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December 28, 2012

Evenings Out

Mother’s milk

Alison Bechdel’s second memoir is nosy, neurotic love

Now that--theoretically--everyone has survived the familial strife and turmoil that is the holiday season, it’s time to get on with the business of everyday life once again. (Everyday life might still be a few days away, after New Year’s, but you get the point.)

For many people, everyday life includes one major factor that ties one week into the next, December into January into February, ad infinitum: therapy. More specifically, therapy to figure out exactly how badly their mother and father screwed them up.

Others, however, do not go to therapy. We are left to deal with the mental morass on our own, mommy issues and daddy issues swirling around in a Charybdian nightmare of abandonment, abuse, overprotection or any one of a trillion combinations of too much or too little.

Unto them, I give the succor of Alison Bechdel’s latest memoir, Are You My Mother? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, $22). It’s the follow-up to her Fun Home, which was named Time magazine’s book of the year when it came out in 2006. That is one of dozens of plaudits the former writer-artist of Dykes to Watch Out For earned for her tale of growing up in Pennsylvania with a closet-case father, an emotionally distant mother and two brothers that don’t really matter to the narrative.

Fun Home may have been cathartic for Bechdel, but it was also the most masochistically enjoyable salt in the psychic wound of anyone with daddy issues. Now, she takes on her mother, who, unlike her father, did not step in front of a bread truck as an apparent act of suicide. Her mother is alive and presumably well, rattling around both her own home and her daughter’s brain.

Are You My Mother focuses on an array of people, and their narratives intertwine to create at best a Byzantine tapestry, at worst the net thrown by a retiarus, enmeshing the reader in the lives and works of Bechdel, her mother, her therapists, an earlier therapist named Winnicott and Virginia Woolf.

Through Bechdel’s anxieties and therapy the reader gets the most tantalizingly incomplete portrait of her mother, a mother who was both there and not there, who loved and hated, who gave and withheld.

While Fun Home gave a fairly linear narrative of Bechdel’s childhood, Are You My Mother instead darts back and forth, in time, in location, between reality and Bechdel’s dreams, between contemporary life, Winnicott’s therapy and Woolf’s own diaries and memoirs. The result is a meandering tale of neurosis, of seeking parental approval and love wherever one can, despite the quiet love and approval presented by one’s own mother.

Every time I read anything by Alison Bechdel--who gets referred to far too often in these pages, perhaps, but only because she is that damned good--it feels like a homecoming of sorts. There is a warmth that infuses the soul when regarding her style, her lettering, the way she draws features. Even her newer motifs, like adding a blue-green to the black and white of Fun Home and a rusty red to Are You My Mother, both matching the books’ covers, shows that she loves us. She is our mother now, our literary mother. We suckle at her artistic teat, and we are nourished. In return, we buy her books, and she can put food on her table. That is a mother-child relationship that needs no therapy to resolve.




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