Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel is about Alison as a comics artist trying to figure out how to write her father’s story, and in turn, how to write her mother’s story. There are seven chapters.
Chapter one, titled “The Ordinary Devoted Mother,” begins with a dream. Trapped in the basement, Bechdel gets out and crosses a pool of water. The page is black behind the panels, a technique Bechdel continues when she shares her dreams. Then Bechdel is driving, and she is on the phone with her mother, narrating to the readers that “This story begins when I began to tell another story. I had the dream about the brook right before I told my mother I was writing a memoir about my father” (4). The reader watches Bechdel practice telling her mother “difficult things” (5). For example, when she told her mother that she was a lesbian twenty years earlier, and “…kind of like I did five years before that, when I was working up the courage to tell her I’d gotten my first period. That had taken me six months. This story—a memoir about my mother—could begin with either of those scenes” (6). And Bechdel comes to the conclusion, “…I see that perhaps the real problem with this memoir about my mother is that it has no beginning” (6).
Bechdel’s style is simple with evocative lines, in muted reds and grays with black ink. This sets the mood and accents the theme and goal of the narrative, to tell a story about her relationship with her mother. The red symbolizes the blood and the time spent in the womb. The panel borders are hand drawn, with the lettering legible and the speech bubbles placed in a cohesive manner that guide the reader’s eyes down the page. There are also highlighted quotes from different texts Bechdel read as she worked on her story. Bechdel transcribes her conversations with her mother and shows in a panel the date and time at the top of the transcript. In the narration, Bechdel says, “I must confess that I have taken to transcribing what she says. I don’t think she knows I’m doing it, which makes it a bit unethical” (11). Bechdel also presents excerpts of her father’s letters. One of the letters is about her father’s reaction to finding out that Helen, her mother, was pregnant with Alison, and “Apparently he took the news of mom’s pregnancies with my brothers just as badly” (140).
The scope of this work is not just Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, or her relationships with her girlfriends or therapists, but a presentation of the psychology of infants and the connection that the mother and infant has as the infant learns what it means to have a sense of self. Bechdel quotes from Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst. Bechdel doesn’t do a straight narrative of her mother’s life, but gives the reader pieces of it, with stories, juxtaposed next to Bechdel’s journey of discovering what it means to have a mother and the different psychological texts she reads, as well as her meetings with her therapists and the romantic relationships she is in at the time. Bechdel quotes from other works, including The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, and Bechdel shares, “The child, an only one or often the first-born, was the narcissistically cathected object. What these mothers had once failed to find in their own mothers they were able to find in their children: someone at their disposal who can be used as an echo, who can be controlled, is completely centered on them, will never desert them, and offers full attention and admiration” (208).
The layout of the panels and how Bechdel frames them conveys the story in a smooth vehicle. For example, on page 103, there are three panels in the top row and then four horizontal panels. The top show Bechdel trying to describe her religious cosmology. The horizontal ones have her therapist on the left and Bechdel on the right, but the subtle changes throughout resonates with a future session structured in a similar way on 269. Bechdel’s storytelling skills weave her own narrative with that of her mother’s memoir.