’s mother, least wishes to hear. Are You My Mother? takes on one-sided phone conversations, initially indistinguishable false epiphanies experienced over the course of decades of therapy, and other doomed quests for validation. Whereas Fun Home offered sympathetic relief in a young girl struggling to grasp menstruation, Are You My Mother? begins its own narrative at the chronological point of its author’s menopause, a topic of truly tenuous interest even to those among the general readership who may be experiencing it for themselves. It’s not only that Bechdel “has too many strands” — a dream, an imaginary conversation with her mother about the book that would become Fun Home, during which she recalls coming out to her mother as a lesbian, and, before that, as having begun menstruation — and all this by page 6! — but that the strands feel simultaneously repetitive and recursive, in a way bound to discomfit any reader looking to learn more.

Page 6. Perhaps at this point the reader flips briefly ahead, just to see what’s coming. There is a beautiful drawing of Virginia Woolf in London (23), preceded by a nerdily attractive diagram of Donald Winnicott’s psychological theory (21), and followed by three different maps of London (25, 26, 27), which elevate the pleasures to which we’ve grown accustomed, via Google Maps, to the level of art. There will be depth here, the reader is assured, and complexity, and if nothing else, evidence of real work, the very component of women’s writing, particularly memoir, that is assumed by skeptics to be missing. But as for a narrative, a path for us to follow on these maps, which reveals a new phenomenon, psychological, cultural, or otherwise, there will be none. The learning will feel more like an amassing of strands, and what’s frustrating about that process is that each strand could reveal so compelling a story. Like Bechdel, I want to know how Winnicott’s patients later understood the analysis they had undergone with the brilliant man. That part’s already a story, though, I guess, because I can remember it. It is a moment. There’s the moment when Alison is enchanted by her mother’s performance as Fanny Cavendish in The Royal Family, which is an amazing moment, surrounded by what seem to be ten other significant moments between Alison and her mother at various theatrical productions. Some of them, like the importance of The Importance of Being Earnest, came up in Fun Home, as well. It’s a reverse Woody Allen problem — the book is so good, and there’s too much of it. In Fun Home, there was too much, too, but, looking back, it fulfilled one’s most basic narrative desires as handily as the recent meta-horror delight, Cabin in the Woods. There was a mystery. There was intrigue. There was a task. There was a manly failure to communicate. There was an enormous snake in the woods, in case my point isn’t clear. But in Are You My Mother?, the parental stoicism is narrated in uncomfortably close proximity to a man, Winnicott’s, theory of the psychological effects of rapid second pregnancy, and thus the basement cobwebs of Bechdel’s dream world seem as unnavigable as womanhood itself.

This conservative trope of womanhood as mysterious, which I just articulated but failed to name as such, is, in one reading, at the center of Bechdel’s mother’s criticism of her work. She claimed that the work had too many strands and lacked narrative momentum, as well as lamenting that it had to take shape within the narcissistic cultural form of the memoir, rather than the safer and more widely-respected mode of fiction. But their true disagreement is less about Bechdel’s form of choice, the graphic memoir, and more deeply about her identity as a lesbian and a feminist, which was made possible by a large-scale rejection of the previous generation’s acquiescence to patriarchal values. This generational and particular difference emerges in conversation when Bechdel and her mother get into an argument about libertarian lesbian writer Norah Vincent, who had recently made a proclamation that “fetuses are more endangered than gays,” which spoke to Helen’s pro-life politics. (123) Alison is mostly annoyed that her mother insists on describing Vincent as “smart,” “attractive,” “independent,” and likeable, because she is struggling with professional envy anyway, and to intertwine this with her mother’s insistence on a libertarian approach to their conversations is psychologically messy, to say the least. (123-125) But further, the conversation offers Bechdel an opportunity to recall that her mother has long been committed to pro-life politics, even, in a rare and therefore memorable political gesture, leaving town to protest the fourth anniversary of Roe v. Wade when Alison was 16. Bechdel herself has long and happily inhabited the feminist Left, where access to safe and legal abortion is fundamental to the fight for gender equality.

But of course, she’s also a particular individual, not simply one of the lovable fictional characters she so adeptly fashions in the fiction she indeed creates, in her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Though not aloud to her mother, on rendering the argument, narrator Bechdel concedes that pregnancy is “abstract” to her, because, as a lesbian, she’s never experienced “a moment’s anxiety or excitement that [she] might be pregnant.” (124) Bechdel and her mother are not the first family members in history to disagree about politics, but this particular disagreement does seem to illuminate the impasse at which the two have remained for much of their life. It is no wonder, given this context, that Bechdel is so happy to be fascinated by Winnicott’s male scientific explanation of female psychology and the mother’s role in human relationships. Pregnancy is, in some ways, as abstract for her as it must have been for him, and in a way that it simply cannot be for Helen. Therefore, Alison can create highly entertaining fictional narratives about the struggle for abortion rights and other rights of particular importance to feminism in her DTWOF, while her mother is more easily swayed by the rhetorical flourish of a provocative columnist. To create fiction requires abstraction. Conversely, Helen cannot imagine why Alison is so moved to write about her own life if she cannot locate some kind of externally appealing narrative, and why she would devote so much painstaking labor to a mode of artistic production that does not seem to take any audience she can imagine to the state of being moved by art. Both are moved by fiction and non-fiction alike, but their associations with particular subgenres are determined by their views on, and experiences with, social politics.

It was clear that this was so as soon as Helen lamented that Alison’s first publication was “a book of lesbian cartoons,” not just because they were lesbian cartoons, but because they would forever be attached to Alison’s real name. (181) She couldn’t understand it (although she was, as is clearly demonstrated in this book, quite supportive in material ways) when Bechdel wrote Fun Home, and she was just as dubious when she took on an even more complicated, even more exhibitionistic story. Whereas Alison cannot connect to her mother’s very status as mother to a child, Helen cannot relate to Alison’s desire to write her life beyond a diary, to craft it into art, and thus to leave it in the archives of lesbian literature specifically, but also the archives of graphic narrative and, if the bookstore’s current categorization of this work is to be remembered, biography. But there is indeed a central aesthetic question articulated here, too. As Andrea recently reminded me, the idea of the poem, or artwork generally, as an articulation of womb envy, is at least as long-standing as the history of non-communicative fathers. That is not what Are You My Mother? is about in its own center. But the sheer presence of this idea, alongside so many other strands, does serve as a reminder that one of Bechdel’s major talents is recasting the oldest questions in a form (here, a nexus of forms) apparently inadequate to its seriousness. Those prematurely swayed by the apparent lack of momentum will sadly miss an abundance of wonderful moments. The archives will hold onto these.

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