In her best-selling 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home, Alison Bechdel dug deep to understand her elusive father, a hard, closeted man who died — likely a suicide — when he was just 44. In her magnificent new work Are You My Mother? she reaches for a woman who’s still very much alive, and whose exacting, prickly, intelligent, vulnerable voice is every bit as strong as her own.
The title, of course, is also that of a famous P.D. Eastman children’s book, in which a baby bird, separated at birth from its mama, goes searching for her. That little bird is naive and desperate in its quest to know and connect. Bechdel may be rigorous and methodical, but their quests aren’t all that different. There are great chasms in these pages dividing the child and her mother, a thwarted artist who told her 7-year-old daughter that she was too old to be kissed good night. But their imperfect bond is nevertheless strong and beautiful and entirely deserving of the author’s exquisitely careful efforts.
Virginia Woolf, Dr. Seuss, and others make appearances as Bechdel ponders the nature of parent-child attachment. But the narrative thrust here concerns her mother’s troubled response to Fun Home. She writes a letter to Bechdel after reading an early draft, saying that her daughter is wrecking her life, but grudgingly applauds a section about her early work as an actress. ”The only thing you could have said besides that I was beautiful was that I was also thin,” she says.
Whatever issues Bechdel has with her mother, one always has the sense that she likes her as much as she loves her. That affection — and the real sense one gets of her mother reading these pages, running her finger over the tenderly drawn panels of their history — gives this book an urgency and an intimacy that Fun Home, in retrospect, lacked. ”Family be damned!” her mother tells her at one point, sounding collegial rather than aggrieved, while discussing the trickiness of memoir. ”The story must be served!”
The flaw of most memoirs is that the author, whether because of a lack of skill or maturity or humor, gets lost in a tunnel. Bechdel’s triumph is not just that she’s emerged from her tunnel, with weary but clear eyes, but that she’s brought her mother with her. A