I WAS HAVING TROUBLE writing about cartoonist Alison Bechdel's book about writing a book about her mom. A graphic memoir like her first book, Fun Home, it seemed a remarkably self-sufficient thing: difficult, exciting, alive. On each meticulously constructed page, Bechdel had layered word and illustration into something rich and complex. It cohered like a dream, with symbols and referents that made luminous sense inside its own context, but which just might crumble when removed. Like a dream, the book seemed almost too perfect to touch.
An attempt to say anything about it, furthermore, was going to require a foray into the amniotic waters of psychoanalysis — a place I wasn't sure I wanted to go. This is my mother's fault, really; she got a degree in psychology just after being married, and a shelf-full of Jung in the divorce. I'd been writing myself in circles for several hours when she called.
"Well," she said when I told her, and I could almost hear her eyes light up: "I can help with that!"
Man that is born of a woman is, as they say, of few days and full of trouble. And as early as Job — early as Genesis, actually — the woman in question has been bearing the brunt of the blame. Resentment of our unavoidable reliance on her has been proposed as the root of everything from misogyny to womb envy. Even Jung writes in Four Archetypes that he usually starts with the mother when seeking the source of neurosis, as most "disturbing influences" are traceable back to the archetypes projected on her by the child. Mothers — yours, mine, Bechdel's — needn't be bad individually, Jung says. Their destructive powers are mythological.
But as the twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott writes in The Ordinary Devoted Mother, "at three or four months after being born, the baby may be able to show that he or she knows what it is like to be a mother." Furthermore, after giving birth, "the woman enters into a phase ... in which to a large extent she is the baby and the baby is her." This confusing situation isn't supposed to last. Bechdel, who gives each of her chapters the name of a Winnicottian concept, writes about the transitional object: that thing, like Pooh-Bear, that's "not me, but not not-me either," which allows us to move away from our moms. Eventually, we are supposed to leave that transitional thing behind, too.
But one day a friend recounted an eerie experience: she'd look down at her hands while she was doing something — washing dishes, tying a knot — and it would be her mother's hands there, busily doing whatever. She'd been, just briefly, inhabited; her hands weren't hers anymore, but they also weren't not.
"There is nothing mystical about this," Winnicott writes of the mother-child bond. Bechdel, who disagrees, superimposes this fragment of text over a full-page drawing showing a series of photographs of herself, as a three-month-old, and her mom. Bechdel's drawings of the photos, scattered over a desk covered in pens, protractors, and an accidentally perfect jar of baby food, are done in the more realistic, cross-hatched style she reserves for the many artifacts that enter her work. The depth created by the drawing's layered realism is mirrored by the text: a hand-drawn replica of the Winnicott quote; narration, in a series of rectangles; Bechdel's off-stag...read more