Thursday, December 6, 2012

Singing My Life With Her Words

A few years ago I read Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, a graphic memoir about Bechdel's repressed gay father, and was disturbed by how much I saw myself in him. I had a lot of anxiety about my role as a gay man in a straight marriage, and how that affected not only me but everyone else around me--particularly my children. Bechdel's account of how her father's repression seemed to manifest itself in a sort of parenting schizophrenia, coddling one moment and vicious the next, struck a little too close to home for me. I wrote an essay about it.

When I heard that Bechdel had written a sequel of sorts, this one a memoir about her mother, I was anxious to read it because I'd been impressed by Bechdel's talent as both a writer and a graphic storyteller, but I did not expect to identify with the book in the same way as I had with Fun Home. I was wrong. In Are You My Mother?, Bechdel tells about her relationship with her mother, focusing largely on the events surrounding the writing and publication of both books. In many ways, this book is a memoir about memoirs. It's also an intense session of self-psychoanalysis, as Bechdel weaves in discussions with her therapists over the years, as well as her own study of British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. At several points while reading Bechdel's words, I felt like I was reading about my relationship with my mother, my experiences with writing, my attempts to understand my own psychology.

On more than one occasion concerned family members and friends of mine have questioned the wisdom of putting so much of my personal life on public blogs, on Facebook, in published essays. I myself have questioned my motivations, the narcissism it takes to assume that anyone wants to read about my life except me. One of the major conflicts of Are You My Mother? is the ambivalence Bechdel's mother feels about her daughter revealing so much about their lives publicly. When discussing a poem she read in The New Yorker, Bechdel's mother says of the poet (not Bechdel), "Who cares about the fellowship she didn't pursue when she was twenty because she got married instead? It's too specific." Bechdel replies, "Um... I dunno... Can't you be more universal by being specific? Everyone regrets something, right?" Her mother starts to go on to another topic, then says, "I just don't know why everyone has to write about themselves."

Not only do I identify with the conflict of wanting to write about my life without offending the people I love, but I believe in Bechdel's reasoning. The universal can be found in the specific. When Bechdel was ten, she got sick and threw up on the bathroom floor. While recalling how her mom helped her, she says, "I guess I felt like I'd failed her. She had so many demands on her... The one thing she needed from me was that I not need anything from her." When I read this passage the other day I had to stop and read it again four or five more times. I don't remember ever feeling guilty about getting sick. There is no stain on my childhood bathroom floor like the one that haunted Bechdel for years afterward. Her specifics are foreign to me but the universal experience they represent is all too familiar. I grew up believing exactly what Bechdel expresses, that my job was to not need anything from my mother or, for that matter, from anyone. I have spent the past couple of years trying to unlearn this, to make myself believe that it's okay for me to have needs, even when the people I need things from are just as needy as I am. To read Alison Bechdel express this feeling that is so profoundly a part of who I am was a transcendent experience, one of those moments when writing uses its powers of telepathy to connect people in ways we wouldn't otherwise.

Hey, a comic book cover that is actually relevant to my blog post! 

The title of Bechdel's new memoir, of course, refers to the picture book by P.D. Eastman about a bird looking for his mother, who asks each animal he comes across, "Are you my mother?" Bechdel refers several times to wanting people to be her mother, whether it's Donald Winnicott, her therapists, or her actual mother. I'm not really on the market for a new mother, but Alison Bechdel, will you be my friend?

1 comment:

  1. Oh. Crap. I am pretty sure that my 10 year old feels like it is her job to not need anything from me. Feeling a little sick now.