Undergraduate English Courses

359:410 Seminar: Graphic Novels and Psychoanalysis: Alison Bechdel and D. W. Winnicott

01  TTH6   CAC  12649  GLISERMAN   MU-107

Graphic Novels & Psychoanalysis: Alison Bechdel & D. W. Winnicott

Unsurprisingly, in several recent graphic memoirs, the memoirist includes episodes of going to a psychoanalyst—e.g., David Small’s Stitches, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother. In all cases, the interactions are positive, and enable the memoirist to gain insight and motivation.  For Small and Spiegelman the interactions are part of a much larger set of interactions. Bechdel’s work goes beyond giving us a group of frames showing her working with her therapist—she gives us many. In addition, she becomes intensely connected to the work of D. W. Winnicott, who is not her therapist but an influential English psychoanalyst (and psychiatrist); he specialized in working with children, and wrote about a wide range of psychoanalytic topics, including play, the good enough mother, and the true and false selves.  Bechdel cites him in her second memoir, Are You My Mother? (a title repurposed from an original child’s story). In fact, each chapter of her second memoir is the title of a Winnicott essay. For Bechdel, psychoanalysis is very much part of the story rather than an incident in it.  

The course will study this case of Bechdel and Winnicott. We will read both of Bechdel’s memoirs--Fun Home is her first—and, of course, P.D. Eastman’s original Are you My Mother?  We will also read the works of Winnicott that Bechdel cites to better understand her understanding of Winnicott.  The course invites a general question about why an artist might cite someone else’s work—it is common phenomenon—but a more particular one about the nature of the relationship Bechdel chooses to have with Winnicott. We will be interested in why Bechdel has such a strong feeling for Winnicott. He becomes nearly a character whose thinking and observations she values—at times he seems like a deus ex machina, Winnicott appears with an insight.   

Given that graphic novels have complexities of their own, the course will begin by reading Scott McCloud’s book about the various constituents of the graphic novel form, and through that we can obtain a conceptual frame and a vocabulary to look into the graphic material. It seems like a simple form—drawings with words—a comic book. One can “breeze through” it. But to appreciate the complexity of the visual and how it achieves complexity with a minimalist approach is one objective of the course.  As we are being grounded in the form and movement of graphic narratives, we will read Bechdel’s memoirs, some critical essays on her work, and then examine a range of Winnicott’s essays to see why Bechdel might have been attracted to his ideas, not only about mother-child relationships but about play and creativity.  We will then re-read the memoirs to incorporate insights from the form of visual narratives, and the psychoanalytic ideas about growing up with one’s parents, playing, fantasying, and creating.

Students will develop a portfolio that will include: weekly writing and peer responses focused on close readings of scenes in Bechdel; commentary on critical essays on Bechdel’s work; commentary on Winnicott’s essays; three papers (3-5pp, 5-7pp) that will grow out of the weekly work and into each of the papers. The class will have a focus on writing about the graphic memoirs and psychoanalytic writing, with exchanging ideas, cross reading, and conferencing.