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Readerly Transference: Psychoanalysis Via Comics in Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?

By Audrey Farley

Alison Bechdel’s 2012 graphic memoir Are You My Mother? depicts a lesbian protagonist who earnestly desires self-knowledge, but who is crippled by self-criticism and by the reality that we are haunted by others. Alison regularly attends therapy, and she supplements these sessions by reading British analyst D.W. Winnicott. Winnicott, of course, is best known for object-relations theory, founded by his mentor Melanie Klein. He focused on the mother/infant relationship, which he associated with the analyst/patient dynamic. Bechdel integrates Winnicott’s writings into her story to emphasize that selves (or subjects) crucially depend on others (or objects). This theme characterizes Alison’s troubled relationship with her mother, which is the memoir’s ostensible focus.

Are You My Mother? examines the reciprocity that exists between analysts and patients (mothers and infants, authors and readers)—that almost-magical, transitional space that psychoanalysis, like art, nurtures. The memoir capitalizes on comics’ particular ability to create such transitional spaces, as well as comics’ mass popularity, to offer a counterpoint to the brain-centered notions of selfhood that are widely promoted today. By creating a transactional relation between the reader and the page, Are You My Mother? denies that complex psychological processes can be objectively observed. The memoir demonstrates the necessity of inter-subjective processes—namely, transference—to understand mental life. Bechdel uses the graphic form to show how the individual psyche always implicates the mental states of another, just as the patient always reflects the psychic activity of the analyst. Comics create such a dyadic space by facilitating reader-identification. They allow the reader to project herself onto the page, transforming into another person with a kind of “alchemical power” (81). Since they can create this “alchemy”1 between the page and the reader, Bechdel’s memoir suggests, comics enact psychoanalytic processes and counter the positivism2 of neurobiological discourse. Furthermore, by affirming the importance of analytic interpretation, Are You My Mother? challenges postmodern notions of an inaccessible, unknowable self.

The Memoirist’s Precarity: “You Can’t Live and Write At the Same Time”

Are You My Mother? is named after P. D. Eastman’s picture book (see Figure 1) about a little yellow bird that hatches while his mother is away from the nest. The bird wanders around asking the title question to other animals and objects (a steamboat, an airplane, and a steam shovel). Finally, the steam shovel returns him to the nest, where his mother momentarily returns with a worm. As critics have noted, both the original story and its namesake hinge “on the primal human struggle with interdependency and the psychic distress it inevitably breeds” (Parille). For Bechdel, the memoirist occupies a similarly precarious position, since she, too, cannot access her own subjectivity.

Figure 1

Are You My Mother? suggests the memoirist’s ontological crisis by foregrounding its own difficult creation right from the start. The book begins with a reference to Bechdel’s first graphic memoir, Fun Home, which was published in 2006 to much critical acclaim. An opening scene in Are You My Mother? depicts Alison brainstorming ways to tell her mother that she is writing a memoir (what will become Fun Home) about her closeted father’s possible suicide. Bruce Bechdel was hit by a bread truck shortly after he confessed to having homosexual relationships and after Alison’s mother, Helen, asked for a divorce. Given the timing of the event, Alison wonders if her father purposely stepped in front of the truck. Alison claims to begin with the story of Fun Home because her present memoir lacks a clear origin—”the real problem with this memoir about my mother is that it has no beginning” (6). It also has no end: “Another difficulty is the fact that the story of my mother and me is unfolding even as I write it” (10). Even though she recognizes the quandary of the memoirist—”you can’t live and write at the same time” (7)—Bechdel becomes an observer of her life (see Figure 2). Confessing “What I want is to be my own analyst” (41), she examines her life through the lens of psychoanalytic theory to render her true self intelligible. She searches for meaningful patterns in her psychic and daily life, interpreting scenes for the reader and scrutinizing nearly every thought and event.

Figure 2

Bechdel models this painstaking analytic process at a formal level. Nearly every aspect of her composition is calculated, from the annotated scenes to the images themselves. Bechdel poses for photographs, which she then uses to create ink wash drawings of herself. Even her font is deliberate; she uses one fabricated by her own handwriting. Bechdel uses detailed notes and captions to make explicit connections between scenes. She also reproduces excerpts from Winnicott, Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Miller to inform her theoretical analysis of her own life. In short, Bechdel combines autobiography and analysis, leading one critic to observe that Are You My Mother? seems less like a memoir and more like a “material graphic archive,” which treats life as a kind of research project (Parille).

Bechdel’s disciplined approach is somewhat curious, given the memoir’s obvious investment in Winnicott. After all, Winnicott is known for his playful, open-ended methods of analysis. He challenged the longstanding tradition of Freudian over-interpretation by fostering small talk and collegiality between the analyst and the patient. Winnicott took such an approach because he identified the conflict between communicative and non-communicative impulses as the primary source of psychic tension in the infant’s life. For Winnicott, the main psychological conflict was not life or death (eros or thantos), as Freud maintained; it was whether “to play or to hide” (“Playing and Reality”). Bechdel emphasizes her meticulous process while also invoking Winnicott to suggest that interpretive rigor does not necessarily inhibit dialogue. Rather, Bechdel suggests, such rigor can strengthen connection with others. By analyzing her life and her relationship with her mother, Alison creates new possibilities for living and relating. Acting as both patient and analyst, she creates a space “between the subjective and the objective” (61) where meaning and communication with others is possible. Bechdel articulates this paradoxical notion in an interview about the book. She admits that the memoir is “extremely intimate and self-absorbed,” but adds “by looking inward deeply [she’s] trying to get outside [her]self and connect with other people” (“Drawn From Life”).

In fact, Alison intuits a similar idea from Winnicott, who argues that the infant must first destroy (objectify) the mother if she is ever to achieve a healthy relationship with her. Winnicott advises that the child must transition from relating to an object to using an object. He offers a clinical analogy to explain the difference: “Two babies are feeding at the breast; one is feeding on the self in the form of projections, and the other is feeding on (using) milk from a woman’s breast” (“The Use of an Object”). The healthy infant has transitioned from relating to usage. If the child does not learn to use the mother, then she becomes “compliant”—a false self. The compliant child repudiates her own needs to fulfill the mother’s.3 Alison was a compliant child. She ignored her own needs to earn her parents’ favor and attention. As an adult, she becomes compliant in therapy. She tries to become the ideal patient, incessantly worrying about her therapist’s feelings—”What [would Jocelyn] think” (100)?

Reading Winnicott, Alison realizes that objectification of the mother is psychically necessary. She interprets Winnicott’s theory to mean that “hate is a part of love” (175). This helps her to better understand the tension between her and her mother, which creates the possibility of communication between them. Alison understands that her memoir—just like her lesbianism—will hurt Helen. She doesn’t want to hurt her mother, “yet [she does] not seem to have a choice” (154). She has to transform her family members into objects (narrative objects) to connect with them. Her elaborate writing process (dressing up, staging the scene, photographing herself, sketching, and so forth) can be painful, as well as painstaking. Bechdel suggests this very idea when Alison suffers a series of perhaps not-so-random injuries to the eyes. After walking head-on into a wooden plank and then catching a sharp twig between the eyes, Alison compares herself to Oedipus gouging out his own eyes: “It only occurs to me now, as I’m writing this book about my mother, that perhaps I had scratched my cornea to punish myself for seeing the truth about my family” (65). Here, Bechdel blames herself for her intuition. As a plot device, Alison’s guilt is instructive, since it reinforces the notion of a shared reality. In his analysis of the relationship between fiction and psychotherapy, J. M. Coetzee argues that there is something inherently anti-postmodern about narratives—particularly Greek myths like Oedipus—that portray characters coming to terms with their own guilt. Such narratives “teach a lesson…that we cannot escape our past, that we are not free to reinvent ourselves” (33). Coetzee’s point is that such narratives insist on the presence of an external reality to which the individual is subject. He suggests that the goal of most therapy today is to help the patient reconcile with this external reality. Therapy encourages patients to develop tolerance for vulnerable feelings, rather than allowing them to transform anxieties into more comfortable narratives. In this sense, therapy is anti-postmodern.

This notion of a shared external reality distinguishes psychotherapy from more contemporary cognitive scientific disciplines, and it accounts for Bechdel’s engagement with psychoanalysis in an era saturated with neuroscientific discourse. Bechdel’s memoir implicitly challenges popular neuro-rhetoric by suggesting that cognitive processes are reparative, rather than defensive. Cognitive scientists and philosophers often describe consciousness as fiction that the mind spins to protect the integrity of the self. As neuroscientist Eric Kandel puts it, “the brain is a creativity machine that seeks out coherent patterns in an often confusing welter of environmental and bodily signals” (350). Cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett makes a similar argument in his “Multiple Drafts” model; he argues that consciousness, like written drafts, is perpetually revised, there being “no reality of conscious experience independent of the effects of various vehicles of content on subsequent action (and hence, of course, on memory)” (132). This notion of the confabulating mind first derived from the split-brain research of the 1960s. In a study conducted by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga, patients with epilepsy underwent a surgery that disconnected the corpus callosum, the fibrous tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. The split revealed that the left side of the brain—the seemingly “rational” and calculating side—was also an expert tale-teller. This side of the brain made up plausible but wrong stories to explain behaviors provoked by the right side. Sperry and Gazzaniga concluded, “[i]t is the left hemisphere that engages in the human tendency to find order in chaos, that tries to fit everything into a story and put it into a context.” The left side hypothesizes “about the structure of the world even in the face of evidence that no pattern exists” (emphasis mine, 125). This concept of confabulation strongly resembles the post-structuralist philosophy that dominated the humanities in the following decades. As Stephen J. Burn notes, both neuroscience and postmodernism are marked by a “recursive curve.” The brain can only be comprehended by using itself, and this “seems [like] a cognitive analogue to the textual concerns of postmodernism, from the poststructural extreme of [Jacques] Derrida’s claim that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ to the metafictionist’s efforts to deploy a tiered system of narratives to interrogate narrative itself” (36). By emphasizing constructedness, both neuroscience and postmodernism emphasize a dispersed and unattainable self.

Bechdel’s memoir suggests that psychoanalysis does not share neuroscience’s “recursive curve.” While psychoanalysis emphasizes consciousness’ editorial processes, it posits that analysis can reverse the drafts to access some primordial intelligibility. Analysis reverses the drafts by interpreting the workings of the unconscious.4 Bechdel shows how self-reflection leads to revelation, not simply endless questioning. Alison’s painstaking analysis reveals truths about herself, and this, in turn, repairs her relationships with others. In this way, her “meta-book” (Helen’s term) distinguishes itself from more conventional postmodern forms, as well as from neuroscientific models of mind. Many postmodern narratives use metafiction to accentuate the recursive processes of writing and subject-formation. They depict scenes of writing to flaunt the artificiality of art and to evoke the reader’s incredulity. By emphasizing the text’s fabrication, these texts articulate a neuroscientific worldview (albeit unintentionally), which likens consciousness to fabulation. By contrast, in Are You My Mother?, Alison cannot re-write her story—nor can she avoid writing it. She is bound to the truth of the past, and this compels her to seek meaning.

In fact, her lesbianism helps her to do this. Alison credits her lesbianism for saving her from being “compliant to the core” (188). By transgressing sexual norms, she is able to free her mind from Helen (and others’) judgment. Bechdel writes, “[i]f it weren’t for the unconventionality of my desires, my mind might never have been forced to reckon with my body” (156). In other words, if she had never desired otherwise, she may never have thought or imagined otherwise. On the page, this quotation overlays an image of a letter that Alison received from Helen after coming out to her in college. The letter reads, “Couldn’t you just get on with your work? You are young, you have talent, you have a mind. The rest, whatever it is, can wait.” The letter is signed, “Love, Moth” (156). Helen’s efforts to stifle—or at least delay—Alison’s lesbianism backfire, since her words, in fact, inspire Alison to write the memoir that will expose all the family secrets. The irony here is that Helen gives Alison permission to destroy her.

By using Helen as an object for her art, Alison is actually able to form a better relationship with her. Alison explains that writing her present memoir (Are You My Mother?) enables her to stop obsessing about her mother, just as Virginia Woolf was able to stop obsessing about her mother after drafting To the Lighthouse. Bechdel reproduces a page from Woolf’s diary, in which the author describes walking through Tavistock Square when the idea for To the Lighthouse suddenly came to her. Having finished the novel, Woolf reflected, “I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.” Similarly, Bechdel claims that Are You My Mother? helped her to silence her mother’s critical voice. She explains that writing allows her to “talk over” the inner voices that prevent her from being more assertive (Terzian). For Bechdel, self-reflection is reparative because it resembles the analytic process. By transforming wounds into aesthetic objects—stories—Bechdel’s graphic memoir creates a space where author and reader can meet.

Bechdel explicitly depicts this process in a series of sketches, which portray Alison excitedly telling her mother that she is going to publish her first book. Helen is unimpressed: “You mean your lesbian cartoons?” (227). After the conversation ends, readers see Alison crying at her desk. A few pages later, readers see the same image, but with a Canon camera in the foreground. The camera sounds, “beep beep beep,” documenting Alison’s agony for use in the graphic memoir that the reader now holds in her hands (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

It is precisely this object—the narrative—that allows Alison to repair communication with her mother. The memoir thus functions as a kind of “transitional object”—Winnicott’s term for the special possession or toy that infants use to wean themselves their mothers. In a section entitled “Transitional Objects,” Alison explains that the transitional object is “not ‘me,’ but not ‘not-me’ either” (56). Alison transforms her life and her relationship with her mother into an object (a written record) to break free from Helen. She “destroys” Helen with the memoir, she tells readers, but her mother “has survived [her] destruction” (285). Bechdel draws this line from Winnicott, who imagines the infant’s address to an abstracted mother figure: “Hullo object! I destroyed you. I love you. You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you” (“The Use of an Object”). Winnicott explains that the object, once placed outside the subject’s control, “develops its own autonomy and life, and (if it survives) contributes in to the subject, according to its own properties” (“The Use of an Object”). In other words, the object exists for herself, no longer as an extension of the subject.

By writing Are You My Mother?, Alison frees both herself and her mother and makes it possible for them to meet as equals. The final scene of Bechdel’s memoir suggests the possibility of healthier relations between Alison and Helen. Bechdel depicts a young Alison playing the “crippled child” game with Helen. In this game, Alison pretends her legs do not work, telling her mother that she needs leg braces and special shoes. Helen indulges her daughter, pretending to lace the special shoes. Alison narrates in the caption boxes, “I don’t remember the particulars of our play. I’m inventing this dialogue wholesale…I can only speculate that there was a charge, an exchange, a mutual cathexis going on…She could see my invisible wounds because they were hers too” (287). Alison has learned an important lesson from her mother, who is also an artist: how to transform her pain into art.

This scene also illuminates that Alison has adjusted her notion of “truth”—she understands now that narrative truth, like the inter-subjective truth between persons, has its own internal logic. Rather than trying to recapture an event as it really happened, she aims to recreate its feeling. This is what therapy has trained her to do. In therapy, it is difficult to distinguish between the real event (a past occurrence) and the event that takes place between the patient and the therapist. In fact, therapy requires a form of transference, in which the patient unconsciously redirects feelings from one person in her life onto the therapist. Alison projects her desire for Helen’s affection onto her therapist, Joceyln, and this process of transference leads to new insights about herself—specifically, that she prioritizes others at the expense of her own emotional well-being. Realizing the “alchemical power” of transference, Alison applies the therapeutic situation to writing. She commits herself to the internal consistency of the narrative, rather than to the factual accuracy of events. She declares, “the story must be served” (284), suggesting that narrative prevails as a model of truth. This sounds postmodern, since it prioritizes confabulation over the “real.” But, in contrast to a postmodern schema, Bechdel’s narrative truth is the product of reverse interpretation—a process of retroactively converting unconscious desires into recognizable thought. From her perspective, narrative renders a shared (objective) reality knowable, rather than unknowable.

Analysis as Reverse Interpretation

By demonstrating how memoir allows her to hush critical inner voices, Bechdel suggests that analysis’ real power is its ability to undo the interpretation that the psyche enacts. Memoir-writing saves Alison, since this form of self-reflection enables her to recognize and silence the inner critic that estranges her from others. Such an idea is clearly expressed by a series of panels in which Alison describes how Freud has influenced her to look for patterns in mundane events. Alison recalls the time that she walked into a wooden board shortly after reading Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The plank catches her right between the eyes, causing a bruise that impairs her vision. When she goes to take her herbal supplements, she reads the label, “Brighten the Eyes,” as “Between the Eyes.” On the same page, she describes a pimple between the eyebrows that had been swelling for a few days. Taken together, the bruise, the bottle label, and the pimple prompt her to reflect on the “third eye” in Indian medicine, which is used to look in, rather than out. She concludes, “perhaps my unconscious was telling me to pay more attention to my unconscious” (49). The paradox here is obvious: interpretation is both the problem and the solution. As analyst, she deciphers a message from a pattern of events. The message, though, is that she needs to stop her psyche from its busywork as critic. Bechdel expands on this idea by using visual images to depict how the mind is always in the process of editing. On the next page, readers see Alison typing at her keyboard. A supplemental, close-up image reveals her finger on the delete key. The caption box reads, “I was plagued [in the past], as now, with a tendency to edit my thoughts before they even took shape” (49).

Here, Bechdel suggests analysis’ redemptive potential. By critically examining her life, Alison realizes that her mind is, in fact, the most reductive critic. Her mind works to protect her from the psychic distress caused by the ego’s dependence on other objects. But in doing so, the mind inhibits her relations with others. The very next panel portrays this psychic dynamic. The panel depicts an image of a diary page with scribbled lines over the writing. This caption box reads, “[The tendency to edit thoughts] has been a problem for me all my life. During my childhood phases of OCD, I obscured my own diary entries with repetitive markings” (49). Alison adds that such markings were intended to “ward off evil” from the people about whom she was writing, including herself—”By far the most heavily obliterated word is ‘I'” (49). The diary page reveals to Alison the workings of the ego, which endlessly edits to protect itself from threat. The act of writing, then, serves as a form of reverse interpretation, since it reveals the ego’s antics.

Bechdel, thus, demonstrates how analysis actually recovers intelligibility. Contrary to popular belief, the unconscious that Freud describes is not a mysterious, indiscernible place. Rather, the unconscious consists of normal thoughts, which have simply been transformed by the laws that govern it. Freud referred to this transformation as the “the primary process” (168). This misunderstanding about Freud’s notion of the unconscious has caused feminists to disdain Freud when, according to some critics, they should embrace him.5 Freud’s concept of the unconscious does not suppose some “natural” or essential desire. Rather, it emphasizes the power of inherited social and cultural laws. Thus, as Juliette Mitchell persuasively argued back in 1974, “[u]nderstanding the laws of the unconscious […] amounts to a start in understanding how ideology functions, how we acquire and live the ideas and laws within which we must exist” (403). Bechdel shares Mitchell’s belief that psychoanalysis reveals, rather than enforces, normative modes of living. Analysis prompts Alison to realize the ways in which she conforms to others’ demands. By showing how analysis reveals to Alison that she is a compliant or false self, Bechdel challenges prominent queer theorists like Judith Butler, whom Alison is often depicted reading. In Gender Trouble, Butler denies the subversive possibility of psychoanalytic doctrine. She argues that while psychoanalysis takes bisexuality and homosexuality to be “primary libidinal dispositions,” psychoanalytic literature, in fact, produces these dispositions. For Butler, bisexuality and homosexuality are discursive constructions of psychoanalysis; as such, they have no “precultural status.” Butler analyzes Freud’s discussion of the incest taboo to argue that psychoanalysis reinforces normativity: “the bisexuality that is said to be ‘outside the Symbolic’ and that serves as the locus of subversion is, in fact, a construction of the terms of that constitutive discourse, the construction of an ‘outside’ that is nevertheless fully ‘inside.'” (77). Contra Butler, who reads psychoanalysis as a normalizing force, Bechdel reads psychoanalysis as a liberating force. When Alison analyzes herself, she recognizes her true feelings and desires, and this, in turn, allows her to connect with others. Dwight Garner, one of Bechdel’s harshest critics, totally overlooks this point. Garner, who raved about Fun Home, complains that Bechdel’s second memoir is too “self-absorbed” and that the frequent therapy sessions and dream sequences get in the way of any “real narrative.” Garner fails to appreciate how Bechdel integrates psychoanalysis at the level of form and content to illuminate psychoanalysis’ communitarian value. For Bechdel, analysis allows both patient and analyst (reader and author) to escape loneliness by coming face to face.

Bechdel masterfully depicts this idea in one of the memoir’s final scenes. Alison stands between two mirrors, gazing into one, in which she sees infinite reflections of herself. A caption box reads, “In one way, what I saw in those mirrors was the self trapped inside the self, forever.” Below, another box reads, “But in another way, the self in the mirror was opening out, in an infinite unfurling” (244-5). While this scene ostensibly serves as a visual representation of Winnicott’s relational self, it also juxtaposes neuroscientific and psychoanalytic models. Neuroscience often sees a defensive self, which struggles against the external environment to survive; psychoanalysis sees a transactional self, which is radically open to the desires of another. Since analysis inevitably transforms the identities of both its participants, the analytic scene is necessarily queer and deconstructive. As Eric Laurent notes, “A psychoanalytic session is the place in which the most stable identifications by which a subject is attached can come undone.” This is true not only for the patient, but also the analyst, who is compelled to identify with the multiple roles that the analysand projects at her. Because both patient and analyst mirror each other’s desire, identity is never fixed. In short, psychoanalysis models the queer reading practices to which many comics artists aspire. In doing so, it offers comics culture a means to “[hold] tightly to a romanticized position of marginality” while gaining readership and wide recognition (Hatfield xii). Psychoanalysis suggests how comics might persevere as an “alternative” literature not by virtue of comics’ transgressive content or subject matter, but by virtue of the “otherness of comics reading” (Hatfield 66).

Comics, in turn, serve psychoanalysis. They do so by demonstrating the intersubjectivity of psychic processes and challenging the positivism of popular science. Popular science writers and cognitive philosophers like Dennett, Stephen Pinker, Thomas Metzinger and Francis Crick posit that all of the nervous system’s operations can be explained in terms of the brain’s material properties. Bechdel suggests the influence of such materialist philosophy in one scene in which she depicts Alison pondering the relationship between her self and her body. Alison lays in bed, wondering, “how much of me is me?” (140). She imagines herself as an amputee, standing with the help of a crutch (see Figure 4). Without one leg, she still recognizes herself. This is conveyed on the page with a speech bubble that expresses the word “me.” In the next panel, she proceeds with the thought experiment. This time standing without a leg and without an arm, Alison again expresses, “me.” Then, she is depicted without any limbs in a wheel chair as she reflects, “still me.” A final image shows Alison’s severed head, connected to an oxygen tank, fluid drip, and some sort of machine that bears the words “life support.” Again, she recognizes herself: “me.” The panel below returns to the real-life Alison laying in bed, who concludes, “I’m in my brain” (141).

Figure 4

Genie Giaimo reads scenes such as this one as evidence that Bechdel’s memoir, while seeming to endorse psychoanalysis, in fact, endorses recent neuroscientific theories, which “better account for the events of the text—and the impulse to tell life narrative—than psychoanalysis” (35). Giaimo claims that Bechdel “demonstrates the unraveling of psychoanalytic methods” and that she articulates cognitive theories, such as pattern making and theory of mind, “whether she knows it or not” (54). Contrary to Giaimo, I read this scene as a juxtaposition of neuroscientific and psychoanalytic models of mind. In this scene, Bechdel contrasts the pictorial depictions with reprinted content from Winnicott, in particular, a discussion in which Winnicott cautions against the “intellectualizing” of the self. Bechdel reproduces pages from Winnicott’s essay, “Mind and its Relation,” which describes how erratic mothering can lead to unhealthy intellectualization. The Winnicott passages substantiate the psychoanalytic concept of the “false self,” since they explain how the child is prompted to compensate for the abusive mother. However, the passages also serve to contrast the psychoanalytic self with the materialist self that is represented pictorially. The psychoanalytic self is transactional, responding to the needs and desires of others. The materialist self is isolated: “I’m in my brain.” Bechdel suggests the flaw of such materialist thinking in her depiction of Alison on life support. To survive, Alison (represented by her head) has to maintain a connection with other contraptions. (She is nourished by an oxygen tank and fluid drip.) Here, Bechdel utterly refutes the notion that a person can be reduced to her own material parts.6 This scene also shed further light on the “Cripple Game” with her mother.

Bechdel engages psychoanalytic discourse precisely because it recognizes the transactional nature of subjectivity, not because it deals with trauma, as Giaimo suggests. (Giaimo claims that Bechdel’s “evocation of psychoanalysis is an obvious gesture towards the field’s focus on telling life narrative as a means to heal past trauma.”) Giaimo attempts to rescue the memoir from its “[failure] to produce meaning” by drawing attention to the neuroscientific analogues to Winnicott’s theories. After all, neuroscience promises concrete data, not vague intuitions (54). This reading completely overlooks the anti-positivist stance that Bechdel takes. Bechdel realizes that the mind cannot be objectified and, further, that many cognitive scientific explanations do just this.

In contrast to popular scientific notions, psychoanalysis recognizes that psychic states cannot be subjected to the same methods of investigation as the natural world. Even though Freud claimed the status of an observational science, his methods entailed a radically subjective approach. Fundamentally, psychoanalysis and contemporary cognitive science differ, not in their objects of study (the mind versus the brain), but in their approach. In analysis, the “subject of study cannot be reduced to the mind of the patient; rather, it becomes a co-construction that produces a new psychological object or ‘third psychological reality'” composed of the interaction between both analyst and patient (Georgieff 208).

Bechdel’s memoir brilliantly enacts a “third psychological reality” by creating an intersubjective space between the page and the reader.7 Are You My Mother? delivers a contained and ordered narrative to readers, and yet, the story is constructed around “big gaping absences” (Terzian). Bechdel’s self-analysis appears exhaustive—she takes pains to explain each thought and action, accounting for every coincidence—but there are often disjunctions between words and pictures,8 which require the reader to intervene. For instance, Alison’s defensive posture during therapy (she is hunched over with her head down) does not always correspond with her confident responses to Jocelyn’s questions. In these scenes, Bechdel puts the reader in the position of analyst. It is the reader who is burdened with interpretation, having to find connections and decipher patterns that escape Alison’s attention.

Perhaps graphic forms cannot avoid psychoanalytic readings, since they tend to push the space on the page, constructing different narratives at once. Comics allow for a high level of detail, and the disjunction between pictures and words illuminates the contrast between private and public life, as well as between past memories and present insights. Graphic “narratives of development,” in particular, tend to present the self in conflicting registers and temporalities, as Hillary Chute observes. Discussing Fun Home and other autobiographical comics, Chute notes the prevalence of panels in which a child protagonist and an adult narrator speak simultaneously (5). This hybrid temporality is unique to comics. A novel or film can move in time, but cannot as easily represent different temporalities at the same time.9

Graphic narratives also lend themselves to analysis by assuming a slowed-down temporality. Because comics tell parallel and conflicting stories, they compel readers to “look, and then look again” (Chute 8). Bechdel’s depictions of Alison’s therapy sessions demonstrate this. These scenes demand attentive reading, since they tell stories in the spaces between—between words and pictures, between caption boxes, dialogue bubbles, and sketched activity.10 For instance, one panel depicts Jocelyn explaining to Alison that her work makes her anti-social—”being attached to your work…that cuts you off from the world.” This same panel depicts Alison arising from the couch as she responds, “Wait, I gotta write this down!” (152). Here, Bechdel combines speech and images to create dramatic irony for the attuned reader. In another therapy scene, she uses speech and images in opposition (see Figure 5). Alison interprets her motivation for memoir-writing, suggesting to Jocelyn, “I wonder if writing the book is a way of directing my aggression out instead of in?” (164). But this scene is framed so that the reader’s attention is directed in—Alison and her therapist are only visible through two windows of the room. Here, Bechdel uses speech and imagery to contrast external and internal perspective (looking out and looking in). She does so to illuminate the seemingly paradoxical processes of self-analysis. When she externalizes her feelings (when she publishes the memoir), Alison gains access to her internal life. But, again, such insights are only apparent to the careful reader/re-reader.

Figure 5

Freud himself recognized just how well comics facilitate layered narratives. In fact, he drew on the prototype for the graphic novel, according to Rebecca Chaplan. Chaplan explains that in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud attributed his process for representing logical relations in dream to ancient paintings, which depicted small labels hanging from subjects’ mouths. These labels contained written characters that narrated the speech that the artist desired to represent, but could not represent pictorially. Freud was drawn to these paintings because the speech and words could be arranged without regard for linear sequence. In cartoon panels, as well, “speech and words…are not limited by the linear sequencing of prose: by choosing how words are placed on the page, the author can add layers of perspective and commentary. There are opportunities for emphasis, contradiction, and irony that are harder to achieve in a conventional literary narrative” (345-6). In short, comics can combine simple elements in complex ways, and this formal sophistication expresses the nuances and intricacies of the mind.

Are You My Mother? further leverages the comics form to involve the reader in an analytic exchange. The reader’s job, like that of the analyst, is to make connections and decipher patterns for the sake of meaning. The reader’s job is not to cynically question the truth of the story, nor to simply accept the fragments for their pluralistic truth value, but to sort through the divergent stories for some meaning that connects her with the writer. This violates the intentional fallacy,11 since the reader tries to identify the writer’s intents and desires. But this is precisely what Bechdel asks readers to do. Bechdel’s readers do not merely project themselves onto the page; they see her. Bechdel singularizes the character on the page by reproducing her own handwriting12 and by rejecting simple, cartoon-style imagery in favor of more realistic images of characters. As comics theorist Scott McCloud explains, simpler styles (such as those in Hergés’ The Adventures of Tintin, for instance) better allow for viewer identification (42).13 According to McCloud, “We humans are a self-centered race. We see ourselves in everything” (32-3). The more generic the image on the page, the easier this task is. Bechdel, however, takes great pains to reproduce her signature look on the page—”preternaturally slim, dressed in head-to-toe black topped off by her signature, horn-rimmed Elvis Costellos” (Karpel)—and she supplements these visual images with much textual detail in the form of explanatory notes in the caption boxes and in the panels themselves. Where McCloud simplifies, she complicates the processes of reader identification. On the one hand, Bechdel asks the reader to reflect her pain and desire, as the good analyst does for the patient. By reflecting the patient’s feelings, the analyst registers and reaffirms the patient’s story. So while Bechdel serves as her own analyst, she also invites the reader to play this role. On the other hand, she asks readers to become like patients, whose feelings are mirrored back by the narrative itself. In confounding the processes of reader-identification, Bechdel challenges both popular notions of Theory of Mind, which the comics form reproduces, and Computational Theory of Mind (the idea that the mind is an information processing system).

In short, Theory of Mind posits that humans can attribute mental states to other entities. The conventions of comics endorse Theory of Mind, since readers literally read the minds of characters on the page. McCloud’s theory of comics form further builds on this idea, as he discusses how comics enact basic cognitive processes. McCloud explains that humans cannot help but attribute minds to objects, even non-human objects. For instance, when a reader sees two dots above a line, she involuntarily sees a face and attributes mental states to this image. Thus, an image (“icon”) of an electrical outlet can trigger the processes of mind-reading. The reader “gives life” to the images on the page, creating and recreating them with each sequential frame (59). Neil Cohn articulates the perspective of Computational Theory of Mind by emphasizing the reader’s integration of images on the page. Cohn claims that comics enact cognitive linguistic processes. He argues that both drawers and readers use a modality-specific system of grammar to make sense of sequential images, and this process is similar to other forms of cognition (33). Cohn compares comics readers’ cognitive processes to those of subjects processing other kinds of language. Using fMRI technology, Cohn observes that comics readers experience a “P400” signal when panels are sequenced out of order.14 This signal indicates that the brain is momentarily confused, and it is also observed in subjects who encounter a sentence that makes grammatical sense but that lacks coherent meaning (121).

Bechdel complicates both McCloud and Cohn’s notions of cognitive processes by emphasizing comics’ transactional force. The object on the page really is its own object, not just an extension of the perceiving subject or an object to be processed. Again, Bechdel takes pains to recreate herself and all her quirks, rather than a universal image. But at the same time, the Alison-on-the-page depends upon the reader to mirror back her feelings and desires. Like the transitional objects that Winnicott describes, then, the comics form is not “me,” but not “not-me” either. Bechdel creates such a transitional space to communicate with the reader in ways that popular discourse disavows. And it is precisely by affording the reader a meaningful role15 in a process of co-interpretation that her memoir most powerfully rivals popular science texts today.

Comics and Popular Science

Bechdel desires to popularize psychoanalysis, as Winnicott did, because she believes in its therapeutic value. Winnicott made psychological theory accessible to people by using plain language. Bechdel, however, uses cartoons to promote psychoanalysis. Cartoons, as McCloud notes, “have historically held an advantage in breaking in world popular culture” (42). Bechdel knows this well, as her own syndicated comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2008) helped to introduce lesbians to the reading public long before there were lesbian daytime television hosts or shows like The L Word. Interestingly, however, Bechdel’s memoir is not alone in its attempt to introduce psychoanalytic theory to the public through graphic form. Icon Books recently released a series of graphic guides to psychoanalysis and its major figures.16 In the same vein, author Richard Appigananesi and illustrator Oscar Zarate have collaborated to produce the Graphic Freud Series, which features works like Wolf Man and Hysteria, based on Freud’s famous case studies of his patients Sergei Pankejeff and Elisabeth Von R. These works represent a new trend in literary culture: using graphic art to adapt traditional works of theory and literature.17 Although Bechdel’s memoir reflects this larger trend in literary culture (it uses comic form to popularize certain philosophical discourse), Are You My Mother? distinguishes itself from these other texts by trying to interpret psychoanalysis in a less formative way. Rather than merely disclosing psychoanalysis to the reader, Bechdel creates a psychoanalytic exchange between the text and the reader in which the reader plays no small part.

Bechdel’s memoir allows the reader to transfer herself onto the page, making her visible to herself. Bechdel’s reader cannot help but recognize the psychic conflicts—for instance, the ego’s interdependency—with which she, too, struggles. This is why so many readers like Garner have reacted so negatively to Are You My Mother?, according to Heather Love. Bechdel’s “act of risky psychic exposure” provokes a mimetic response in readers, who identify with the strained mother-child relationship. Love argues, “[t]he volatility that characterizes a lot of writing about motherhood can be traced to the difficulty of stably seeing one’s mother as a separate person. And if writing about mothers is difficult, presumably reading about them is too.” Bechdel’s book strikes a nerve, forcing the reader to come to terms with the reality that she, too, is constituted by others.

The memoir does not simply project Alison’s mental state onto the reader; instead, it facilitates the reader’s identification with the same psychic conflicts. For instance, the memoir invites readers to acknowledge their childlike vulnerabilities, such as feelings of rejection. One scene depicts Alison’s distress when her mother shows preference for her sons. Helen is more affectionate with Alison’s brothers, kissing them good night while refusing to kiss her daughter. (Seven years is too old for this, according to Helen.) Bechdel relates, “it was almost as if she’d slapped me.” What reader cannot relate to this experience of being rejected by a parent or loved one? The memoir allows the reader to transfer her own needs and desires onto the page, seeing herself, as well as Alison. By using the comic form to facilitate the reader’s recognition, rather than to simply translate obscure discourse, Bechdel’s memoir acts as a “good mother” (and a good analyst) to the reader. The good mother does not interfere with the infant’s creative development, just as the good analyst does not interfere with the patient’s development by disclosing the hidden meanings behind the patient’s behavior. Rather, she allows the infant the project her needs and desires onto her in a process of transference. In doing so, the infant learns to recognize herself as separate being.

It is precisely by mothering the reader in this way that Bechdel’s graphic memoir challenges the influence of popular science texts that prevail in the age of the brain. Such works seek to demystify the self, reducing the self (and the reader) to biological processes. The title of Dennett’s bestseller, Consciousness Explained (1991), is illustrative of this. These texts have significantly informed the ways in which contemporary readers understand themselves, as evidenced by Alison’s own reflection, “I’m in my brain.” Importantly, Bechdel does not just challenge the positivism of materialist philosophy, she challenges the means by which popular science writers communicate with the public. She is keenly aware of the influence of popular texts, and she wants to be more than a mere popularizer. Miller’s text, The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979), incidentally, provides an example of how a bestseller can exert a profound influence on the ways in which a reader imagines herself. The book informs Alison’s understanding of herself and her relationship to her mother, as it did for many of its readers when it was first published. The irony of the Miller’s text is that it produced many gifted children—that is, readers who identified as the gifted, sensitive child described by Miller. If everyone is a gifted child, who among us remains average? Garrison Keillor memorably exposed this paradox on his weekly radio show from the fictional town of Lake Wobegone, Minnesota, where “all the children are above average” (“A Prairie Home Companion”). The irony of the gifted child is not lost on Bechdel, who depicts Alison finding Miller’s book at a bookstore alongside other bestselling titles like Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More (1986) and Anne Wilson Schaef’s When Society Becomes An Addict (1987). Standing in the aisles of the bookstore, Alison is engrossed by the book. When she purchases it, she learns that “apparently, it was some kind of sacred text” (53). The cashier has already been transformed by Miller’s book, telling Alison, “kiss life as you know it goodbye.” Bechdel’s subtitle—”a comic drama”—riffs on Miller’s title (The Drama of the Gifted Child), while also punning on the two meanings of comic/comics.

So, while Bechdel clearly accepts Miller’s theories (and Winnicott’s, for that matter), she does not necessarily accept the means in which Miller, Winnicott, or other popularizers communicate with the public. This is apparent in her choice of the graphic form. The cartoon page allows her to rival the “bad mothering” of popular discourse by facilitating interpretation in a non-formative way. Bechdel’s graphic memoir challenges popular neuroscientific discourse not simply by reviving out-of-fashion psychoanalytic theories, but by creating a space for readers to recognize themselves (and Bechdel) without “pathological” intellectualization. Put more simply: Are You My Mother? enables the reader’s identification without directing it. Like a good mother/analyst, it invites the reader to transfer desire, making it (desire) visible. Through this “alchemical” process, the reader can see and be seen.


[1] While Bechdel uses the term to describe the process of transference, comics theorist Scott McCloud has used the term to describe the transactional relation between the page and the reader.

[2] As a scientific philosophy, positivism views science as a purely objective enterprise. It regards the scientist as an independent observer of the subject being investigated.

[3] This is the theme of Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child, which also informs Alison’s self-analysis.

[4] Thus, Bechdel challenges forms of Lacanian psychoanalysis, which deny the accessibility of underlying truth. Slavoj Žižek, for instance, argues in The Sublime Object of Ideology that meaning, identity, and ideology exceed critical distance. According to Žižek, the function of ideology is not to persuade the individual to adopt a certain belief, but rather to fabricate an entire social reality without which that ideology would not exist.

[5] See, for instance, Juliette Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose.

[6] In Bruno Latour’s terms, Bechdel resists “realism.” In Pandora’s Hope, Latour distinguishes between the realism of modern science and the constructivism of postmodernism. Realism affirms a world “out there” (outside of the cognitive subject) that science can access. Constructivism regards scientific knowledge as a construction similar to language, which cannot bridge the gap between the cognitive subject and external reality. Latour formulates an alternative position (“realistic realism”) to both realism and constructivism, claiming that there is no gap between the cognizing subject (the “brain-in-the-vat”) and reality. Latour’s “realistic realism” resembles Bechdel’s concept of the “space between the objective and the subjective.” However, in Latour’s schema, action and agency are distributed, whereas, in Bechdel’s schema, agency (creativity, rather) is dyadic. For Latour, action is effecting some entity (human or nonhuman) somewhere in the network; for Bechdel, creativity is effecting reciprocity between two entities (human or nonhuman).

[7] Analyzing the importance of intersubjectivity, Lee Konstantinou argues that “Bechdel explores what it would mean to take seriously Winnicott’s riff on Descartes: ‘When I look I am seen, so I exist.'”

[8] McCloud terms this kind of word/picture relation (where words and pictures take separate paths without converging) the “parallel combination” (154).

[9] Comics also facilitate an interposing of genres, though this is not unique to the form. See Julia Watson’s analysis of this phenomenon in Fun Home, which she claims converges the “coming-of-age” story and the “coming-out” story.

[10] Fun Home also tells a story in the gaps, as Chute discusses in Graphic Women. Chute argues that Bechdel creates various dialectics—for instance, between the verbal and the visual, between presence and absence, between life and death—to achieve “an analytic texture, an emotional, experiential accuracy” that more conventional narrative methods cannot so easily achieve (191). See also Robyn Warhol’s “The Space Between: A Narrative Approach to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home” for an analysis of the story-worlds created in between words and pictures.

[11] W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and Monroe Beardsley coined the term in their influential essay, “The Intentional Fallacy,” in which they argue that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” (468).

[12] Chute calls the graphic memoirist’s handwriting “the subjective mark of the body” on the page (11).

[13] McCloud notes that Tintin combines “iconic characters with unusually realistic backgrounds” (42). This combination allows readers to identify with the character and the setting.

[14] Cohn offers this example of the sequence: “establishment” (setting up the scene), “initial” (introduction of tension), “peak” (climax of tension), and “release” (resolution of the tension).

[15] The active comics reader is the subject of much critical attention. For instance, critics often distinguish comics from film by noting that comics encourage an active reader, in contrast to cinema’s passive viewer. See Chute and Hatfield.

[16] See Introducing Psychoanalysis: A Graphic Guide (2011) written by Ivan Ward and illustrated by Oscar Zarate, Introducing Melanie Klein: A Graphic Guide (2011), written by Robert Hinshelwood and Susan Robinson, and Introducing Lacan: A Graphic Guide (2010), written by Darian Leader and illustrated by Judy Groves.

[17] In addition to foundational psychoanalytic theories, Marxist theory, Deconstruction, and Cultural Studies are now presented in comic form. Sample titles include Introducing Derrida: A Graphic Guide and Introducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic Guide.

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