In one of the opening sequence panels of Alison Bechdel’s graphic book-length essay Are You My Mother? (yes, I claim this whole book for the essay) the author has drawn herself behind the wheel of a car, a noir Dick Tracy-like self portrait with a question mark hovering in front of her face. This is an instance of impassioned questioning, a graphic gesture of not only the frantic action of a pivotal moment but also the frustration of needing absolutely to know what is not possible to know. Such is the fury and quest of Are You My Mother? The text in this frame reads YOU CAN’T LIVE AND WRITE AT THE SAME TIME, but of course— as we read this book that the author calls a metabook, in a doubly-meta moment on the pages of the book itself— the reader knows the author is indeed, most perilously, writing and living at the same time. How essayish of her.
I’m not the only one to call Bechdel’s first book since her memoir Fun Home an essay. Nuria Sheehan did so brilliantly in the Fall 2012 issue of Brevity, writing, “While Fun Home moved forward through narrative, building to revelations about erotic truth and the queer desire experienced by both the narrator and her father, Are You My Mother? circles around meaning… narrative is secondary to the essaying, as the narrator tirelessly attempts to understand herself, her mother, and the world by juxtaposing memories with psychoanalytic literature and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.”
Let’s assume we can agree, for now at least, to see this book as graphically Montaigne-ish; what then is the beauty of the essay, and how does this beauty differ from that of the memoir?
What I’ll disclose before saying more might be obvious who anyone who knows both me and Are You My Mother? First: I am one of those narratively essayistic writers working in-between memoir and essay. I allow my spinning ruminations on maps and memory, as well as vignettes of family dysfunction and lesbian love, to be called memoir, in hopes that the work will find some grubby cubbyhole in the essay-dissing lit marketplace, but at the same time I dislike the cap of redemptive expectation the word memoir places over my work. Second: a version of me appears in a couple of panels of Bechdel’s new book, because Alison and I were friends in the late 1980s lesbian world of Minneapolis, Minnesota in the days (as she and I like to say) before “creative nonfiction.” Which might suggest I have a stake in this book beyond that of just another reader, and perhaps I do, but perhaps not entirely for the reasons I state above. Rather, I have a stake in both the essay and in work by genre indeterminate queer women, both being forms not well-enough loved in most of the worlds I inhabit.
I write this now because I keep hearing readers say they like this book but not as much as they loved Fun Home. I do love Fun Home too, as a memoir (though some have suggested that book might also be claimed for the essay, and perhaps so especially if we consider essay and story to be opposing poles with memoir moving back-and-forth on the slider in-between). I love Fun Home for many reasons, but mostly for its form, the way Bechdel disrupts story by revealing the central crisis at the start of the book. We know right away that her father’s death was probably a suicide, which then makes the book’s narrative arc that of figuring out how to come to terms with this death and both her father’s and her own homosexuality. Fun Home is a double coming-out story turned inside out and backwards, and succeeds the ways intricately plotted and disrupted films like Run Lola Run and Memento and Pulp Fiction succeed, by shaking down, questioning, and re-inhabiting time. In these works, and in Fun Home, we experience the pleasure of story, but that pleasure is interrupted by another pleasure, the surprise of revealing the stories within stories that transform the way all narrative is understood.
Because I knew the author before she wrote Fun Home I also know how long she was inhabited by her origin story. Everyone who knew Bechdel when she lived in Minneapolis (with the lover named Eloise in Are You My Mother?) knew the story of her father’s secret life and death and anyone who talked to her about her work knew that one day she’d find a way to tell this story, visually and textually. Most writers who carry a formative narrative of loss and forbearance have to write that story, and these days that story is probably a memoir. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is an example of this, as is Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, Mira Bartok’s The Memory Palace, Joy Castro’s The Truth Book, to name just a few. These are all books led by some unavoidable life story, and supported by the author’s thinking about that story, and their beauty is expressed through the language, container, and arc the writer creates to find meaning in their tale.
Are You My Mother? is another kind of project, and, in terms of the artist’s career, more complex and ambitious art, because she had no single base story to bend, except perhaps the immersive societal lie about mothers and daughters, a master narrative bound to gender conformity, heterosexuality and sentimentality, none of which apply to the relationship of Bechdel and her mother. What the author did have to work with was an intense flat-line of repeating scenic action made of a mother and daughter’s echoing grief, beleaguered identities, and intellectual dissatisfactions, so what is disrupt-able in this work is less a story than a condition. As in Fun Home she turns to big texts to guide her, but this time uses psychological speculation, dreams, and Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness prose to direct her query. The question of what the narrator is to make of both self and daughterhood is at the forefront of the telling, and the scenic moments— from phone calls to therapy sessions to sex– come into play only in service of questions, ideas, and suppositions about the daughter-mother bond. In the process the daughter both includes and moves beyond the parameters of the lesbian story, applying that noir question mark to the complex needs, desires, and strategies of all human attachment.
What I mean is Bechdel truly essays in this book, the way James Baldwin essays in that moment of “Notes of a Native Son” when he throws a half-full water mug at a waitress and shatters the mirror over a bar where they “don’t serve Negroes”. Baldwin begins with the conditions of his life as a Black man in an exploding America. At the same time he essays into a psychology of rage and revelation, and finally tells us not just what racism is but also how racism feels and what racism means. What follows is our more complex understanding of how humanness feels and what humanness means. The beauty of the essay form is an uncomfortable and hard-won beauty, more difficult to read than most stories —we have to slow down, discern, reread and pause for understanding—but discursive rumination supported by story is a necessary way into rethinking our worlds. I don’t mean to say the essay is a better beauty than memoir, but it is often one that takes more work to read, and has a different sort of payoff. Even in its most lyric forms the essay assumes thinkiness is no less valid than emotion, and in doing so might give us the intellectual tools we need to re-architect the ways we live.
I know it’s foolish to wish for readers-at-large to climb into the essay in the same way they do story. Essays don’t allow us to collapse into the dream of linear narrative. The best essays are “tough love” mothers, hurling us directly back to that huge cartoon question mark hanging over all our heads. Stories do this too, some stories do this very well, and I’m not against story, but I love, and want others to learn to love, the ways essays hurl us unmasked into the not-knowing.
Another panel of Are You My Mother?, a two-pager from the center of the book, illustrates what I really have at stake in essaying about this book I insist on claiming for the essay.
The image is a layered cacophony: part homage to Dr. Seuss, part a still life of the artist’s eyeglasses, her father’s letters to her mother and other ephemera, part a highlighting of another psychoanalytic quotation applied to her relationship to her mother. The Doctor Seuss image serves as the author’s “room of one’s own” and as an architecture of unconventional creativity, and as a womb. The page is a chaos, yet all is connected. The lesbian daughter. The thesbian mother. The missing father. The mother’s enclosures and imprisonments. The daughter’s convoluted pathways of escape as she does, absolutely, live and write at the same time. These two pages are essay as palimpsest. The echoes and erasures, here and throughout the book, probe old and new ways of understanding the social and the intimate self, so much so that this work could add up to be one of the great essays of our day, or at least one of the most original. What I have at stake here is the way out this book offers someone like me, should the world we all share finally let itself be seen through Alison Bechdel’s always essaying gaze.
All images from Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel.
Used by permission.
Used by permission.
BARRIE JEAN BORICH is the author of BODY GEOGRAPHIC, forthcoming in the American Lives Series of the University of Nebraska Press. Her previous book, MY LESBIAN HUSBAND (Graywolf) won the American Library Association Stonewall Book Award, and she was the first nonfiction editor of Water~Stone Review. She teaches at Chicago’s DePaul University, in the English Department and the MA in Writing and Publishing Program, and splits her time between Minneapolis and Chicago.