Family Matters: Alison Bechdel on ‘Are You My Mother?’
May 9, 2012 | by Peter Terzian
Alison Bechdel’s first graphic memoir, Fun Home , told the story of her small-town Pennsylvania childhood, which was dominated by her often tyrannical father. An obsessive home restorer and closeted homosexual, he died a possible suicide just as his college-age daughter was coming out as a lesbian. Six years after Fun Home, Bechdel has published a second memoir in comics form, Are You My Mother? , but it’s more than simply the maternal counterpart to its predecessor. Thrillingly discursive, it’s framed by the artist’s struggle to create Fun Home and broker her mother’s acceptance of its public unearthing of family secrets. Bechdel recounts episodes from her romantic relationships, her beginnings as the cartoonist of the long running Dykes to Watch Out For strip, and her struggles, through fruitful years of psychotherapy, to come to terms with her sometimes difficult relationship with her mother. (The book may be one of the truest accounts of what it’s like to be on the therapist’s couch today.) Throughout, Bechdel plumbs the life and writings of Donald Winnicott, the British psychoanalyst who pioneered the field of object relations and stressed the importance of early mother and child bonding. Over lunch at New York’s Via Emilia, Bechdel confessed her childhood affection for “silly children’s comics like Little Lulu and Richie Rich,” which shows in the clarity and warmth of her artwork.
Are You My Mother? has a different emotional tone than Fun Home, and it struck me that a lot of it is related to your use of color. Fun Home is shaded turquoise, and the new book is dark red.
Initially I resisted using color in Fun Home because my father was such a controlling color freak, and I wanted to prove that you could tell a complex visual story in black and white. But at some point I let go of that. It seemed that there was a lot of possibility using that second color, and I figured, Why let my father continue to control my life? It’s still the two-color printing process in Are You My Mother?, but the red is a spot color, and there’s a gray ink-washed layer of shading that interacts with it in different ways, so there’s actually a wide range of tones. I think that more nuanced coloring is part of this more complicated story.
You also drew the panels using unusual vantage points—from above, from below, through windows—more frequently. Why?
In this book I was faced with these endless scenes of therapy, of two people sitting in chairs talking, which seemed like it would get visually boring really fast. This is kind of a cheap trick, but I started employing these tricky, comic-book angles, like low-angle shots looking down from the ceiling—not randomly, but with some sense of their emotional impact. That made me interested in doing it in general, and as I became more confident I took more risks with those perspective shifts.
Sometimes your text comments on what’s going on in the accompanying panel, but often it tells a parallel story and the reader has to make the connection. How do you see text and imagery interacting?
I was really worried with this book that those connections were not going to happen. Even now I’ll pick it up and start reading and it seems like a series of non sequiturs. But my hope is that somehow these different strands cohere. I love comics because of that built-in disjunction between the words and the pictures, even when they’re explicitly complementary and illustrating one another. I like pushing that space and being able to have two or three ideas going at once.
Any given page might have a scene from your life today, a flashback to a scene from your childhood, and some commentary on Woolf or Winnicott.
My girlfriend found a page where there was me at four different ages. It jumps around crazily. That’s something that comics can do.
How did the idea for the cover come to you?
The art guy said, Let’s bookend the Fun Home cover with a similar still life from your childhood home. My mother actually has this little statue of two women with their backs to one another on her dresser. It’s such a funny metaphor for the two of us, looking away from each other.
It’s as though the reader of the book—including your mother—is asked the question of the title as they see themselves in the reflective panel of the mirror.
You know, honestly, I didn’t even think of that. It’s like that Time Magazine cover, with “you” as the person of the year. But I am very much putting the reader in the position of the analyst—in the most pathetic way, I must add. So that’s appropriate.
Drawing a memoir demands a higher attention to detail than simply writing one—rather than focusing on a conversation or interaction, as a writer might, you have to show what was on the TV in the background, what was on the kitchen counter. Do you remember these things?
I have a lot of family photographs, which are helpful for the details of our household. But with Google, I can find what was on television on Wednesday nights in the fall of 1970. Then all sorts of other memories and associations start to come back.
Do you have a memory for facial expressions and what people said?
After I showed Fun Home to my mother, she said, “You must have a pretty good memory”—sort of as an accusation, implying that I’m making some of this stuff up. Of course I’m making some of this stuff up. I don’t remember these exact conversations. I don’t have video footage of my life. But to me the books feel fairly accurate. Clearly everything is coming through my own interpretation. Everyone in my family had a different version of these stories, but I’m not telling their stories.
You write in the acknowledgments of Are You My Mother? that you changed the names of your therapists. Did you draw them differently too?
I drew my current therapist, Carol, differently, just because that would have been problematic if any of her other patients recognized her. That would have disturbed their therapeutic frame. But Jocelyn does look like the actual woman. I didn’t have many photographs to work from. That was mostly from memory.
Did the publication of Fun Home free other family members or friends of your family to discuss secrets about your family? Did you learn new things about your history?
Not right away, but slowly, over the years. Pieces of the puzzle have been provided by other people, which I’m grateful for. All of our lives are mysteries to a certain extent. No one hands you your family history, and there are so many secrets. But you get clues here and there. I’m starting to understand a little better my mother’s perspective that not everyone needs to know everything.
I took the idea that the personal is political very much to heart as a young person, perhaps a little too much, and it’s guided me down this road of doing this not necessarily exhibitionistic but certainly very intimate work in a public space. It comes at a cost. My family is not happy about it. But it’s sort of a strange loop. If I hadn’t had that family I wouldn’t have that need to publicly talk about all this. And I hear frequently from people that seeing one person take these family secrets head-on is very liberating. I know that sounds a little grandiose, but I think that’s part of the appeal of the books.
When you say your mother believes that not everyone has to know everything, do you mean outsiders don’t need to know what happens within the family, or that people don’t need to know their whole stories?
Both. There’s so much she hasn’t told me, and so many big obligatory questions that I didn’t touch on in this book. Like, what has it been like for my mother to live with the pain of her husband’s suicide? I can’t ask her that. I can’t even raise that question in the book, because that’s too painful. So in a way the book is constructed around these big gaping absences.
You quote Virginia Woolf’s diaries, when she writes that after finishing To the Lighthouse, her parents didn’t obsess her in the same way. Do you feel similarly?
I definitely felt that with my father; I’m still in the thick of this book about my mother, waiting to see her reaction to it, waiting to see what the critical response is—all that seems to be part of the book distinct from the writing. I do feel that I’ve silenced my internal critic to a large degree. It’s still there but I’m allowing myself to talk over it more and more, for better or for worse. A lot of the time I feel like I’m just spewing bullshit, but at least I’m speaking out loud. It’s always very hard for me to say anything assertive. Now that I’ve grappled with that part of my mother’s influence and her preoccupation of my brain, I’m better able to ignore her voice.
What questions are you most frequently asked by interviewers and at readings?
The primary questions are inevitably, “What did you family think?” and “What did your mother think?” I’d much rather talk about the writing and the ideas, but people are obsessed with their families. Even in functional families, which I’m getting very interested in. Some families really work—I want to learn about how that happens and what it looks like. But most people are oppressed in some way or other by their family’s expectations, by their parents’ psychological issues, by any number of things. And it holds us back, it limits who we can be in the world. We’re so consumed with our personal problems that we’re not doing more important things. I mean, who am I to talk? All I do is sit in my basement making notes about my therapy sessions. But I want us all to be autonomous and think for ourselves and do the things we’re good at, and I think that’s much more the exception than the rule for people. Not to mention living in a democracy that’s functional. I mean, if we were all really doing those things, what would our world look like?
All images excerpted from Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel. Copyright © 2012 by Alison Bechdel. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.