Bechdel again. Hybridity and Psychological Intensiveness In and Around the Graphic Memoir Are You My Mother?
It took far longer for me to read and process this text by Alison Bechdel than it did the previous one, Fun Home. Perhaps I could say it is because of my traveling, because I don’t have a Thursday evening class during which I’ll be discussing it with my fellow students before turning it in. While these may have some bearing on the length of time I spent with the text, the larger factors seem to me to be, in the first place, that I found vastly different purposes for pondering each time I dug in (which did affect my concentration a bit) and, secondly, while I found Fun Home more accessible and, well, more…fun, in fact. Are You My Mother? is relevant to my present concerns as a writer almost to the point of excess.
As in Fun Home, Bechdel’s technique of circling back, revisiting in light of newly-introduced occurrences and elucidating through this revisiting is powerful and effective and unique. As a reader, I felt a sense of completeness with each section, yet threads from previous ‘sections’ (pieces within chapters, that is) are pulled in – more of an effect of reweaving than of simply weaving this text. And even though it diverges from the earlier book in atmosphere, I cannot imagine reading this before or without having read Fun Home. I did try to trick myself into thinking of it outside the light of that previous book, but it didn’t work. And it’s true, it almost never works to trick myself into reading something as if it existed in isolation or without prior knowing. I think perhaps Bechdel makes it difficult to do so in any case, so requiring of special concentration is her method, her personal reflection combined with academic intensity, with the aforementioned circling back as well.
An intensive employment of psychology – Bechdel’s constant citation and use of Freud, of Winnicott, of Woolf and of Miller – seems by nature quite academic. Yet looking through her lens here, what could be more personal than psychology? To take an exploration of narcissistic parenting, its mark upon subsequent generations, an analysis of the effects of parental objectification of children, and to turn this microscope back upon herself is an act by Bechdel of fearless vulnerability, I think.
Beyond a doubt, Bechdel shows us that the system of her family-of-origin was a narcissistic one. The person raised in the web of such a family faces a double bind in life which is very much in play for a writer (and Bechdel is in ample company, as a surprisingly large number of writers come from these families). The double bind is that people with narcissistic parents are aware that these parents – their parents – are overly focused on their own perceived needs above those of the children. They sense that this is wrong and possess a covert understanding that their needs are not being met, and, often, that this is harmful to them and they must get away (as in Bechdel’s leaving home, mentioned but not dwelled upon) and recover. Yet in order to emancipate themselves, they, too, need to apply what can seem like excessive focus on themselves, for clarity, for understanding, for untangling, for remaking. Thus to carry out the very thing required to change their circumstances, and especially the aftermath (the toll on the Self), they must in a sense commit the same “crime.” Though it can feel wrong to the adult child, in her case, it isn’t, of course, as it isn’t a focusing on oneself instead of on one’s offspring and responsibility. And it isn’t a manipulation or objectification of someone else, either, but a focus on oneself for the purpose of diffusing and finally knowing.
Even though no one is actually harmed by this inward focus – in this case, in fact, Bechdel’s self-analysis is illuminating, forgiving towards herself and ultimately her mother, and on top of that, an artistic offering to a broader community – it feels, as I said, like narcissistic activity to the person in recovery. I think we can see that illuminated in this text as Bechdel, in analysis (in the sections depicting her experiences in analysis), displays a tremendous amount not only of self-doubt but also self-loathing. She questions her very right to create the work that is her key to emancipation. Thankfully, she also questions that questioning. That is a large part of the work undertaken in this hybrid text and is, perhaps, addressed so well because of the hybridity in the approach.
Recently an acquaintance of mine complained to me and a mutual friend about “people who spend all their time contemplating the fuzz in their own navels.” I had heard her say this many times about many people in her world, but this time, it appears she was covertly directing this remark at us, as the mutual friend, a writer, had just been earnestly asking me about my work this semester and comparing it to her own. On and on the complainer went, holding forth on her thinly-veiled criticism that instead of writing or talking about yourself and your experiences, you should go out and meet people to discuss politics and social conditions with, and they should be people who are actually doing something rather than just talking about it. I have always detested the expression “contemplating the fuzz in your own navel” and especially its frequent use as a tool for causing shame and destabilizing and devaluing people. Ignoring for the moment the offensiveness of dismissing people’s real life issues as nothing more than fuzz, few are those who have no proverbial fuzz in their navels to contemplate in order to grasp an understanding of their place in the world, a world comprised of nations full of other people with their own struggles to live, survive and understand. Not fuzz. Fuzz in the navel is the accusation of the insecure narcissist, and it becomes the worry of others in the system. How in the world can you be a writer (or an artist of any medium) without substantial time spent in contemplation of your life circumstances and how they situate you within the broader world? It seems to me a ridiculous charge! Without such pursuits, all or nearly all literature, film, music, theater and visual art would cease to exit.
Bechdel investigates the unmet childhood needs that have extended into her adult life and formed obstacles to that very work of writing, in addition to pieces about the world as she knows it (her long-term comic strip about lesbians, for example), works that are about surviving that family system, and furthermore, being of that system. About being her mother’s daughter. Unlike those who criticize this kind of work, Bechdel is extraordinarily just and compassionate in her contemplation. She allows and elucidates that the cause of the inadequate and hurtful parenting was that her mother did not have her own needs met. She acknowledges the way this shapes and alters a personality and chips away at selfhood. She acknowledges the generational passing-on of the problem. She acknowledges her mother’s humanity. She allows, too, that her mother gave her a way out, and in so doing, gives her mother a way out as well. What distinguishes Bechdel from her mother most is the way she can reach around her own heartache to offer a very public empathy for the source of much of that heartache…which is, the very thing that distinguishes the healthy-at-heart from the personality-disordered in the system.
How, then, does the hybrid approach of this text help secure that it is the inherent right of this writer to write her own concerns? Certainly if Bechdel were merely contemplating her fuzz, she would still have the “right” to do so…but perhaps no one would care all that much and there would be no New York Times bestselling book from it. It is the way she utilizes, as in her previous book Fun Home, the works of writers, questioners and established voices in the fields of psychology and human development to illustrate the patterns of her own experience, supporting them with revelations about the lives of these sources themselves; it is the way she provides a visual revelation beyond the words. For example, one smiling babyhood photo of herself with the other three in a series which paint, together, a very different picture of her father as parent, of her response when he appears on the scene. I mentioned earlier the technique of reweaving and circling back that occurs throughout the text. The reader experiences how weighty each seemingly small occurrence is in the scope of Bechdel’s (and therefore anyone’s) trajectory; how all of our childhoods circle back and are rewoven into each new phase or experience or endeavor; how cumulative is the disowning effect of a moment’s choice on the part of a parent, for example, to tell one child she’s too old to be kissed goodnight anymore after this child has just seen that same parent lavish love and affection upon the younger siblings.
The hybridity in this text offers more pairs of eyes, a greater breadth of concern for the effects of these moments on a life. It offers a greater breadth of tools for digging, unearthing, scraping clean, searching for clues and for evidence toward an ultimate form of emancipation. Bechdel reminds me that I have always (or at least often) felt that one medium, one genre just isn’t enough to root out the truth and observe all its angles; one or two of the senses just isn’t enough for the full expression and perception required for personal growth and for a public offering coming out of that growth. For me, well, I can’t draw at all skillfully, but I can make music, and that came before writing any prose or poetry. When I now undertake creative writing, it always has music or sound and a look to it in my head. When, in the writing, I am remembering a moment to write about, what I remember is its sensory aspect. Sometimes that is all I remember until I am mostly through the writing, and other things appear that I didn’t know I remembered. That is the reason for a lot of my concerns about the requirements of truth and accuracy in creative nonfiction. Some of the best things may contain inaccuracies, which I used to agonize over.
It took quite a while to notice that Bechdel, the older sister to two boys who, as she tells it, received far more love and attention and subjective recognition than she did, scarcely mentions these brothers in this particular book beyond one key scene (the bedtime kiss). I can’t help but ponder this from two perspectives, the first being whether Bechdel herself gives minimal thought to these brothers as important to her life and story or, secondly, whether she makes the choice to avoid excess and obstacle to the aim of her book. Is it a book solely about the mother-daughter relationship? Can that relationship largely exclude the siblings in the mix? I’d like to know if Bechdel intentionally avoids outing her brothers in terms of any sort of precariousness in their relationship and how they regard her work, whether they are all close, whether they feel hurt by her work or are supportive. I want to know this in relation to my own questions about some of my siblings, about my fear of outing them despite my own sense of wanting freedom to tell my own story in my own way, despite perhaps considerable pain I’ve received for regarding them through much of my life as some kind of authority, as I was taught, since they are older, no matter how absurd that becomes in adult life. I wonder about Alison Bechdel. So I look up the brothers.
Among other things, I find a lot of affirmation for the tasks I have set out for myself. And besides this, I find that the earlier book, Fun Home, has expanded its hybridity in ways similar to what I myself envisioned for the future of my own project, Edge: a novella in short stories, poetry and music and other projects I’ve been contemplating for the near future. What I discover is Fun Home: The Musical. So I end this excursion with a tremendous longing to see this now-past production. I’ll keep my radar on for its return to the stage. You never know.