It is impossible not to compare this to Bechdel’s phenomenal Fun Home, as you will quickly gather by looking at any other review. I, like many, many others still prefer the paired-down, slightly distanced power of Fun Home to this much more introspective and solipsistic approach, but when you get down to it, they’re really more of an apples and oranges pairing. The narrative style and visual tools of each reflect two entirely different kinds of relationships, and in turn serve to create two very different types of catharsis for Bechdel. Not to mention that writing about someone who is dead is not the same as writing about someone who is still around to read your (incredibly personal) book.
In Are You My Mother, the creation of the text becomes the basis of the text. Bechdel begins with her own struggles to tell her mother that she is writing a book about her, after having revealed her family’s hidden life in her previous book. The story constantly references its own generation, as well as Bechdel’s other work and her mother’s mixed feelings as she reads the finished parts throughout the process. Interspersed with the creative process is Bechdel’s ongoing psychoanalysis and her independent research into the work of pioneering psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, as well as her intersections with poet/critic Adrienne Rich, the life and work of Virginia Woolf, and, of course, interactions with her mother. The structure is completely without coherent chronology, but this emphasizes the unquantifiable nature of mother-daughter relationships and the personal psychological discovery that is really the foundation of the whole project.
I’m not a fan of psychoanalysis- I think it’s generally too heavily symbolic to be genuinely helpful- but it offers some very interesting parallels for Bechdel to work with in something so heavily meta-textual. There were times when I wondered how someone so hobbled by self obsession could survive; there is a moment when she walks into a branch while hiking and reads some very heavy psychoanalytic symbolism into it, and all I could think about was if she spent a little less time being self-obsessed it wouldn’t have happened in the first place. It’s a giant cycle of causation that works better for literary purposes than psychological ones.
Bechdel’s mother features prominently in the book, of course, but I wouldn’t say it’s actually about her. This is very much a book about Bechdel herself, with the mother-daughter relationship acting like a prism for analysis. In some ways this is perhaps unavoidable; as a woman, I have often noticed that our relationships with our mothers are much more about ourselves than those we have with our fathers, who are often given more leeway as individuals.
This is a brave, selfish book. To reveal yourself and your family to a reading public is a gamble that has destroyed lesser artists, but Bechdel is unafraid to reveal her shortcomings right along with her mother’s- they probably take up more narrative space than the mother-daughter relationship. Bechdel doesn’t set out to make herself likable, and she often isn't, though she does make herself understandable, which is more important.
(Cross-posted at Goodreads: Are You My Mother?)