Like Marbles, Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel (creator of the excellent Bechdel test), is a graphic autobiography. Marbles was centered around the author’s experiences with bipolar illness; Are You My Mother? is a complex exploration of the author’s life, her mother’s life, her father’s life, Virginia Woolf, English psychiatrist Donald Winnicott, and where and how all these elements connect and/or inform life in general.
Mother isn’t so much about mental illness as it is about therapy, both the author’s own as well as the field itself. She tries to apply therapeutic theories and her personal breakthroughs to understanding what’s compelling her to write this book. As indicated by the title, the core of the book is about her relationship with her mother, especially in the wake of Bechdel’s bestselling first book, Fun Home. That work tells the story of her father, who was in the closet and, when Bechdel was in her 20s, likely committed suicide. Fun Home is constructed in the same layered fashion, tying her father’s rages and anger both to his repressed homosexuality and to the roots of her own issues with relationships and confrontation.
Exposing the family history so publicly made Bechdel’s relationship with her mother fairly tense, and since Bechdel’s writing often explores the psyche, exploring the mother-child relationship, Freud’s favorite, was an obvious topic for her next book. Such a complex dynamic requires Bechdel’s complex storytelling, with several threads being followed and explored at once.
The panels follow one train of thought after another, like one of Virginia Woolf’s epic sentences from To The Lighthouse, eventually coming to an unexpected conclusion at chapter’s end. The book leaves you with a rich impression, not just of Bechdel’s mind and her mother, but of the experience of therapy, and the notion that, if you can use Bechdel’s book at a tangled map, you can trace your own experiences for answers of your own.