Alison Bechdel on ‘the problem of women writing’ and why everyone could use an instruction manual
In the minutes before author and artist Alison Bechdel was due to begin a reading at the Barnes and Noble on 82nd Street last week to promote her latest book, Are You My Mother?, she stood by a green curtain alongside the stage, looking out at the crowd.
Wearing a blazer and jeans, the 51-year-old writer, who made her name as the creator of the comic Dykes to Watch Out For, exhibited a mix of alertness and calm—a little anxious around the edges, but in no way headed for a full-on freakout.
A woman in the packed audience, probably a friend of Bechdel's, watched her as she waited. "She's gonna hide behind the curtain," said the woman to the person next to her, not without fondness and amusement, suggesting that Bechdel would prefer not to be in the spotlight.
If you only know Bechdel from her acclaimed 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home and her just-published follow-up, Are You My Mother?, the notion that she would rather be standing on the sidelines, away from the center of attention, seems correct. She appears in nearly every panel of the memoirs, but frequently depicts herself as a watchful presence in a corner—observing the other figures in her story, and quite often, ceding the foreground to a book.
"I have a mind that loves books," she told me, speaking by phone on the road from her book tour. "I'm a little dismayed at the way that reading isn’t the most effective way of figuring things out anymore. You know, you get a new computer and there's no manual. You have to go online. I feel increasingly at sea in a world where we don’t have instruction books."
In Bechdel's memoirs, books are not only instruction manuals—they are shields, security blankets, imaginary lovers, substitute parents. Literature, and her subjects' relation to it, anchor the narratives. Fun Home examined her childhood in the light of her closeted father's apparent suicide, which occurred weeks after she told her parents she was a lesbian. Her father, an English teacher and director of his family's funeral home, loved Camus, Proust, Fitzgerald, and Joyce, and Bechdel maps the ways those writers influenced or mirrored her father's life; her own realization that she was a lesbian happened through discovering the companion book to the 1978 documentary Word Is Out. In Are You My Mother?, Bechdel writes of her mother's talent for writing and acting and its relationship to her own artistic ambitions—the mother worshipping Wallace Stevens and alternately fascinated and repulsed by Sylvia Plath, while the daughter immerses herself in Virginia Woolf and British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott as she ponders the distance between herself and her mother, who, instead of becoming Helen Vendler, taught English part-time and raised Bechdel and her two brothers in the small Pennsylvania town her husband was raised in.
For Bechdel, reading has always been much more than a distraction.
"I loved the Narnia books, and at a shocking age tried to jump into a puddle one day thinking it would take me to the Wood between the Worlds," she says, referring to the fantastical portal to other lands in C.S. Lewis' stories. In childhood she "had kind of an attitude about girl books" such as The Secret Garden, which she later came to love, but it would be a steady diet of "girl books," so to speak, that revolutionized her college years—Earthly Paradise by Colette, Flying by Kate Millett, On Lies, Secrets and Silence by Adrienne Rich, among others. These provided companionship at a time when, having transferred to Oberlin, she was going through a lonely period and spent a lot of time in whatever library or bookstore was at hand. And though this reading didn't transport her to an imaginary kingdom, they did allow Bechdel to eventually find a community to be at home in.
"Books referred me to other books," she says. "It was like a treasure hunt. It was really salvational for me, because I didn’t have people I could talk to, and books guided and supported me until I was able to connect with other people."
In Are You My Mother?, Bechdel, after writing of attending a lecture given by Rich, characterizes the poet's transition from formal detachment to intensely personal work as "kind of going for broke." With Are You My Mother? you get the sense that Bechdel is kind of going for broke herself, in suggesting that the modern mother-daughter story, as small-scaled as it currently is, with its wars fought at dinner tables and in teenage diaries, its history revised in therapists' offices, can still feel as universal and charged as ancient myth.
Flipping through drawings of her mother in a demure sweater and plaid skirt, and those of herself in a button-down and jeans staring down her own blank page, watching the daughter realize the mother's dreams, you notice that Bechdel also seems to be paying homage to landmark feminist texts like A Room of One's Own while writing her own version for the present age. There are numerous images of Bechdel looking very much like the woman Adrienne Rich, as quoted in the memoir, says is absent from most literature: "that absorbed, drudging, puzzled, sometimes inspired creature … who sits at a desk trying to put words together." In other hands, such a move might seem self-aggrandizing, but Bechdel's project, suffused as it is with melancholy and empathy, is clearly undertaken by someone who looks around her as much as she looks inward.
"I'm writing about the problem of women writing," she admitted. The "core problem," as Bechdel called it, being the conflict between motherhood and artistic ambition. "I don't mean to oversimplify things," she said, "because I know that many women have creative lives and raise children. But how many Leonard Woolfs are there? Not many."
Bechdel, who lives in Vermont with her partner, and does not have children, said, "I feel like my primary relationship is with my work. And I think that's a little pathological, but that that's very much a legacy from both my parents. They raised a family, and that came at the cost of living more artistic lives. I feel like I'm carrying on their work." In doing so, she's written an indispensable instruction manual for others sitting absorbed, drudging, and puzzled at their own cluttered desks.