Erratic Mothering: Alison Bechdel’s “Are You My Mother?”

By Jenny HendrixMay 18, 2012

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

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-stage voice; and her mother's voice from the phone. "Mom is making faces and presumably sounds at me," the captions read. "In each shot, I reflect her expression and the shape of her mouth with uncanny precision."

There's a photograph on my desk right now of my own mom and I. In it, we're sitting in a field of wildflowers on Mount Rainier, and she's almost exactly the age I am now. Mom smiles beatifically at the camera, while I seem to be in the midst of a laughing fit, my naked legs squirming so fast they come out as a blur. Like Bechdel's series, it's a photograph of a rarified joy — one that seems to echo from landscape, to mother, to child. "She is the baby and the baby is her."

"This seems to me," says Bechdel, "as mystical, as transcendent of the laws of everyday reality, as it gets."


Mom didn't think she'd read Winnicott, though the term "good enough mother" rang some bells. This was Winnicott's designation for the mother who doesn't satisfy all of a baby's needs, leading the child to compensate by developing a mind that can provide it with what the mother would not. Bechdel remembers skidding on her knees across the lawn, imagining her mother watching her "like a mother in a detergent commercial, sighing with loving exasperation at the grass stains that would require her care."

I tried again: how about Alice Miller and the Drama of the Gifted Child?

Oh yes, Mom said. She had read that book. "But I remember another book that fell into that category better. I think I have it here. Hold on." I heard her go to the bookshelf in her office and start looking around. "I think it was called The Gift of a Difficult Childhood — or something like that? I liked it because it turned upside down the whole idea of being deprived and thinking, Oh, I had the raw end of the deal." She must have been standing by the window because something prompted her into one of her trademark rhetorical swerves. "Did I tell you the swallows are back? I think they've made a nest in the eave of the little cabin."


Bechdel's Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama borrows its title from the classic P.D. Eastman picture book about a baby bird that tries, and fails, to plumb its environs for a mother (to a bulldozer: "You are not my mother! You are a SNORT!") after having been temporarily abandoned in its nest. Bechdel's version, a sequel of sorts to Fun Home, explores another sort of maternal absence, what she describes as "that silence between us, our emotional gulf." There's the fact that her mother withdrew all physical affection — for good — when Alison was seven, and that the two now relate on a strictly intellectual level. Bechdel's mother is her editor, scribe, artistic role model, and cautionary tale. As an amateur actress, she can also illustrate the false self Bechdel struggles through, and blames her for, in therapy. But she's not the nurturing figure Bechdel seems to need. Deploying a full array of psychoanalytic weaponry — dreams, penises, mirrors — the book is as much essay as it is memoir, and as much cathartic, meta-textual yawp as essay, Bechdel's own rigorous intellect being as much an object of scrutiny as her mother is. Then again, it feels as though she's confronting her mind itself with a sterner version of the little bird's refrain. 


"Yeah," I was saying, "but once you start talking about 'narcissistic cathexis'..."

"I know," said Mom, "but analyzing the psyche..." She paused. "See, it's the attempt to be scientific about human existence. Psychology and psychoanalysis tried to present themselves as viable sciences, like chemistry or biology, and the way they attempted to do that was by employing the paradigm of Western science, which was based on — you dissect, then theorize about how the individual parts work. There's a certain nugget of understanding. But to dissect a frog, well, you've killed the frog."

Or, as Bechdel puts it early on: "You can't live and write at the same time." She can't, maybe, but she has made something that can: this book is at once very much lived — via speech bubbles, characters, and recreated scenes as well as commentary on its own construction — and at the same time, written over. Despite being visual as much as written, the book is heavy with text, perhaps even more so than the already text-laden Fun Home. In good post-structuralist fashion, even non-texts are treated as such: dreams, memories, analysis, meta-analysis, the body, the very existence of the authentic self. A dent in the linoleum drifts out of a family's past to bloom into a set of psychoanalytic and then literary symbols.

As in Fun Home, Bechdel zooms in on events using a series of lenses — visual ones, but theoretical as well — returning to moments she's passed through before, toggling freely about in time. There's something vaguely post-structural about the number of Alisons she draws too, like an illustration of the destabilized self: Alisons are dreamt, read, photographed, mirrored, written and recalled from fetus to present day. Time is mapped out in a chart on one page detailing the overlap (transference, really) between her mother and various therapists and romantic partners — landmarks by which to locate Bechdel in the narrative, and also, probably, SNORTs.


Part of Miller's theory of the "Gifted Child" is that erratic mothering leads to an overgrowth of mental function. Mind, or psyche, replaces the mother:

 "Oy vey," says the therapist. "You relate to your own mind like it's an object."

"Wait! I gotta write this down!" Alison, proving it, jumps up from the couch.

From another level of objective distance, a voice in the caption reflects:

"The irony of the fact that I'm writing a book about all this is not lost on me."


The genre of memoir is engaged, willy-nilly, with ideas of the self as object. Bechdel, laying bare her years of therapy and relationships with girlfriends past, draws herself naked more than once. But she's working, as she puts it, "from both sides of the couch." In other words, she's interpreting her dreams, but she's interpreting her interpreters too, and interpreting herself in the act of interpretation.

The simultaneous commentary and action is just dissociated enough to produce the effects of metaphor. Bechdel's introduction of outside sources and almost slavish devotion to detail allow meaning to layer over her scenes. The arrangement of panels, captions, and speech bubbles brings at least one more dimension to her two-dimensional art. "Do you love me?" asks the mother of a young, pajama-ed Alison standing downcast beside her. "I instantly knew that all I wanted was to assure her that I loved her," the caption reads, while behind the mother's head Old Jolyon Forsyte adjures: "You have duties, responsibilities!"

Sometimes, too, Bechdel, by way of her captions, will move away from a scene like this, allowing a memory from her childhood to play out on its own while she, present tense, is engaged in something else. A lovely, parataxic dissonance can occur that's possibly unique to the form Bechdel is working in, though there's an echo of it in a letter — almost an Ashbery poem, really — that she receives from her mom: "I dream about brain tumors and babies. I am staring out my dirty windows at the lilac buds." Somewhere, in the intersection of one thing and another, something is being said about the false self, about a way to fix and force and pin down meaning between two things that are, to all appearances, discordant. As discordant as a mother and child, maybe. Bechdel is able to suggest so much so subtly that it's breathtaking once you realize what she's done.


"Do you feel like you had erratic mothering?" Mom was asking me over the phone.

"I mean," I ventured, cautious, "probably everyone could say that, in one way or another..."

"Well I certainly feel like I did," she went on, "and I know Bonne Maman" — that's what we call my grandmother — "feels the same way. She could barely tolerate contemplating it. I was just saying to her, 'You know, they did the best they could.' She was talking in a way that made them the perpetrators, and I told her, that's the only way to move out of that victim role, the role of having things done to you instead of doing. Au fur et à mesure."

Mom was basically describing the core of Winnicott's theory, and more or less that of Bechdel's memoir too, which, put in the driest possible terms is this: The subject must destroy the object, and the object must survive. As Winnicott or Bechdel might say, being one's self requires cultivating a disloyalty toward everything that's not. Bechdel, writing about her mother, is doing so in full knowledge that her mother might be hurt. Becoming one who does instead of one who is done to is also, in Bechdel's case, about becoming an artist — specifically a woman artist and a lesbian one — and about freeing herself from those qualifiers too. She remembers hearing a talk given by Adrienne Rich in which Rich spoke of being forced into "a kind of perpetual translation, and an unconscious fragmentation of identity: woman from poet." This is also an act of aggression — Rich, for instance, was accused of being "bitter" and "personal," of sacrificing the sweetness of her early work for a "ragged line and coarsened voice." Bechdel quotes Winnicott: "The most aggressive and therefore the most dangerous words in the languages of the world are to be found in the assertion I AM." But somehow, having what my mom called a "raw deal" — for Bechdel, the "invisible wounds" her mother caused and cared for — can give you the tools with which to kill that particular frog. It's never quite as clean and neat as all that, of course, but Bechdel discovers it's possible to approach an emotional gap, au fur et à mesure, as though it were a tunnel to someplace else.


Before she hung up, Mom told me about a dream she'd had where she could hover on the ceiling above her bed. In the dream, she stopped being able to do it, which upset her, then by force of sheer will, she could again. She started to describe, without knowing it, exactly what I'd felt Bechdel achieved, where she arrives at the end of her book. "See the conundrum," Mom said, "is that our human minds can't keep simultaneously these opposing positions. The best we can do is a crazy dance where we keep the impressions that both exist and propel ourselves to a new place. I would say to something like psychoanalysis now: 'That's fascinating; you've identified something in the organism, but then you have to see the whole, to put it in another context, in movement. That's not the end of the story, in other words. So what happens next?'"

LARB Contributor

Jenny Hendrix is an un-Google-able freelance writer living in Brooklyn.


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