Alison Bechdel at the Ukrainian Hall, an event sponsored by Drawn and Quarterly and the Institute For Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at McGill. As I trudged through the slush of the late spring snow and dodged spraying mud from passing cars on St-Denis, I wondered what Bechdel would talk about, even though I knew she really didn't have to do much to please the crowd. The syndicated cartoonist of the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and critically acclaimed graphic memoirist has legions of adoring fans. The evening's presenter even told the crowd that a video of Bechdel rescuing an earwig from the kitchen sink garnered more than 7,000 views.
In the end, however, it was not her talk that was the most interesting, but the Q&A at the end. Both of her groundbreaking graphic memoirs Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama were more widely read than I had ever imagined. It was also interesting to see her reaction to personal questions that appeared to hit a little too close to home.
No one can deny that authors speaking in public have some expectation of privacy, so why wouldn't Bechdel?
A proponent of "the personal is the political," Bechdel (pronounced Bekdel) writes and draws about very personal issues in great detail. In her first wildly successful graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, she chronicles her childhood and early adulthood in a rural Pennsylvania town and her complex relationship with her father, a funeral home director and high school English teacher. Her father is overbearing and at times violent, like many dads of that era, but he also lives a secret life. Just as the author is coming to terms with her own sexuality, she realizes that her father, too, is gay. It is around this time that there is a tragic accident and her father dies. However, the daughter sees it as a suicide.
Her second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, is equally as personal. Bechdel writes about her relationship with her very distant mother, who never fully gives her blessing to the memoir. It is also abundantly clear that Fun Home was not a family favourite. Are You My Mother? goes into detail about Bechdel's relationships and her psychotherapy with multiple references to Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich and Donald Winnicott. The book does not offer the same closure as Fun Home, but then making sense of our relationships with our mothers is often a work-in-progress.
Although Bechdel admitted at the Q&A that she was not pleased with the end-result of Are You My Mother?, it was nevertheless a critical success.
The talk and slide show of Dykes to Watch Out For were in fact short. The Q&A started like most other with a few timid questions until a sexologist came to the microphone to ask the author about the openness of her therapists to Bechdel's sexual orientation. The author was frank about her positive experiences. At any other Q&A, this would have been a cringe moment, but this time it wasn't. In fact, I nearly made a move to the mic myself. I had my own question. I wanted to know how the little Pennsylvania town where she grew up reacted to Fun Home. But clearly, I was not alone, as many more people quickly joined the line to ask a question. A therapist said that she used Are You My Mother? with her patients as a means to teach the heavy-handed writing of Winnicott. There was also a question from a teacher who taught Fun Home to his highschool English class. Bechdel said that the book was used in college English classes and that she always found it strange that students talked about her father as an actual character.
Then the question everyone was expecting materialized: What did Bechdel's mother think of Are You My Mother? The author took a step back and put her hand over her mouth before answering. Her mother was not happy. "I had to take her to Las Vegas," she said.
Then it was announced that there was enough time for two more questions for the last two people in line. The following person asked a question about the Bechdel test for films and then asked why neither of her siblings appeared in Are You My Mother? Again the author's hand covered her mouth. "Ahh, that's a bit of a hornet's nest," she said. "I can't talk about that." Then she waved her hand in the air and called an end to the question period, leaving one last person in line.
Alison Bechdel has truly espoused "the personal is the political" and her books have helped and validated the experiences of many, but I still think that her honesty and openness may have come at a very high personal price.
This has been cross-posted at Rover Arts.
Other related reviews:
Films for Girls - A Bechdel-Inspired Girl Positive Test
Joyce Carol Oates on her Life and US Politics
A Royal: Jackie Robinson
Alexander MacLeod: Mentor