I have asked Valentino Zullo to start an ongoing blog on matters of literary and cultural interest to the psychoanalytic community. Valentino Zullo is a graduate of Kent State University, department of English where he took many courses on literature and Psychoanalysis and worked as my research assistant. Currently he is finishing his Masters degree at Bowling Green State University where he is specializing in Psychoanalysis, the study of literary adaptation, Comics, as well as gender studies. His current blog on Alison Bechdel reflects work that we have done together in a Kent State University course on women’s literature with a special focus on the emerging genre of the graphic narrative. Bechdel’s work is of special interest because of her integration of psychoanalysis as a literary wellspring. Join me in welcoming Valentino Zullo’s own emerging voice to the current dialogue on the website of the CPC!
Vera J. Camden, Ph.D.
“Is that your superpower? Psychoanalysis?”
-Green Lantern speaking to Batman
Justice League of America (2012) #5
Well, Alison Bechdel, “Is that your superpower? Psychoanalysis?”
In her most recent graphic narrative, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, Bechdel organizes each chapter according to British psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott’s theories; and each chapter begins with a dream. While theoretical concepts from other analysts such as Freud, Jung, Lacan, and Klein appear briefly throughout the story, this is a Winnicottian text about a child and her relationship to the maternal environment; Are You My Mother? explores the child’s ability to play in front of her mother alone. Ultimately, the difference between this text and Bechdel’s previous work, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is analysis, well really Alison’s two analyses. If Fun Home is just the tip of the iceberg, then Are You My Mother? is a journey through the dark continent.
Bechdel’s superpower is psychoanalysis, and like any other superpower, it must have an origin story. So, Spider-man’s superpower originates with the radioactive spider that bit him, Batman with the death of his parents in front of him, She-Hulk through an infected blood transfusion. What these superhero origin stories tell us is that every superhero’s origin lies in trauma. The outcome of this trauma is then to become either a hero or a villain: to sublimate the trauma or to unconsciously repeat it. In the case of Bechdel, as seen in her first book, the trauma that occurred was inflicted upon her by her father, a type of inter-generational transmission of trauma, forced on to her self. It is then in Are You My Mother? in perhaps her most moving scene that Bechdel tells and shows us how her mother gave her a way out of loss, repetition, and trauma by helping her to imagine. Bechdel writes: “She could see my invisible wounds because they were hers, too” (287). Bechdel’s verbal narration is juxtaposed with a scene of her playing a game with her mother, what she terms the “crippled child” game that she affectively describes as “a feeling of inebriation. The further I moved into this imaginary space, the more it opened up” (287). It is in this scene that Bechdel presents the origin of her superpower to her readers. It is this moment that her mother gave her the ability to imagine, the ability to tell her story. And what is psychoanalysis if not a means to give one the ability to tell their own story, and to live creatively?
Is Alison Bechdel’s superpower psychoanalysis? Yes it is, but what does that mean? What lies under the mask? We cannot simply look at Spider-Man, Batman, or even She-Hulk as superpowered beings, but we have to understand where these superpowers originate. Bechdel reminds readers of the power of subjectivity—a self, both captured and explored through the power of comics—the piecing together of a narrative of one’s own through the verbal narrative track and the visual narrative track of the medium of comics. Vera Camden precisely illuminates this feeling in her essay: “The Past is a Foreign Country: The Uses of Literature in the Psychoanalytic Dialogue” as she asserts that“[a] psychoanalysis, however, like a work of literature, is unique. It is not typical; it is not in that sense ‘repeatable’” (100). To return to the superhero metaphor, all superheroes are similar in that they each have a superpower and some superpowers may even be repeated, thus it is the origin story that separates one hero from another; it is the superhero’s origin that is in that sense not “repeatable”; it is the origin story that constructs and differentiates one’s subjectivity.
Beginning each chapter with a dream, Bechdel invites readers to explore her creative identity— her true self. Using the medium of comics Bechdel not only tells her dream, but readers are able to see her dreams, and see beyond just the tip of the iceberg—chronicling her unique sense of self. Alison Bechdel shows us that what lies underneath her superpower is imagination, essentially telling one’s own story through the superpower of psychoanalysis. She uses her superpower in the words of Winnicott, to “live creatively.” Are You My Mother? is a story about finding a true self through the typographic hero quest narrative as Bechdel searches through her diaries, literary history, psychoanalysis, and more to reach the holy grail: her mother.
Bechdel, Alison Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 289 pp. $22.00 (hc). (USD). ISBN: 978-0618982509