Like a lot of fortyish lesbians, I’ve been reading Alison Bechdel’s stuff since I was in my twenties. Dykes to Watch Out For was, at one time, just about the only decent fictional mirror of my own life to be had in pop culture. Watching Mo, Lois, Toni, Clarice and all her other characters grow up and change, week by week–or, more often, in the annual cartoon anthologies–was an often pleasurable, always funny, and occasionally painful experience.
And, like a fair number of Bechdel’s fans, I was wowed by Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic when it came out a few years ago. Bechdel’s cartooning and her writing style lend themselves beautifully to memoir, and the book is incredibly intimate. If Dykes to Watch Out For is a mirror, this graphic novel creates the experience of actually being the super-powered fly on the wall, of seeing an intimate family drama play out, while remaining unseen. It’s powerful stuff, and the story is wholly compelling.
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama her newer memoir, is tougher going. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is about Bechdel’s father, and his suicide, and as such it’s a messy, difficult tale. But mothers and daughters are even thornier subject matter, especially since Bechdel’s mother was alive and well as she was writing it. The story here reflects that murk and difficulty very faithfully. It’s honest to such an extreme that much of it feels like TMI, and all that wriggle-in-your-seat discomfort was compounded, in my case, by the sense of having known this author for so very long, having that illusion of . . . not of being buddies, obviously, but of having a long acquaintance. (All on my side. I’ve never met her.) The light it shines on mother-daughter relationships in general means this is not a book that leaves the reader feeling easy or relaxed.
It’s an extremely good memoir and it ends remarkably well–which surprised me. But it’s a hard book to love. Or perhaps I should say, it’s hard to love without reservation. Are You My Mother? is one of those books you want to armor yourself against. All this really means is that you probably shouldn’t do that.