After finding success with her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For — which famously spawned the Bechdel Test, a set of criteria to determine gender bias in entertainment — Alison Bechdel advanced the graphic memoir form while pondering life with her late father in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic in 2006. Her latest, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama , was released this spring. We spoke on August 25, 2010, just before Bechdel's 50th birthday on September 10th.
I feel like 49 doesn't even exist, like I've just been on the precipice of 50 for a whole year. I don't feel like I'm in my 40s. I haven't, for a whole year, felt like I was a person in my 40s.
I just said out loud the other day, "I am 49," and it was sort of alarming because it was surprising to think that I'm still forty-something.
30 gave me a much, much milder problem. It was like a joke, like, "Oh, I'm getting old," but I had no idea what that meant, you know. It had no real sting.
40 is like, "Oh, I'm grown up," and 50 is like, "Oh, I'm old." I'm grown up and I don't feel grown up, and I'm old and I don't really feel old. I feel like I've always felt.
See? I'm totally lying. I have experienced a great deal of physical deterioration. Eyesight. Well, you don't want to hear the whole laundry list. For me, the thing about turning 50 for me is, coincidentally, it is aligning with menopause. And that's kind of funny. So like the whole turning 50 thing, which is abstract, is linked to this very real experience of feeling like a lunatic. And I know people don't like to talk about menopause, but I might have to talk about it a little bit.
It's weird. I have never in my life had any desire to have a baby. Ever. Not even for a flickering instant. But knowing that I can't makes me feel [laughs] barren.
Menopause also is like, you know, a punchline to a joke. But somehow you don't think it's really going to happen to you. Or that somehow you'll breeze through it with no side effects. But I feel like every joke about menopause ever. Like I'm irrational and very quick to take offense at things. Depressed. Irritable. Whatever. Just a lot of that stuff. All the time. Constantly.
The way medically they diagnose you as menopausal is when it's been one year since your last period. So you don't even know. Like you're going along like, "Okay, it's been 10 months. Maybe it'll come back." "11 months, maybe I'm not menopausal." But I just hit the one-year mark this month.
I feel like it's official and also maybe like I'm coming out the other end of the tunnel, like maybe now I'll start feeling better. I have no reason to believe that. I'm just hoping against hope that it might be true in my case [laughs]. Everyone seems to have such wildly different experiences that I'm just going to pretend that this is my story and it's almost over.
I feel like, for the most part, I have moved through my life without a lot of regret about anything, which is kind of a nice feeling, although I don't have anything to compare it to since I feel like I don't really regret anything.
I wanted to be a cartoonist or psychiatrist.
In a funny way I feel like I'm not becoming a psychiatrist but I am writing a comic book that is about psychoanalysis, so I feel like in a way I'm realizing all my childhood dreams. I don't know. I'm writing a cartoon memoir, a graphic memoir about my life and it's turning out to have this focus on psychoanalysis, not just my own experiences in therapy but about the theory of therapy and how it helps people. But I'm having a really, really, really hard time with it, partly because of the menopause. Because I feel like I'm losing IQ points by the second. I'm hoping that I'll kind of spring back. Like once all this passes that somehow my mind will spring back, but who knows?
I just read somewhere that most people say they would like to live to be 80 and no further, and I think that's probably true for me too. I don't know. I don't have a particular number. Of course, I'd like to live as long as I have my wits about me and can take care of myself, but I don't have a number.
Now clearly, clearly, I have less than half of my time left. No doubt about it. And that's sobering.
Did you read about those people in Japan who are like 111 years old? But then they found out they're really all dead? [laughs] There's some place in Japan [laughs] that's supposed to have the oldest people in the world. Maybe it's China. I'm sorry if I got that wrong. But it turns out they just keep losing track of people.
I think about death a lot. I've always thought about death a lot. I would not say it's increasing, but I probably already do it more than the average person. I've been really struggling, since I was on the verge of 40, to come to some kind of acceptance, to really understand my mortality and be okay with it [laughs], but I have not done that yet. Somehow I envision going into a sort of meditative trance for a month and coming out the other end and getting it. But I haven't done that yet.
I'm immensely grateful that I have something I like to do so much and that I get to do it and that I get paid to do it. But I also feel – and I have to figure out a way to talk about this without sounding really incredibly whiny and obnoxious, and some other adjective that my menopausal brain is not accessing – but I feel like when I look around at my work life, I'm like at the top of my field and I find this a really alarming and disconcerting thing. Because I feel like, "How did this happen?" I mean, I'm happy. I'm happy it happened, but I don't feel like. . . It hasn't been like . . . I haven't figured this all out.
I hope I'm not at the top of my game, but I do feel like, you know, in terms of the field of graphic novels and cartooning I am perceived as this big success. And I am a big success, but I feel like an utter fraud. I mean, I'm okay. I do good work. I know I do good work. But I haven't quite . . . I feel like . . . My new challenge is to grow into my reputation, to like really inhabit my potential as much as I can. I want to do really good work. I feel like I have maybe 10, maybe 15 years to really do some substantive work, and I really hope I can rise to that challenge.
I've caught a wave, you know. I was in the right place at the right time. I don't mean to downplay my actual skill and intelligence, because I know I have both of those. I have those things, but lots of people have those things. But I guess I became a cartoonist because it was a pretty low-profile way to get attention. Like you could get attention but without a lot of scrutiny the way someone who's really putting themselves out there as a writer or as a fine artist would be subject to criticism. So I flew under a lot of different kinds of radar. I just made my own little niche and did this lesbian comic strip for 25 years. And then I wrote this graphic memoir about my father which came out at the time when graphic memoirs, graphic novels were finally getting some critical scrutiny, and it did well. It got a lot of critical praise. So what am I trying to say?
What's so disconcerting to me is that I find myself suddenly like up on this platform where I'm kind of presumed to know more than I do. Like, for example, I'm editing a book of best American comics. All of a sudden I'm like presumed to be some arbiter of comics. Like I know something that all these young cartoonists that want to be in this book don't know [laughs], but I don't. I'm looking at their work and it's like brilliant and intimidating, and why am I editing them? So I need to get over some hump and realize that I am a grown-up, I do know a lot, so I just better suck it up and move on.
I still haven't quite made my point, which is, in the time that I have been working as a cartoonist, the public attention to cartooning has changed drastically. It used to be something nobody really cared about, and now it's like the latest publishing . . . You know, people are saying graphic novels are replacing the novel. There's been this really seismic shift and so the ante has been upped considerably. So it's like I have to keep seeing how long I can keep, you know, ponying up. Because it's a more serious game.
My main fear is being found out to be the idiot that I fear I am. And then my next fear is dying. Well, not dying, per se, but losing my faculties and then losing my physical power. Which is going to happen! You know, unless I just have a heart attack tomorrow.
I was on a book tour when my book about my father came out, and I was staying in this really nice hotel in San Francisco and I came back to the hotel and at the front desk they gave me an envelope, and I opened the envelope as I went up in the fancy elevator and it was the New York Times Book Review review of my book and it was a rave.
That was the best day. That was like, I can't imagine it getting better than that.
Rob Trucks's interview with Alison Bechdel is part of a larger oral history project with Americans turning 50, including Olympic gold medalists, Pulitzer Prize winners, Grammy Award winners, National Book Award winners, a MacArthur Award winner, a Nobel Prize winner, a Tony Award winner, a Playboy Playmate of the Month, a woman who flew on the space shuttle three times and a woman who only flew on the space shuttle twice. He is also the man behind the curtain of Deadspin's Tell Me When It's Over series. Trucks's latest book, on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album for Continuum's 33 1/3 series, is available through Amazon and better bookstores everywhere. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @tusktusktusk.
Photograph by Elena Seibert; comic backdrop via.