Naming the (M)other Within:
The Arachnophobic Inheritance in Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?
To accept and integrate and strengthen both the mother and the daughter in ourselves is no easy matter, because patriarchal attitudes have encouraged us to split, to polarize, these images and to project all unwanted guilt, anger, shame, power, freedom, onto the ‘other’ woman. But any radical vision of sisterhood demands that we reintegrate them.
—Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born
It is 2010, in the woods of Vermont. We find Alison Bechdel, author of the 2006 best-selling graphic memoir, Fun Home—the story of a gay girl growing up with her closeted and probably suicidal funeral-director father—hard at work on her second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? (2012). Down in her burrow-like studio on this late April morning, the cartoonist begins a question-thread on her web blog: “Does anyone know the origins of spider-web imagery in seventies lesbian feminism?” Together, the post and archived comments comprise a richly web-researched tribute to the second-wave feminist figure of the spider-woman. We can picture this web-spinning activist, carrying an earmarked volume of Sisterhood is Powerful: she “weaves webs” at political demonstrations; her yarn goes everywhere, strangling the cordons, tangling everyone up together—every fiber a nerve. But spiders and spider-webs figure very differently in Bechdel’s second memoir, which interrogates the origins less of feminist symbology than of Bechdel’s difficult relationship with her highly critical and artistic mother, Helen—who also turns out to be acutely arachnophobic. Has Bechdel herself absorbed traces of her mother’s horror and revulsion?
Alison’s own dreams, documented in the book she would eventually produce, suggest that we can answer this question affirmatively. But what can this arachnophobic inheritance tell us about daughters’ simultaneous identifications and disidentifications with their mothers? About the shaping effects these conflictual impulses towards identification and difference have on female (and feminist) self-understanding? Certainly, seventies lesbian feminism successfully reclaimed the figure of the blood-sucking, man-eating spider-woman from a long tradition of male arachnophobes. It had yet to confront, however, its deeper fear—not of spiders, but of mothers. In her classic feminist text Of Woman Born (1976), Adrienne Rich defined “matrophobia” as the fear of becoming one’s mother—that more or less misread straw-woman of the preceding feminist wave. Returning us to our signal theme of the “stranger within,” matrophobia describes a fear of the uncanny (m)other woman within. This “other” is the object of our most strenuous and obsessive repressions—whence, too, her strangeness, for the repressed ever returns in strange forms. And while it is never easy “to accept and integrate and strengthen both the mother and daughter in ourselves,” Bechdel’s personal journey to maternal identification is uniquely complicated by the fact that her reproductive issue will be textual rather than biological: Bechdel locates her female creative agency in the generativity of her pen and brush. This leaves her to chew through the umbilical knot connecting maternity to biology. Here, the spider and the spider-web imagery throws up for our consideration a negative image of the procreativity of her sexed feminine body—which is, after all, the original site of all these lesbian feminist reclamations.
Each chapter of Are You My Mother? begins with a dream sequence framed against a black background, projected as if onto the inside of the dreamer’s closed eyelids. As a series, these dreams comprise the book’s chronological spine, while also focalizing the main images and themes of the chapters they introduce. As the memoir opens, we find Alison trapped down in a “dank cellar,” a shadow-double of her basement workspace, in which “The only way out is to squeeze through the small, spidery window” (12). The second chapter begins with another spider scare: Alison, dreaming, shakes her girlfriend awake because a spider is crawling on the blanket. Then the blanket unfurls into a quilt, spanned by a beautiful spider’s web. Alison’s fear of the spider turns into awe at the otherworldly geometries of its web. Bechdel goes on to identify this perfection with the potential of her own creative unconscious, uncensored by self-doubt: like the spider, weaving its spiral web without tools or measures, Bechdel imagines what it would be to impose her own order, as in filigree, overtop the arbitrary unfurling of day-to-day experience. Later, Bechdel recalls that the dream-web had eleven sections, noting that eleven, as the first number that cannot be counted on two human hands, carries associations with sin (68). The spider’s web becomes, then, an ambivalent figure—a symbol of transgressive creativity, associated with the taboo, the uncanny, and yet capable of materializing meaning out of the ether.
In the last chapter, Bechdel turns to her and her mother’s mutual experience of femininity as a (culturally and generationally inscribed) form of woundedness. Spiders crawl out of the oneiric woodwork and into the explicit discourse of the text. We learn that Helen’s severe arachnophobia took root after she saw a grasshopper get caught and suffocated in a spider’s web at age nine. Growing up, Alison herself wasn’t even allowed to say the word “spider.” The mother’s attempt to mute a fear by forbidding the speaking of its name belongs to a larger pattern of inter-familial censorship: one which includes, most damagingly, her disapproving silence on the subject of Alison’s queer sexuality. The cathexes around the theme of the fear of spiders and their webs offer a compelling metaphor, or matrophor, for the affective ambivalences mothers pass on to their daughters.
In a key sequence from the last chapter, Bechdel turns to psychoanalysis for help finding the common thread between her mother’s acute arachnophobia and her own childhood fear of vomiting. This is not surprising: Are You My Mother? is as much about the interlocutionary form and content of psychoanalysis as it is about the history of Bechdel’s interactions with her mother. Bechdel several times references Adam Phillips, and his argument that phobic objects can be perversely educational; they can be object-lessons for psychoanalytic theory. This is because the objects around which phobias form make visible whatever feels most intolerable within the self. Phobias represent defensive and maladaptive attempts to redraw the boundary between inside and outside, me and not-me—which is the genesis of form and of identity. The psychoanalytic project, like Bechdel’s memoiristic one, shapes itself around phobic objects of just this sort. In both cases, the goal is to learn how to re-incorporate and integrate these objects—not only to name but to accept the fear-provoking stranger within.
We see Alison telling her therapist about the time she got sick to her stomach at age ten. She’d woken up her mother in the middle of the night and vomited “a small quantity of fluid” onto the bathroom floor. Bechdel draws the liquidy mess as a spiderish, round splotch with splatter legs, which she straddles with her two socked feet (toes poking through holes in the frayed fabric). Despite her mother’s sympathetic response, a phobia was born. What’s the meaning of this fear? Vomiting is about bodies out of control. The dispossession of vomiting enacts a bodily critique of all fantasies of self-sufficiency and mastery. Alison doesn’t even make it all the way to the toilet bowl. And if throwing up seems especially horrible for Bechdel, this may be because it commandeers the organs of speech, the pharynx, the mouth—in other words, the very organs of psychoanalysis’ interlocutionary form!—for the messy self-expression of the little girl’s body, a body convulsed in an excess of need, still hopelessly dependent on mom.
“What is the link between my phobia and my mother’s?” Bechdel’s narrator queries, several pages later. The pictured scene accompanying this question shows Alison once more in therapy: “I wonder if throwing up is somehow a marker of femininity,” her therapist says: “Like, it stands in for things that come out of the female body…Menstrual blood, vaginal lubrication, even a baby,” adding in the next panel: “I think your mother has some resentment about being female that got passed on to you” (279). The fear of throwing up, like the fear of spiders, becomes a sign of intrusive physicality, of being and inhabiting the reproductive female body, of being subject to the vicissitudes of its needs and desires. Both visually and conceptually, the small splatter of vomit—the self-expression of a stomach “bug”—parodies the work of the spider casting forth its sticky web. It is female generation as convulsive self-rejection. In a panel further down on the same page, Bechdel copies out a passage from Donald Winnicott’s 1964 lecture on feminism, defining the terrors of dependence on a woman—on the maternal body—as the root of misogyny among both sexes.
The inky vomitus, like a Rorschach inkblot, presents the screen onto which Alison projects all her destructive and negative impulses towards femininity. Yet whatever else Alison’s “small quantity of fluid” might mean, it also signifies just what it is: a patch of ink on paper. The honesty, the vulnerable self-exposure, of this splash of reddish ink is that it looks like what it is. It throws up for our consideration the materiality of the drawing medium—the raw material of the cartoonist’s craft. The ink splatter brings Bechdel face-to-face with whatever seems incontinent, frightening, transgressive, sickening within her creative unconscious. This is the sense we get from the wordless repetition of the image several pages later, used to illustrate an entry in her girlhood diary. A spot of red color highlights the word “sick” in the diary, with an arrow crossing the gutter between panels and pointing to the similarly shaped vomit splotch.
If Bechdel’s final chapter homes in on a fear of feminine dependence by way of her and her mother’s phobias, then its very last pages fix her literary-artistic origins in the “invisible wounds” of her little girl’s body. Against three black pages, which symmetrically link back to the chapter’s opening dream sequences, we see Alison and her mother playing a game of make-believe, which she calls the “crippled child game.” Early in the first chapter, Bechdel recalls how she’d needed corrective shoes for her flat feet when she was younger. After seeing more severely disabled children at her orthopedist’s office, she had pretended to be a “crippled child” herself—a fantasy that her mother indulged. “I can only speculate that there was a charge, an exchange, a mutual cathexis going on,” Bechdel muses: “She [my mother] could see my invisible wounds because they were hers, too” (287). Now, at her book’s close, Bechdel looks back on this strange play and names it “the moment my mother taught me to write.”
On one hand, the game stages the sense of entrapment and bodily horror implicit in the symbolism of spiders and vomit. This is what total “dependence on a woman,” on the female body, looks and feels like. Being able to move around on one’s own represents the first developmental “step” towards independence. Crawling away from mother gives spatial and temporal shape to the “separations” theorized by psychoanalysis in the developmental process of subject formation. The child models what it means to live in a female body—a body that classical psychoanalysis, from Freud to Lacan, defines as essentially lacking, deficient (missing the phallus). So might the “woundedness” that unites Alison and her mother, and which their shared fantasy in-corporates and makes visible, belong to every girl by birthright. In this sense, to be a “crippled child” is to be of woman born, and born a woman. The game expresses Alison’s feeling of being emotionally, psychically, creatively debilitated by her mother, but also their (material) bond to one another.
On the concluding double-page spread of the memoir, we see Alison and her mother playing from an extreme aerial perspective, which serves to defamiliarize the episode. The flattening effect of the perspective simultaneously recalls the “view-from-above” framing the vomit stain on the bathroom floor—appearing between Alison’s parted legs, much as here Alison herself crawls out between her mother’s parted legs. “I think I can get up now,” reads Alison’s speech bubble. (The language implies an awakening, as from a dream.) Bechdel ladles her memoir’s last sentence into a series of text-boxes suspended over the image: “There was a certain thing I did not get from my mother…There is a lack, a gap, a void…But in its place, she has given me something else…Something, I would argue, that is far more valuable…She has given me the way out” (288-289). Here Bechdel moves to recuperate this maternal “lack” (of understanding, of acceptance, of affection) as an “opening,” in the sense of an inherent availability, an occasion to begin, an incipient capacity, the allowance of an opportunity. The maternal deficiency that Bechdel neither patches up nor denies becomes the “way out”—a term suggestive for the creative process of a lesbian cartoonist who first emerged on the literary scene by drawing a comic strip about lesbian women like her (Dykes to Watch Out For).
This language of lacks, gaps, and voids recalls Donald Winnicott’s interpretation of one of his own (female) patient’s arachnophobia, which Bechdel relays a few pages earlier. When this patient was still an infant, Winnicott surmises, there must have come a time when she was hungry and yet her mother’s breast failed to appear: “there was a gap…a dark lack…an absence. And as an infant you dealt with this in the only way you were able, by putting legs ‘round it…And then it became a spider and you became afraid of it” (277). The “absence” of the mother who is not there turns into the terrifying spider-mother who is, and who s/mothers. The “dark lack” that is the negative shape of the missing mother’s breast solidifies into the positive black form of the spider. The spider terrifies because its image is that of the infant hopelessly fused to need, dependent on what the mother is not able to provide.
Taking another look at the composition of the last page, we might imagine Alison and her mother’s two heads of inky black hair as tears, holes in the comic’s panel. It is almost as though we were peering right through twinned gaps in the picture to the black page behind. As in an Escher optical illusion, the eye cannot decide whether to take these irregular black shapes as positive images—as spots of ink applied to a printed page—or rather as negative shapes resulting from a tear. Yet here Bechdel reintegrates the imagery of the gaping hole, the lack, back into her intricate web of signification—as a double portrait of mother and child at play. The temporality of repetition, the return, with its concomitant shift in perspective, allows Bechdel to em-brace the excluded female other within the creative self. If the “lack…gap…void” in Bechdel’s relationship with her mother is an absence to be mourned, it is also an opening, an opportunity, a “way” of becoming through the materiality of the comic form, which, in the final analysis, composes a transgenerational feminist portrait: mother and daughter mobilizing for action.
1 Among those things that are felt to be frightening,” Freud writes in his famous essay on the “Uncanny,” “there must be one group in which it can be shown that the frightening element is something that has been repressed and now returns” ( 2003, 123).
2 While the genre of graphic memoir invites us to merge the narrator with the narrated character, “Bechdel” shall be used for the extradiegetic author, and “Alison” for the intradiegetic character.
Bechdel, Alison. 2012. Are You My Mother? New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Freud, Sigmund. (1919) 2003. The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock. New York: Penguin Books.
Rich, Adrienne. 1976. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.