The first obsession, per Alison Bechdel, was with karate. In her early 20s and fresh out of college, the artist and writer turned up on a whim to an all-women’s karate class (this was the early 80s in New York), became swiftly addicted, and a year later, after training five nights a week, popped out the other end with a black belt. After that, in swift succession, came fanatical attachments to skiing, cycling, yoga, running, climbing, aerobics and weight training. “Due to space constraints,” she writes in The Secret to Superhuman Strength, her graphic memoir about these obsessions and the quest for enlightenment that drove them, “I have not touched on my passion for in-line skating.”
This is Bechdel’s third graphic memoir, her breakthrough first book, 2006 blockbuster Fun Home, was rapturously received by critics and readers. With painstaking detail and mordant humour, Bechdel detailed growing up in rural Pennsylvania in a family that, if it didn’t turn her into a writer exactly, certainly bequeathed her a life-long wealth of material. (In short: Bechdel’s parents, who were teachers, ran a part-time funeral home, and just as Bechdel was starting to come out as a lesbian, her closeted gay father died in a presumed suicide.) A few years later, an obscure reference she’d made in a cartoon strip to misogyny in movies was re-discovered and the Bechdel Test, as it became widely known – the requirement that a movie should include at least one scene in which two women talked to each other about something other than men – made her a household name.
One side-effect of a lifetime spent chasing the endorphin high of hard exercise is that Bechdel, a 60, looks 20 years younger than her age, appearing via Zoom from her home in Vermont. “I have my Zoom filter, my Vaseline lens, su!” she says jokingly, but the fact remains, she must be the world’s fittest cartoonist, an artist with the stamina of an ultra-marathon runner, whose obsession with fitness runs almost as deep as with work. The question of the book is how the two are connected, and what, precisely, Bechdel thinks she’s been doing all these years.
That physical and mental fitness are linked is not a new idea, ovviamente, not least in modern times, when the notion that fitness is next to godliness is heavily promoted by the gym industry. As in previous books in which she marries memoir with literary history, she flips between an account of her own life and that of other writers: William Wordsworth (hung up on walking as a short cut to the writer’s sublime); Jack Kerouac (once climbed a mountain in tennis shoes, provoking a natural high as powerful as any brought on by drugs); and Margaret Fuller, the 19th-century feminist who worked alongside Ralph Emerson on notions of transcendentalism in nature. Between these writers, Bechdel traces a “chain of influence”, one which, with her customary humour, she follows all the way to her basement karate class and recent booms in physical fitness, quando, as she puts it drily, “a new activity requiring a specialised roof rack seems to be invented every day”.
There are a lot of things to unpack in all this, not least the delusion, present in most of us when we exercise, that we are at some level staving off death. (As Don DeLillo put it in Underworld, evoking a scene of people running on treadmills, “they were training to live forever”.) For Bechdel, mortality “is the central anxiety. Every little anxiety we have can be boiled down to fear of death, or of disease and dependence. So why not just try to deal with it head on?"
There is also the question of creative work and the frame of mind best attained to achieve it. “I keep thinking about being stuck versus being in the flow," lei dice. “And, looking at these other writers in periods when they had great excitement and periods of being really depressed, or addicted, or stuck, wondering is it possible to engineer that creative flow?” The short answer, lei dice, is no: when an artist is stuck, “the only thing you can do is do the work, which is really hard and you have to get through a lot of bad stuff before it gets good”. On the other hand, lei dice: "Per me, that’s where the exercise comes in. It’s a short cut, a cheat, to get some of that feeling of flow, of escaping my own particular self in a very concrete, immediate way. It’s easy to go for a run and have an immediate feeling of euphoria. Much harder to write a book.”
For decades, Bechdel worked in relative obscurity, quale, apart from occasional money worries, suited her just fine. Her long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, ran in scores of alternative newspapers across the US and she had a large, loyal following. The publication of Fun Home, which was later made into a Broadway show, changed all that and made Bechdel startlingly famous in a way she still hasn’t entirely grown used to. (“If you had told me," lei dice, “that I would some day become tired of talking about myself, I would not have believed you, because I had this boundless need to be understood and recognised. And yet I reached a point during the Fun Home hullaballoo when I really started to feel overexposed.”)
The impact of her childhood surfaces most starkly, as it does for many people, in Bechdel’s intimate relationships. Part of the project of her new book was for Bechdel to look back over her relationship history and see how or why she behaved in certain pivotal ways. There are some wild episodes. In her 30s, while living in Minnesota, she received a fan letter from a woman living on a farmhouse in rural Vermont, and decided on a whim to move out there (e, incredibly, to move in with the letter writer, sight unseen). “That was a strange period of my life," lei dice, “and I was seduced. It was a fan letter and I just … I let myself fall for that. That was a very narcissistic thing. And I’m hoping as I’m going through my life I’m less self-absorbed in that way.”
The paradox of this new-found attitude is that it runs entirely counter to the slant of Bechdel’s work, in which self-absorption powers every story. The point, lei dice, is that the details of her life, when examined in granular enough detail, provide a gateway to deeper and more universal discoveries. Nel The Secret of Superhuman Strength, she calls her fanatical exercise a form of “metaphysical fitness,” and likens the trance-like state it brings about to one writers have been documenting since the beginning of time. (Disliking an author, in Bechdel’s view, is no prohibition on enjoying their work in this regard. Take Kerouac, “a real jerk," lei dice. “He’s a very unpleasant person, and everything I knew about him made me kind of hate him. But I read his book The Dharma Bums in my 20s, when he was out in the wilderness, and it was like going on a hike with a good friend. I felt I’d been let in on that magical experience.”)
She describes using exercise as a way to eclipse the ego and achieve an abnegation of self, a useful state for the artist to enter. Surely there’s a tension here, pure; to vanquish the ego because it creates a better condition for creative work, è, surely, itself an expression of ego? Bechdel laughs. “I know. Yeah. It’s a paradox. But I do feel like something happens when you have turned yourself over wholly to a project, even though you have a mercenary goal at the end of it. Something else happens. If it’s a genuine process, you somehow – I’m very bad at talking about these intangible ideas – but you do become free of yourself, at least for a short period of time, and it’s such an ecstatic feeling. It’s worth whatever it takes.”
A volte, this experimental attitude of Bechdel’s doesn’t pan out quite as planned. In her 40s, she had a crack at polyamory, dating a woman called Holly, who had another girlfriend. It seemed to Bechdel, briefly, like a good fit. “My thing in relationships has always been that my primary focus was work, and that would be a big problem. So when I met Holly, and she told me she was polyamorous, it seemed like a perfect solution: I could be polyamorous with my work, and she could have her other partner.” In fact, it didn’t work out like that at all. Instead of feeling free to work, when Holly was with her other girlfriend, Bechdel felt, as she puts it in the book, “jealous and distracted”.
She also realised something during that period: “that my work is not my life. That I do have a life apart from my work.” Eventually, Holly gave up polyamory, and she and Bechdel are now married. “There’s something very appealing politically, and philosophically, about polyamory; there is this great, expansive openness that it promised. I like to think that I’m still a little bit polyamorous theoretically, if not actually.”
Infatti, the act of getting married – which only became legal for gay people across the US in 2015 – struck Bechdel as surprisingly radical. She’d been married once before, as a protest. “In the early 2000s, some American cities did these civil disobedience weddings and I happened to be in San Francisco with my partner, and we got very swept up into this excitement.” Alongside a crowd of other couples, they got married outside city hall, an act, lei dice, that was mired in “paradox: that neither of us had ever wanted to get married – we thought of marriage as this backward concept, and we were all about abolishing marriage – but somehow it felt very radical, in the moment, as two women, to go get married.” That marriage, and all the others conducted that day, were eventually annulled by the state. But the feeling of radicalism remained, lei dice, and in 2015, “when it suddenly became legal, it seemed transgressive. That’s how I rationalised it to myself, even though in another way I was completely capitulating to the system. I guess it feels like a comfortable kind of dissonance for me to think of myself as a married person.”
Dykes to Watch Out For was one of the first representations of lesbians – and in particular butch lesbians – in popular culture and it’s a source of ongoing amazement that, since its inception in 1983, not a whole lot has changed. Lesbians might be permitted on TV shows these days, but they take mostly straight-seeming shape and anyone who looks butch – Mrs Maisel’s sidekick, Susie, per esempio, or the Melissa McCarthy character in Bridesmaids – either has a straight story bolted on, or are given no personal arc whatsoever. “I used to explain it in terms of just capitalism and commodification,” says Bechdel. “Most products are aimed at selling something to men, and men don’t want to see masculine women. But I don’t think that’s entirely it.” She thinks for a moment. “I feel kind of fine about it. I don’t want to become commodified more than I have been, so it’s a way of being outside of that system in a way that’s really wonderful.”
One thing you notice about Bechdel is how, over the course of her two previous memoirs (six years after Fun Home, she wrote the loose follow-up Are You My Mother?), her depictions of herself as a child are consistent with the way she is now. She grew up in a conservative place at a conservative time, but she was, unusually she says, very much permitted to be herself from the get-go. “I feel like that was a gift from my parents. For all the ways that they short-changed me, in another way I was allowed to be an intact self, in a way that probably wasn’t super common at the time.” Her parents may, occasionally, have forced her into a dress, but most of the time she was allowed to run around in boy’s clothes, with short hair and the freedom to pursue her obsessions.
One of these was muscles. She laughs; she has always been obsessed with muscles and as a child, sent away for a pamphlet on how to pump iron to achieve them. It’s only now, in the writing of the book, that she has started to get a grip on what it was she was doing – and what role exercise has taken in her life over the years. “Part of why that whole muscle-man fantasy was so potent for me as a child, was that it was really about being self-sufficient; about not needing my parents, or anyone. That’s a very functional disorder to have, in some ways, because it makes you work hard and achieve things. But it’s also part of my whole intimacy struggle; I can’t just be with someone. It’s a challenge for me to stop doing and just be.” Bechdel still goes running, something she found “salvational” during the pandemic. Ma, after living with Holly for 13 anni, she thinks she’s finally making a little progress on the art of being still; of “learning what it means to actually be present and truly open to the other person – not trying to turn them into some kind of extension of myself”.
It is the kind of paradox Bechdel has spent a career brilliantly exposing; stillness as an indication of movement. A 60, a fully grown adult by any measure, does she ever feel sheepish still to be searching for the truth about herself? “You’re not fully grown! We keep on growing! There are identifiable developmental stages that proceed into old age, and most of them involve becoming less focused on yourself.” Not everyone does it. “Many people choose to stop.” But for Bechdel, “that’s the exciting thing about life: the constant opportunity to grow.”