Alison Bechdel, a favorite of many here at the Press, has a new graphic memoir about her relationship with her mother that attempts to answer the ages-old (or at least Freud-old) question of why we are who we are. As Lawrence Weschler explains in his warm endorsement of Are You My Mother?, Bechdel “deploys everyone from Virginia Woolf to D. W. Winnicott (the legendary psychoanalytic theorist who comes to serve as her quest’s benign fairy godfather) to untie the snares of a fraught past.”
One of the great pleasures of the book is getting to see the progression of Bechdel’s immersion in Woolf et al. She depicts herself buried in works ranging from Lacan, Freud, and Jung, to C. S. Lewis, A. A. Milne, and Dr. Seuss. And so, in tracking her syllabus, we couldn’t help but notice an HUP title in the mix, Adam Phillips’ On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life. Here’s Bechdel in repose with Phillips:
Then, later in the story, Bechdel turns to Phillips for insight into her mother’s paralyzing arachnophobia:
So, of course, we ran off to find a copy of On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored, which was a New York Times Notable Book back when released in 1993. The book’s essays find Phillips, a children’s psychotherapist, bringing a relaxed humor to stories about the subtleties of human behavior and the unconscious. The fascinating passage on spiders from which Bechdel quotes is excerpted below.
A sixteen-year-old girl was referred to me for provocative behavior in school. She would do absurd things to enrage her teachers like sitting in lessons with a shoe on her head, but as though this was quite normal. She was popular with her peers, who seemed to view her with a rather wary admiration. As we talked about this for several weeks—linking it to the life she led in her family—I began to suggest to her in bits and pieces that being provocative was one of her ways of getting to know people; that in order to find out whether she could like people she had to find the hate in them. She was playing, as it were, hunt the monster to discover what the worst version of the other person was that she was going to have to comply with. As I repeated this in different ways I noticed that occasionally she became curious; and at the point at which her curiosity was aroused she would say, quite rightly, that none of this was helping. After one rather tedious version of this interpretation she mentioned that she was terrified of spiders; indeed, she often had nightmares about them. I asked her if she hated me when I bored her, and she grinned.
It began to occur to me that she could manage a self that hated only if it was incarnated in someone else. By being provocative it was as though she was continually expelling this version of herself, but also keeping it alive and close at hand (she told me that even though spiders terrified her she never killed them; partly, I think, because she needed to know that her hate was alive and well, and also that to kill one might confirm the murderous power of her hatred). Her references to spiders were sporadic, and when I referred to them she told me categorically that this was something she was not prepared to talk about. I said that sometimes I might need to but that I would always warn her so she could put her fingers in her ears. She would then be able to regulate what she heard.
It was after establishing this ritual that I noticed that she was becoming interested in her dreams; not, I should add, in my attempted interpretations, but in the dream scenes themselves. As she said, “You go to bed and you never know what you're going to see.” After what seemed like months of endlessly reported dreams she arrived one day for a session to tell me that she had had “the spider dream” again, and it was clear she wanted something from me. I asked her if anything had happened recently that she had given in to and regretted having done so. Her first reaction was to say that she was always giving in to things; and it had been evident from talking to her that she was very much a parental child whose parents were always effectively saying to her, “You mustn't get cross, because we need your help.” But then she added—as though this was an odd bit of the answer—that in school the previous day the teacher had asked the class a question ahd she had answered it. I wondered if secretly she had bitterly resented this, as though answering the question felt like playing his game. She replied that she had bitten her tongue at lunch. I said that I thought the dream might be a protest and that in order to get really furious she had to find a spider to let her do it. She said, “You mean if I was a spider I could be really horrible.” I said, “Yes, spiders are good to hate people with”; there was a pause and then she said, “Say some more.” I said that I thought that probably every week she gave in to lots of things almost without noticing, and that if she came across a spider she was suddenly reminded of how cross she was and how much those feelings frightened her. Sometimes, when she felt really insulted, as she had yesterday with the teacher, she needed a spider so much that she had to dream one up. She listened to this intently and then said, “So a spider’s a bit like turning on a tap?” and I agreed.