Stigma Busting! With Alison Bechdel’s books, Fun Home & Are You My Mother
Bechdel’s books Fun Home and Are You My Mother are both written and illustrated by her. She began her professional writing career as a cartoonist. Lesbian representation in media has at times been problematic so it’s always refreshing to see people representing themselves. A large part of Bechdel’s work is political in this aspect; the fight for gay rights has long been about visibility, coming out and standing tall. While these are graphic novels they are hardly cartoonish – often they are gritty and genuine – she tries as hard as she can to portray things as they are. And just as Bechdel is working hard to end the stigma around her lesbian identity, she is also busting up stigma for mental health issues like OCD, anxiety, depression and talking about suicide.
Fun Home is about the odyssey that is growing up and Are You My Mother is about how our childhood beginnings so often influence our adult life. Just like coming of age story, Bechdel does talk about her sexual growth. I found the very brief consensual portrayals of sex, which have been cited as “controversial,” far less disturbing than the incredibly realistic portrayals of psychological and physical abuse during her childhood. While the descriptions are not overly gory they are blunt, bare descriptions with no frills or artifice to cover them. Keep this in mind if you know that reading this kind of material is likely to aggravate your symptoms if you have a history of trauma from abuse.
Fun Home is primarily about her father, a closeted gay man who married Bechdel’s mother, and about her own coming out as a lesbian to her family. Her coming out was only a few months before her father’s suicide and Bechdel seems to feel that these events are linked; for her at least they are in proximity of time. Are You My Mother explores Bechdel’s relationship to her mom and to her concept of her mom. She writes about Winnicott, an analyst whose writings inform a foundation of psychodynamic practice. Winnicott pioneered the idea of the “good enough” mother, and that our connection to our primary caregiver (so often the mother) informs how we connect to other people the rest of our lives.
Bechdel is so frank in her examinations of herself that this blog entry feels like adding a lesser addendum to her book. Indeed her own relentless self-examination inspires the reader to look inward. As she says in the book, it is possible to write about personal issues in a way that is universal. It’s clear that she has achieved that aim. By writing an unflinching record of her symptoms, thoughts as she experienced OCD, depression and an abusive childhood she demonstrates what it was like for many children who grew up in abusive homes.
Like so many survivors of childhood abuse who have gastrointestinal issues, Bechdel is preoccupied with throwing up and nauseated when distressed. She also suffers from headaches, as does her mother. Somatic symptoms were first thought of as physical manifestations of psychic pain that was repressed. Now we know it isn’t just “all in your head,” there are multiple mechanisms for all this stress to manifest in physical ways. Folks who endure stressful situations for long periods of time are at risk for developing immune disorders and pain disorders. If you would like to learn more about “Adverse Childhood Experiences” and how they can impact people as adults, check out the CDC’s study. There’s a modified version of the ACE survey here . Before you take it, understand that 64% of all people who took the survey identified at least one adverse event. If you look at women, a quarter of them identified 3 or more adverse events. You are not a freak of nature if you answer yes to questions on the quiz, you are not alone.
Bechdel’s inward gaze laid bare is a wonderful gift for folks who survived childhood abuse. Not only has she clearly grown from her time in therapy she has also put it to use in service of others by writing this book. She writes more beautifully about therapy than I ever could. She is, after all, an award-winning author. If you have wished for a gentler, more understanding parent – if you have ever felt that you were never able to earn your parents love – you will feel less alone reading these books.