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on January 16, 2016
I was just as blown away by this book as I was by its predecessor. Now I'm exhausted from reading it but feeling like I need to capture the effusiveness, so here I go with a review. This book is not just about a mother or about a daughter or about their relationship. Even though it zooms in on that particular relationship consistently throughout, examines specific conversations and attitudes and parallels they have experienced, it also still puts these events into a macrocosm that holds up a mirror to so many connections that we, the reader, will see in ourselves. The relationship between dreams and reality--what we want, what we fear, how we've failed and been failed. The relationship between fiction and real life--how a stage play can mean different things to different people or to the same person at different times in our lives (relevant because Alison's mother was an actress). The exploration of therapy, of caring for others and being cared for, of artistic envy and anxiety and depression. All of these experiences are tied together so we can see how they are a life still in progress, and the skill with which this was managed was so amazing considering that it also oozes with honesty and lacks the pretentiousness of many other authors' attempts to relay these truths.

What I like MOST about Alison's work is the way it so beautifully handles the microculture of family. Don't we all have those little terms and phrases based on our shared experiences that don't make sense outside the family? It's not just silly nicknames based on what your brother couldn't say when he was a baby. Families develop their own languages and in-jokes that probably seem bizarre to outside observers without explanation. But this artist captures those in such a believable, accessible way that you can find familiarity in their "foreign" rituals while you remember yours.

Also, there's a ton of discussion of therapy in this book and a feeling of trying to get to the bottom of something dreadfully wrong--to find the answer, and to repair it. I've never had that broken feeling, but I related to a lot of what Alison was searching for and the things she tried to do and cared about in the book. It kind of made me feel like maybe I'm more screwed up than I thought I was, and that the way I let other people's problems affect me might not be as separate from me than I thought they were. It's weird that I can still like a book this much when reading it made me question some of my constants. (Or maybe I just know other people who have these problems so well that they feel like they're my problems. I'm always trying to solve someone else's problems, feeling like my own problems are either nonexistent or manageable, but maybe that's just another false self, huh?)

Here are some other things I admired about it.

There's a clear timeline of the author's life. The book acknowledges the existence of the previous book and the fallout that occurred surrounding publishing a book about her father that spread so many secrets about their family out into the world. How it affected her mother. How it affected her relationship with her mother. And what's going on now that she's writing this book about her mother. The book itself contains references to how its existence is perceived by the people it's about. That's some meta stuff.

I love the reference to how a mother's eggs represent infinite regression--you're born with all the eggs you'll ever have, and so was your mother, and so was her mother, etc. And I liked how Alison referred to herself as a terminus in that line because she will not have kids. Me too.

I love Alison's consistent references to journal-keeping, and the fact that her mother did/does it too. Especially interesting was the time Alison's mother had to help her write in her journal to combat her anxiety. She got attention from her mother through needing that help, which sort of encouraged the symptoms. Also, Alison's journals record internal and external life, but her mom claims her journals are only external life--what happened.

I love her "brook" dream.

I love that her discussion of "undoing" is unfamiliar to me but she makes it feel familiar.

I love the bit where snapshots are recreated featuring baby Alison bonding with her mother and the last one features her being broken out of the trance by the man with the camera.

I get chills reading about babies and their mothers being one. And seeing that mixed with the idea of a period making someone not a child anymore (and that being heartbreaking) juxtaposed with Alison discussing her own menstrual cessation.

I loved the joke in there where Alison is complaining to her therapist about how her mother doesn't want to hear about her life, as if she fears that any word Alison gets in edgewise will be "cunnilingus." (Her mother is uncomfortable with her being a lesbian.) I have been lucky enough to have a supportive mother, but I also related to how Alison discussed feeling ashamed and disappointed when her mother kept bringing up how she should publish her "lesbian cartoons" under a pseudonym. As if she should be ashamed of what she writes, as if it isn't really her, as if she should be doing something more "respectable." It all makes you think her mother feels like this is "ruining" who she is, while Alison feels she is EXPRESSING who she is. I've felt that too when I've encountered disapproval from people close to me who don't agree with my queer activism or who think it's shameful. It really feels like a rejection of who you are and no matter what it pretends to be, it represents that they don't actually respect or accept you. Like they love you in spite of who you are, but don't actually love the you you know you are.

I related in an uncomfortable way to the discussion of accommodation--how children try to become what their parents want, or try to adhere to their parents' perceptions of them--and how the children then experience abandonment because who they REALLY are is being moved to the back and kept in the dark. I know there's sometimes a discrepancy between who I think I am and who I actually am, and that's exacerbated by how consistently people praise me and tell me I'm strong and good, so I feel like I should be those things. Maybe the me that isn't particularly strong or good wants to be allowed to be weak and bad sometimes. I don't like relating to this but I have to say I do.

I love the story of Alison's teddy bear that's "her but not her" was left out in the yard sometimes because she took a sadistic pleasure in subjecting it to abandonment and elemental pummeling; now she has the bear and keeps it, but notes that it has a tooth mark from where a dog dragged it but though you can see its stuffing, it's intact.

I love Alison's "offices." Boy do I make those.

There's a story here of how Alison's mother tried over and over to call her and couldn't reach her, and it was because she was calling her old dorm room's number. Alison felt guilty for not being there for her mother. Even though her mom was reaching out in the wrong direction. "You needed me and I wasn't there" is a familiar feeling for me too, and it sucks that we can feel that way when we have no way of knowing what the person needs until after the fact.

I love the spotlight on how her mother was willing to tell her brothers what their private parts were called but there was mystery surrounding the word "vagina" and her mother pretended she didn't know the right word for it. And I love that her mother wrote poetry about the woman as a subject and not an object. (And the joke about penis envy was great too. Laughing about WHO'D WANT ONE OF THOSE?? sounds like something my mom would do, too.)

I also like built-in distance arrangements. And I hate how people insist that I should want company more than I do, or insist on interpreting me as lonely if I want solitude. They're doing me a favor by interrupting me and forcing social interaction on me, and if I claim to like being alone I'm just covering my real feelings. It's weird. I love built-in distance.

I related to her experience sending a piece out to two journals and getting rejection and criticism from one and acceptance from the other. I had the same thing happen, and after the critical comments from the first place I sent it, I felt almost embarrassed that anyone had offered to publish it and didn't advertise it when it happened because I kinda almost didn't want anyone reading it after what the criticism had revealed about it. Weird how many parallels there are here.

There's a bit where women's writing is discussed, and how a female poet's work was dismissed as "bitter" and "personal" (in a negative way) and necessarily indicated sacrifice of "real" worthwhile poetry if the woman had elected to tackle female-specific life experiences. Male critics seemed anxious to dismiss her experience as irrelevant and such a shame after she'd written better work. A woman couldn't possibly have personal, female-specific experiences that are worthy of everyone trying to relate to, huh? But of course we get to read male authors' poetry that frames women as objects to yearn for and deify, seeing that men see us that way when they are attracted to us, and feel othered and distanced by this treatment only to be told having someone feel that way about you IS A COMPLIMENT period the end.

I love the discussion of loving what you perceive a person to be, and admiring that quality, but not actually loving the person who HAS those qualities. I have experienced that and it's not pleasant.

I look like my mother. Sometimes she talks about how she was never pretty or she was plain or she doesn't like how she looks. I know I look like my mother, and she knows I look like her, so it's weird that she thinks I'm beautiful. This book has some discussion of that dynamic in it, where Alison's mother has to wear makeup to feel presentable and that Alison hated things about herself that her mother observed about her, like her paleness.

I loved Alison's emotional outburst when she realized what she wanted from her mother just wasn't there to be had. The catharsis and relief there was wonderful.

Oh, and I liked that her mother chooses different perfumes for the different characters she plays on stage.

I related heavily to this story and the way it was told. Especially the way Alison describes living fully when she is "writing" about experiences she's had even as she's living them--that she understands what she's going through more fully by writing about it, and that's one of the many reasons she has to do it. Other people don't really understand this, but for me, it's sort of even why I write book reviews. I have things happen in my head while I read and I want those experiences to be somewhere outside my head the way the book that inspired them is. I don't want them to fade or be forgotten, either. I love documentation, and I could take or leave the sharing part of it but there are lots of good experiences to be had in sharing the documentation too.

Recently I was delighted when my mom read me a list of things she likes that she had randomly written down. I love hearing about what she feels because she doesn't talk about what she likes or what she thinks about certain things. I'm amazed and excited when she shares a childhood story or a snip of her history that I didn't know before, and the entire underbelly of her life outside of being a mom and before she was a mom comes into view for a second. I always want to be more than people think of me, even when they know me very well. Relating to how Alison told this story and the roots of why she needs to really hit home with me. I'm so glad I read this book.
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on July 23, 2016
More than a memoir about her mother, this is a meta-work exploring female relationships, literature, visual representation, therapy, dreams, and psychoanalysis, in which the author explores and defends her sensational book on her father, "Fun Home." Bechdel blurs the lines of visual and textual representations, as well as metaphorical symbolism and real life in her smart storytelling to explore the dimensions of ego, art, identity, and how we both relate to ourselves and others. Although less compelling than "Fun Home," Bechdel's depth of observation and artful interweaving of layered narratives makes this a rewarding and though-provoking read; a book worthy of returning to reanalyze and consider its carefully constructed stratums.
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on October 5, 2014
Are you my Mother? is the most intellectually engaging comic book I have ever read, and I have read plenty! I came to this book because her name is in my list of "must" female graphic artists, and I am not disappointed. There are many reasons, beyond the undeniable quality of the book at both narrative and graphic levels, I was thrilled to find some of my favourite reading interests being part of the narrative (psychology, psychoanalysis, mental disorders) and some of my life practices reflected as well (dreamwork and metaconciousness), while a friend of mine is very interested in the Mother Archetype (and I even had a synchronicity event with her while reading this book).

Are you my Mother? is Bechdel's quest to understand the relationship she has with her mother from childhood to the present time to help her understand how their relationship shaped her psyche an who she is. It sounds a bit boring, but it is not!

The book is a wide open window to Bechdel's mind and heart, and to the way she lives and sees the world. She does not censor herself to be liked, so her opinions about the world, life or other artists, her family, her mother, her girlfriend/s and herself are sincere and believable. We also see her displaying her neurosis, depression, her obsessions and compulsions. Bechdel has a sharp-razor mind that understands complexity with easiness and sometimes she thinks the reader will to. I don't think is always the case, but she does not debase herself to the level of the mainstream reader because that is not who she is. A killer combination of elements that will get any person interested. There is no fluff in this book, but you will find moments of tenderness, passion, fun, sadness, doubt, confusion and raw honesty, all of them infused in the hiper-metaconsciousness Bechdel swims daily to sort out her personal and creative life.

The book has a Matryoshka doll sort of feeling as it is organically multi-layered and cohesive in her graphic and literary narrative, and one layer cover another, which, at its turn, covers another, despite all being a perfectly organic set. This a very Magritte-ish book as well, both in the imagery (See, f. e. pages 212 or 252) and its structure. So we see her writing the book about her father, while she is interacting with her mother, creating the book about her mother, thinking about the book about her mother, seeing herself doing so, at the same time. Almost an out of the body experience. The chapter on mirrors is perhaps the most clear example of this Magritte's man painting himself while paints himself while paints himself. Extremely cool.

Graphically speaking, Bechdel is amazing. Her drawings are realistic, very expressive and multifaceted, very attentive to the detail (from the facial micro-expressions to the details on the floor or walls, everything!) but also very dynamic. Her approach to this graphic novel is also very photographic and cinematic, and reminds me of a pre-movie visual-rendering of a script, because her drawings are not only fabulous per se, they are fabulously composed and framed: eagle-view scenes, scenes from the street into a room, scenes with the self as object (shots of her feet, reflections on a mirror or train window), voyeuristic (sex scenes). Moreover, she inserts and reproduces with her own handwriting personal (past and present) letters by her, her mother and her father, pages of newspapers, highlights from the books she is reading, clipped photos and quotes, mock-flashback images about her mother's childhood, Winnicott and Wolf's lives, and what it is not. Just awesome. They create texture, they create life on a paper and visually engage and enthral the reader.

Everything looks and flows so easily that one forgets that it is masterful. You have to stop and say wow to yourself, because this girl has an extraordinary talent. I found so many wow pages and vignettes! Just one example, pages 103-105 and how she depicts the pass of time, so beautifully simple and effective.

Having said the above, this is a complex book, divided in chapters that start with the depiction of one of her dreams, and dive into especial facets of the relationship mother-daughter from a psychoanalytic point of view. She starts with Freud and Jung readings but ends devoting her attention to the work of Donald Winnicott, whose life and writings on mother-child bonding click more with her. She also sees some parallels between Winnicott's theories, Virginia Wolf's writings (the Lighthouse especially) and her own life. Bechdel plays dream analyst and psychoanalyst with herself, and she is the object and the subject of her book. There are nudity, sex scenes and adult themes in the book, so this is not a graphic book for a lazy reader or for children.

I don't like the hue of red used in the normal pages of the book. I would have rather had all in black or white or work on another hues. I found that the textures of the colour could have been better, but this me being fussy!
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on January 4, 2018
I felt like it wasn't for me as I was expecting something along the lines of Fun Home; which is to be fair, not the mindset I should've had in the first place. I do think it's definitely worth picking up--don't make the same mistake as I did, but do take it as a grain of salt if you're susceptible to having the same kind of expectations.
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on May 12, 2017
A little graphic for my personal taste but it was classy. I love the reality of mother daughter relationships In the lgbtq community
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on September 25, 2017
Great work of genius and ridiculous amount of conviction and work by Bechdel! Obsessive in a good way. Hilarious in a slow way. Artwork brilliant. I see why it took her so long to complete and thank her for doing it - thank you, Alison. I'm not that conversant with psychoanalysis - but you can learn and laugh along the way about mother-daughter push-pull. Not sure it helps if you're Jewish - but may be Jew-ish helps!
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on October 27, 2012
I love Alison Bechdel. When I curl up with her books and comic collections I feel like I am immersed in a comforting universe in which logic, literature and poetry can be used to distill meaningful connections from our own messy lives and relationships. I would enjoy reading this book even if it were a short story but the illustrations are like an added gift from the writer. I could stare at each frame for a long time looking for little details that underscore the text. This book was exactly what I was hoping it would be- insight into a complicated mother-daughter relationship and how the daughter struggles to understand this relationship through psycho-analysis, writing and Virginia Woolf. I usually love having the physical book in my hand especially for a graphic novel. I purchased the kindle edition because I've been moving around a lot lately and want to stop acquiring more stuff until I have a more permanent residence. The kindle edition was great. Each frame could be made larger so I could get a better look and I enjoyed reading it so much that I was pretty sad when it ended. Maybe I'll reread To the Lighthouse and then reread this. The cycle continues.
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on February 22, 2017
I could not read the ends of chapters including the last page of the book where the author shrinks the graphics and writing. Otherwise a somewhat interesting book, filled with psychological insights and breakthroughs.😊
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on March 19, 2017
I read this before finding Fun Home, and now having read both I find Are You My Mother more sophisticated and mature (as you'd expect for a latter book). Blew me away with its raw intimacy. What an amazing voice in literature.
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on May 12, 2014
I love Alison Bechdel. "The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For" is a terrific romp through the ultra-feminist late 20th century. Her previous book "Fun Home," largely about her father, deserved all the awards it got. Thus I looked forward eagerly to this one, focusing on her mother. It is longer, but it has less impact. If you're not ready for lots of stuff about her therapy, you won't like it. She became fascinated by American psychoanalyst Donald Wood Winnicott, and we get a great deal of his personal and professional history. Where her previous book is grounded in the experiences and events of her childhood, this one is grounded in therapeutic productions and analytic theory. Not so compelling. But this is still Alison Bechdel. I wasn't tempted to quit reading, and I enjoyed the book. Still, I suspect that this one is for Bechdel (or therapy) enthusiasts, not general readers.
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