Alison Bechdel: The Personal and the Familial
“Writing a memoir about living people in your family is a problematic undertaking . I think I only do it because my family was so screwed up in a very particular way.”
I haven’t spoken to my mother in over a decade, and I’m a total sucker for troubled mother dyke-daughter stories. I’m also a huge Alison Bechdel fan, so I was thrilled when I learned she had a new memoir coming out this spring focusing on the not so smooth relationship she has with her mother. I loved her highly celebrated memoir Fun Home, which was about her father, and I was excited to see what new ground she would cover with this new memoir, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Bechdel’s latest book weaves together her struggles to relate to her mother, with psychoanalytic theory —specifically the work of Donald Winnicott, the writings of literary greats like Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich, and Bechdel’s turbulent romantic relationships with women throughout her adult life. Like Fun Home, Are You My Mother? is a gorgeous and intense graphic novel that combines her unique storytelling with insightful and intricate images. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with Bechdel to talk about the new memoir, her creative process, and what the future holds for her work.
What do you hope readers will take away from the memoir?
I should have grappled with that question before I started writing this book. What interested me most while writing, even more than trying to figure out my relationship with my mother, was trying to figure out my relationship to other people and other subjectivities. I hope that people can relate to the effort of trying to connect with other people who are the center of their own universe…in the way that we are each the center of our own universe.
One of the really interesting things for me with the memoir was the way you weave in and out different texts. Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the texts (Winnicott, Virginia Woolf, etc.) that you reference in the book?
It wasn’t so much a searching. It was more stuff that grew organically out of my story. I did know that I was really interested in Donald Winnicott, so I started reading his work early in my process of working on the book. I started with reading first his biography, and then his actual theoretical statements. Those took me a long time to really understand, because I had to teach myself about psychoanalysis. It was a lot of research and just gradually I realized there were kernels that I wanted to fit into my story.
What kind of advice might you give to lesbians who are struggling with writing about the difficult relationships they have with their mothers?
I don’t know, I feel like it was worth doing for me. I feel like I pushed through something with it, and I feel like it also forced me to really engage with my mom in a way that I might not have otherwise. Because of the weird cerebral nature of our connection, it was a way to get closer to her. Writing a memoir about living people in your family is a problematic undertaking. I think I only do it because my family was so screwed up in a very particular way.
How did your writing process for Are You My Mother? compare with Fun Home?
I thought that a second memoir would be easier because I’d figured out my methodology for combining words to pictures, but I feel like I kind of had to start over and figure out those same things again for this book. It didn’t feel any easier.
Can you talk a little bit about what the process is like for you, in terms of bringing words and pictures together?
I write in a drawing program (Adobe Illustrator), which enables me to draw panels and word balloons, and text boxes, and move all those components around on the page. I’m composing the page visually as I write. I’m not doing the drawings but envisioning them, and it’s mostly on the computer at first. I’m envisioning the drawings at the same time I’m writing the panel, but I do the actual drawing later.
I love the way you reference and play with the ways in which memoir can be seen and understood as a lesser genre, and those of us who write memoir dismissed as lesser authors. Can you talk a little bit about what draws you to the genre?
I’m not sure. [There is a moment in the book] when I realized my OCD got so out of control that my mother started writing in my journal for me. Something happened in that moment where she transmitted something to me, it’s almost in my body to speak to my experience and figure out how to create a record of my experience. That exchange with my mother at that moment of my childhood is what made me into a memoirist. I feel like it was my role in the family to be the depository of all these feelings that people weren’t able to talk about, or be open about. It was my job to carry those things, and now I’m trying to purge myself of them, by making other people read about them.
When you wrote Fun Home did you anticipate you would follow it with a memoir about your mother?
I really did not. I wasn’t looking very much past getting Fun Home finished when I was working on it. Then I did finish it, and it was unusually successful and there was some pressure to write another book, like, fast. I didn’t really want to, I wanted to not do something like Fun Home. I needed to do something really different since I thought I did the family story. I decided the only other thing I was interested in was relationships, and figuring out why relationships are always so problematic. Over the years, I was struggling with writing it. I realized the reason I was struggling…was that this was actually a memoir about my mother, and so it became kind of a companion book to Fun Home.
Did you fight the book becoming about your mother?
In a weird way this book is about the process of writing, so it’s a bit confusing and recursive. Writing about my father was quite easy; it was really difficult knowing that my mom would see this book at some point. What happened was, after several years trying to tell the story about relationships, my agent said, “This doesn’t make any sense.” I realized I was going to great lengths to avoid the subject of my mother.
What was it like to so intimately bring readers into your creative process, bedroom and therapy sessions? Why did you feel it was important to be that intimate?
I don’t really know. It’s weird and I’m feeling very anxious on the verge of the book actually coming out. I was mostly just telling the story alone in my basement, now it’s at the stage of readers actually receiving it. I don’t know what that will be like, but I’m quite anxious because it feels more intimate and more of a self-exposure than Fun Home was. I did it because– I don’t know–it just seemed to really get to the root of this story, and I needed to reveal certain kinds of information. It was uncomfortable and the process of writing was pretty excruciating. All the scenes in my life that I go into, the time I was depressed, the time I drew the dirty picture my mother found while writing, I found myself back in those feelings of being depressed and anxious. I was back living in those places when I was trying to write about them.
What did you take from writing Are You My Mother?
I feel like I tell these stories in hopes of learning something, and figuring something out something that I didn’t know. It’s about forcing myself into a situation where I have to change. I know that happened with Fun Home, and I think it happened with this book too, but the process isn’t done until it goes out. I felt like Are You My Mother? pushed me through the way that I censor myself so heavily, and the way that I have always been very tentative and quiet. I was always the student who never spoke in class, so I feel like this book really pushed me out of that shell a little bit. I feel a little more confident in what I have to say. I feel a little anxious saying that out loud though, because I’m sort of having a relapse. I felt that way during the last stage of publication, and now I’m going back into the anxious self doubting phase that I thought I had outgrown, but hopefully it’s just its death throe.
I know the book is just being released so this might be a little early to ask, but what can we look forward to next from you?
I do want to keep doing memoirs, and memoirs about my family. I joke that I’m moving onto my brothers next. I’m still trying to figure out something about family. In the memoirs about my parents it was very focused on one parent, on one member of the family, and my relationship with that member. Now, I’m interested in how the whole family as a system and as a consultation works. I’d like to write about that, and I think it will be very challenging and complex. But right now the thought of it makes me want to lie down on the floor and lapse into a coma.
Photo by Greg Martin