I sat down to read the first chapter or two of Alison Bechdel’s new book Are You My Mother?, and ended up reading the whole thing.  It’s great stuff.

If you read her book about her father, Fun Home, the basic method is the same.  It’s more of a profusely illustrated text than a normal graphic novel– it has a running narration, which occasionally goes off in a different direction than the pictures.  And it weaves in ruminations on a set of heavy books– Virginia Woolf, Freud, Alice Miller, Adrienne Rich, and above all Donald Winnicott, who happens to have written a lot about the mother-infant bond, and particularly the type Alison feels she had.

But it works way better than Fun Home, for several reasons.  The storytelling is better– more assured, more playful.  The books aren’t examined so drily, but actually shed light on the relationships.  She was highly confessional in the first book, but even when talking about her own problems or neuroses her tone was professorial.  But this book seems alive and human.

In a sense the personal pain comes through more sharply precisely because her relationship with her mother is less dramatic, more normal.  Plus her mother is still there, is reading the book over our shoulders so to speak, and though this causes Alison a little extra angst, it makes the book more of a duet.  The ultimate problem with Fun Home, I think, was that it only had one real character, Alison herself.  Her father was oberved intently but entirely from the outside.

Are You My Mother? is mostly about the mother-daughter relationship.  Winnicott talks about “good enough” mothers, and without explicitly saying so Alison makes it pretty clear hers wasn’t.  There was something lacking there, and it takes years of therapy, and multiple readings of those psychoanalytic books, to figure out what.  In fact the book is about the therapy process as much as it is about mothers.  And she’s quite honest about the fact that writing this very book is another form of therapy; she is literally constructing a narrative to explain her own life to herself, to get a handle on it.

Does that sound self-indulgent?  Her mother suggests as much; she thinks the best art has no ‘I’ in it.  Alison counters that you can use the specific to get at general truths, and her book is the proof.  Some of our most intimate feelings (and neuroses) are tied up in our relationships with our parents, and we can learn a lot by seeing how someone else works them out.

After writing all this, I checked some reviews, and I’m surprised to find that many people had the opposite reaction– they liked Fun Home better.  Mostly this seems to be because her father was a strange gargoyle of a man, and we always like to read about families that are weirder than ours.

There are complaints that there’s too much psychoanalysis talk here.  It’s true that the quotations from Winnicott and others don’t affect us as they obviously affected Alison.  But as I said, they provide her with a narrative, a model, and that narrative-building process is a big part of healing emotional trauma.  Again, I think it all works better than (say) the discussions of Proust did in the first book.