I am always suggesting books, movies, and podcasts to my parents. This past week, my mother decided to humor me by reading Alison Bechdel‘s ARE YOU MY MOTHER? Afterward, I sat down with her to talk about some of the themes brought up by this graphic memoir.

ARE YOU MY MOTHER?, published in 2012, is the follow up graphic novel to FUN HOME. In this memoir, Bechdel explores the complicated dynamic between herself and her mother, and the process of writing both FUN HOME and ARE YOU MY MOTHER? Bechdel uses psychoanalysis as a tool to create an explanatory narrative around her life experiences, both good and bad. The book pulls heavily from several different texts, including the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and writer Virginia Woolf.

My mother is very different than Bechdel’s. She is warm, encouraging, and very quick to show affection. However, as a queer person, my relationship with my mother has not been without conflict. Furthermore, my mother’s relationship with her own mother has also been rocky at times. Given the parallels between Bechdel, my mother, and me, I thought ARE YOU MY MOTHER would be the perfect book to read alongside my own mother. In the conversation that followed, we talk about love, motherhood, and even begin to brave the jungles of psychoanalysis.

ARE YOU MY MOTHER
Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

First Impressions of ARE YOU MY MOTHER?

Lindsey Mott (LM): To begin, what were your first impressions of ARE YOU MY MOTHER?

Mom (M): When I went into reading ARE YOU MY MOTHER I thought that Alison Bechdel’s mom was the character I would relate most to. However, I really related to Alison. I saw some of my mom in her mom. It surprised me that her mom was unavailable in some of the ways that I felt like my mother was.

M: In the very last chapter Alison asks her mother “What the main thing you learned from your mother?” and her mother responds “that boys are more important than girls.” When Alison remarks that her mother treated her the same way, her mother justifies this by saying she was much better than her own mother. My mom’s mother did some things that were very extreme. My mom’s answer was to do those things less, instead of just not to do them. Somehow that made it okay. Raising my kids, my answer was to never do those things.

LM: Which is probably why I had trouble relating to a lot of went on in this book. 

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M: Her mom and my mom were similar in that they had the attitude that it was never good enough. Like her daughter is a writer, but she’s writing comics. Her daughter’s comics are being published, but they’re about lesbians. Furthermore, it was fascinating that her mother would compare her to lesbians who were more successful. It was like if Alison had been more successful, her being a lesbian wouldn’t have bothered her mother as much.

LM: Her mother seeing other successful lesbians gave her someone to compare her daughter to, but it was so negative. This could have been such a positive thing. Her mother was obviously terrified of her daughter being open about her sexuality. Seeing all these women who are living their lives openly and are successful should have given her mother an uplifting perspective rather than one more stick to beat Alison with.

ARE YOU MY MOTHER
Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Queerness in ARE YOU MY MOTHER?

M: Bechdel quotes Alice Miller, and says that a child who suppresses their feelings to accommodate their parents has essentially been abandoned. I find it fascinating that Alison specifically talks about how she felt like an orphan in church. I wondered if that’s because as a lesbian in a religious setting, she’s suppressing so many feelings.

LM: That is really interesting. The theme of queerness is front and center in FUN HOME. Although it takes a backseat in ARE YOU MY MOTHER,  it’s definitely always present. There are moments where we can’t really say for sure that Alison would have the same experience if she was a straight child. It’s hard to say what her relationship with her mother would have been if she was straight. There’s one part of the book where she says “it was only my lesbianism, and my determination not to hide it, that saved me from being compliant to the core.” To me, this was one of the most overt explanations of how her queerness affected everything, including her relationship with her mother.  

M: Also, this goes back to the idea of the false self. Alison being openly gay breaks the illusion of her false self for her mother. She can no longer hold on to this image of a totally compliant child.

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Too Close to Home in FUN HOME

LM: It’s clear that Alison’s mother is very uncomfortable with Alison writing both FUN HOME and this book. Why didn’t her mother directly tell her to stop writing about her family?

M: I don’t think her mother was ever vulnerable enough to say that to her.

LM: I partially agree with that. I also think it’s very difficult to tell your child not to do something they are so clearly driven to do. Although she doesn’t completely agree with what Alison chooses to write, she identifies with her daughter’s creative drive.

M: But her mother also tries to manipulate her over and over again using other people’s words. She never has to own what she says because she’s not the one saying it. Alison at the end of the book really tries to get her mother to tell her how she feels about FUN HOME. Instead, she talks to Alison about something she read about memoir in general.

LM: This is also a technique that Bechdel uses throughout ARE YOU MY MOTHER? Rather than only incorporating ideas about psychoanalysis and feminist writers throughout her book, she literally lifts text from these works. It’s as if she doesn’t feel qualified to say these things, so she borrows someone else’s voice. I wonder if this insecurity comes from her experiences of her mother using a comparative third party to comment on her work.

ARE YOU MY MOTHER
Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Seeking Maternal Love

M: I thought a really important moment in ARE YOU MY MOTHER? is when Alison finally cried, and she finally came to the realization that what she wanted from her mother, her mother was incapable of giving. She says it felt like a release. But right after that that she asks her therapist to hug her. She realizes that she can’t get what she needs from her mother, so she immediately tries to get what she needs from someone else in terms of affection.

LM: This is why I have a lot of issues with psychoanalysis. I think there’s this idea that you have a void in you that can be explained away because of something that happened in your childhood. I just think people have an inherent need for love and attention and we are constantly seeking that and it’s never enough. We’re on a constant journey of seeking that out. I think a lot of the drama that goes on in her relationships, like the cheating, is a result of that. She’s looking for something in other people that she’s never going to find or have enough of.

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M: But as a mom, that’s why I think the mother-child relationship is so pivotal. I think you can give your child a safe place early on and love them as they are. That was part of what Alison was trying to get — acceptance and love. I do think her mother loved her, but I think she was unable to give her any kind of demonstration of that love.

LM: In our family, we talk a lot about love languages. I don’t think their love languages were compatible.

M: But I think as a mom then, it’s your job to figure out how your daughter receives love. You have to come to a point where you’re outside of yourself enough where you try to figure that out. Alison definitely tried to speak her mothers love language — that’s why she goes to the plays with her. I think her mom was too busy living in her own world with her own pain to be able to come out of it and see the needs of her child.

ARE YOU MY MOTHER
Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“At Last, I Have Destroyed My Mother”

M: Towards the end of the book, Alison has a dream where she can finally remove a giant tumor from her face. Is her mom the tumor? Can she finally get rid of it on her own when she realizes that her mother cannot give her what she needs?

LM: It’s hard to say because I feel the timeline is so muddy in this book. It makes it hard to get any sense of progress. The book starts and ends with Bechdel writing the book that we’re reading. It’s hard to say whether the chronology really pans out with any of this.

M: I feel like so many emotions must have come up during FUN HOME that she was compelled to write ARE YOU MY MOTHER? The timelines weave back and forth. It’s good the book ends with a tentative truce. Her other releases Alison to live her life once she realizes that FUN HOME hasn’t destroyed her.

LM: In a way, the publishing of FUN HOME must have been such a release for her mother. I think Alison gave her a gift by revealing this huge family secret. She ripped off the band-aid.

ARE YOU MY MOTHER
Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Final Thoughts on ARE YOU MY MOTHER?

LM: As you previously mentioned, towards the end of ARE YOU MY MOTHER? one of Alison’s therapists tells her to ask her mother what was the main thing that she learned from her own mother. So I have to ask, what was the main thing that you learned from your mother?

M: I learned from my mother that love is conditional. What’s the main thing that you learned from your mother?

LM: Wow, that’s really dark. I think the main thing I learned was the importance of being kind to people.

LM: From a child’s perspective, I think ARE YOU MY MOTHER? shows the futility of blaming others for your own stuff. There comes a point where you need to take personal responsibility. I think both books represent Alison taking ownership of those experiences. Overall, what was your biggest takeaway?

M: For me, the biggest takeaway is that we write on the slate of our children’s lives. As much as we think we can erase it, we only get one shot. What we say to our children becomes their internal dialogue. So we have to write intentionally. 

If the above conversation peaked your interest, ARE YOU MY MOTHER? can be purchased here. Additionally, you can find Alison Bechdel’s previous memoir, FUN HOME, here.

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