I've been rereading Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? recently. Regular readers of this blog will be aware of how important reading Bechdel's previous graphic memoir, Fun Home, was to my decision to come out as transgender. While I love both books, I admit the later memoir is not as effective as the first, not as immediately gripping. However it has, in its own way, led to another revelation.
Are You My Mother? suffers from a sort of Difficult Second Album Syndrome: quite a lot of the book is devoted to Bechdel trying to work out how to write the book, and this means it isn't as immediately gripping as Fun Home. Bechdel spends a lot of her time in this book visiting various therapists trying to solve the problems caused by her upbringing, and trying to fit in a lot of material about a particular (long-dead) psychoanalyst who fascinates her, Donald Winnicott. Fun Home handled its allusions - to Proust and Joyce mainly - with a lightness of touch that seems to elude its sequel. Yes, there are long digressions on Ulysses or In Search of Lost Time, but these are mere dressing to the book's main concern, Bechdel's reconciliation with her father. In the later book, a lot of the Winnicott stuff, the therapy stuff, seems to overwhelm the text. We are denied the same immediacy in witnessing Bechdel's relationship to her mother.
On my most recent pass through the book, however, it occurred to me that this is only a problem if you assume that Bechdel's mother is who the book is about. Taken on its own merits, and not judged by the standard of Fun Home, it quickly becomes clear that the plot of this book is Bechdel trying to work out the plot of the book. Are You My Mother? is a book about a woman trying to write a book called Are You My Mother?, that being the book you, the reader, now hold in your hand. It isn't quite metatextual game-playing on an Italo Calvino level, but it was enough to really lift the book for me, and give it a feeling of, well, yes, jouissance et plaisir et tout le jazz. It felt a little like striking the right note on a tuning fork and finally working out exactly what key the instrument ought to be tuned in (does music work like that, exactly? I'm a massive musical bluffer. But you know what I mean).
And it was this notion of finding the right key which led me to my own somewhat meta-textual revelation: almost everything I've written this year has actually, on some level, been about the experience I wrote about recently on this blog, of being sexually assaulted by another woman in my early twenties. Almost every word I've written and, indeed, the words I've had others write on me.
My review of Peter Strickland's film was, it seems obvious now, massively influenced by me reliving that event: in fact, it seems pretty clear at this distance that both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness as a review is the fact that I wrote it in the aftermath of feeling full-on triggered by the moment in the film where Cynthia violates Evelyn without her consent. Incidentally, this is why I have very little time for the line of right-wing bullshit which maintains that because of trigger warnings we will create a generation of people unable to appreciate the Great Masterworks of the Literary and Artistic Canon: I believe The Duke of Burgundy is an incredible cinematic achievement, and it triggered the living shit out of me the first time I saw it. The two aren't mutually-exclusive propositions.
I mean, I liked it enough to get the safeword from the film tattooed on my arm. The safeword that is, crucially, ignored during the very scene that triggered me the first time, the scene in which Evelyn essentially tells Cynthia to stop and she...doesn't. At this point, I don't think either of us need to page Dr Freud to see the significance of that piece of body art.
|"If only we could all just say 'pinastri' to end our torments..."|
And so on, through everything else I've written since this Spring (well, maybe not everything - my Magic Mike XXL review doesn't seem to have bore any traces of the crime, which is probably why it was the thing I've enjoyed writing most so far this year). Candour, which was written after a creepy online encounter with a woman who reminded me far too much of the woman who raped me; Clarkson, which starts out as a poem about the quondam Top Gear host but very quickly becomes an anguished rant about consent and rape culture; Hell, even my post-election rant ('Morality is what we do in the dark. What we do when no-one's watching.') is probably coloured by my decidedly untranquil recollection of that experience.
Admitting what that experience was has been difficult, but I can see now that it was where a Hell of a lot of my work this year was leading. And that realisation is the tuning fork sounding, the sudden revelation of the key I need to tune to. I'm not quite sure what I do with this artistically yet but I can now see that doing something with it artistically is what I'm trying to do. And bits of that will feed into Public Address, and it will massively inform what I do with my Howl of the Bantee follow-up show, Feeling Helpless Safely - which is, it's now dazzlingly obvious, a show which is all about consent, in terms of text, structure, and staging - and it'll probably be a major part of the slightly weird thing I'm working on that might just be a novel, and for all I know it's something I'm going to be addressing in my work for quite some fucking time...
...but I'm addressing it. That's what this story's about.