Alison Bechdel's new graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?, confirms what anyone who has read Fun Home already knows: Bechdel is the premier master of graphic comic narrative. Her text and pictures never merely coincide, they are two rich languages talking at once, supplying different information, supplementing and complementing each other, often comically, sometimes profoundly. Having explored her father's secret gayness and suicide in her first memoir, this complementary second volume takes on her sometimes chilly, smart and ambiguous mother--a poet who gave up her art for love, an actress and a housewife with three children.
Bechdel's stream-of-consciousness structure is labyrinthine but extremely well organized. As the reader jumps backward and forward in time, Bechdel relentlessly explores her relationship with her mother, peeling back the layers of the onion in a visually exhilarating manner. Her double-page spread of five old photographs of mother and child spread on a desktop is a mini-masterpiece of subtle emotional depths with an actual dramatic trajectory from first snapshot to last. She masterfully sets up a sequence where she hangs up on her mother and then breaks down crying, perfectly arranged graphically for maximum impact--you'll gasp at the expertly delineated pain.
"I went to therapy. I read about therapy. I wrote about therapy," says Bechdel, and on one level Are You My Mother? is a psychoanalytic plunge, guided by the writings of child psychologist Donald Winnicott, into the mystery of that first intimate bond between mother and child. Each of the seven chapters begins with a hauntingly visualized dream sequence expressing one of Bechdel's anxieties or repressed emotions about her complex, elusive parent. She taps into the universality of the mother experience with extraordinary revelations, engaging the thoughtful reader with her insights, using comic book tools to take you to terrifying places.
As in Fun Home, the cartoon frames are littered with books with their titles appealingly visible, so that you can constantly see what the characters are reading. With references ranging from Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child to Sigmund Freud's The Parapsychology of Everyday Life and The Interpretation of Dreams, from Virginia Woolf to Adrienne Rich, from Dr. Spock to Dr. Seuss, Are You My Mother? leaps from one gorgeously orchestrated sequence to the next with hardly space to catch your breath. Together, Bechdel's memoirs form one of the most detailed, entertaining and harrowingly honest portraits of parents in gay literature. --Nick DiMartino
Shelf Talker: Alison Bechdel's second memoir completes one of the greatest portraits of parents in gay literature.