22 July, 2012

Review: Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel

DNF books rarely get a review from me. If I didn't finish it, I can't really assess how it all comes together. I've read books that made choices I found inexplicable at page 50 which made perfect sense by page 350. In the case of Are You My Mother nothing could happen in the remaining pages to overcome the first 143. I don't even know how to talk about Are You My Mother without committing class warfare. Bechdel is not really talking about her mother in Are You My Mother, she is talking about herself.

The first 143 pages deal almost exclusively with Bechdel's emotional turmoil over writing. Her thoughts on therapy are covered extensively as are her therapy sessions. Theories are trotted out and highlighted as though Bechdel is taking notes for a midterm. In the world of Are You My Mother everything is required to hold deeper meaning. I once had a relative say to me, completely serious, that my cousin's headaches were caused by his mother hitting the brakes too hard in the car while pregnant. If (he went on at length) she had been a softer and more cautious driver then her son wouldn't have headaches. Bechdel's book is exactly like that. (In the case of my relative, I thought his son's headaches were probably due to an excessive intake of beer.)  Bechdel considers every injury, every thought, every dream to have a message from the universe inside. This is not terribly far from tin foil hat territory for me and this is where the class warfare comes in. Bechdel doesn't just seek a therapist. Once committed to therapy she embarks on a study of the field. She transfers into analysis. Therapy (and her therapists) become the security blanket she clutches against the rest of her life. Nothing, judging by the first 143 pages of Are You My Mother, could ever be as fascinating to Bechdel as thinking about herself is. The luxury of this both in terms of time and energy is staggering.

Not finding Bechdel's time on the couch as fascinating as she does made me think I was not the market for this book. Are You My Mother could have strong appeal to women of a certain income level and assumptive entitlement. Bechdel's issues with her upbringing are her own. Whatever works for her in her life is her business. As a reader I needed a narrative to carry me through Are You My Mother that simply didn't exist. Certainly I sympathize with Bechdel seeking enlightenment in the great works of philosophy and literature. So do we all. The fact that her deepest revelations come from The Drama of the Gifted Child (a book I loathe) and Dr. Seuss' Sleep Book is telling. After six weeks struggling to finish Are You My Mother I have to walk away. My relationship with the book is probably toxic for us both. I don't wonder what God is trying to tell me when I scratch my arm. I get a band-aid and keep pruning the hedge.

1 comment:

  1. I do love Alison Bechdel, have been a DTWOF fan since not too long after it started, and was all happy when Fun Home brought her more attention.

    Since Are You My Mother (the P.D. Eastman one) is one of my favorites (one of the many fine, fine parts of The Higher Power of Lucky was its inclusion of the basic bellyfeeling that AYMM? is one of the best books ever), and because Fun Home was so damn good, this fell into my twice-a-year, tops, buy for myself before I've read it budget. And now it looks nice on the shelf, where it will stay, unlike the rest of Bechdel's work in my house.

    Damn, it was disappoint.

    May I recommend an antidote: Caitlin Moran's How to Be A Woman is full of well-done feminism, because she's almost always right and gaspingly funny. Also, since she was raised poor, there's not so much damn Bechdelian navel-gazing. AND she's British, so British that I occasionally had to stop and translate in my head, then start laughing because, right and funny while British.

    She's done this before, better, in DTWOF; Mo's done therapy, and spent a lot of it metawhining about how self-indulgent the very concept of therpy is.

    I liked the parts that actually were about Alison's mother.