“One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes,” Virginia Woolf lamented in her diary midway through writing To the Lighthouse. And yet: “Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator,” Hannah Arendt — another woman of searing intellect and uncommon insight into the human spirit — observed exactly half a century later in contemplating how the rift between being and appearing rips us asunder. So if the seismic core of being we call soul exists, as I emphatically believe it does, how do we reconcile its elemental demand for spectatorship with the impossibility of writing about the drama that animates it?
That improbable, sublime feat is what cartoonist Alison Bechdel accomplishes in Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (public library), a psychological sequel of sorts to Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic — Bechdel’s spectacular memoir-turned-Broadway-hit about her childhood and her closeted father’s suicide. In plumbing the catacombine depths of her ambivalent relationship with her mother — which she does with astonishing self-awareness and vulnerability, climaxing in reluctant self-compassion — Bechdel speaks to some of the most elemental and most universal aspects of the human experience: loneliness, love, the perennial perplexities of the child-parent relationship, our longing for unconditional acceptance and adoration, and the pathological onslaught of self-doubt with which those engaged in a creative life live.
I pause here to note that this is one of very few books I’ve encountered which, in addition to being creatively and intellectually superb, I consider absolutely life-changing — so much so, that anything I write here about the book is bound to be a woefully deficient representation of what the book is.
Although she sets out to write a book about her mother’s life, it ends up being a memoir of Bechdel’s own (somewhat like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is really Gertrude Stein’s memoir of her own life, illuminated via a sidewise gleam refracted through her wife’s). Her mother’s resistance to the merits of memoir as a genre only enriches the meta-story of both their relationship and the archetypal yearning for approval in every parent-child relationship:
(I am reminded here of A.M. Homes and her unforgettable insight into the art of memoir: “Making art is all about humans and our psychology: who we are, how we behave, what we do with the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s closer to your own bone when it’s a memoir, but the bone is still the bone.”)
In one of the opening pages, Bechdel captures the Woolfian paradox of this entire meta-project:
You can’t live and write at the same time.
And yet she has been writing about life, perhaps in order to avoid experiencing life, since childhood. The journal, after all, is a technology of thought and selfhood; like any technology, it is the intention behind its use that determines whether its effect is constructive or destructive. Rather than a medium of creative expression, Bechdel’s early diary became an obsessive compulsion, to the point where her mother had to intervene. In looking back on the episode, she invokes a passage from Virginia Woolf’s diary: “What a disgraceful lapse! Nothing added to my disquision, & life allowed to waste like a tap left running. Eleven days unrecorded.”
“My mother composed me as I now compose her,” Bechdel observes of one of the many role-reversals that mark their parent-child relationship, and I’m reminded of the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s wonderful phrase “composing a life” — for isn’t every life, after all, a composition?
For a long time I resisted including my present-day interactions with mom in this book precisely because they’re so “ordinary.”
Then I started seeing how the transcendent would almost always creep into the everyday.
Indeed, it is in the most mundane of moments that the monumental is revealed — in Bechdel’s life, as in any life. One such moment: her mother’s unease about the publication of Bechdel’s now-legendary lesbian comic. The tension of their culminant conversation broke open an unexpected ease around Bechdel’s anguishing, elemental, lifelong need she had always experienced as unmet, which was now suddenly revealed as unmeetable:
The book is a kind of modern-day florilegium composed of Bechdel’s marginalia on books she is consumed with — above all, the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf and the work of pioneering psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott, alongside cultural classics like Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child (“that endlessly consoling ode to sensitive children everywhere”), Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and On Lies, Secrets, and Silence by Adrienne Rich (who sent a personal rejection, uncushioned yet somehow mobilizing, to Bechdel’s first submission to a major literary journal).
It is also a masterwork of dot-connecting — in a testament to my longtime conviction that literature is the original Internet, Bechdel follows the web of “hypertext” references that lead her from one book to the next, from one thinker to another. But, more than that, she links concepts across wildly divergent books with remarkable virtuosity. It takes a rare kind of mind to go from Winnicott’s influential notion of transitional objects to Winnie the Pooh, the iconic stuffed toy being one such object that just so happens to bear a striking linguistic similarity to the pioneering psychoanalyst’s name.
No doubt the great Vannevar Bush, in contemplating how the future of information will shape human thought in 1945, had in mind rare geniuses like Bechdel when he envisioned “a new profession of trail blazers … who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”
The book is also a sort of elegy for therapy — at once a celebration and a lamentation, reminding us of our inescapable human fragility and of how imperfect even our most refined, best-intentioned mechanisms for fixing our brokenness are.
Each chapter begins with a strange and particularly psychologically illuminating dream Bechdel has at an existentially pivotal point, then unfolds into the strangeness of her waking life, as if to remind us that the “sleeping counterpart” who does our dreaming springs from the same self that also does our living.
Her sleeping self is stranded by her father at a picnic, falls off an icy cliff that melts to reveal her childhood home, and marvels at a perfect spider’s web on a blanket. Her wakeful self tries to dissipate a fight with her girlfriend by walking into a mass service only to get trapped in a Christmas pageant, kicks a hole in the wall in a fit of jealous rage over an infidelity before falling asleep cuddling her childhood teddy bear, and contends with the fact that her father killed himself by jumping in front of a bread truck. Which world is the stranger of the two?
Anyone who attends to his or her life with the same granular attention with which Bechdel constructs her memoir knows that the answer lies in the thin membrane of consciousness and selfhood separating the two worlds — a membrane as porous and permeable as the one separating our so-called personal and professional lives.
At the end, as she nears the completion of this meta-memoir, Bechdel comes full circle to the paradox with which she began, newly illuminated:
I would argue that for both my mother and me, it’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.
Complement the brilliant, layered, and immeasurably insightful Are You My Mother? with Bechdel’s magnificent Design Matters interview, in which she discusses her life, her work, and the constant dynamic interaction between the two:
I do think there is something about just the fact of being able to show stuff that enables you to convey an order of meaning that, once you attach language to it, something gets lost.
“Everything can be taken from a man,” Viktor Frankl wrote in his timeless treatise on the human search for meaning, “but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And yet, as Adrienne Rich observed in her sublime meditation on writing, capitalism, and freedom, “in the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.” How, then, are we to choose our own way amid a capitalist society that continually commodifies our liberty?
The peculiar manner in which personal and political freedom magnetize each other is what James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores in a piece titled “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” originally delivered as an address at the 1960 Esquire symposium on the writer’s role in society and later included in his altogether spectacular essay collection Nobody Knows My Name (public library).
Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn’t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it’s simpler to be asleep, when it’s simpler to be apathetic, when it’s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer’s piercing words on the writer’s responsibility as a bastion of freedom, Baldwin adds:
The importance of a writer is continuous… His importance, I think, is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe.
Perhaps the most vital things for the writer to describe, Baldwin argues, are the habitual ways in which we imprison ourselves and relinquish our own freedom. Exactly half a century after Lebanese poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s stirring reflections on the seeming self vs. the appearing self and shortly before Hannah Arendt formulated her enduring ideas on being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-display, Baldwin writes:
There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it — and almost all of us have one way or another — this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.
Two years before he came to converse with Margaret Mead about reimagining democracy for a post-consumerist world, Baldwin observes:
We have some idea about reality which is not quite true. Without having anything whatever against Cadillacs, refrigerators or all the paraphernalia of American life, I yet suspect that there is something much more important and much more real which produces the Cadillac, refrigerator, atom bomb, and what produces it, after all, is something which we don’t seem to want to look at, and that is the person.
Echoing Eleanor Roosevelt’s clarion call for our individual role in democracy and social change, Baldwin adds: