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Tag Archives: relationships

Narratives about Therapy and Recovering from Mental Illness

Reviewing commonly occurring themes in three novels and memoirs that explore queerness and mental illness in women: Kari by Amruta Patil, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, and Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel.

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama is the companion piece to Alison Bechdel’s previous work, Fun Home. Both are graphic memoirs exploring Bechdel’s relationship with each of her parents. However, Are You My Mother? also recounts Bechdel’s struggle with her mental health, and details her desire to understand her own psyche. The book is not a sequential narrative of illness and recovery, but of Bechdel’s attempt to come to terms with having an unaffectionate mother when she was growing up.

The book begins with Bechdel trying to find the right words to tell her mother that she is writing a memoir about their relationship. The memoir is, in parts, about this mother-daughter relationship, about Bechdel’s journey with mental health and psychotherapy, and about the process of her writing Are You My Mother? It immediately brings to mind Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, which is another autobiographical memoir, featuring a lesbian protagonist suffering from mental illness.

Both Nagata and Bechdel explore recovery through the process of writing. Nagata makes it known that writing is itself a way out for her. She tries to find things to write about, ultimately turning to her own experiences. When she runs out of ways in which to push herself to write and recover, she creates situations for herself to live through. Bechdel, on the other hand, shifts from past to present to dream. Her religious note-taking becomes useful in accurately representing her mother, all while being self-critical and analytical as well. Bechdel is compelling for the incredible self-awareness with which she narrates her own breakdown.

Bechdel revisits memories and dreams from her childhood, almost always involving her mother, that left long-lasting impressions on her. All chapters begin in an ambiguous dreamscape (much like that in Kari), where Bechdel, as she undergoes psychotherapy, tries to rationalise events from her childhood as reasons for her behaviour as an adult. Despite regularly visiting a therapist, Bechdel invests significant energy studying and decoding her own behaviour and emotions, for instance, interpreting and applying Donald Winnicott’s theories of child psychology to events from her own childhood.

In contrast lies Amruta Patil’s Kari. While Are You My Mother? and My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness try to explain and analyse mental illness by diving into the past, Kari simply narrates events from her daily life that are ordinary, but also leave her distressed. The only memories that Kari talks about are those that she spent with Ruth, her ex-lover. Unlike Bechdel and Nagata who linger in events of the past, Kari is firmly founded in the present. Kari does not try to come to terms with the past, necessarily; she prefers instead to move on.

From accepting mental illness to reconciling oneself with past events, all three protagonists approach their motivation to go on differently. Bechdel, however, brings to attention an important fact of recovery: there is no definite way about it and that ‘progress’ is not always linear. Recovery and coming to an understanding of the self is a continually evolving process, one which requires several steps and a lot of care. She takes us through her own confrontations, the determination with which she sets about trying to get better. She obsesses and tries and teaches herself psychoanalysis. In the work she puts into understanding herself and moving towards a more holistic self, Bechdel inspires.

Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. Boston: Mariner, 2013.

Nagata, Kabi. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. Translated by Jocelyne Allen.Los Angeles: Seven Seas Entertainment, 2017.

Patil, Amruta. Kari. New Delhi: Harper Collins Publishers India, 2008.

Same-Same but Different

I was in a non-committed relationship once with a guy. You know the one where you’re into each other and are sexually active but it’s not labelled? Yeah, that kind. These kinds of relationships usually have one of the members wanting more and the other one saying things like "I'm just not in the emotional place to have a relationship", or “What difference does it make what you call it? You and I know how we feel about it each other.” Anyway, why I was in that place is a long story, but the point is that it definitely wasn’t mutual. I was completely in love with him.

This guy was basically out of some Mills and Boon novel (but the modern kind, the one where the hero believes in the equality of the sexes, but not really)—he was smart, sexy, funny and loved to be in control. This need for control extended into the bedroom. I had never been with someone who loved to dominate before. If anything, I would have previously scoffed at the idea, what woman in her right mind would like to be dominated, right? Not really. As it turned out, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed someone telling me what to do. I enjoyed following, submitting, watching my body being viewed as an object and knowing that it was capable to inspire such lust in someone. But there were also times where it left me confused, humiliated and broken. I felt like I was in an extremely vulnerable position and that I stayed in that position regardless of all my efforts to be otherwise. So I stayed in this rollercoaster of a relationship for a while till I realized how dysfunctional and unhealthy it was, and left.

After some time, when I’d had time to reflect on what happened there, I realized that not only had he played a role right out of a romance novel or film, but so had I. He was this romance hero and I was the independent girl who, despite all her notions of self-worth, loses it all in the face of this perfection! I became the muse that inspired him and helped him discover his hidden potential. As I helped him become less insecure, he did just the opposite with me. And because we weren’t exactly committed to each other, I felt less beautiful, less intelligent and just not worth it. It’s not like what happened in the bedroom helped. Why is it that my feelings about our sexual dynamic were so conflicted? I would work this out eventually but once I started a new relationship.

My next relationship was with a lovely, intelligent man. We contributed equally to the relationship, and we also enjoyed sexual powerplay of a similar kind as before. Sometimes we even switched things up, him playing the submissive and I the dominant role. And this time I wasn’t left feelings any of the negative and harmful emotions I felt previously. So why did I enjoy it all this time? Where did the difference lie? As I worked through the different feelings, I came up with a few ways in which the first relationship functioned.

The vulnerable, powerless position I was in sexually was the same as that which I occupied in the relationship on a whole. Since, I was the one in need for commitment and I was the one in love, I was submitting to his needs and demands, all the time.

It was not a choice I was making - not in terms of my feelings about the relationship nor about what happened in bed. I happened to enjoy sexual submission, but what if I didn’t? The only options were having this dysfunctional relationship that made me ridiculously conflicted about my feelings, or not having anything to do with him at all. That wasn’t really much of a choice.

I knew in theory that I had the freedom to say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ if it was leaving me with such conflicted feelings but I was scared of what the outcome of that refusal may be.

I enjoyed being sexually objectified because there were times it made me feel sexy or beautiful, but when you’re in love ad it’s the unrequited kind, it’s extremely painful to be rendered an object - something that is dispensable.

My sexual choices were construed by him to be a reflection of the way I wanted to be treated otherwise. So because I enjoyed being dominated or sexually objectified in bed, I must enjoy it in every situation, everyday!

In retrospect I realize I should have talked about these things. Maybe it would’ve made a difference or maybe it wouldn’t have, but shutting up about it definitely didn’t help. So in the second relationship, I talked about it. We talked about it. My sexual choices did not reflect the power dynamic of the relationship. My desires were understood contextually. It was empowering to know I could have desires of all kinds (and not be judged for them) and in fact explore and experiment the various possibilities. The bedroom became a safe space for me - one where I could perform and simulate situations that I wouldn’t want to be in otherwise. Where I could choose and create the narrative of my desires and understand those of my partner. And most of all, I knew that I had the freedom to say ‘No. Not today. Not right now. Not this evening. Not this fantasy.’

Shamini Kothari is currently pursuing her B.A in English literature from St. Xavier's College, Ahmedabad. She is interning with Zubaan (and is also called #1 - not by choice). She loves eavesdropping in public spaces and hates the word 'impregnated'.


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