Oh, the daughter-memoir, fraught thing, especially when the mother is alive, very much a part of the daughter’s life, and not that crazy about being written about. Alison Bechdel, the artist and writer responsible for the Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip and 2007’s award-winning memoir, “Fun Home”, took four years to produce this brilliant, uncomfortable book, which attempts to explore her relationship with her critical, dominating, elusive mother.
I adore Bechdel’s lines, her frames, the expressiveness of her characters’ faces, the richness of her backgrounds; as a graphic novelist she’s simply one of the best. And I found it original and exciting to see someone doing such a writerly, intellectual book as a graphic novel. Bechdel extensively quotes foundational psychotherapy texts from Freud, Alice Miller and Donald Winnicott (and from diaries by psychological self-explorers like Woolf and Plath) by drawing the book pages she’s quoting from and highlighting the quoted parts–a clever tweak on the visual conventions of the graphic novel. See below.
Each section of the book is a collection of dreams, therapy sessions, theory, interactions with her mother both present- and past-, family history and letters, that add up to a recognizable picture of a self.
The kind of mother we are dealing with here is one who calls frequently, but maintains her distance, a woman who doesn’t believe in personal revelations (or autobiography! painfully, considering Bechdel’s body of work). Bechdel admits early on to taking notes while her mother talks sometimes, (a detail that gave me a jolt because I thought I was the only person to do that). She’s not crazy or abusive like so many mothers-of-memoir-note, but nonetheless she’s done her damage.
“My mother’s editorial voice–precisian, dispassionate, elegant, adverb-less–is lodged deep in my temporal lobes.”
“Indeed, my foremost difficulty is the extent to which I have internalized my mother’s critical faculties.”
Through therapy–and probably through writing the book–Bechdel finds the crude, sorrowful signposts of damage, early shame and un-safeness that are familiar to therapy-goers. These, in their particulars, are illuminating and reductive, useful but pat, and, much like therapy itself, ultimately inconclusive.
And thus the beauty of the book’s form. I’m not sure that any conventional written memoir could reveal wisdom gleaned in therapy–emotion-soaked, anecdotal–without being forced to impose too much narrative structure. The pictures also neatly sidestep the problem of “dreams and therapy sessions” being boring to hear about–they aren’t when Bechdel is drawing them. And the forced economy of both dialog and exposition in a cartoon frame helps to render the material sophisticated and fascinating.
Many daughters will identify with this book. I, however, as a precise, elegant, highly critical woman with my own budding and fraught relationship with a daughter, have an eye to both sides. I’m already familiar with the daughter’s urges to appropriate her mother’s history and rewrite it. Whenever I tell one of my dreams to my four-year-old, she says, “Well I dreamed…” and then gives exactly the same dream, with a few minor changes, recast as her own.
I fear and await the day she picks up a pen, and takes me down.
But, actually, if she does it as wonderfully as Bechdel does, I won’t mind.