I’ve been following Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For since the late 80s. A long-running continuity that follows the lives and loves of a group of some-time radical lesbians somewhere in America’s mid-west. Long before TV’s L Word cast a star-studded, style-conscious Californian sun on upmarket WEHO inverts, DTWOF was chronicling the political shifts and lifestyle trends of a world the other side of hetero in an equally entertaining, if less wealthy, fashion. Sadly the strip has been stalled for a while now—in no small part due to the proliferation of lesbian characters on screens small and large, and the demise of newspapers national and local—but also because Bechdel has been concentrating on two book length memoirs about her father, her mother and the effects that peculiar and repressive unit, the nuclear family, has on its members—specifically, Bechdel herself.
The first book (nominated for the National Book Award), Fun Home, deals with her father—a funeral director, high school English teacher, tyrannically obsessive home restoration expert, and closeted lover of young men. This last fact is something Bechdel learns from her mother a few weeks after she has, herself, come out as a lesbian to her parents, and not long before Bruce Bechdel commits suicide by throwing himself under a truck. The book deals with Bechdel’s coming to terms with her father’s death and life, all mediated through the written word—letters and literature and journals. The Bechdels are an extremely text-based lot—so despite the fact that this is a graphic memoir—by definition a highly visual form—it is through the prism of her father’s favourite authors, Fitzgerald, Joyce and Proust that Bechdel interprets her relationship with him and his relation to life. Slabs of ‘highlighted’ text as hand-written ‘type’ occupy a large part of Bechdel’s dense visual layering—both memoirs are paeans to books and the practice of reading, inspiring a desire to (re)read all the authors mentioned (well, perhaps not Joyce).
Bechdel’s new book, Are You My Mother?, continues the combination of textual analysis with family ties. This time she turns the mirror towards her mother in order to look even more closely at herself—this self-confessed act of solipsism is aided by Virginia Woolf, Donald Winnicott and Alice Miller with some help from Freud and Jung. Whereas she shared books back and forth with her father in a detached attempt at communication, Bechdel and her mother have taken different reading paths: ‘I have never read Sylvia Plath, my mother has never read Virginia Woolf. In general, we have stayed out of one another’s way like this.’ What a glorious and ironic dead-pan! Bechdel’s mother, Helen, is understandably ambivalent about her daughter’s project (especially as she considers biography ‘a suspect genre’). An actor and amateur musician she forewent youthful dreams for family, living her married life in constant fear that her raging husband’s secret would out, to the destruction of a carefully constructed, if suffocating, facade. So Fun Home seems for her an unnecessary and very public humiliation. However, if it’s something Alison has to do: ‘I feel reckless’, she says. ‘Tell everyone.’ With a dream opening every chapter, and pages of Bechdel’s own analysis, you might worry that Are You My Mother? could veer into unreadable self indulgence. But whenever bathos looms - like when perhaps goes a little far in assigning affect to her mother's failed breast feeding experiment - a dose of Bechdel’s self-deprecating humour comes to the rescue. Her hero Donald Winnicott in analysis with Strachey—‘W: I think I enjoy urinating in the sea so much because I might have urinated on my mother just after birth. S (rolling his eyes): Why stop there? Perhaps it was in utero.’ Both books are fantastic reads.