Last February, Alison Bechdel was invited to give the annual Paumanok Lecture on American Literature and Culture at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. The series is sponsored by the English department, and previous speakers have included Alfred Kazin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Irving Howe, and Edward Said. Bechdel was introduced as “the daughter of two English teachers”—to polite laughter. Her work is not yet part of the Western canon. She is the author of “Dykes to Watch Out For,” a cartoon strip that ran for twenty-five years, between 1983 and 2008, in more than fifty alternative newspapers, and of “Fun Home” (2006), a best-selling graphic memoir of her father, Bruce. “Fun Home” was the first and only work of its kind to be a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. The subject, as Bechdel noted, isn’t exactly “a laugh riot.” She described it to the audience as the story of “how my closeted gay dad killed himself a few months after I came out to my parents as a lesbian.”
Bechdel’s lecture, which she illustrated with snapshots from her family albums, discussed the latest installment of her autobiography, “Are You My Mother?” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which will be published next month. Helen Fontana Bechdel, the author’s mother, who plays a supporting role in “Fun Home,” is the star here. Not even Henry James, the master of the page-long sentence, could have traced the memoir’s arc in one line—it is like a DNA molecule. The title, however, gives you an idea of what Bechdel is up to. She borrowed it from a beloved but unsettling children’s book by P. D. Eastman, published fifty years ago, in which a baby bird, which hatches while its mother is off catching worms, leaves the nest in an anxious search for the missing parent it has never seen, asking a variety of creatures—a cow, a dog, a kitten, and, finally, a power shovel—if they are she. But even the youngest reader has lived enough to grasp the true question, which is “Who am I?” Without its mother, a baby has no reflection.
When I got to the university’s Kumble Theatre, it was full, and Bechdel was surrounded by fans. She lives in the Vermont woods, and usually dresses accordingly, but that evening she was wearing pressed jeans with a dark sports jacket and a crisp striped shirt, both from a men’s resale shop, accessorized by designer eyeglasses. “Glasses are my only jewelry, so I splurge on them,” she had told me on a visit to Vermont, when we had driven into Burlington so that she could shop for frames, go to the gym, and see her shrink. (“I do egregious things,” she told the audience, of her new memoir, “like taking you into my therapy sessions and telling you my dreams.”) Anyone who has read “Dykes to Watch Out For” could have spotted Bechdel in the crowd, and not only because she was being lionized. She looks just like her cartoon avatar, Mo, a geeky bundle of nerves with a butch haircut (minus the equine forelock), a slight physique, a furtive air, and the general appearance of a teen-age boy. At fifty-one, Bechdel is still sometimes mistaken for one.
Cartoonists generally focus on a specific gene pool or cultural type, and the characters in “Dykes to Watch Out For” are a motley crew of more or less radical lesbians, living in a Midwestern city and striving to achieve a state of alternative normality. But the Brooklyn audience was strikingly mixed. Same-sex couples chatted with tweedy academics, and pierced students, their pale arms sheathed in tattoos, sat beside regally poised people of color. “Fun Home,” Bechdel noted, has “crossover” appeal, although she always brackets in quotation marks anything that might sound even remotely like bragging or pretension. This is partly because she worries that she is on the gods’ hubris watch list, and partly because the tragicomedy of narcissism is her big subject. “Are You My Mother?” is “extremely intimate and self-absorbed,” she said. “But by looking inward deeply I’m trying to get outside myself and connect with other people.”
Bechdel lives with Holly Rae Taylor, a forty-four-year-old painter, and their cat, Donald, a plump female named after the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, at the top of a steep country road near a rustic ski resort, but not much else, about half an hour from Burlington. Their modest house, built in the nineteen-eighties, has cedar siding and a pitched roof. Tibetan prayer flags flutter from the woodshed porch. A mudroom leads to a double-height living space rimmed by a narrow mezzanine. There are cables dangling from its balcony railings which Bechdel, who used to be a martial artist—she has a black belt in karate—uses for suspension yoga.
On my first visit, Bechdel and Taylor were trying to figure out how or if they could rearrange their scant furnishings to make room for an heirloom piano, a Steinway parlor grand, that Helen had offered to give her daughter. It came from the house where Bechdel grew up—where most of “Fun Home” unfolds—and where it occupied a conspicuous place, physically and psychically. The piano also figures in “Are You My Mother?” Helen was a gifted amateur musician, but everyone in the family played. (Bechdel’s younger brother John is a well-known keyboardist with the heavy-metal band False Icons; he has also toured and recorded with Killing Joke, Prong, Ministry, and Fear Factory.) The last time Bechdel saw her father alive they sat on the bench, side by side, pounding out “Heart and Soul.”
To reach Bechdel’s studio, you descend a flight of creaky stairs off the mudroom, then thread your way through a glade of two-by-fours and skis. It is a long, burrowlike hideout, partially below grade, that she added to the house when she bought it, in 1996. (She helped a carpenter friend do the construction work, taping the sheetrock.) A small inheritance covered the down payment, but she had never owned property before, and the commitment, not only to a mortgage but to an adult life, “terrified” her. The success of “Fun Home” was ten years away, and she was earning a meagre living from “Dykes,” and from selling product spinoffs, like mouse pads and T-shirts. The last “Dykes” strip appeared in 2008, the year that Taylor, whom she had met at a bike swap, then ran into again at a food co-op in Burlington, moved in with her. Solitude, Bechdel told me, is her default mode, “but I like having someone around at the same time that I want to be alone. It’s a contradiction that I don’t know how to reconcile.”
Ambivalence is also a default mode for Bechdel. When she draws herself as a child or a young woman, the figure often has a worried air: eyebrows tilted or raised; eyes as wide as saucers, slightly popping or crossed; hunched shoulders; a cowlick that seems to embody various failed efforts to achieve self-mastery. The voice that narrates the traumas and the conflicts of her younger self both yearns for and mistrusts closeness, strives for detachment yet suffers from too much of it, and is offhandedly confessional but wary of its own sincerity.
A page from Bechdel’s forthcoming graphic memoir, “Are You My Mother?” ALISON BECHDEL, FROM “ARE YOU MY MOTHER?” (2012) / HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT
ALISON BECHDEL, FROM “ARE YOU MY MOTHER?” (2012) / HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT
Taylor, an earthy woman of uncensored warmth, who is impressively hardy—she runs and bikes in the mountains—added several more contradictions to the list. “Alison has a love-hate relationship with fame,” she told me one afternoon, as she was doing chores—chopping wood for the stove that heats the house and tending the compost heap. “She craves it, but thinks that’s a bit pathetic. To some extent, her self-deprecation is a public shtick, yet she’s a genuinely humble person.” On another occasion, a lunchtime talk that Bechdel gave in February, at the New York Institute for the Humanities, which was attended by a number of graphic-world luminaries—Art Spiegelman, Peter Kuper, Gabrielle Bell, and Jessica Abel among them—Taylor marvelled at her girlfriend’s appeal to both eggheads and buttheads. “Alison’s work,” she concluded, “has a weird effect on your brain. It sparks both your high lobe and low lobe.”
I had met Bechdel and Taylor a year earlier, on one of their infrequent forays to Manhattan. They had come to see “In the Wake,” a new work by the playwright Lisa Kron which was in previews at the Public Theatre. Kron’s plays are, like Bechdel’s memoirs, black comedies that mine her experience as an outsider: a Jewish lesbian—the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and a community activist—growing up among straight Christians in the Midwest. Kron and the composer Jeanine Tesori had recently optioned “Fun Home” for a musical version that is tentatively scheduled to première at the Public in September.
Helen had met them in the city. After her husband’s death, in 1980, she had sold the family house, in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, the small town where Bechdel grew up, and moved to Bellefonte, a less provincial small town, near State College, where she taught high-school English for twenty years. Her middle child, Christian, who lives on disability (he has an obsessive-compulsive disorder), has an apartment close by, and so does her longtime partner, Bob Fenichel, a retired psychiatrist.
Bechdel had planned a program of activities that she thought her mother would enjoy: visits to museums, dinner at the Union Square Café, and tickets for “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” by George Bernard Shaw. As a young woman, Helen had dreamed of a stage career, and she took a year off from college to apprentice at the Cleveland Play House. Marriage sidelined her ambitions, but even with three children and a teaching job, she had acted, and sometimes starred, in summer-stock productions. (Kron has since written a scene into the “Fun Home” musical in which Helen plays Mrs. Warren.) Alison, as a child, had run lines with her mother, watched with fascination as she applied her “face,” admired the courage with which she transcended her stagefright, and wondered at her decision to sacrifice such a passion. Both parents, in fact, had managed to convey the same message: Don’t let children or domestic life interfere with your art. “The drama between my mother and me has partly to do with her bad luck coming of age in the nineteen-fifties,” Bechdel said. “We were on opposite sides of women’s liberation, and I got to reap its benefits. With Dad and me, same story: opposite sides of Stonewall. If only my parents had been born later, they might have been happier, and I wouldn’t exist.”
The mother of “Fun Home” is a scowling, smoking, brooding character with “dark hair and pale skin,” and when Alison asks her, as she sits at the piano, practicing a Chopin nocturne, why she never goes outside she replies, “I told you, I’m a vampire.” I was thus a bit surprised to meet a rosy, cheerful, soignée woman in her seventies, who was dressed for the city in a smartly tailored pin-striped suit and a fedora. “Mom has always been crazy about fashion,” Bechdel had told me. “Our attic was filled with fifty years’ worth of Vogues.”
Bechdel was eager to see the Abstract Expressionism show at the Museum of Modern Art. In the next gallery, there was a design installation with a model kitchen. While mother and daughter were inspecting it, Taylor and I stood at a distance, watching them. “Helen is a fascinating, smart woman, but she has oblique ways of expressing her feelings,” Taylor said. “She brags about Alison to other people, for example, but won’t praise her in person.” Helen had cooed to and petted her sons, but, as Alison tells it in “Are You My Mother?,” one night when she was seven Helen told her abruptly that she was “too old” for a good-night kiss. In another scene, Bechdel’s therapist spontaneously hugs her. “I had never fully understood this custom before,” she writes. In her early twenties, she sent a composition to Helen, who returned it without a word about its content, though the pages had been lavishly corrected in red ink. (Bechdel’s theme was her mother’s refusal to touch her. Helen’s implicit comment was apparently “No comment.”) Over lunch, our cordial conversation steered clear of personal subjects. Mother and daughter circled each other formally, like partners in a minuet.
Bechdel is an intellectual populist and a pioneer, as a woman, in a genre that is not only largely male but macho. She is one of the five key figures, with Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Marjane Satrapi, Phoebe Gloeckner, and Lynda Barry, in “Graphic Women,” a scholarly study of gender in the comics culture, by Hillary Chute, an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, where she and Bechdel are co-teaching a course this term. When Bechdel first started drawing “Dykes,” she said, “I didn’t think of myself as an activist or a lesbian separatist, though many of my friends were. I just felt the vital importance of seeing an accurate reflection of me and us in the cultural mirror, so I decided to create one.”
Graphic narratives for adults, by a single author, unlike comic books, which are often produced by a collective, began to appear, Chute writes, only in the early nineteen-seventies, when a Catholic outsider artist named Justin Green, who was obsessed with evil “penis rays” emanating from his sex organ, published “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary.” The genre, from its inception, has been raunchy and anarchic. Bechdel, with many of her peers, shares Green’s impulse to commit sacrilege. They treat a serious subject—abuse, persecution, pathology—with crude humor and raw imagery, and subvert a form of entertainment associated with the childhood thrill of defying parental strictures about “good” and “bad” books. “I sometimes think I became a cartoonist because my mother simply doesn’t get comics,” Bechdel said. “They’re like the ultrasonic ringtone on a teen-ager’s phone.”
As a graphic memoirist, however, Bechdel is anomalous. She started cartooning with an “anti-élitist” bias that was common in the lesbian community. “Comics were a loser thing to do, and that was the beauty of it. I liked being an outsider. It gave me an objectivity that I thought I would forfeit if I was normal.” In “Fun Home,” though, she came around—or home—to the Parnassus where both her parents had once hoped to reside (Helen as an actor, Bruce as a novelist). The “bubble” language spoken by her characters is the vulgate of modern America, and she illustrates her life’s most private moments, including some that most people wouldn’t want to share—sitting on a toilet with her pants down, performing cunnilingus, masturbating—with what feels, at times, like the gleeful exhibitionism of a streaker. But Bechdel’s narration, printed in the white banners that float like skywriting above her images, has a quality that one of Flaubert’s biographers, writing of his letters, describes as “lucid comic anguish.” Her prose reflects an arduous struggle for dispassion. Each of her memoirs is a “bad” book, with pictures of its author doing egregious things, embedded in a “good” book—a work of literature.
“Can you keep a secret?”
The Paumanok Lecture commemorates the name given to Long Island by its indigenous inhabitants, but it also refers to Walt Whitman’s autobiographical poem “Starting from Paumanok,” in “Leaves of Grass,” which opens with two lines that seemed apropos of Bechdel’s subject:
Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born,
Well-begotten, and rais’d by a perfect mother . . .
She confessed to the audience, however, that she had missed out on Whitman’s “queer, radical, lunatic companionship” when she was growing up, because “my dad ruined him for me,” along with many other great writers. “I didn’t want to read the books he loved, because he was always stuffing them down my throat,” she told me. Those books, by Proust, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Camus, and other modern masters, frame the chapters of “Fun Home.”
Bruce Bechdel, who was born in 1936, in Beech Creek, was a part-time mortician and a high-school English teacher who had once dreamed of a glamorous bohemian life in Europe. He and Helen met in 1956, as cast members in a student production of “The Taming of the Shrew” at the State Teacher’s College in Lock Haven, near his home town. They did live abroad, early in their marriage, when Bruce was a soldier, stationed in Germany. But in 1960—Helen was pregnant with Alison—Bruce’s father had a heart attack, and he was called home to help his mother run the Bechdel Funeral Home.
The title of “Fun Home” officially refers to the family’s nickname for this venerable establishment, founded by Bruce’s great-grandfather. But, from the book’s opening panels, the old clapboard house on Main Street—where Bruce embalmed bodies, Alison vacuumed the viewing parlor, and she and her two younger brothers, John and Christian, played “corpses”—tends to merge, in a reader’s mind, with the Bechdel homestead, a short walk away. Fun Home II was a derelict Gothic Revival mansion, and Bruce took a “manic, libidinal,” but also funerary approach to its décor. He ripped its rotting guts out, then filled the void with simulacra of Victorian grandeur. The effect was less of a living space, perhaps, than an undead one. “Early on,” Bechdel writes in “Fun Home,” “I began confusing us with the Addams Family.”
“Fun Home” is the story of a man possessed—a mad “artificer”—who has noble qualities, but a violent temper and isolating secrets. Helen took refuge in her music and her acting, and Bechdel experienced her parents’ “rapt immersion” in their solitary pursuits as abandonment. Yet “from their example,” she writes in “Fun Home,” “I quickly learned to feed myself,” and she admitted to the audience in Brooklyn that she “would rather possess the ability to tell these stories than to have had better parents.”
There are no monsters in Bechdel’s work—certainly none like the gargantuan Pentecostal Fury who raised Jeanette Winterson, another distinguished lesbian memoirist in her early fifties for whom writing is an act of self-redemption. And Bechdel’s brothers take polite issue with her portrait of Bruce. John was “a bit shocked,” he told me in an e-mail, “at how miserable Alison portrays herself growing up,” and he described an almost idyllic regimen of wholesome family activities: playing chess or croquet, canoeing the local waterways, going on moonlit walks. Christian, Alison’s junior by a year, is planning to write his own family memoir, which, he said, will be “much different” from his sister’s. “Alison is much harsher on my father than I would be,” he wrote in an e-mail. “He did have a temper, though.”
Birth order changes the experiences, sometimes radically, of siblings growing up under one roof, and neither of Bechdel’s brothers is homosexual. “My father was as uncomfortable with the gayness that he intuited in me as he was with it in himself,” she told me. “He wanted me to conform,” and he bought her frilly clothes that he forced her to wear. They had a fight over the wallpaper for her room—Bruce insisted on hanging a fussy print, with pink flowers, that Alison despised.
Bruce, like Helen, was capable, on occasion, of “incandescent” tenderness, and “Fun Home” opens with an image of Alison and her father playing “airplane” on the floor. It ends with Alison poised to dive into a swimming pool, where Bruce has his arms outstretched to catch her. “He favored me,” she said. “We had a special bond.” But the memoir also contains a haunting scene that suggests a streak of sadism reserved, it would seem, for his only daughter. One day, while he was prepping the cadaver of a young man, he asked Alison to help him in the embalming room. The body was laid out on the table, and, in her drawing of it in “Fun Home,” it resembles the fallen statue of a centurion: marbly and muscular, with imposing genitals. But what most disturbed her was the gaping, vulva-shaped red hole where Bruce had started to extract the viscera. She was, at the time, about nine.
Bruce’s own funeral took place at the Fun Home in July, 1980. It was four months after Alison, then a junior at Oberlin, had announced, in a letter, that she was a lesbian. Her parents got the news, she writes, “on the day that I bullshat my way through the ‘Ulysses’ exam.” Bruce’s reaction was unexpected, given his hostility to any signs of queerness in his daughter. “At least you’re human,” he told her. “Everyone should experiment.” But he added, “Do you have to put a tag on yourself?” Helen was silent at first, then disapproving, but several weeks later she breached a lifetime of reticence to confide in Alison that Bruce was gay, too. She told her that he had slept with men and boys, including the family babysitter. He had also made at least one sexual overture to a student, after which he was sentenced to six months of “counselling” at a mental hospital. The house had become a “tinderbox,” Helen said. As the rare acknowledgment of a painful truth from an inveterate denier who had never before addressed her as “one adult to another,” her mother’s unbosoming was precious to Bechdel, on both counts.
Bruce was forty-four when he died. He had been renovating another old wreck of a house to resell, and while crossing the highway that ran past its front door he had been struck by a Sunbeam bread truck. Helen had finally asked him for a divorce, and Bechdel believes that, with his past—and perhaps a bipolar disorder—catching up with him, her father had jumped into its path.
“O.K., just tell me, which college classmate did you Google today?”
Modernity was conceived in deviance, and in the introduction to “Graphic Women,” Hillary Chute quotes a particularly apt remark by a colleague at the University of Chicago, the critic W. J. T. Mitchell: “The decorum of the arts at bottom has to do with proper sex roles.” Propriety and decorum are alien to Bechdel. “My artist role and my outsider sexual role are bound up,” she said. “They have been from childhood. I saw myself in Harriet the Spy”—the precocious heroine of the children’s novel by Louise Fitzhugh, who dreams of becoming a secret agent and practices for her future vocation by spying on her classmates. She records their tics and foibles in a notebook, and when the notebook is discovered she becomes a pariah. “I read Harriet as a lesbian character before I knew there was such a thing,” Bechdel said. Unlike Harriet, however, she never set out to write. “I started drawing at the age everyone does—when they pick up a crayon,” she said. “But most people stop, and I didn’t. When I was little, I either wanted to be a cartoonist or a psychiatrist—they were conflated in my mind by all the analyst cartoons in The New Yorker.”
At Oberlin, Bechdel took a double major in studio art and art history, but she also studied German, Greek, semiotics, and French, and she gravitated toward her fellow-intellectuals. When she came out, however, “I abandoned my old friends,” she said. (One of her early loves, a garage mechanic, typified her new friends.) After graduation, she moved to New York, where she worked as a word processor in an accounting firm, a job that gave her time to draw. She specialized in musclemen. “It bothered me a lot that I never drew women,” she said. “I have always had a thing about strength. I was a skinny kid who read the Charles Atlas ads in comic books.” But in “Fun Home” she speculates that she “became a connoisseur of masculinity” because that is what her father was. After his death, for reasons of gender politics, but also out of self-respect, she “made a project” of drawing lesbians, and of studying karate at an all-woman dojo.
The first “Dykes to Watch Out For” appeared in 1983, in the alternative newspaper WomanNews. Bechdel joined the feminist collective that produced it, in SoHo. She wrote book and film reviews, in addition to producing a monthly, then bimonthly, cartoon strip, and learned to do layout and design. In 1985, she and her then girlfriend moved to Minneapolis, where they shared a house with another couple. “Dykes” was by now being widely syndicated, and, in 1991, by which time Bechdel was single again, one of her readers sent her a “flirtatious” fan letter, to which she responded in kind. “I was pathetically vulnerable to other people’s attention,” she said. Her admirer lived in Vermont, on an island in Lake Champlain, which sounded romantic to Bechdel, and, on a whim, she moved east to join her. The affair ended after six months, but she has now lived in the “Freedom and Unity” state for twenty years.
When Bechdel and I first started talking, in late 2010, she was four years into “Are You My Mother?,” a year past her deadline, and she had just jettisoned half her manuscript. She thought she could still finish in a few months if she turned the heat up (it actually took her another year). But, despite her sense of urgency, she let me sit in a corner of her studio while she drew.
The most prominent piece of art on her studio walls is a gigantic poster of Tintin, who looks like a twin of Mo, so I presumed that he had inspired Bechdel’s avatar. “I can see it,” she said, though it wasn’t conscious. “Mo is me, not Tintin. In fact, all the characters in ‘Dykes’ are more or less me. All I’ve ever written about is myself, and this book, if I finish it, may be the most solipsistic piece of insanity ever published. But the thing about Tintin is that he’s not androgynous and not masculine—he’s asexual. That aesthetic neutrality appeals to me. I’m always striving to be a generic person.”
During a break—she was printing out the first chapter—Bechdel talked me through the stages of the book’s evolution. (“When I see your eyes glaze over, I’ll shut up,” she said.) She starts by creating the grid of panels on her Mac, in Adobe Illustrator. I hadn’t realized how much the form of her work, not only its imagery and emotions, relates to her experience of home: The architecture of the blank pages is distinctly houselike. Its square or rectangular frames, of different dimensions, are walled off by gutters, the white spaces between them; they are stacked vertically, like stories, but entered horizontally, like rooms. “The whole thing about a graphic book is that it’s a 3-D object,” Bechdel said.
Hanging on a long wall facing the windows is an old wooden desktop plastered with colored index cards. Bechdel doesn’t outline her stories, which jump back and forth in time, so much as map them, using the cards as placeholders for her scenes. Her untidy blueprint reminded me of yet another kind of house: a memory palace. This ancient mnemonic device was used by orators in Greece and Rome, and is still a trade secret of modern memory-contest champions. A practitioner visualizes a large edifice with a warren of rooms that she furnishes with familiar objects. She then attaches the items or thoughts that she wishes to recall to the objects. As she walks mentally through the edifice, they act as prompts.
Once Bechdel is satisfied with her grid, she begins writing. She types the narration and dialogue into text boxes or balloons. “Every millimetre of space counts,” she said. (The visceral economy of her style is, to an extent, a product of that squeeze.) “I don’t start drawing until I’ve finished the storytelling”—i.e., for years. When she is finally ready to draw, Bechdel begins by sketching the images in pencil, on tracing paper, making several overlays, which she refines each time. Some of the figures—a blissfully happy baby Alison, for example, gazing at Helen—were copied from snapshots. For most of them, though, Bechdel is her own model. She sets up her camera on a tripod, assumes the posture of a character, then takes a photograph. “I spend a lot of time posing as myself,” she joked. But she also spent a lot of time posing as her mother.
After she has made a “tight sketch,” she puts it on her light box and uses it as the guide for her “final pencil.” Then she moves to her drawing board and inks over the pencil lines. She scans this page into her computer, fixes her mistakes, and prints it out. Using Magic Markers, she indicates the areas that need spot color, then returns the drawing to the light box. Working with a brush, on a sheet of watercolor paper, she adds a wash of India ink. The separate elements of the composition—text, line art, spot color, and ink wash—are combined in Photoshop. This is her protocol for every page.
The seven chapters of “Are You My Mother?” all start with a dream, and the first one is a nightmare that Bechdel had shortly after embarking on “Fun Home.” She is trapped in a basement by an avalanche of lumber from a home-improvement project, and she has to crawl out through a small window fretted with a spiderweb (she suffers from arachnophobia). In order to finish the memoir, she also had to conquer a stifling sense of claustrophobia. It was caused, in part, by “a surfeit of autobiographical material”—a family archive of letters and news clippings that Helen had collected in a carton for her. But she was also “drowning” in forty years’ worth of her own diaries.
“I’m sorry, sir, but if you weren’t wearing clean underwear we automatically deny your claim.”
Bechdel started recording the minutiae of her own life at the age of ten, when she developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It involved counting and ordering rituals, but as it worsened she was compelled to qualify every statement in the diary—“Dad got a dead person,” “We watched cartoons”—with the phrase “I think.” “My simple declarative sentences began to strike me as hubristic at best, utter lies at worst,” she writes in “Fun Home,” and she inserted “I think,” in a deranged scrawl, after every line, then replaced the phrase with a symbolic caret, and eventually she became so consumed with her corrections that she couldn’t write at all. At that point, Helen began taking dictation for her “until ‘my penmanship’ improved.” Bechdel writes that “getting her undivided attention” was a fleeting but exquisite triumph, “like persuading a hummingbird to sit on your finger.”
At the end of “Are You My Mother?,” Bechdel gives another instance of Helen’s ability, however oblique, to comfort her. Alison, about eight, is lying on the floor, pretending to be paralyzed. The two of them call this “the crippled-child game.” Helen mimes the act of lacing up her daughter’s “special shoes” and hands her two make-believe crutches. “My mother could see my invisible wounds because they were hers, too,” Bechdel writes, and she felt, in retrospect, that Helen was sanctioning her imagination, thus her future life as an artist.
For some women, however—creative spirits like Helen—who have been suffocated by domesticity and crushed by the weight of their own disappointments, a child’s obvious helplessness may stir the instinct to give succor, but if the child dares to assert her will, or to manifest her vitality—which is to say, her otherness—the mother, who feels deprived precisely of those freedoms, can’t abide the affront.
Bechdel punctuates Helen’s story with citations from the work of three writers—Virginia Woolf, the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, and Donald Winnicott—who have explored that dilemma. Woolf was the daughter of a tyrannical father and a martyred mother who died when she was thirteen. Her mother “obsessed” her until she was forty-four, when, “in a great, apparently involuntary rush,” while walking through Tavistock Square, in London, she had the vision of a novel that became “To the Lighthouse.” Woolf noted in her diary—in an entry that Bechdel reproduced by hand (all the quotations in the book are drawn, not scanned or retyped from a printed page)—that once the novel was written her obsession ceased: “I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.”
Alice Miller is the author of “The Drama of the Gifted Child” (1979), a study of parental narcissism and its effect on children who are not necessarily “gifted” with artistic talent or superior intelligence but are unusually attuned to the needs of others. A fragile or depressive mother may use such a child as a mirror, but only to mirror what she wants to see. The child is obliged to disguise the full range of her own feelings behind a mask of compliance. She is rewarded with love for wearing it and punished by rejection for trying to take it off. Bechdel “stumbled upon” Miller’s book in 1987, in a Minneapolis bookshop, whose cashier predicted its effect on her: “Kiss life as you know it goodbye.” (The working title of “Are You My Mother?” was “The Drama of the Gifted Mother.”) Miller draws heavily on the theories of Donald Winnicott—“and that is how I discovered him,” Bechdel said.
Winnicott, who was born in 1896, and whose work was published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press, was a master prose stylist and a supremely humane pediatric clinician. With Melanie Klein, his mentor, he pioneered the psychoanalytic school of object-relations theory, which by now has largely supplanted orthodox Freudianism as a way to understand a child’s earliest experiences of selfhood. An infant, according to Winnicott, doesn’t need a perfect or a selfless mother but just, in his famous phrase, a “good enough mother,” which is to say, a flawed but empathetic maternal figure whose “ordinary devotion” supplies the essential experience of mutual attunement.
Winnicott’s writings spoke to Bechdel in a voice of authority, playfulness, complicity, and profound kindness, which breached her solitude. Every chapter of “Are You My Mother?” relates to a concept from his essays on the mother-child bond. His life as a man also inevitably intrigued her. She imagines a scene in which Winnicott and Woolf cross paths in Tavistock Square—he on his way to a session of analysis with the doctor who trained him, James Strachey, Freud’s translator and disciple. Bechdel draws Winnicott on the couch in Strachey’s consulting room, recalling that his own mother (like Alison’s) “stopped breastfeeding him very early.” And she weaves his poignant sexual history (he was married but celibate until the age of forty-eight, when he met another woman, his true love) into her own. Winnicott is Helen’s foil—and her rival.
Showing Helen her reflection in “Are You My Mother?” was the final impediment to Bechdel’s release from her dream of captivity. It was a daunting prospect. There was not only the risk that Helen would feel hurt and exposed at the way she was represented. There was a risk for Bechdel that her book would have failed to achieve one of its prime objectives: making herself visible to the one living person by whom she most longed to be seen.
Helen’s piano arrived in Vermont on February 3rd, the day, by coincidence, that Bechdel finished her book. She had, by then, sent her mother five chapters. Bob Fenichel had read them first, so that he could warn Helen if they contained “anything too upsetting.” Bechdel told the audience in Brooklyn that her mother “wasn’t thrilled” with the book but was stoically “resigned” to it. I hoped that Helen might say a bit more, so I wrote to her. “I believe that any writer has an obligation to be true to her story,” she replied. But she added, “Alison’s story is hers, not mine.” Her response to her daughter was even more laconic: three words on six years of work and five decades of shared experience. Yet they were, in their way, a critic’s, if not a mother’s, blessing. “Well,” she said, “it coheres.” ♦