Academic journal article Criticism

Are You My Internal Object?

Academic journal article Criticism

Are You My Internal Object?

Article excerpt

ARE YOU MY INTERNAL OBJECT? Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Pp. 304. $22.00 cloth, $15.98 paper.

I remember hearing stories about how radical socialists who refused monogamy and family structure at the beginning of the 1970s ended that decade by filing into psychoanalytic offices and throwing themselves in pain on the analytic couch.

-Judith Butler, Antigone's Claim (2000)1

Alison Bechde?s Are You My Mother? (henceforth abbreviated as AYMM) is heavily invested in the pleasure of the case study. Case studies depersonalize the most intimate details of a life while also staging a realistic inferiority that reflects the reader's own perverse, mundane, and storied feelings. Bechdel punctuates her absorption in the mystery of the unconscious forces that shape her life with illustrations of herself curled up in bed, not with a novel, but with studies by Alice Miller, Carl Jung, and Adam Phillips, from which she models her own self-investigation. AYMM enfolds case study and memoir into one object in order to track and analyze the history of Bechde?s unconscious. She framed her first book as a "memoir about my father," and this curious overprecise phrasing is repeated in AYMM, which is described as a "memoir about my mother." Memoirs typically are autobiographical reminiscences, whereas memoirs about "X" tend to refer to personal reminiscences of time spent in an institution. In writing memoirs about her parents, Bechdel purports not to write biographically of either parent (although she does), but instead to write testimonials about the relationship of their lives to her own. As regards her mother, this is a far more expansive relation than the one with her father detailed in Fun Home (2006).

In the psychoanalytic literature, mothers recall a time when the distinction between subject and object does not yet exist for the infant. That literature also references work in structural anthropology that discusses women as objects of exchange within culture rather than as actors within it. Bechdel's relation to her mother, therefore, is not a relationship with a singular person; rather, it is a relation to a culture of liminality that she associates with figures like Donald Winnicott and Virginia Woolf, each of whom reminds her of her mother in different ways. This maternal relation is also defined, in part, by her mother's resistance to being objectified and circulated within culture through the medium of Bechdel's memoirs. Her mother is clearly a formidable person-an artist, a critic, a former teacher, a journalist in later life-and a narcissist. The strength of her personality so strongly suffuses Fun Home that a follower of Bechdel's work cannot help but look forward to a lengthier engagement with their relationship. Yet, her mother is no fan of the autobiographical impulse within literature. With the witty barbs and offhand provocations that Bechdel depicts as issuing from totally controlled and deadpan features (in one scene, she explains that her mother plucks her eyebrows to relax), it is clear that, as adults, they share a complicated and deep friendship even while at odds over the genre in which Bechdel writes. Because of this conflict-the mother's resistance to memoir and the daughter's resulting complexes- AYMM is rigidly structured around psychoanalytic concepts that transfer the focus from her mother's person to her significance to Bechdel as a site of impasse.

The problem, as Bechdel elegantly lays out in the opening of AYMM is twofold and lifethreatening. Employing a confounding strategy that she uses throughout her work, Bechdel begins with a depiction of herself driving to her mother's house to explain that she is going to be writing a memoir about her father. Yet, the scrolling caption narration describes a different hesitation altogether: how to find a starting point for a new memoir about her mother. The starting point is, of course, the moment when processing the association between her mother and memoir begins-that is, when caption, scene, and thought are first alienated from one another. …

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