There were moments, while I was reading this book, when involuntary exclamations would burst from me. “Argh!” I would cry, and my partner, who had already finished it, would look at me sympathetically and nod her head. Are You My Mother? came as something of a shock to my system, inducing far more powerful resonances with my relationship with my own mother than I expected to experience, and which I’ll be processing for some time to come.
This is Alison Bechdel’s second memoir; the first, Fun Home, took as its subject her relationship with her father who committed suicide when she was nineteen. Her mother is a shadowy figure in that book, but in Are You My Mother? she takes centre stage (I use the cliché consciously – Bechdel’s mother is an actress). One of the many things that impresses me about Are You My Mother? is just what a different book it is to Fun Home, in tone, style, structure and artwork. It is most definitely not Fun Home ‘part 2’, but it’s clear that Bechdel is not someone who ever takes the easy route, in her life or her art.
The chapters take their titles from psychoanalytic concepts: ‘True and False Self’, ‘Mind’, ‘Mirror’ etc, and are structured very much like therapy sessions. This is not too surprising when you find out that Bechdel has been in therapy for almost her entire adult life. Each chapter begins with a piece of dream analysis and then cycles through a range of thoughts and memories, eventually making the connections that need to be made. The way she does this is quite superb – I won’t spoil, but there’s this scene in which she suddenly links something she did as a child (and which she finds extremely shameful) with a development in her relationship with her mother. It’s a haunting moment and reminds me of similarly haunting connections I’ve made in my own life. Such connections can be unbelievably painful, but also essential to making sense of what’s happening to you.
The title is taken from a children’s book by P.D Eastling about a hatchling bird looking for its mother. Will Bechdel ever find her mother? The book considers this question and along the way we meet some of the substitute mothers upon whom she projects her desire for a response, in particular, her two real-life therapists and the groundbreaking psychotherapist and pioneer of ‘Object Relations’ theory, Donald Winnicott. Winnicott theorised that the way we relate to objects is determined in the early days of our lives, but he also insisted that the individual continues to develop throughout adult life. Other famous figures from the history of psychoanalysis make appearances: Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, even Jacques Lacan gets a mention, but Winnicott’s work is at the centre of the narrative.
I thoroughly enjoyed Fun Home, but it didn’t resonate particularly strongly with my own life, beyond the obvious lesbian content. Are You My Mother? was a very different experience. Bechdel is far more enmeshed with her mother than I am with mine, but there were startling moments of recognition. This happened on quite a superficial level – I totally get it when Bechdel tells her therapist that her mother never wants to hear about her life, “like she’s afraid if I get a word in edgewise, it’ll be cunnillingus”. It’s probably worth noting here, that Bechdel’s family, like my own, is Catholic. Possibly the book is inducing a bit of projection in me here, but my mother is, rather like Bechdel’s, a very clever and talented woman who, due to circumstances, has never really been able to fully self-actualize and who just missed with boat with feminism.
But I found myself empathising more painfully with Bechdel’s attempts to elicit an appropriate response from her mother, only to find herself being constantly beaten back by her mother’s defensiveness. My mother is also a mistress of the provocative statement. Bechdel’s discussion of Alice Miller’s book The Drama of the Gifted Child (“gifted” here meaning sensitive rather than talented) was also painfully familiar. Miller’s book takes as its subject the way some children become highly attenuated to the needs of others. This is one of the underlying issues for me – I am hyper-vigilant about the emotional needs of other people, while trying to avoid and repress my own.
The chapter on the “True and False Self” was perhaps the most pertinent for me because here we come to what is possibly the fundamental conflict in my own life. I’m going to use the term “authentic self” because I prefer it to “true” (which seems too fixed for my liking”) but I mean basically the same thing. To a certain extent, most of us have a sense of having authentic and false selves – e.g., we learn to be polite when we’d really like to be rude, we are more-or-less aware of having different personas for different situations; we are more-or-less aware that some aspects of our “selves” feel more authentic and real than others. Problems develop, though, when parents use the child’s false self for their own structural support, preventing the child from building up their own structures, and therefore from separating from their parents. This may have been one of those points at which there was an involuntary exclamation. Aside from some issues with my mother using my false self to bolster her own structures, I also learned as a child that revealing my authentic self was extremely dangerous. Even now, I’m not sure that anything frightens me as much as the thought of revealing my authentic self; fire, perhaps, but that’s about it. When I ask myself what I’m so afraid of, it’s not simply punishment that comes to mind; it’s a fear of annihilation.
Unsurprisingly, given the intensely personal and difficult nature of its subject matter, I found Are You My Mother? to be at times a frustrating book. Bechdel persists in “intellectualising”. You can see her therapists trying to get her in touch with what she’s really feeling (“Do I have to go in with pliers?” (p. 280)) and her responding to them with yet more theoretical concepts. One therapist asks her not to write while on a trip with her mother, but just to try and be with her mother. It’s apparent that Bechdel refused to try and do this, responding with a rather defensive comment about how for her and her mother, it’s by writing, “By stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present” (p. 242.). Hmmm, OK then.
There are also gaps, areas dropped and left unexplored. When she finds out that her first therapist, who was the site of enormous transference and projection has died, it’s dealt with in one page, or rather not dealt with at all. I found the ending abrupt and felt a little uncomfortable with it because it seemed to be trying to make things OK, when, to me, they were not OK, although in a sense, the relationship can’t be resolved in the book because Bechdel’s mother is still alive and their relationship continues after its publication. The question in the title hasn’t been and, in a sense, can’t yet be fully answered.
Highly recommended, but handle with care if you are a lesbian (or anyone really) who has an emotionally difficult relationship with your mother. Content warning for existential crises!
But, to step back for a moment, this is also a really good introduction to key psychoanalytic concepts and could be helpful to anyone who wants to find out more about psychotherapy.