Sunday, July 29, 2012

Alison Bechdel: DTWOF, Fun Home, and Are You My Mother?

I first encountered the work of Alison Bechdel through her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, which ran weekly in the fondly remembered Coming Up! (which later became, and still remains, the more prosaically titled San Francisco Bay Times). I found that the dramas and dilemmas of a group of lesbian friends interconnected by past, present and future romantic relationships quickly became can't-miss reading. On those rare occasions when DTWOF was inexplicably missing from the paper I went through a mild form of withdrawal. I felt a special empathy for the often hapless Mo, the most political of the group, who seemed like the character that Bechdel most closely modelled on herself.

A selection of most of the DTWOF strips has been collected between hard covers as The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), which follows Mo, Lois, Sydney, Ginger, Clarice, Sparrow, Jezanna and all the rest as they grow and change over the years. Bechdel herself has described DTWOF as "half op-ed column and half endless serialized Victorian novel." Perhaps not endless, unfortunately; DTWOF has been on hiatus since The Essential... was published.

But even the many pleasures of DTWOF—the range of characters, the clever writing, the allusions (sly or direct) to the political and cultural issues of the day—didn't prepare me for the power of Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Alison grew up with a closeted gay father who was domineering and emotionally volatile, and the book brilliantly and insightfully depicts the effects of his barely concealed secret life on the rest of the family. Bechdel portrays her father with sympathy, but also anger; identification, but also wounded incomprehension: he died under ambiguous circumstances which point to suicide.

Bruce Bechdel was a high school English teacher in a small town in central Pennsylvania, and had also taken over his family's business, a funeral home (the ironically-named Fun Home of the title). While his violent outbursts and inability to express affection created a gulf between father and daughter, as Alison grew older that gulf was partly bridged by a shared love of literature. Fun Home is filled with quotations from and allusions to Camus, Proust, Fitzgerald, James, Wilde, Joyce, Adrienne Rich, Catcher in the Rye and Wind in the Willows; literature is one way that both Alison and her father understand and come to terms with their experience.

In Fun Home Bechdel's father emerges as self-involved and occasionally self-dramatizing. As does her mother, a New York-trained actress who wound up performing in community theater productions of The Heiress and The Importance of Being Earnest. Bechdel has now published another graphic memoir, and as the title (borrowed from P. D. Eastman's classic children's book) Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (Houghton Mifflin, 2012) suggests, her relationship with her mother is also emotionally fraught.

Many of the strengths of Fun Home—emotional honesty, thoughtfulness, and an clear-eyed portrayal of everyone involved—are also present in Are You My Mother?. But the later book has some weaknesses as well. In place of the rich literary allusions that suffuse the first memoir, the second primarily invokes the work of psychologists Alice Miller (The Drama of the Gifted Child) and D. W. Winnicott (although Virginia Woolf and Dr. Seuss are also referenced). Not only is the psychologists' prose more jargon-laden than that of the previous volume's literary writers, it seems to inhibit Bechdel somewhat—it begins to feel as though Miller and Winnicott are speaking for her. By the end of Are You My Mother? I wanted to hear fewer of Miller's and Winnicott's insights, and more of Bechdel's.

A second problem is noted by Bechdel herself in Fun Home. She writes there, "Although I'm good at enumerating my father's flaws, it's hard for me to sustain much anger at him. I expect this is partly because he's dead, and partly because the bar is lower for fathers than for mothers" (p. 22). Bechdel's mother Helen is still alive and they still talk frequently on the phone (or, from the evidence in Are You My Mother?, Helen delivers stream-of-consciousness monologues that Alison faithfully records). Bechdel seems to have felt more constrained and to have had more difficulty in writing about her mother than about her father (a difficulty that she acknowledges in the opening of Are You My Mother?, which she reveals is a radical revision of an earlier version that wasn't working). Perhaps, too, her feelings about her mother are more complicated and harder to untangle.

But I don't want to sound too critical. Are You My Mother? is very rewarding, and will undoubtedly be on my list of favorite books from 2012. To say that it doesn't quite reach the standard set by Fun Home is like complaining that Dubliners isn't A Portrait of the Artist.

By the way, I bought my copy at the Seminary Coop Bookstore in Chicago, probably the best store for new books in the United States. Yes, I paid list price, which thanks to Bechdel and her publisher is only $22 (and had I been a Seminary Coop member, I would have gotten a discount). If you choose to buy Are You My Mother?, which I strongly recommend, please support local independent booksellers.


  1. nice :)
    I knew Alison Bechdel for the Bechdel test. I read and loved Fun Home and I'm trying to get my hands on a copy of Are You My Mother but they don't sell it anywhere in Mexico so...

  2. Claudia, thanks for bringing up the Bechdel Test. For those who aren't aware of it, the Bechdel Test for movies requires that there be at least two female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man. There is a website that categorizes films based on this test, Bechdel Test Movie List. As of this writing, about 54% of the more than 3500 films listed meet all three criteria.

    As for obtaining a copy of Are You My Mother?, many independent bookstores in the U.S. will ship to Mexico. Try The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, Powell's Books, or Moe's Books. Of course, ordering online requires a credit card, which creates a barrier for many. However, if you don't have a credit card you may wish to contact the bookstores to see if they are willing to do international mail-order.

    Best of luck, and thanks for your comment!

  3. Thanks to your post, I've read both Fun Home and Are You My Mother? I found them equally rewarding. In each, Bechdel does a great job of having memory trump time, so her life story becomes psychological rather than linear. Jumping abruptly between various times in her life, as well as overlapping and repeating scenes (sometimes with more information, or at others a thicker recounting, previously withheld from the reader), in both books Bechdel builds toward some kind of deeper understanding of herself through life experiences and readings mediated by her relationships to her parents. I particularly love the final three or so chapters in each book. By the time I get to the end, I want to start reading again from the beginning, to find visual clues in panels from the earlier chapters that I did not pick up on the first time around.

    And it is at that level of building toward a deeper self-understanding through her relationships - explicitly with her father and mother, but also through past lovers and her therapists - that in some ways I find Are You My Mother? more rewarding that Fun Home. It may be why Bechdel calls the first is a family tragicomedy (her father dies, so the family drama remains forever unfinished) and the second a comic drama (a kind of resolution is reached in her vexed relationship with her mother). I don't see the the difference between the two comic books so much in terms of the choice of supplementary literary and psychological writings, as how those writings contribute to the story in each case. Her father taught Bechdel to love literature, and it created a kind of sympathy between them with multiple connections and mysteries left unresolved. The comic book about her father is driven by narrative, by the dramatic stories. Bechdel's mother taught her to tackle life analytically, in addition to aesthetically and emotionally, with a measure of critical distance and of playfulness. The comic book about her mother is driven more by structure, with the explicit content serving to discover and reveal those underlying patterns ("It's... it's a metabook" / "Yeah! It is!"). And in the end, it seems to me that Bechdel appreciates her mother more: "She has given me the way out." In this way, I'm glad that Are You My Mother is not simply Fun Home, Part II, but its own and a different story.

  4. M. Lapin, as always you've written an articulate and thought-provoking comment. Your point about how the two different narratives demand different approaches is one that I hadn't considered, but now that you mention it... As you point out, a shared love of literature created a bond between the teenaged Alison and her father, and so of course Fun Home is saturated with literary allusions. It makes sense that, since her relationship with her mother is less about common enthusiasms and more about dissecting motives and meaning, Are You My Mother? would focus intensely on Alison's process of self-understanding.

    But despite my agreement that you've hit on the precise reason for the differences in narrative style between the two books, I have to say that I still prefer Fun Home's literary references to Are You My Mother?'s therapeutic framework. To some degree, I think it's because literature creates an expansive imaginative space that can accommodate multiple meanings. Therapy, it seems to me, necessarily attempts to narrow an infinity of confusing and contradictory interpretations of our own and others' behavior into a few coherent channels.

    It's probable, too, that my preference for Fun Home also reflects my sense of identification with Alison's relationship with her father—her anger and hurt, but also her desire for approval—while I identify much less strongly with her relationship with her demanding, self-involved, critical mother. But as you say, in their different ways both books are very rewarding.

    Many thanks again for your comment!