I’m in the middle of reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother, a graphic novel by the author of Fun Home. Fun Home delved into Bechdel’s relationship with her father, a high school English teacher who ran a funeral home and was a closeted homosexual. At the same time that Bechdel gradually discovered her father’s sexual propensities, she also realized that she was a lesbian. Bechdel expertly weaves both references to Proust and Fitzgerald and personal anecdotes about her father’s fanatical restoration of their home and affairs with students into her first narrative of family and discovery.
In Are You My Mother, Bechdel’s new book, she uses an almost obsessively psychoanalytic lens to focus on her mother issues. Each chapter opens with the depiction of one of Bechdel’s dreams. This sets the tone for the chapter, exploring unconscious hopes and fears in thorough conscious detail.
As Bechdel dove into writing this book, she shows us, she discovered twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and his theories about the child, the mother, and the child-mother relationship. Bechdel delves into deep psychoanalytic territory, using terms like The False Self and the transitional object to illuminate moments of interaction with her mother throughout her life. This approach seems both charmingly old-fashioned and sharply perceptive.
Reading this book, I’m reminded of my immersion in psychoanalysis for the thesis I wrote in graduate school. Even with misfires like the Electra complex, Freud stands as a towering intellectual figure to me. His consideration of dreams as completely meaningful and relevant to our lives is a supposition that continues to have ripple effects throughout psychology and beyond. I still wonder sometimes, how did Freud think of that? Not to mention all of the other ideas he came up with – the pleasure principle and the death instinct, the id, ego, and super-ego, the unconscious.
That’s one of the many strengths of Bechdel’s memoirs – they are so richly evocative. By laying her life completely bare and relating her own life experiences to the abstract concepts often contained in books, Bechdel demonstrates how deeply and densely layered our pivotal memories and experiences are. The unconscious keeps the imprint, even if the conscious mind moves on. If you read Bechdel’s two recent books, you’re sure to be reminded of your own childhood and all the permanent neural connections sparked therein.