There seem to be as many kinds of memoirs as there are writers. Some record great deeds, others set the record straight or record a soul-saving epiphany.
For Alison Bechdel, who will talk about her new graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, Thursday night at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the memoir is a form of exorcism.
A stunning, psychologically astute, and sophisticated masterwork, Bechdel's sophomore effort details her fraught relationship with her mother, Helen, a sometime actor, artist, and English teacher whose artistic ambitions were thwarted by a life of domesticity.
The book is a follow-up to Bechdel's acclaimed 2006 debut, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, about her equally troubled relationship with her father, Bruce, a deeply conflicted, closeted gay man who is believed to have committed suicide when she was 20. (His death was officially ruled an accident.)
As Bechdel writes in her first book, Bruce walked in front of a truck shortly after finding out that Alison, then a junior at Oberlin College, had come out as a lesbian, and that Helen was filing for divorce.
Named after the famous P.D. Eastman children's book Where's My Mother, Bechdel's apologia took six years to complete and helped Bechdel rid herself of her unhealthy obsession with her mother, whom she portrays as a distant, critical woman.
Bechdel writes that her mother's effect on her has been so intimidating, she feared she'd be forever silenced by writer's block.
"The thing is, I can't write this book until I get her out of my head," Bechdel draws herself telling her psychoanalyst, Carol. "But the only way to get her out of my head is by writing the book!"
So powerful was her mother's internalized, critical voice, said Bechdel, she couldn't admit she was writing about the woman even as she was writing the new book.
"And so it was that I was writing about my mother," Bechdel said, "that I couldn't even accept I was doing so until I was well into the project."
She writes that when she was 13, it took her six months before she could gather up enough courage to tell her mother she had had her first period.
Speaking from her home in rural Vermont, where she lives with her long-term partner, the painter Holly Rae Taylor, Bechdel said her fear of her mother persists to this day and affected how frank she could be in the book.
"It was hard to convey my real fear of her," she said about writing the book, although she never accuses either parent of abusing her. "I am afraid of her getting angry at me." And the memoirist admitted, "I have always felt intellectually intimidated by my mother. It sounds ridiculous, but I really have a hard time constructing intelligible sentences when I'm around her."
As in her first memoir, Bechdel illuminates her story with riffs on voracious diarist Virginia Woolf, Swiss psychologist Alice Miller, and the eminent British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.
"His ideas are so warm," Bechdel said of Winnicott. "They are about connecting."
In one episode in Are You My Mother?, Bechdel tells her therapist she wishes Winnicott were her mother.
Bechdel's real mother kept house in Lock Haven, Pa., where Alison grew up with her two brothers, Christian and John, an industrial rock keyboardist who has played with Ministry and Killing Joke.
The daughter of two keen diarists, Bechdel, 51, was born to write memoirs. She began keeping a diary of her own when she was 10. She was so fastidious about writing on a daily basis that later that year, when she had a bad episode of what she described as obsessive-compulsive disorder, she insisted her mother take down her entries by dictation. She writes in the book that this was one of the few times her mother gave her undivided attention.
After graduating from Oberlin, Bechdel launched her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out for in 1983. By the time she killed the strip in 2008, it was syndicated in more than 50 gay and lesbian weeklies. The strip drew extensively from the lives of Bechdel and her friends, but it wasn't until Fun Home that she embraced confessional writing.
Confessional conversing, on the other hand, has always been her speciality. "I feel compelled to talk about my intimate life," she said. "I often find myself revealing too much."
Doesn't all the self-revelation exhaust her? "I find it very energizing to do this," she said. "I feel like I somehow took all that stuff from the '70s ... about the personal being political, I took that in very, very literally, and I can't seem to shake it."
Besides, she added, "revealing everything is a sort of bargaining chip, a way to get the reader to trust me, to trust I'll always reveal the truth."
Isn't that what confidence tricksters do? Bechdel was asked. She laughed.
Bechdel, who said she's always felt that a part of her identity was missing or nebulous, said that confessional writing has a far more serious, even redemptive side.
"I feel like that is what I have really done in this book about my mother, is to create my own very elaborate self reflection," she said. "A reflection of myself that I have been missing on some deep level."
Miller and Winnicott both write that some babies who never receive that reflection, that intimate recognition from their mothers in early infancy, develop a perennial sense of loss, a feeling there is something missing at their very core.
In one harrowing section of her book, Bechdel writes that her favorite game with her mother, the one game her mother never refused to play with her, was the "crippled child game," which would have Bechdel pretend she was lame or otherwise handicapped while her mother would fit her with imaginary leg braces or lift her into an imaginary chair.
"I somehow envied children who had physical disabilities," Bechdel said. "I envied the visibility of their problems."
Bechdel was unusually coy when asked what the game said about her and her mother. "I don't give my own interpretation in the book." she said.
She's more forthcoming when asked how her mother has reacted to the new book.
"She will not discuss the content," Bechdel said. "She said three words about the whole book. 'Well, it coheres.'?"
It coheres? Is that a compliment?
"No, that is great," Bechdel said. "I'll take it."