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Are You My Mother?: a Comic Drama

By Alison Bechdel
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Format: Hardcover, 6 x 9, partial color, 240 pages, $22.00
ISBN: 978-0-61898-250-9
Reviewed by: Diamond BookShelf

Alison Bechdel's highly acclaimed Fun Home depicted her complicated relationship to her father, who hid secret affairs with men and died from possible suicide not long after Bechdel came out to her family as a lesbian. Her follow up graphic novel, Are You My Mother?, turns its focus to Bechdel's mother, and also incorporates the process of writing both books. Bechdel examines the tenuous boundaries between mother and child, and how these reflect on her relationships to her therapists, romantic partners and ultimately to herself.

It's a dense and complex book. While I would not necessarily recommend it as a starting place for Bechdel's work, it offers multiple layers of meaning and discovery for patient readers. It will probably speak most to those who are interested in or personally involved in psychoanalysis.

The relationship between child and mother is pretty much a universal topic, so it is interesting how dense and at times inaccessible Bechdel's treatment of it is here. Her experiences are heavily informed by supplemental reading and research, and so her inner life is explored through Virginia Woolf, Winnicott, Freud, Jung, Jewish mysticism and Dr. Seuss, among others.

This is an adult book, both because it features nudity and because it is complex and analytical. For all that, it remains human and funny, and fans of Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip may enjoy spotting some parallels between her real life experiences and storylines from her earlier work.

There is so much text that it is easy to lose sight of the artwork, but the artwork is crucial to the book. This is where Bechdel's humor comes into play, and where many subtle connections between subjects are revealed, such as the various appearances of Bechdel's teddy bear and a dress from her childhood throughout different parts of the narrative.  

Bechdel's work is an excellent example of how graphic novels tell stories not just by illustrating but also by ordering them. Bechdel can show two pieces of text next to each other and create a visual connection between them, in a way that standard prose could not. To read Are You My Mother? requires close reading of the text while also stepping back and examining the relationship between objects on the page.  In this way, Bechdel explores the boundaries between herself and everything else, while constructing a challenging but ultimately rewarding story.