Fun Home and Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

These are only my second and third graphic novels (I really need to get to the others on my list!). I really liked the art in these books – both in black and white but FH has a blue-grey wash and AYMM? has a reddish wash. Apparently Bechdel takes photographs for every person in every frame – a painstaking process which really pays off.

Fun HomeFun Home is the story of Bechdel’s father, and her relationship with him. He was an obsessive restorer of their rundown gothic mansion house, distant and frequently angry. He was also a closeted gay man having affairs with his male students and his children’s male babysitter. It’s also about Bechdel discovering her own homosexuality, and trying to work out who she is in relation to her father. Her father was killed when he was hit by a truck, but Bechdel believes he committed suicide. The book isn’t linear, and often returns to previous conversations and frames but with new knowledge or information. It didn’t feel repetitive; it felt natural in the way that, in life, you see past events in a new light with new knowledge.

Are you my motherAre You My Mother? is her mother’s story, sort of. It’s mostly about Bechdel’s search for something missing, which relates in part to a gulf between her and her mother. It’s very raw in the sense that she discusses her own therapy and romantic relationships in detail, as well as that gap she feels between her and her mother. She weaves in a lot of psychoanalysis, particularly the theories of Winnicott, and the work of Virginia Woolf.

It was interesting reading both books within a very short space of time. I found that I enjoyed I FH much more. Bechdel seems much more forgiving of her father, or at least more sympathetic, though it may just be because FH doesn’t include much of her own struggles, and AYMM? was written in real time rather than afterwards.

Given the amount of time she spends in therapy or thinking about therapy in AYMM?, it’s unsurprising that at times it feels a bit self-absorbed (but, in a way, isn’t that the nature of memoir?). My main problem with it is that I think there comes a point where you are over-analysing. Bechdel herself talks about this in relation to her college English classes in FH (at least that’s what I interpreted she meant when she said she found literary criticism a ‘suspect activity’), but in AYMM? she interprets every accidental action to have huge psychological meaning. For example, when she injures herself between the eyes, she interprets this as her subconscious telling her to be mindful of her ‘third eye’, but when she then injures her actual eye, she thinks she was wrong before and that it was actually because she was missing something right in front of her face (metaphorically, obviously she missed the thing that cut her eye).  I just think it’s not helpful to give every action, intentional or accidental, such huge weight, because how would you ever do anything, or not do anything? Bechdel seems to have found it useful, but it does seem to have affected her relationships and work at the time.

All that said, the end of AYMM? is quite beautiful, and more effecting than that of FH. You do need to read FH first, though, to get the most out of AYMM?

FH is well worth a read on its own, and I’m not surprised it’s in a number of ‘best graphic novel’ lists. I don’t think AYMM? will appeal to everyone in the same way, but it’s still an stimulating, complex read, particularly if you have an interest in psychoanalysis.

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