Alison Bechdel—creator of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and author of the lauded 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home and now the new biocomic Are You My Mother?—doesn’t know what to call herself. “I know I’m a cartoonist. The drawing is completely inextricable from my writing,”she says from her home in Vermont. “I do feel, since Fun Home came out, I’ve had to sort of reimagine myself a little bit.”
It’s tough to pin down the heritage of Bechdel’s work. Sure, she’s drawn nationally syndicated comic strips about the personal and political lives of lesbians for almost 30 years. But she’s also a literary graphic memoirist whose book Fun Home, on her relationship with her late, closeted gay father, was Time’s 2006 Book of the Year. Further, she’s a woman and a lesbian in the male-dominated world of comics who writes not about superheroes or manga schoolgirls but about identity, family, sexuality, and psychology.
Her new graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), will have a 100,000-copy first printing. “The original proposal was for a book called Love Life,” says Bechdel. “I was going to write about my personal, intimate relationships and figure out some of the philosophical issues of relating to other subjectivities in the world. Fortunately, about four years in, my agent [Sydelle Kramer] read what I’d been doing and said, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ And then I kind of tossed it out and started over and realized I had been elaborately avoiding the story of me and my mother.
“At the point when I threw out the first version and started the second version, I realized that [late psychologist Donald Winnicott’s] theories would serve as a structure for my book. It felt like a good lens with which to examine my relationship with my mother.” Are You My Mother? takes place everywhere, from the office of Winnicott to the office of Bechdel’s therapist, the living room of the Bechdel family to the bedroom of the author.
“My mother, as you will see as you read the book, is a complex and inscrutable person,” Bechdel says. We see Mrs. Bechdel as a young mom, browbeaten by her closeted and fraught husband. However, rather than involve herself in parenting, she escapes by performing in the theater. An accomplished stage actress, she hides behind fiction throughout her daughter’s childhood.
When Bechdel needs a maternal figure, well, she fills that role herself. For instance, we see her, as a child, set up a makeshift office in a corner of the family’s living room where she spends the day drawing. She creates a cozy space where she feels “invisible” and “inviolable”—a way for her to return to the comfort of the womb. Her lifelong dedication to art and writing, then, are how she nourishes herself in utero. Pardon the pun, but perhaps for Bechdel, this book, too, is about a womb of one’s own.
“It was such a frightening proposition,” she says, “to write about someone who would see what I was writing—because my mother is alive, and my father was dead when I wrote about him.” In fact, Bechdel began crafting this new work almost immediately after she finished writing her memoir about her father. However, unlike Fun Home, Are You My Mother? ventures beyond the facts of Bechdel’s childhood and more deeply explores the author’s dreams, romances, and even therapy sessions; it’s her most personal work to date. She says of the writing process, “I went through phases of feeling actually depressed, feeling extremely anxious and shameful. Just dredging up all the muck made me have to go through it all again.”
So why expose her life and her mother’s? “In some ways, the whole book is about how hard it is to do this—and why am I doing this? What is my true motivation?” As Bechdel says in the book, quoting from Dorothy Gallagher, “The writer’s business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve the story.”
Of creating Are You My Mother? Bechdel says, “Basically, it’s something that I have to do.” And as a result of writing the book, she adds, “I feel like I moved from being much more tentative to being much more confident. I hope that’s something I can maintain. It feels like it might be real, and that I won’t lose it.”
Grace Bello is a New York City freelance writer who specializes in writing on prominent female artists.