The M word

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, reviewed by Mel Evans
December 2012

Alison Bechdel’s cartoon strip, now a collected works, Dykes To Watch Out For, established her as a cult hero. It went on to win the cartoonist international acclaim for her laugh-out-loud, mesmerising soap-opera comic following the lives, loves and political struggles of an endearing team of North American lesbians. Begun in a pre-L Word era, it set out in uncharted territory, imagining that: ‘By drawing the everyday lives of women like me, I hoped to make lesbians more visible . . . if only people could see us, how could they help but love us?!’

Are You My Mother? explores theories of the ‘mother-daughter’ gulf by considering the writer’s own childhood. Bechdel brings in theory on the effects of the initial stages of the mother-child relationship, ultimately reaching an understanding that embraces her own experience. The book follows Fun Home as a second memoir that seeks to understand Bechdel’s family and thereby herself.

Bechdel examines the work of Virginia Woolf and the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott to shed theoretical and narrative light on care and dependence. She provides the reader with a handy map of her life in girlfriends and therapists – invaluable reference points – as she draws together a web of dreams and experience to make careful conclusions about how she understands her mother and their ways of relating to each other.

The book left me refreshed by the journey Bechdel takes the reader on through her life and others. She mixes sharp humour and an enamouring reflective process to create cartoons that convey nuanced relationships, all in a concise and stunningly beautiful monochrome and blood-red graphic novel.

Not for the faint-hearted, Are You My Mother? is a long, cross-continent road trip in soul-searching. But it isn’t navel-gazing: each page contains a funny, delightful detail in character observation, and as a whole, perhaps more so than Bechdel’s other ‘cult faves’, this work has the potential to resonate with a wider audience.


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