The Bechdel Test
Only an Idiot Would Fail to Recognize the Layered Genius of Are You My Mother?
Are You My Mother?
by Alison Bechdel br> (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22)
Practically the first thing Alison Bechdel did when she stood in front of a packed-out University Book Store on Friday was apologize for writing a "kind of weird book." One has to wonder if Bechdel's abashedness had anything to do with Dwight Garner's drubbing of her new memoir, Are You My Mother?, in the New York Times earlier this month, in which he called it "not nearly so good" as Bechdel's first memoir, Fun Home, and accused it of being "therapized and flat" with "no real narrative." ("If Fun Home was a book about a funeral home," Garner sniped, "Are You My Mother? is merely funereal." Er, zing?)
Here's the thing: Only a shitty critic would take a writer to task for not writing the same book twice. Fun Home was a memoir tucked inside a biography of Bechdel's father. Mother has many more layers than that. Rather than simply deforming her mother's story into a traditional narrative, Mother examines Bechdel's relationships with many women in her life—her mother, her girlfriends, her therapists, Virginia Woolf—and the connections between those threads are often left for the reader to identify. Mother is more like a work of literary criticism, but the texts it examines are not always traditional—To the Lighthouse, The Drama of the Gifted Child, and the writings of British pediatrician and psychotherapist Donald Winnicott are addressed, to be sure, but so are the love letters between Bechdel's mother and father, and Bechdel's years of therapy.
Bechdel's talk at University Book Store revealed the hidden layers of craft that went into the work. As she flipped through a slide show made up of panels of the book, Bechdel discussed the hours she spent exactly copying Virginia Woolf's handwriting into miniature replicas of manuscript pages. Then she painstakingly reproduced published typeset pages of Woolf's work by hand. That kind of literary devotion—to the ideas in the work, to the process of writing the work, to the work as it is presented to the world—is rare. The resulting layers of examination cross over and under and around each other to weave a cohesive narrative that, after you step back and take in the whole work, reveals a portrait of Bechdel that is much more intricate and intimate than anything she's given us before.