That, alas, bodes ill for Bechdel. Her relationship with her mother is less overtly destructive than Winterson’s, but it is one of chronically unmet need. Mrs. Bechdel is withdrawn, depressive, and intensely private. She stops kissing her daughter good night when she turns 7—stops all physical contact, in fact, and most other meaningful connection, too. “Getting her undivided attention was a rare treat,” Bechdel writes. “It felt miraculous, actually—like persuading a hummingbird to perch on your finger.”
Bechdel responds by becoming preternaturally sensitive and solicitous, banishing her own needs in favor of her mother’s. Where Winterson’s story is one of livid self-assertion (“For most of my life, I’ve been a bare-knuckled fighter”), Bechdel’s is one of constant self-erasure. (“I was plagued then, as now, with a tendency to edit my thoughts before they even took shape.”) Likewise, while Winterson must escape her mother literally—which she does, leaving home while still in high school—Bechdel must escape her mother figuratively, internally. “The vital core of Winnicott’s theory,” she writes, is that “the subject must destroy the object and the object must survive this destruction.” Winterson borrows her story lines from literature; Bechdel gets hers from psychoanalytic theory. She must destroy her mother, and her mother must survive: That is the plot—and also the goal—of Are You My Mother?
Appropriately, these two writers’ strengths mirror their models of selfhood. Winterson, for whom the self is the hero of a story, is a terrific storyteller—all brawn and blarney, equally gifted at the overall arc and the telling detail. (By the end of one particularly ghastly Christmas, she writes, “the paperchains hanging from the ceiling began to look like a madman’s manacles.”) Bechdel, for whom the self is psychoanalytic subject, is remarkably able to translate her internal universe onto the page. (Watch for the scene where she describes her cosmology, then instantly recognizes the problem with it. It’s like having a revelation of your own.)
As it happens, the converse is also true: Each writer’s weakness reflects the other’s model of the self. It is Winterson’s bildungsroman, not Bechdel’s therapy memoir, that sometimes flirts with the melodrama and the pabulum of the self-help shelf. (“There are markings here, raised like welts. Read them. Read the hurt. Rewrite them.”) Meanwhile, Bechdel struggles to impose a story line: “Perhaps the real problem with this memoir is that it has no beginning.”
Mostly, though, these writers’ voices reflect their mothers. Mrs. Winterson—aphoristic, inventive to the point of delusional, a biblical orator par excellence—gave her daughter both a template for storytelling and the need to tell her own. “I can’t remember a time,” Winterson says, “when I wasn’t setting my story against hers.” The elder Bechdel, meanwhile, serves variously as her daughter’s editor, archivist, amanuensis, and book reviewer; in effect, she substitutes an intellectual connection for an emotional one. “My mother’s editorial voice—precisian, dispassionate, elegant, adverbless—is lodged deep in my temporal lobes,” Bechdel writes. Winterson learned to write by countering the voice of a difficult mother; Bechdel by absorbing it.
Thus, painfully, do these books pay homage to the mothers they essentially seek to destroy. “What we notice in the stories,” Winterson writes, “is the nearness of the wound to the gift.” She’s referring to another literary convention, one that stretches from the injured Odysseus to the scarred Harry Potter. But the same could be said about these memoirs—evidence, in both cases, of a formidable gift, and its formidable price.