What makes a mother? The answer seems deceptively obvious: a mother is a woman who gives birth to a child. But what if your mother gave birth to you, but never fully connected to you, or you to her? What if your mother encouraged your intellectual pursuits, but refused to kiss you goodnight after you turned 7 years old? What if your mother shunned intimacy and couldn't face it when you came out as a lesbian in college?
These are some of the questions cartoonist Alison Bechdel contemplates in her graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? In her previous and intensely personal memoir, Fun Home, Bechdel focused on her father: a closeted gay man who may or may not have committed suicide (he was hit by a truck and it was never determined if it was truly an accident or not) when Bechdel was in college. Fun Home has two stories: the story of Bechdel's father, and Bechdel's own coming out story.
In Are You My Mother?, Bechdel now turns her eye to her mother, a woman who comes off as cold and detached, but garners empathy nonetheless. After all, Helen Bechdel was in a loveless marriage for years. As Bechdel remembers her, Helen was a smart, educated woman with dreams of becoming an actress. She acted in local productions her whole life, but balanced out her passions with her home life, which included raising three children. Helen acts oddly aloof about her oldest daughter and instead seems to prefer her two younger boys. It's later revealed that when Helen was a child, her own mother strongly preferred sons to daughters--a preference that Helen hated, yet inherited and passed on to her children all the same.
As in Fun Home, Are You My Mother? also has a second, parallel story: that of Bechdel's experiences in psychoanalysis. She writes about her years in therapy, discussing her dreams and buried emotions with two different therapists. She also discusses her interest in psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott and her research on child development and psychology.
Although at times the narrative is hard to follow because Bechdel jumps backwards and forwards in time so much, Are You My Mother? is an intellectually and emotionally satisfying graphic memoir. Bechdel's tangents on Winnicott's research, the novels of Virginia Woolf, and her own childhood come together in a beautiful way that reveals the interconnectedness of life. Her illustrations are detailed enough to show the emotions of the characters, but not so detailed that they distract from the story.
Although I consider Fun Home to be Bechdel's masterpiece, Are You My Mother? proves that she has a seemingly bottomless talent and an ability to honestly--even ruthlessly--assess her own personal experiences, while not becoming cynical or alienated.