Psychological Diffusions: The Cognitive Turn in Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama

Genie Nicole Giaimo


Graphic artist Alison Bechdel has enjoyed widespread success since the publication of her first long form autobiographical comic Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006). Already, there is a substantial body of criticism on Bechdel that addresses her cerebral writing style, her personal archive, and her contributions to the graphic narrative form. Lauded for her realistic reproduction of ephemera such as letters, maps, photographs, and marginalia, critics have overlooked moments in which these documents—and her readings of events in her family—fail to produce meaning. In her second graphic narrative, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (2012), Bechdel relies upon modernist texts and psychoanalysis in order to represent her complicated relationship with her mother, Helen. Yet, as in Fun Home when the archive fails to explain the circumstances that culminated in her father’s death, psychoanalysis in Are You My Mother? impedes Alison in her quest to understand how her relationship with her mother has affected her adult life:in particular, her craft and her romantic relationships. This paper argues that Bechdel’s reliance on psychoanalysis to shape her narrative overshadows a stronger and more telling presence of precepts commonly associated with cognitive science and neuroscience. In the narrative, Alison articulates a number of cognitive theories, such as pattern making and theory of mind, as well as neurological concepts such as memory consolidation and reconsolidation that better account for the events of the text — and the impulse to tell life narrative — than psychoanalysis. Part of a growing number of texts that are preoccupied with how the mind/brain give rise to autobiographical identity and narrative form, Are You My Mother? challenges the referential certainty of the life narrative genre in conceptually novel and aesthetically complex ways.


Contemporary American Life Writing; cognitive theory; comics; neuroscience; identity; memory

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