Apr 11, 2013

Brief thoughts part two: Are You My Mother?, Here Comes Everybody & The Spirit Level

As promised, here’s part two of my mini-reviewathon:

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel: Bechdel’s follow up to her earlier graphic memoir, Fun Home, focuses on her relationship with her mother. In addition to being about family ties, Are You My Mother? is a story about creativity, autobiography, and how the process of writing a memoir affects your relationships. Some of the most interesting bits of Are You My Mother? were the ones that dealt with Bechdel’s mother’s feelings about the publication of Fun Home and the attention that followed. Bechdel feels that her story is her own, and furthermore that it’s not exactly the same as her mother’s story, but she nevertheless acknowledges all the complications and difficulties inherent to family memoir.

In Fun Home, Bechdel used James Joyce’s Ulysses to frame her own narrative; in Are You My Mother?, Virginia Woolf’s diaries and the works of British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott play a similar role. Indeed, this memoir is very deeply steeped in psychoanalysis, and I’m afraid this was what kept me from connecting with it in the same way I did with Fun Home. I love Alison Bechdel, especially her Dykes to Watch Out For, and spending time in her story world is always a pleasure. But in this particular work she makes sense of her experiences using a set of metaphors that are a barrier to me. This is, of course, a very personal reaction rather than a flaw with the book – if you feel differently than I do about psychoanalysis, you’re not likely to have these problems. But I couldn’t get past how disconnected from the story this made me feel.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite moments, which put me in mind of what I was saying recently about Nicole Georges’ Calling Dr Laura:

Whatever it was I wanted from my mother it was not there to be had. It was not her fault.
And it was therefore not my fault that I was unable to elicit it.

Whatever it was I wanted from my mother was simply not there to be had. It was not her fault. And it was therefore not my fault that I was unable to elicit it.


Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together by Clay Shirky

Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together by Clay Shirky: I picked up both this and The Spirit Level shortly after reading Cory Doctorow’s Homeland for the same reason: I wanted to feel politically hopeful again; I wanted more books that would make me feel that the world can and eventually will become a better place. (And okay, the blurb from Doctorow on the Shirky book didn’t hurt either.)

The main argument of Here Comes Everybody is that the Internet has enormously lowered the cost of group formation, self-assembly, and self-organisation, and that this new ease of collaboration has enormous political power. Shirky puts it better than I have in the following paragraph:
The difficulties that kept self-assembled groups from working together are shrinking, meaning that the numbers and kinds of things groups can get done without financial motivation or managerial oversight are growing. The current change, in one sentence, is this: most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without those barriers, we are free to explore new way of gathering together and getting things done.
I don’t think this is something you can argue with – as Shirky says, it’s not a prediction but something that’s already happening – but I go back and forth on whether or not I trust that the existence of all this potential social and political power means it will be harnessed. I don’t want to come across as cynical, though – I love all the new possibilities for bringing about change that we have available today, and it’s a basic fact of behaviour that when the cost of doing something goes down, its frequency will go up.

Yet as you may have gathered, Here Comes Everybody didn’t make me feel quite as hopeful as I would have liked. I think this was mainly because the ideas it presents were already familiar to me, and a piece of non-fiction doesn’t always have the same power a novel has to reveal something you already know in new and inspiring ways. But even if not exactly what I was looking for right now, this was a worthwhile read – especially if you’re interested in political change, grassroots movements, social media, and managing collaborations of any kind.

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett was more the kind of thing I wanted. It’s about the correlation between economic inequality and multiple social problems in countries that have achieved a basic standard level of living (the so-called developed world), and it supports its arguments about how we need to address inequality now with a whole lot of data. Wilkinson and Pickett say,
The problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even by being too rich) but by the scale of material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our society.
There’s a whole lot I could say about The Spirit Level, but I’ll keep this brief and only make two points. First of all, I loved the chapters about the correlation between self-worth and social status. More: I found them incredibly useful reminders of something I need to hear often. Wilkinson and Pickett present data that suggests that the belief that the world is a meritocracy has very real consequences for people’s well-being. The cultural narratives about how economic privilege is the result of talent and hard work (and therefore deprivation of their absence) are very prominent and widespread, and as inequality increases they become more harmful. We are social animals: we create hierarchies of worth and these get inside our heads and do a lot of damage. Sometimes I need someone other than myself to remind me of that.

Second point: at times Wilkinson and Pickett lost me because of their tendency to default to evolutionary psychology when sociology would do just fine (and lack the dodginess). For example, when explaining why “reckless, violent behaviour often comes from young men at the bottom of the social ladder”, the authors could have focused on how we define masculinity and on the potential consequences of feeling you have nothing to lose. Instead, they went the evolutionary psychology route and made it all about how “status is what matters most for sexual success among men” because “women value it in their partners” – a made up just-so story with far less explanatory power. This annoyed me for its own sake, but it also made me mistrustful of the theories they present regarding things I don’t have a background on and don’t know much about throughout the rest of the book, which is a real shame.

However, I don’t want to let that take away from the fact that the central argument of The Spirit Level is both convincing and extremely important. Here’s a bit I particularly liked:
Politics was once seen as a way of improving people’s social and emotional wellbeing by changing their economic circumstances. But over the last few decades the bigger picture has been lost. People are now more likely to see psychosocial wellbeing as dependent on what can be done at the individual level, using cognitive behavioural therapy – one person at a time – or in providing support in early childhood, or in the reassertion of traditional or ‘family’ values. However, it is now clear that income distribution provides policy makers with a way of improving the psychosocial wellbeing of whole populations. Politicians have an opportunity to do genuine good.
Rather than reducing inequality itself, the initiatives aimed at tackling health or social problems are nearly always attempts to break the links between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces. The unstated hope is that people – particularly the poor – can carry on in the same circumstances, but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity or drugs.
Every problem is seen as needing its own solution – unrelated to others. People are encouraged to take exercise, not to have unprotected sex, to say no to drugs, to try to relax, to sort out their work-life balance, and to give their children ‘quality’ time. The only thing that many of these policies do have in common is that they often seem to be based on the belief that the poor need to be taught to be more sensible. The glaringly obvious fact that these problems have common roots in inequality and relative deprivation disappear from view.
Yes, yes, yes. Obviously I don’t think individuals should be denied one-on-one help and support while we all stand around waiting for the revolution. But let’s not forget those links, and let us aim for systematic change too.

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. I don't have strong feelings one way or the other toward psychoanalysis so I'm adding Are You My Mother? to my wish list.

  2. I absolutely loved Fun Home, but Are You My Mother was a sad disappointment for me. I had the feeling that maybe the book was written more for herself than her readers, because it was pretty self-absorbed. And that is OK. I hope it helped her work through her issues.

  3. I am fascinated by Are You My Mother?. It sounds like it's intense, but in a way that I would understand and be able to get something from. I do have Fun Home here, and haven't read it, so I will do that, but I am liking the attributes that this new book has.As usual, Ana, your writing has persuaded me, even when it wasn't your favorite!!

  4. You!
    Now I really want Are You My Mother and The Spirit Level even though you aren't crazy about them. You just make everything sound so interesting! Even though, eww, evolutionary psychology used to explain gender differences, yuck. Not sure if I can read that without throwing the book at the wall. BUT THE REST SOUNDS SO GOOD.

    For some reason all the things you didn't like about Are You My Mother just made me want to read it more?

  5. I don't even have words to describe how frustrating the prevalent notion that life is a meritocracy makes me. I simply cannot conceive of how people could live in the world and not realize how much more difficult some people have it. Sure, there are people who manage to claw their way out of poverty, and there's merit involved in many such instances, but there's often a lot of luck involved too. And the amount of grit required in some cases is almost superhuman--ordinary levels of talent that would more than suffice for someone more privileged just isn't enough. How can that possibly be considered fair?

    OK, that was a bit of a rant, but it's a rant-worthy topic! I doubt I'll read the book, but I'm glad to know it's out there.

  6. That quote from Are You My Mother is just perfect. I can't wait to get my hands on it, distancing aside.

  7. Bill Moyers did a piece about The Spirit Level on his show a couple of years ago and I read it right away. What a good book. I'm glad you read it, too, and I'm glad someone else I "know" has read it, too, now. It's a very good read.

  8. I really enjoyed Fun Home and this next one is on my list already!

  9. Reactions to Are You My Mother seem very, very mixed. I'm curious to see how I will respond to it. I am interested in psychoanalysis, even though it's so outdated at this point -- I'm always interested in the ways people try to understand human brains and how they work.

  10. Wonderful mini-reviews, Ana! Alison Bechdel is always wonderful! Loved your review of her book. 'The Spirit Level' looks like an interesting book. I am pretty sure we can pick a bone with some of the things that the authors have said and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on some of the things you disagreed with or had problems with. One of the points which made me think was this sentence you had quoted - “reckless, violent behaviour often comes from young men at the bottom of the social ladder”. To me, this seems to be a default kind of generalization, and I don't know whether the authors support it with data. I find that young men at the top of the social ladder are also many times reckless. I don't know whether it is the case of the 80-20 rule at work, where the top 10% and the bottom 10% are reckless while the in-between 80% are the nice guys :) Thanks for reviewing this book. It is a book which will lead to a lot of debate over an evening cup of tea :) By the way, have you had your first tea with friends in the evening in the backyard of your new home?

  11. These are all good reads but I am more intrigued with what is in store in "Here Comes Everybody".

  12. “Whatever it was I wanted from my mother was simply not there to be had. It was not her fault. And it was therefore not my fault that I was unable to elicit it.”

    The accompanying graphic is something that I definitely identify with. Not only with my mother, but with certain people that I have formed specific attachments with but could not resolve or have a fully connected relationship.

    That grip on your heart when you so badly want the other person to understand what you want to say or how you feel, but you are unable to speak without showing emotions that may confuse or scare them away, that grip has always haunted me from day to day.

  13. Teresa, rant on! The world needs your "rants."

    Also, Ana, would have like to hear more about what was distancing about the psychoanalysis?

  14. Kathy: Curious to hear your thoughts!

    Sandy: Yes, I can see what you mean. The book came across as something she was primarily writing for herself, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, I did feel a bit disconnected from it as a reader.

    Zibilee: Definitely read Fun Home first! I loved it to pieces.

    Arrela: I actually liked The Spirit Level a lot - it's a convincing, passionate book about a subject that I think needs more advocates. I do wish they hadn't gone down the evolutionary psychology down, but that didn't ruin the book for me overall.

    Teresa: I couldn't agree more! (And to clarify, when I said I needed reminding sometimes, it's because it can be easy for me to interiorize those messages when it comes to myself, even if I detect the BS when those political narratives pop up in the media or are applied to other people's lives.)

    Clare: Really looking forward to hearing what you think!

    Heather: It really is.

    Kathleen: Enjoy! Most people don't seen to think it's quite as good as Fun Home, but it's worth checking out all the same.

    Jenny: I'm curious to hear your thoughts! I did think the way she used psychoanalysis to make sense of her relationship with her mother was interesting, even if the theories are not necessarily ones I favour.

    Vishy: They do provide a lot of crime statistics, but of course that class and racial profiling play a huge role on who gets convicted for violent crimes, as well as on what we define as a serious crime and what we give a free pass to (white collar crime, for example). So while I can see the point they're making (crime is often a result of inequality), your point that we stereotype young men according to class is also a valid one. Also, I haven't had much of a chance to make use of my backyard yet because it's been a miserable, never-ending winter - but the weather is warming up at long last, so hopefully I'll be able to soon :D

    Dee Martinez: I found that panel really moving too, for similar reasons. Sometimes you have to accept that a relationship is never going to be everything you wanted it to be, but that's not the other person's fault and it doesn't mean they're not worth keeping around in whatever form you can both manage.

    Mumsy: I'm by no means an expert, and I realise this may be an unfair oversimplification, but part of me wanted to jump into the book and yell "Go team Cognitive-behavioural therapy! Booo psychoanalysis" :P The feeling I got is that although Bechdel eventually reached an insight that allowed her feel at peace with her mother and accept the relationship they have, this happen almost despite the therapy rather than because of it. She'd not agree with this at all and I feel bad for saying it, but as an external observer I found the theories she used to make sense of her experiences more of a hindrance than a help.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.