In interviews about her first autobiographical comic, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel was often asked how her mother felt about the book, which revealed that her father was a closeted gay (or possibly bisexual) man who may have committed suicide after two significant family events; Bechdel came out as a lesbian, and her mother asked him for a divorce. Her newest book, Are You My Mother? is the extended answer to this much-asked question, as well as exploration of her overall relationship with her mother. Although her father is infrequently depicted in this sequel, his sexuality and his death, and Bechdel’s subsequent decision to write about them, loom over the narrative.
As in Fun Home, Bechdel makes unusually textual use of the graphic novel form. She painstakingly renders and even highlights typed pages, books, and computer screens. There are entire panels filled with text when there is too much for a caption. Literature and literary theory formed a core part of Bechdel’s development of her understanding of her sexuality in Fun Home, and in Are You My Mother? it is psychological theory which performs a similar role, framing the narrative and causing it to cohere. This is a more difficult task than in Fun Home, which was written after her father’s death, and on which Bechdel could retroactively impose order. Bechdel’s mother is still alive, and the process of writing a book about their relationship necessarily had an effect upon it. Bechdel also repeatedly casts her therapists as replacement mother-figures, further complicating the role of psychology in the narrative.
Bechdel’s mother uses the term “metabook” to describe Are You My Mother? and reviewers would be hard pressed to come up with a better description. As evidenced by this review (and many others), it is difficult to discuss one without reference to the other. It is indeed a book about the process and consequences of writing another book, and thus cannot be fully understood without having read Fun Home. This dependency is further complicated by the second sense in which it is a metabook; the process of writing Are You My Mother? itself is chronicled in these pages. As a standalone narrative, it coheres only loosely and relies too heavily on psychology and literature to give it form. However, for those who read Fun Home and wondered how and why someone would feel compelled to write about private family affairs, Are You My Mother? is required reading.