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Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama [Hardcover]

Alison Bechdel
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 1 2012
From the best-selling author of Fun Home, Time magazine’s No. 1 Book of the Year, a brilliantly told graphic memoir of Alison Bechdel becoming the artist her mother wanted to be.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a pop culture and literary phenomenon. Now, a second thrilling tale of filial sleuthery, this time about her mother: voracious reader, music lover, passionate amateur actor. Also a woman, unhappily married to a closeted gay man, whose artistic aspirations simmered under the surface of Bechdel's childhood . . . and who stopped touching or kissing her daughter good night, forever, when she was seven. Poignantly, hilariously, Bechdel embarks on a quest for answers concerning the mother-daughter gulf. It's a richly layered search that leads readers from the fascinating life and work of the iconic twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, to one explosively illuminating Dr. Seuss illustration, to Bechdel’s own (serially monogamous) adult love life. And, finally, back to Mother—to a truce, fragile and real-time, that will move and astonish all adult children of gifted mothers.

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Review

"In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel poses an infinity of thought-provoking questions about women, literature, feminism, family bonds, psychology and the complicated relationship between therapist and patient...The book is a page turner, thanks in part to Bechdel's lovely and subtle illustrations. Bechdel's examination of her relationship with her mother also touches on the universal push and pull between mothers and children...The book's transcendent ending is Bechdel's expression of love for her own 'good enough mother.'"—USA Today

"Sad, funny, sprawling graphic memoir...An intensely personal, specific story, but Bechdel's imaginative narrative techniques make it easily as compelling as any fiction...Its stylistic flexibility accomodates more layers than any straight documentary or prose memoir could support...This work is her link in the long chain connecting her foremothers and their daughters and all of the other women who shaped her."—The Atlantic

"A staggering achievement...Although Bechdel utilizes all the features of the graphic-novel form, she is so intelligent and perceptive that this story of self-discovery (an abused term, but never more apt) would still be compelling if told only in prose...Are You My Mother? is a masterwork that gracefully documents the torture that sensitive people can put themselves through while searching for the casual movers of their lives."—The Daily Beast

"Are You My Mother? is a tremendously intimate work, more so even than Fun Home. Taken together, the two books are a practical guide to the complicated, unspoken negotiations that take place between children and their parents, those sphinxlike beings who give us life and then promptly deal us near fatal psychic wounds.Watching Bechdel dig into the underworld of her subconscious is paradoxically uplifting. The courage and rigor with which she examines her life make readers feel as if their own secrets might not be quite so unspeakable."—Lev Grossman, Time Magazine

"...Magnificent... Whatever issues Bechdel has with her mother, one always has the sense that she likes her as much as she loves her. That affection — and the real sense one gets of her mother reading these pages, running her finger over the tenderly drawn panels of their history — gives this book an urgency and an intimacy that Fun Home, in retrospect, lacked... Bechdel's triumph is not just that she's emerged from her tunnel, with weary but clear eyes, but that she's brought her mother with her. Grade: A"—Entertainment Weekly

"...Are You My Mother is as complicated, brainy, inventive and satisfying as the finest prose memoirs...The tragedy and comedy are so entwined, so gloriously balanced, the reader can't help being fascinated. The book delivers lightening bolts of revelation...I haven't encountered a book about being an artist, or about the punishing entanglements of mothers and daughters, as engaging, profound or original as this one in a long time. In fact, the book made such a deep impression on me that after reading it I walked around for days seeing little bits and snatches of my life as Alison Bechdel drawings."—The New York Times Book Review

"Are You My Mother is a work of the most humane kind of genius, bravely going right to the heart of things: why we are who we are. It's also incredibly funny. And visually stunning. And page-turningly addictive. And heartbreaking."—Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated

"Many of us are living out the unlived lives of our mothers. Alison Bechdel has written a graphic novel about this; sort of like a comic book by Virginia Woolf. You won't believe it until you read it—and you must!"—Gloria Steinem

"This book is not so much the sequel to Alison Bechdel’s captivating memoir Fun Home, as the maternal yin to its paternal yang. Bravely worrying out the snarled web of missed connections that bedevil her relationship with her remarkable mother from the very start, Bechdel deploys everyone from Virginia Woolf to D.W. Winnicott (the legendary psychoanalytic theorist who comes to serve as her quest’s benign fairy godfather) to untie the snares of a fraught past. She arrives, at long last, at something almost as shimmering as it is simple: a grace-flecked accommodation and an affirming love."—Lawrence Weschler, author of Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences and Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative

"A psychologically complex, ambitious, illuminating successor to the author’s graphic-memoir masterpiece." -- Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"[Bechdel's] lines and angles are sharper than in Fun Home, and yet her self-image and her views of family members, lovers, and analysts are thorough, clear, and kind. Mothers, adult daughters, literati, memoir fans, and psychology readers are among the many who will find this outing a rousing experience . . . This may be the most anticipated graphic novel of the year." -- Booklist, starred review

"A fiercely honest work about the field of combat that is family." -- Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Are You My Mother? offers an improbably profound master class in how to live an examined life . . . More moving and illuminating than Fun Home." -- Elle

"The best writers, whether they are creating fiction or nonfiction, are trying to find out what makes people human for better and for worse. A taut, complex book within several books, Bechdel’s investigation of her relationship with her mother and the work of pioneering psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott offers the most articulate answer you’re likely to ingest. You’ll feel like Alice climbing your way out the jagged rabbit hole to limbo." -- Library Journal

About the Author

Alison Bechdel is the author of the bestselling memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which was named a Best Book of the Year by Time, Entertainment Weekly, New York Times, People, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, and San Francisco Chronicle, among others. For twenty-five years, she wrote and drew the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, a visual chronicle of modern lifequeer and otherwiseconsidered "one of the preeminent oeuvres in the comics genre, period." (Ms.)  Bechdel is guest editor of Best American Comics, 2011, and has drawn comics for Slate, McSweeney's, Entertainment Weekly,  Granta, and The New York Times Book Review. 


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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Bechdel at her Best Jan. 10 2013
Format:Hardcover
There is no better way to find your true self than by writing a memoir. I was grateful that the writer exposed so much -- past the wound, the hurt, the pain comes a private moment when a little light shines and ting, you understand why you are how you are. Whether it was her self-doubt. Or her short lived relationships. Bechdel did not hide behind the images.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A slow, but challenging read Nov. 7 2012
Format:Hardcover
In Alison Bechdel's contemplation of her other parent, she really ups the ante on the navel-gazing. Luckily, she's better at it than almost anybody you've ever read and her artwork is exquisite. For fans of "Fun Home" expecting a similar experience, I think they will be disappointed. Her exploration of her relationship with her mother doesn't have as many stark conflicts... it is more of a cold standoff over many years that she is attempting to thaw. Her in depth analysis of her in depth, lifelong analysis is not to be missed. A little slow, but a challenging read which pays off.
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2.0 out of 5 stars tough read June 26 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Even though I loooved her series Dykes to watch out for and I also really enjoyed her graphic novel Fun Home, this one not so much. You really have to be into psychoanalysis to enjoy this one. She quotes extensively Freud and Winnicot and a lot of drawings consist of her sitting on her therapist's couch. The story doesn't flow like in Fun home. I'm not even finished reading it (I'm halfway through) but I doubt my opinion will change when I get to the end. It feels like this book is so personal and intimate that it doesn't have any appeal to me as a reader.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  108 reviews
37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is not Fun Home 2 May 10 2012
By morehumanthanhuman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A story about a dead parent has a beginning and an end. A story about a living parent is quite a different thing, especially if you know the parent will be reading the story and you're invested in their response. With all that, I am astonished and in awe of Bechdel's courage - not just to reveal herself so intimately, but to do the same for her relationship with her mother.

This is not Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic 2. It's much more complicated and diffuse. Bechdel's story about her father felt complete and symmetrical. This is much more distant and intellectual with the trailing off nature inherent to a story about two living people who continue to interact. Again and again we return to the image of Bechdel reading in this book . . . reading books about psychoanalysis, reading old correspondence between her parents, even reading transcripts of telephone conversations between her mother and herself (she would type what her mother was saying during the calls). She relates to her mother through reading and this central image tells us more about the brokenness of the relationship than anything else. Her mother, in return, will tell her about stories she reads in the New York Times that make her point instead of saying directly what it is she wants to say. There is little that is tactile or intimate about their relationship. The reader winds up thinking their way through the book in the same way that Bechdel has thought through her relationship with her mother.

In Fun Home, Bechdel used literature, concepts of sexual identity, and even mythology to explore and illuminate her relationship with her father. In this book, despite the forays into the work of Virginia Woolf (which, while interesting, seem to fit least easily into what is going on), she uses mainly the language and insights of psychoanalysis and therapy to explore the ways in which her mother has hurt and empowered her. And while this book lacks none of the detailed hyperfocus on her own particular past that one would expect, it comes across as a much more universal story than Fun Home . . . about the ways in which our mothers, in general, hurt and empower us - even if the specifics of our relationships with our mothers vary from hers.

Despite Bechdel's willingness to dig deep into her own emotions, the intellectualized nature of her relationship with her mother kept me at a distance for most of the book. The book engaged my brain quite deeply (there are a few exceptions that are moving, such as the scene about midway through the book when, as a young woman, she hangs up on her mother during a telephone conversation). Then, in the last few pages, it felt as if everything came together emotionally and I was moved to tears. Rather than being a deficiency in the book, I feel as if this was close to what she must have intended. To think, and think, and think . . . and then suddenly to feel so intensely.

What a gift.
154 of 177 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "To be a subject is an act of aggression." May 4 2012
By Gregory Baird - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Well this hurts. I wanted to love this book so much. I adore Alison Bechdel. She's incredibly smart, witty, analytical, and heartbreakingly honest--all qualities that have made Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, her first foray into graphic memoir, a modern classic. It's one of my favorite books, not to mention one of my most frequently recommended titles.

Fun Home, if you'll indulge me for a moment, is the story of Bechdel's relationship with her father and her coming out process. Her father was many things: an English teacher, a funeral home director, an antique collector, a vigilant restorer of their family home, and a closet homosexual.
Bechdel strongly suspects that his sudden, mysterious death after walking in front of an oncoming truck was suicide. He could be distant, demanding, temperamental, and cold to his family. Writing Fun Home was (I imagine) like a therapy session for Bechdel, who hadn't come to terms with what it was like to grow up in the cold, dark household her father created, and who wanted to understand why her father made the decision to hide his sexuality. It works in large part because there's automatic tension between Bechdel and her father: he being emotionally distant and firmly closeted, she sensitive and determined to live her life out in the open. The emotional journey she undergoes in the process of writing it all out is cathartic--revelatory, poignant, and beautiful.

This is not the case with Are You My Mother? It has been said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Bechdel goes to the opposite extreme as she turns her focus to the relationship she has with her mother, who is still alive and is (understandably) conflicted about Bechdel's public airing of the family laundry. But instead of the tense narrative of Home, Mother reads more like a grad student's psychology paper. We follow her to countless therapy sessions and are subjected to passage upon passage from the works of Donald Winnicott, a celebrated psychoanalyst who was influential in the fields of object relation theory and the concept of the "good-enough mother," as well as Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child. The relentless introspection feels masturbatory.

Bechdel has a history of obsessive compulsive behavior and relentless self-inspection; she has kept a meticulous diary from a young age and, during a particularly bad period of compulsive behavior, her mother had to take dictation for these diary entries in order to keep Bechdel from writing all night long. "Don't you think," she argues, "that if you write minutely and rigorously enough about your own life you can, you know, transcend your particular self?"

The problem is that all this rigorous attention to detail has the opposite effect: instead of revealing, it obfuscates. There's meat to this story that we never get to savor. Bechdel implies that her mother favored her sons over her only daughter, and her mother agrees, but we never see an example of this. Her mother abruptly stopped kissing her goodnight when she was seven years old, but this highly traumatic event ("I felt almost as if she'd slapped me") is only really used as an anecdote. Bechdel makes a passing remark that when she went off to college she and her mother "hadn't touched in years," but nothing more is said about the matter.

Instead, we get a lengthy explanation of how she wasn't breastfed because, despite efforts, she wasn't getting enough nourishment from her mother's breastmilk. This is treated like a revelation: the catalyst of a relationship defined by disappointment and a lack of intimacy. Even if it's true, Bechdel seems oblivious to the fact that countless people who aren't breastfed grow up to be perfectly fine. My mother was unable to breastfeed any of her children, yet we all grew up to have healthy relationships (despite the stormy marriage our parents had). I know, I'm simplifying the point Bechdel is trying to make, but I think it serves as a perfect example of how her intense scrutiny gets in the way of actual revelation.

There's also a distressing amount of dream analysis--a very Freudian concept to be sure, but also the most specious form of self-introspection in existence for someone as obsessively detail-oriented as Bechdel. In one of Are You My Mother's worst moments, Bechdel dreams that her therapist takes a torn pair of her pants to sew a patch on them. This is also treated as a major revelation. "You were gonna fix the tear, which maybe means tear, too! You're healing me!" Bechdel exclaims to her therapist in their next session.

Throughout, Bechdel's mother remains an enigma--a shadowy figure lurking on the periphery of a book ostensibly about her. There isn't anything to love about her as presented here, but there isn't anything to loathe either. Toward the end we discover that the mother may have perpetuated the same crimes of ambivalence and distance that were committed against her as a child and as a wife, but this all-too-brief moment is the closest we come to any actual understanding. More than anything, she seems to be a prism for other, deeper hurts. Perhaps this book isn't so much about Bechdel's mother as it is about Bechdel's constant quest to find the acceptance she didn't get as a child and to locate a proper (good-enough?) mother figure. She certainly becomes dependent on each of her successive therapists for affirmation, desperately clinging to them as maternal figures. Bechdel even professes to have come to realize that whatever it was she wanted from her mother, she wasn't going to get it. It would also explain why she selected the title of P.D. Eastman's classic childrens book when naming her new memoir.

Even if that is the point, it doesn't make for a good read. Bechdel's dogged reasoning obscures far more than it reveals. It's like when you stare at something for so long that its shape begins to lose focus and all meaning is lost. There were many times in Are You My Mother? that I wanted nothing more than to give Bechdel a good, long hug and tell her that she should try letting herself off the hook every now and then. It must be impossible to enjoy life when you spend every waking minute worriedly questioning everything. Certainly it must feel exhausting.

Grade: C
46 of 55 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Cathartic, but only for Bechdel June 2 2012
By thebeta99 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought this book as soon as I heard about it, having been a huge fan of Fun Home. This book almost seemed to be written by a different author. The rich detail and layers of discovery in Fun Home are completely lacking. Bechdel would probably disagree. She has mini- revelations throughout the book, as she makes Freudian interpretations of her dreams, youthful decisions, and minor injuries. If you believe, like me, that sometimes a key is just a key, you'll find yourself rolling your eyes.

Presumably the book is about Bechdel's mother, whom I was certainly curious about after reading Fun Home. But the book offers virtually no insight about her mother. As Bechdel's mother comments after reviewing a draft, it's a meta-book - Bechdel is writing about her own exploration of her relationship with her mother. As a result, we learn very little about the supposed main character. Instead we get long descriptions of Bechdel's dreams as well as virtual transcripts of her therapy sessions over the past 20 years.

The few interesting anecdotes that describe Bechdels mother's parenting are, disappointingly, not pursued. For instance, when Bechdel was a toddler she wandered out of her parent's sight in their home and pulled a full length mirror down on top of her. Her mother relays that when she heard the crash she thought Bechdel must be dead and ran to the bathroom to hide. Her baby is hurt so she hides?! This is one of the few incidents that did actually make me question her mother's parenting skills, yet Bechdel fails to elaborate or question her mother about her strange instinct tor run away. I don't understand Bechdel's mother, and If Bechdel doesn't either, it's because she's not asking the right questions.

There is an exchange in the book in which her mother complains that modern authors' works are too personal, too specific. Bechdel replies, "can't you be more universal by being specific?" In this case, I must agree with her mother. I am a woman not much younger than Bechdel, and I've had a rocky relationship with my own mother since college, and yet this book is so specific, so inside Bechdel's head, that it offers me nothing. I hope writing it helped Bechdel. I hope she has gained some insight that will allow her to stop analyzing and recording her life long enough to live it, but sadly, I can't recommend this book to paying customers.
34 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Are You My Alison? May 3 2012
By Susie Bright - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is one of these books, that when it appears on your doorstep, you just cancel your plans for the rest of the day and curl up with a good reading lamp. Alison's take on motherness, therapy, envy, the insanity of memoir and the entire dreamscape of peering humanity-- it's like the ultimate bowl of congee. Everyone I talk to who reads it feels like she has pulled something right out of their own diary. I am sending a copy tomorrow to my daughter, but mine's staying close to my bed so I can keep re-reading it.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intricate and Amazing May 17 2012
By Colleen O'Neill Conlan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Well, Bechdel's mother says it--in these pages--after previewing several chapters--of this book-- pre-publication: "It's a metabook." It's a book about--among many things--the creation of this book about her mother, and her mother is commenting on the creation of this book about her. How meta is that?

A dream sequence opens each section, and is usually revisited with greater insight later in the chapter. Psychology and psychoanalysis play a massive role here, with Alison's sessions with two different counselors giving us an intimate and ongoing look into her personal struggles. Parallel to this is her self-imposed (and almost obsessive) study of the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. His books, his papers, his biography--all give her another lens to view her conflicted and evolving Self through.

Another Bechdel feature is how she refers to and draws on other literature and writers: Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, and a fabulous aha moment with Dr. Seuss.

And mom. A gifted actor, a stunted writer of poetry, a woman married for many years to a closeted gay man, and a mother who learned from her own mother that "boys are more important than girls." There are some heartbreaking moments here (I won't share and spoil it). At times mom seems to purposely seek to diminish her daughter by referencing other authors, other memoirists, or other cartoonists, understandably triggering envy. And sometimes she seems to do this unconsciously. Not sure which feels worse when you are on the receiving end. On the other hand, there is absolutely a bond here. The two speak often by phone, visit, do a trip to the city together. So in their own ways, they do keep trying.

The book itself slips back and forth through time, and it's confusing at first to feel rooted in the narrative. Younger Alison looks very much like older Alison; a couple girlfriends look similar, even the two therapists resemble each other. Sometimes the action focuses on Fun Home, her earlier book about her father, and sometimes it's centered on this book-in-the-making. It keeps folding in on itself again and again, then opening back up, only to be refolded another way, like origami. Next thing you know, you have a beautiful and intricate crane. It all comes together in a spectacular way, so stay with it.

I've got to comment on the artwork. As I mentioned, each section opens with a dream. They end with a tight close-up in a thick black frame. The details in the cartoons--the personal artifacts on her desk, the tree outside the therapist's window, the book and movie titles--are worth slowing down for. And I love the addition of color here! All red and variations of that color. Bloody reds, clotted reds, muddy pinks, muted mauves, all very effective. When Alison talks to her mom on a land line, it's red like a Cold War presidential hotline linked to Russia.

It can't have been easy to write a book about someone you love who is still living. Her mother's sense of privacy is embedded in many of these pages, and this is a relationship that they are both continuing to co-create, off the page. This isn't a revenge memoir by any stretch. It's very thoughtful, very careful, and very brave. I'm sure it treads a space that makes both mother and daughter a little squeamish, at times. Ultimately, it's a loving exploration that ends on a sweet and generous note. I loved it. I even loved the dedication.
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