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Are You My Mother?: Psychoanalysis, Virginia Woolf, and Learning to Destroy One's Mother

Updated on October 10, 2012

Back in 2006, cartoonist Alison Bechdel wrote a memoir, "Fun Home," about her relationship with her father and how his sudden death changed her life, through the lenses of literature, their shared homosexuality and the changing status of gay people in US society, and gender identity. This year, she has returned to the memoir game with "Are You My Mother?," which deals with her relationship with her mother.

While "Fun Home" had some metatextual elements (with Bechdel musing on the book she is creating), "Are You My Mother?" one-ups it with a very large part of the book being devoted to Bechdel discussing with her mother both "Fun Home" and "Are You My Mother?" as she writes them. It's interesting to see the strain between Bechdel trying to depict her mother as she is accurately and not hurting or insulting a woman whom she's had a tense relationship with for most of her life.

Throughout the book Bechdel tries to explore various possible explanations for the tension between her mother (her homosexuality, her mother's subconscious dislike of other females, the natural drifting apart of a parent and child), and a great portion of this book is taken up with Bechdel visiting two different therapists, separated by about 10 years, as well as her own readings of the child therapist Donald Winnicot, whose ideas on the relationships between mothers and their children fascinates her. In addition, much as "Ulysses" and "A Remembrance of Things Past" were important elements in "Fun Home," "To The Lighthouse" and the poetry of Adrienne Rich prove to be important in this story, as Bechdel compares her childhood to Virginia Woolf's (which informs large parts of "To The Lighthouse") and compares her emergence into lesbian feminism brought upon by reading Rich and hearing her speak with her separation as an adult from her mother. While this approach can make Bechdel's arguments harder to understand (if you're not familiar with the material), she quotes extensively from them (in particular Winnicot and Woolf), and it makes the book transcend just being the tale of a woman who drifted apart from her mother over the years.

The jumbled up scenes (the plot jumps back and forth over the entirety of Bechdel's life, from her early childhood to events that probably happened last year) can make it hard to keep your footing, although in my opinion Bechdel does a good job of keeping scenes thematically linked. I liked how each chapter began with a dream Bechdel had, and the chapter dealt with how Bechdel now analyzes the dream. I thought that was a creative and interesting way of organizing the story, even as I'm not much for dream analysis.

In the end, if you liked "Fun Home," you'll probably like this. It's certainly interesting (and while it would be best to read "Fun Home" first, you can read this one independently of that story if you want to). It's an interesting story, and if you're interested in a very intense analysis of how bonds between mothers and children change over the years, it's worth a look.


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