The day before yesterday, I posted my review of Alison Bechdel’s first memoir, Fun Home. That memoir focuses on Bechdel’s relationship with her father. Are You My Mother?, naturally, focuses on her relationship with her mother. I picked it up as soon as I finished Fun Home. Bechdel’s relationship with both parents is complicated. Bechdel’s mother in particular is a complicated individual. She’s talented and beautiful, but she lives in an age when it’s difficult for a woman to pursue much beyond being a wife and a mother, and it’s not clear that Bechdel’s mother wanted to be either a wife or a mother very much. Frequent allusions to the works of Virginia Woolf, in particular, A Room of One’s Own, underscore the ways in which Bechdel’s mother was held back by her times. Bechdel also weaves in her readings of the work of psychologist Donald Winnicott, and the memoir that emerges is part self-psychoanalysis. Bechdel frequently describes and interprets her dreams and weaves in memories of her therapy sessions.
Perhaps every woman’s relationship with her mother is somewhat fraught. I was particularly touched by a question Bechdel asks her mother near the end of the memoir: “What’s the main thing you learned from your mother?” I won’t give away her mother’s answer here, but it struck me that in some significant ways, women repeat the experiences they have had with their own mothers. We establish cycles. Our mothers socialize us to be women, and their ideas of what is acceptable for women are passed on to us. It took me a long time to grapple with some of these ideas. In some ways, it might be a kind of conditioning that we undergo. I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about it. I’m not sure if men experience the same things with their fathers or not.
I am definitely a fan of Bechdel’s work. I’ll read any future books she writes for sure. She’s a smart writer, and the way she connects ideas is fascinating. I envy her mind quite a lot. As an English teacher, I especially appreciate the way she looks for connections in literature. She strikes me as a person who truly sees literature as a way for us to understand ourselves. Reading her makes me want to ask her for a recommended reading list so I can immediately go out and read everything on it.