Alison Bechdel’s memoir, Are You My Mother recounts her extremely difficult and painful relationship with her mother as well as the struggles she endures due to her queer identity. For individuals that identify as homosexual, disclosing their sexual identity can often be a negative experience that works to oppress rather than liberate them. This memoir illustrates how a deep, almost obsessive attachment, to a queer individual’s parent can work to further complicate, worsen and intensify the common issues faced by those who decide to “come out of the closet”. This paper will outline how Alison’s deep obsession with her relationship with her mother worked to create both her lesbian identity and a desperate need for her mother’s acceptance of this identity that she is never able to achieve because of negative outcomes that commonly result from “coming out of the closet”. In addition, this paper will also outline that Alison’s fear of alienation from her mother is so great that she compromises her deeply held beliefs to adopt the very homonormative attitude that she despises and refuses to write about at the expense of the professional success that she so urgently desires. Alison’s deep, life-long attachment to her mother is not only explicitly suggested in her memoir’s title but is the central and guiding theme of this book. Her constant obsession with analyzing and deciphering how her mother’s behaviour came to shape who she is and how she thinks is shown through her therapy sessions. In addition, this memoir shows how Alison’s mother was so influential in her life that she completely shaped her identity, specifically, her sexual identity. Freud explains that under certain circumstances, which he explains as the “inaccessibility of any normal sexual object”, an individual may be a contingent invert in that they make their sexual object a person of the same sex (1953). In this way, Freud outlines that homosexuality is not innate and can be developed at any point in an individual’s life due to significant and influential events (Georgis, 2012). In Alison’s life, the influential “circumstance” that worked to create her homosexuality and inability to access a “normal” sexual object was her childhood relationship with her mother. The formation of Alison’s lesbian identity can be understood through Butler’s psychoanalytical understanding of sexuality. Butler rejects psychoanalytical theories that claim that the loss of a love object results in a desire to either be or have that love object and that such individuals cannot have both these desires at the same time (1991). In these theories, the desire to be the love object is materialized through imitating it and the desire to have the love object is materialized through imitating the person who sexually has the love object (Georgis, 2012). However, Butler (1991) explains that “identification and desire can co-exist” (p. 26) and this may illustrate Alison’s possible homosexual development. Because Alison is constantly looking for her mother’s approval and acceptance, the emotional and physical rejection from her mother that she endures throughout her entire life represents the loss of Alison’s most loved object, her mother. Alison “became” the figure that “had” her mother, her father, by imitating her father’s choice of sexual object and thus, becoming a lesbian (Georgis, 2012). By keeping her identity as a woman, Alison imitated and identified with her mother (Georgis, 2012). Her deep obsession with her mother ensured that her mother’s parental inadequacies resulted in significantly molding and influencing an extremely important aspect of Alison’s life, her sexual identity. Sexual identity is significant because it completely defines an individual, permeates every aspect of life and shapes the way that others perceive and interact with that individual. Alison’s mother’s ability to influence something as significant as her sexual identity illustrates the power her mother’s opinions and beliefs also had in permeating and influencing all other aspects of her life. Alison does not conceal her constant, lifelong obsession with understanding and achieving the acceptance of her mother; her memoir solely focuses on this. Alison’s continuous attempts to achieve acceptance of her lesbian identity from her mother perfectly illustrate some of the problems that often arise when an individual “comes out of the closet”. Firstly, although sexual identity is commonly understood as permanent, when an individual reveals herself as homosexual, the person who receives this disclosure often rejects this as unchangeable through questioning the legitimacy of the claim (Sedgwick, 1990). In a letter responding to Alison’s “coming out of the closet”, her mother writes, “You are young…” (Bechdel, 2012, p. 156). When said by an individual to someone younger, the phrase “you are young” is often used to heed warning and express that the individual’s youth makes them incapable of understanding the significance and possible detrimental implications of their actions. It suggests that the older individual doing the warning has knowledge that one can only acquire with experience and thus, the younger individual should also wait to acquire such knowledge before pursuing their naïve and potentially harmful desires any further. By saying, “you are young”, Alison’s mother expresses her disapproval and suggests that with more life experience, Alison could change her worldview or learn the implications of being a lesbian and thus, change her sexual identity. Secondly, the identity of the person who the homosexual identity is being disclosed to is often negatively implicated as it sometimes leads to the person to question their own sexual identity or the role they may have had in creating the newly learned homosexual identification (Sedgwick 1990). This is especially significant to a mother-daughter relationship when considering Winnicott’s idea that a mother and a baby are the same person and have the same identity for a few months after birth (Bechdel, 2012). Although she does not witness how her mother’s identity is implicated in her own “coming out”, Alison eventually becomes aware of the negative implications that probably resulted from her truth claim to her mother (Bechdel, 2012). Her mother explains to Alison that after learning that good friend, who she had a lot of respect for, had lesbian desires, she went into a depression for a few weeks (Bechdel, 2012). Evidently, if knowledge of a friend’s homosexuality could elicit such a huge shock for Alison’s mother, then Alison’s own homosexuality must have negatively implicated her mother’s identity, as she is the person who raised Alison Finally, “coming out of the closet” sometimes results in alienation and isolation because homosexual individuals may not only be rejected by the communities of people who previously accepted them, but may also feel unable to relate to the communities of people they are expected to identify with (Sedgwick, 1990). Firstly, Alison’s mother’s disapproval of her homosexuality further damaged their relationship and rendered Alison more alone as it distanced her from the one person whom she so desperately sought approval from. Secondly, the specific way that Alison understood her own homosexual identity ensured that she was alienated from the lesbian communities that she could have potentially identified with. Alison was not only unable to identify the women she dated throughout her life but also with successful and powerful lesbian authors because of her her inability to both wholly reject and identify with a homonormative identity. Homonormativity is the idea that by conforming with all other dominant beliefs in society, a homosexual individual may “contribute to the…decency of… national life” (Duggan, 2002, p. 175). Homonormative thinking is detrimental because it does not represent the entire gay community, but rather, represents those homosexuals who, except for their sexual behaviour, choose to conform and display normative conduct accepted by society (Georgis11, 2012). In one part of her memoir, Alison expresses her disgust with a successful lesbian newspaper columnist because she views her as an disingenuous opportunist who only supports conservative concerns because this is the only vehicle for a lesbian author to be accepted and acknowledged in mainstream media and gain success (Bechdel, 2012). In another chapter, however, Alison shows her tendency to be homonormative and unable to reject the very behaviours she despises when she explains that other than her lesbianism, she was “compliant to the core” (Bechdel, 2012, p. 188). Evident from her lifelong need to attend therapy, Alison saw herself as having a mental pathology and thus, did not find Winnicott’s view that compliant behaviour in a child was a sign of pathology as problematic. She accepted her compliance stemmed from her mental health issues and thus, did not see her homonormative behaviour an unsual. She viciously hid her “true self” and compliantly displayed a “false self” of homonormativity to her mother to gain her acceptance. Through examining Winnicott’s work, Alison understands the “true self” as an individual’s real identity (Bechdel, 2012). She explains that when the “true self” is not accepted by others, a person’s “false self”, or false identity, emerges as a defense mechanism to hide one’s true identity and thus, avoid the potential negative reactions produced by the “true self” (Bechdel, 2012). Although she dated Eloise, a very involved queer activist, she was never able to relate and identify with Eloise on this level and become a part of the queer activist community. This is not because she did not agree with queer activist causes but simply because this would further display the lesbian identity that her mother severely disapproved of. Through portraying a sort of homonormative identity Alison succeeded in preventing further damage to her relationship with her mother yet also worked to alienate herself from the liberal queer activist community that she shared common values with. Interestingly, Alison simultaneously works to ensure that she does not display homonormative behaviour through her writing. By outlining her mother’s appreciation for the same homonormative lesbian columnist that Alison expresses dislike for, Alison illustrates how writing in this way would work to gain her mother’s acceptance (Bechdel, 2012). However, Alison is unable to write in a homonormative voice because this is not her “true self”. Throughout the book Alison suggests that an author’s purpose is to expose truth and reality (Bechdel, 2012). She also promotes Winnicott’s idea that explains that without the appropriate conditions for the “false self” to make the “true self” known, “the clinical result is suicide” (Bechdel, 2012, p. 96). Alison desperately envies and resents the successful careers of other queer writers that have the same credentials as herself, yet she acknowledges their success resulted from writing homonormatively and refuses to achieve her desired professional success in this way (Bechdel, 2012). She explains that writing that promotes homonormativity is the only way in which a queer author is able to have their work published in mainstream media (Bechdel, 2012). She understands that because of this reality, there are no appropriate and accessible conditions for her true liberal, anti-homonormative self to be presented to mainstream society and thus, by being stuck in a state of “false self”, Alison damages her career by committing the equivalent of professional suicide through disconnecting and alienating herself from the community of successful queer authors. Most individuals aim for societal acceptance and understanding. This quest for acceptance becomes complicated when a person “comes out of the closet” and identifies as queer. As Alison Bechdel’s memoir illustrates, “coming out” can become even further problematic when the acceptance an individual desires is directed at her parents and completely unattainable. In conclusion, Are You My Mother not only outlines how parental opinions and behaviours can be influential enough to shape a child’s sexual identity, but also how the motivation to attain parental approval can drive an individual to the point where she abandons the deeply-held beliefs and values that construct her very sexual identity.
Bechdel, A. (2012). Are You My Mother? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Butler, J. (1991). Imitation and Gender Subordination. Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, 13-31. Freud, S. (1953). The Sexual Aberrations. On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works, 45-75.
Georgis, D. (November 21, 2012). Homonormativity. Lecture conducted from University of Toronto, Toronto, ON.
Georgis, D. (September 26, 2012). “Origins” of Queer. Lecture conducted from University of Toronto, Toronto, ON.
Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the Closet. Epistemology of the Closet, 67-90.