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  • Writer's pictureBen Zimdahl

Dreams, Psychoanalysis and Meaning in Parental Relationships

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

Are You My Mother, - Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Are You My Mother serves as the ‘mother book’ to her previous counterpart work Fun House, which the author herself refers to as her ‘father book’. Bechdel wrote “Fun House’ in a way as a form of artistic exorcism to deal with a painful family story that she expresses had been simmering away in her life for some 20 years. Her Father, a high school teacher and a sexually closeted bisexual or homosexual is believed to have taken his own life, being hit by a truck when Bechdel was in college, at a time shortly after she came out to her parents about her own sexuality. As a lesbian Bechdel found her father’s story was something necessary for her to unravel and express through her creative means.

Working within the graphic memoir form Are You My Mother caters for Bechdel’s story growing up through her prepubescent and pubescent years as well as her story as a grown woman arriving to the age of menopause. Mapping the story of her mother and examining the relationship she has with her. The memoir uses Bechdel’s own psychoanalytic therapy experiences with that of two different therapists of her life as a central literary tool throughout. The medium especially allows Bechdel to inter-splice all these counterparts permitting the story to smoothly jump around in chronology, leaning heavily on its visual aspect to achieve this also allows for a seamless inclusion of its numerous stories simultaneously.

The novel makes use of a simultaneous double layer of text, that transpiring within in-action speech bubbles (using different common classic shaped comic coding, i.e. illustrated speech bubbles and frames) and accompanying bannered interior authorial reflections (those recitative; i.e. in the form of specific supplementary; running plain-word text boxes). From an analytical perspective there are numerous scenes that would perhaps prove ambiguous in a classic novel format that Bechdel makes light work of within the graphic novel realm, for example situations such as Alison partaking in a phone call with her mother whilst working on the writing of her book both seamlessly occurring in real time. On the note of Bechdel’s favoured writing techniques, throughout the work Alison constantly refers us to the reanimated lives of past literary authors as well as famed developmental and psychoanalytical psychologists including Adrienne Rich, Alice Miller, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Jacques Lacan and, most notably Virginia Woolf and D.W. Winnicott. The novel uses pictorial quotes of such author's works to support its intertextual element within an enhanced cinematic quality specific to the format.

Each chapter of the book takes its theme form Winnicott’s object relations theory, and the contributional aspect of psychoanalysis features heavily within the text as each chapter opens with Alison recounting a dream and discussing with us its apparent significance in her life with when that dream occurred. There are some interesting interchanges presented to us within the novel such as the fantasised seemingly romantic wishful imagining of Winnicott and Virginia Woolf missing the opportunity to run into each other in the streets of London, and more notably there appears to be an analogy suggested between the exploration of her story of her mother with that of her story with her psychoanalysts.

She explores a mentor like relationship in that of her mother in terms of her own work as a writer, to which she claims that she learnt from her how to look at one’s life as a story, as a work of art which ultimately has become a way to deal with painful experiences she has faced. An in a big way Are You my Mother is also a book about writing a book, or rather the difficulties and insights that the author comes to share with us of her own understanding of this, which in her case stems largely from the critiques of her mother and her particular parenting. As the book takes its title inspiration from the classic children’s book of the same name by P.D. Eastman, the memoirs of Bechdel also feature the inclusion of analogous surrogate-mother like relations with her various female therapists similar to the hatchling in Eastman's picture book upon the search for its mother upon leaving the nest and having never actually seen her before. In Eastman’s tale and on her own recorded journey it seems she comes to realise the importance of recognising in terms of acceptance the value of her actual biological mother, and the personal meaning of their connection.

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