Page Turner: Alison Bechdel
The author of "Dykes to Watch Out For" and "Fun Home" presents her breathtaking new graphic memoir "Are You My Mother?"
Alison Bechdel does not yet feel relieved. At press time, it’s only three weeks since she finished writing and drawing her new graphic memoir Are You My Mother?, a six-year creative undertaking that intertwines scenes from her childhood, her therapist’s office, her girlfriends’ bedrooms and her own mind. She tells me by phone from her home in Vermont, “I think I actually drew most of it in nine months in a crazy frenzy first.” An appropriate gestation period. “For a long time, I described the book differently. It was a book about relationships, the self and other, and while it still is those things, I realize it’s primarily a story of me and my mother.”
Before you start thinking that Bechdel is navel-gazing, you should know that what put her on the map was her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, a peek at the political and personal lives of a community of lesbians, and Time’s 2006 Book of the Year Fun Home, a graphic memoir of her closeted gay father as well as a document about homosexuality in a pre-Stonewall America. Bechdel looks at the world through a lesbian lens as well as from the perspective of a friend, a sister and a daughter.
Dykes ran in alternative newspapers from 1983 to 2008. In the tradition of Gay Comix creator Howard Cruse, the comic strip chronicles the LGBT movement through the lives of lesbian characters. Born not only from her desire for women but from her desire to catalog them, Dykes is cheeky and insightful, poignant and richly detailed. And it unfolds at the speed of life. For example, in 1990, we watch Clarice and Toni have a commitment ceremony. Years later, Toni gives birth to their son Raffi. As Vermont spearheads marriage equality, the happy couple ties the knot. And, after years of being together, the relationship takes a crescendo into divorce. Dykes to Watch Out For, which the author began as a zine before the term “zine” entered popular vernacular, now gets incorporated into college syllabi; “I get brought to schools by the Gender Studies Department,” says Bechdel, “which is something that never existed 30 years ago.”
As alternative newspapers began to fold, the artist knew that the comic strip might no longer be financially viable, and she turned to a book concept that she had been thinking of writing for about 20 years, a memoir about her father called Fun Home.
In 1980 at the age of 20, Bechdel came out to her parents in a letter that she sent while she was away at college. Her father, a stoic but provincial intellectual, seemed fine with her choice to, he says euphemistically, “take a side.” Her mother, however, recoiled: “Couldn’t you just get on with your work?” It is then that Alison finds out from her mother that her father is gay and closeted—hadn’t she known?—and has been having affairs with men for years, notably with her former babysitter Roy. Weeks later, Mr. Bechdel gets run over by a truck and dies, which the author asserts is a suicide.
As Art Spiegelman did with his 1986 Holocaust graphic memoir, Maus, Bechdel uses both literary and visual storytelling to capture the tragedy, irony and humor of someone who was persecuted by the times in which he lived. However, in the case of Fun Home, the tension comes also from the ensuing neglect that Mr. Bechdel inflicted on his family. He is both victim and aggressor, charged with offering alcohol to a local teenage boy. “The real accusation dared not speak its name,” Bechdel says in the book.
As complex and dark as the character of her father is, Bechdel still sees him as a sweet man: the one who played Airplane with her when she was a kid, the one who bonded with her over The Catcher in the Rye, the one who brought her to a post-Stonewall West Village when she was sixteen where she first saw a thriving gay community like the one she portrayed in her comic strip. Her father’s plight set Bechdel on her trajectory of unabashedly exploring her sexuality, both in her life and her art: when Fun Home was published, the author said, “I felt that to a certain extent he killed himself because he couldn’t come out, so I was determined to be utterly and completely out in my own life.” Self-acceptance, curatorial talent and literary acumen, these things are the author’s inheritance from her father.
Which brings us back to her latest book, Are You My Mother? Mrs. Bechdel, an intelligent and exacting presence, balks at her daughter’s coming out. However, that disapproval is not necessarily due to homophobia. The author points out, “It was also bound up with how she felt about my father’s sexuality. It was never an easy or clear thing; all her feelings were not just about me but about him and the kind of jeopardy he put her in for so many years.”
We see Mrs. Bechdel, a skilled stage actress, take refuge from her husband in the world of the theater. And when the author is an adult, we see her mother disapprove of a bound collection of Dykes: “I would love to see your name on a book,” Mrs. Bechdel says, “but not on a book of lesbian cartoons.” This remoteness causes the author to seek solace from her therapists and her girlfriends for years. When I ask her how her relationship with her mother impacted her relationships with women, Bechdel says, “You know, I sort of hoped I would figure that out by writing the book, but I still don’t have any fucking idea. Intimacy is not my strong suit.” It seems that, for better or for worse, her work is what is intimate and not her relationships.
And though the author’s latest work—as stunning, as moving, but more conceptual than her last—brings her some catharsis, her motivation was much more than that. She says, “In both the book about my father and the book about my mother, it was kind of getting myself out from under their critical gaze. Freeing myself from their scrutiny. I feel, to a certain extent, I’ve been inhibited creatively by both my parents, but also empowered by both of them. I had to navigate the complicated thing of both challenging them and embracing them, each in turn.”
Incidentally, now Mrs. Bechdel is supportive of her daughter’s sexuality. Bechdel says that it took her mother about ten years of meeting her girlfriends, reading her comic strip and ultimately spotting her daughter’s cartoon in Ms. magazine for her to accept not only that her daughter is a lesbian but also that she’s an artist who portrays her sexuality on the page. As Bechdel prepares to unveil Are You My Mother? to the literary world
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