Alison Bechdel: I so much wanted to be a big strong guy. I think what the real lure for me was this idea of being self-sufficient, that I wouldn't need anyone else's care or protection. I wanted to be that powerful.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
and need to talk about more.
I'm Anna Sale.
ANNA SALE: Can we talk about menopause?
AB: Yeah! Let's do it.
Alison Bechdel went through menopause 10 years ago, when she was 50. I only know this because she writes about it in her latest graphic memoir called The Secret to Superhuman Strength. It's a book all about her outer physical life, and her inner emotional life, and the things she's noticed about getting older.
AB: I was starting to like skip more and more periods as time went on until I didn't have any more. It's weird because you can't know when your last one is going to be. You don't know technically until it's been a year since you've had a period. There was just this limbo period when you don't know what's happening. For me, that coincided with a lot of hot flashes, but worse than the hot flashes, I just felt crazy. I never had terrible PMS, but it was like having really bad PMS for extended periods. I just know it felt nuts.
AS: Were there moments where you were like, "Can I trust this emotional reaction, or is this because my hormones are haywire"?
AB: Yes, I would overreact to things. A symptom that I would have when I was younger, and I would have PMS would just be this feeling of self-loathing. It was usually pretty brief, but that came to really inhabit me for like, almost constantly during that period, and it was awful.
AS: How long did that last?
AB: At least a solid year, I would say, although it's hard to remember all that stuff. I just want to say how refreshing it is to be invited to talk about menopause because really, honestly, nobody wants to hear about it, I have found, except women who are actually in the throes of it, no one else wants to know. Even after women are through with it, they don't want to talk about it.
AS: [Laughs] They're done with it. They just want to move on. "Don't ask me about that period of life."
Alison is 60 now. And in the decade since she went through menopause, a lot has happened in her life. Her award-winning graphic memoir, Fun Home, about growing up her family's funeral home and her father's death from an apparent suicide became a Tony Award-winning musical. Alison also married her partner, Holly, an artist who collaborates with her on her work. And Alison lost her mom, Helen, to colon cancer. She died in 2013, seven years after being diagnosed.
AB: I found out that she had stage three colon cancer the day I got home from my book tour for my book Fun Home. A book in which I aired all of my family's dirty laundry. These were big family secrets that people didn't know about. I told my mother I was doing this and we had discussed it and I'd shown it to her as it evolved, but still, it was hard for her when that book actually came out. So it was very strange. I knew she had a polyp on her colon and she was going to have it removed while I was on my book tour and I talked to her every day on my book tour checking in with her. She never told me about the diagnosis. I finally asked her when I got home, "Did you get the biopsy results?" She said, "Oh, yes, I've known for a few days, I didn't want to tell you when you were on your book tour, but I have cancer." I know this is very narcissistic of me, but I immediately felt like, "Oh my god, I'm killing my mother. By writing this book about my father, I am somehow killing my mother too."
AB: I know that's not really true, but--
AS: Did you tell her you felt that way? That you feared that?
AB: No, I did not.
AS: Were you all close?
AB: We were close in a certain way. Other people with more conventional kinds of relationships might look at the relationship between my mother and me and think that we were insanely remote, but we talked about writing, she was a writer, she taught high school English and had always wanted to be a writer, and now here I was actually out in the world, as a writer. I feel like we really had an understanding. Neither of us is really fully present. We're both standing back, we're both looking at what's happening, and processing it through all these layers.
AS: Because you're both writers, you're noticing what it's like to be together and observing it as opposed to being together.
AB: Yes, and to me, that seems like a pretty good trade-off.
AS: You used an interesting word, you said, for someone with a more conventional relationship to a parent, it would look like you weren't close. What do you imagine is a conventional relationship with a parent that would look closer?
AB: Oh, I just think of people who hug their family members, we never ever touched one another. It didn't even look like we were paying attention. I paid a lot of attention to my mother, but in some ways, she didn't really ever show much interest in my life, so I think she might have looked a little cold in that way.
AS: She was in treatment for quite a while, she lived after her diagnosis, of course. What were your interactions like when she was in treatment when she was in chemo, when you would be with her?
AB: It was very hard for her to be ill. She would be horrified if she knew I was talking about this on the radio because she didn't tell her friends.
AS: Oh, really.
AB: I would argue with her, "Mom, they just want to help you. They can give you support." And she would insist that she didn't need any support and people would just feel sorry for her and they'd "bring her pudding," [laughs] think that they were doing something great, and she just very much didn't want to be perceived as weak or debilitated in any way.
AS: Did you and your mother discuss her death?
AB: [Pause] We didn't really, but I'm so grateful to her oncologist for how extremely direct he was. She'd been sick and clearly failing and we went to meet with him, and me and my mother and my mom's partner, Bob, all went to see the oncologist and Bob had been researching all these possible things that might be going on for her and possible treatments that might help and the oncologist just looked at us and said, "You know what, no, this is the end." That directness was such a gift. The one thing we did talk about was right after that when I was taking her from his office to the hospital, I just said, "Well, he didn't pull any punches." My mother said, "Nope." That was pretty much the extent of our exchange about her actual death.
AS: I saw on her obituary that up almost to the very end of her life, she was swimming 60 laps a day, is that right?
AB: Yes, my mom was a real, she loved swimming. She went to the Y every day until she got too sick. It's so funny, Anna, I've got a lot of her old datebooks here, and I've look through them every now and then and they have her workouts listed. How many laps she did is there, how much time she spent on the StairMaster, and we didn't, it was startling to see that because I do that same thing in my datebook, but we never talked about that. It was just like we have the same weird behavioral tick. I get that it's not that unusual to keep track of one's workouts, but it was just startling and moving to see all of her notes, and to realize, I know that exercise was important to her and made her happy, but in the end, we all die, my mother's gone. All her workouts for what? I'm still grappling with this as you can see.
Mortality and all the ways Alison has tried to ward it off through exercise is at the heart of her new book. The specific types of fitness she's been drawn to over the years have jumped around a lot from martial arts, to yoga, to running. But what hasn't changed is her dedication to it. Exercise has been a consistent part of her life for years.
AB: A workout is like a demonstrable accomplishment. I can't point every day to some creative feat that I've achieved. But I can say, yes, I ran four miles today, so I allow myself to have that small pleasure.
AS: Can you describe for me yourself when you're a child and you realize that you want to be strong?
AS: When you pictured the kind of body you wanted to build, you wanted to make for yourself through exercise, what did you picture?
AB: Well, I, like many children, read comic books and saw those endless Charles Atlas ads of the big bully kicking a little skinny guy on the beach. I saw those pictures of the bodybuilder guys, like that Charles Atlas picture. I didn't really think of him as a guy, I didn't really think of that muscular body as a male body, I just thought, "I want to look like that." Or maybe there was some gender displacement going on for me as a small girl, but it didn't seem inconsistent that I could be big and strong like that. I was so tempted by those ads. For me as a kid, it was purely physical. It was about just being big and having these big bulging muscles.
AS: When you would exercise, would you do it in private when you would be trying to get strong, or did you do it out in the open with your family watching?
AB: I did it in the open. I started exercising consciously as a teenager, I began running and I also discovered this book of my mom's called The Joy of Feeling Fit. It was one of those - it was like by some celebrity trainer, and I started doing the exercises in this book. I didn't hide it, I would do them in the kitchen or the living room. I did for a brief period try to rig up a punching bag in the basement after I saw the movie Rocky.
AB: That was a big influence. I got a laundry bag and I filled it with pennies and marbles, so it was really heavy. I padded it around with rags, and I hung it in the basement, and I put on my dad's good leather ski gloves and I would practice hitting this punching bag.
Anna: Oh! [laughs] That's such a beautiful image and also probably hurt your fingers! Marbles and pennies! [laughs]
AB: Well, it hurt the gloves more than my fingers, alas.
AS: How old were you when you did that?
AB: I think I just turned 16.
AS: Oh, so you weren't like a child? [laughs]
AB: I was in 10th grade.
AS: [laughs] When you would look at your body at that time when you're a teenager, how did you think about gender, and body image, and weight? What were the pressures that you felt when you would look at your body and you knew what you wanted it to look like, and then you were looking at what your body did look like?
AB: I had many of the typical kinds of dissonance that girls in this culture do. I worried that I was too heavy. I was uncomfortable with my breasts and hips, I grew very quickly. I'd been a very skinny kid and I grew quite quickly once I hit 13 or 14, I put on a lot of weight. I was very uncomfortable in my body. Then, as I came out as a lesbian, and started becoming a feminist, and being exposed to all these new ideas, there was another layer to it which was-- that these standards for women's bodies were actually trying to make women look more like men. This leanness and thinness that everyone was aspiring to was a way of making women's bodies look more like men's bodies. So I tried to eradicate that attitude in myself. I feel like, for me, there was another thing going on, which was really that I didn't quite-- I don't identify as trans at all, but maybe I am, a little bit. I can really understand how you can just feel a dissonance with the body that you have. I realized that my own weightlifting was probably was an attempt to have a more-- it was an attempt to have a more masculine, less curvy-looking body. And I feel like I've embraced this idea that I'm a masculine woman, I feel fine being a woman, but I also like having a more masculine appearance. That's just the kind of girl I am.
Coming up, I talk with Allison about three decades of going to therapy, which started not long after her father was hit by a truck and killed.
AB: It was that evening that my mother said to me, "I think that it was on purpose. I think he stepped in front of that truck." As soon as she said that, that made perfect sense, and they've never questioned it.
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Our newsletter is also where we shared reactions to our episode with former rock climber Mason Earle. Our listener Fey in Maryland is visually impaired, and she told us that a lot of what Mason said about living with a chronic illness resonated with her. Especially when it comes to relationships.
FEY: I really fear the idea that my partner might meet me one way, and my eyesight could get dramatically worse than it is now and they’d have to get used to a partner that they did not initially fall in love with. You know what I mean? They’re signing up for potentially a huge change in our relationship dynamic and I’m fearful of that.
Again, sign up at deathsexmoney.org to get that newsletter. Another thing I do from time to time in our newsletter is write about what I’m reading and watching. One new TV show I’m really excited to stream soon is called Blindspotting. It’s a TV adaptation of a movie that came out a few years back about Oakland, police and gentrification. And on our next episode, we’re going to revisit our Death, Sex & Money conversation with Rafael Casal, the creator and star of both Blindspotting the film and the TV show. I was out on maternity leave when Rafael was on the show, but we had an incredible guest host: Actor Mahershala Ali.
Mahershala Ali: What scares you about the next three to five years?
Rafael Casal: I just don't know what I'm doing. I say this thing all the time, that I keep getting through another door and I keep thinking that the adults are in that room. And then I get in there and it's just me and my friends. [Laughs]
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
Alison Bechdel's father died when she was 19 years old. It was 1980. And months before, Alison had come out to her parents. Her mom then revealed to her that her dad had had affairs with men. And soon after, Alison's mom asked her dad for a divorce. Alison says he started behaving erratically, and then was hit by a truck. Alison drove home from college to be with her mom, who told her she believed it was a suicide.
AB: I was the only person I think that she told. I know she didn't tell her best friend. She might have told her sister, I'm not sure, but no, she kept everything very much under wraps.
AS: When did you start therapy?
AB: I started therapy when I was 26, following a very brief but quite disturbing period of depression.
AS: For you, when you think about what therapy in particular, why it's been helpful to you, what would you say?
AB: Well, because of the strange environment I grew up in with my parents maintaining this big, quite elaborate secret all the time, I just never learned how to be emotionally present. One of the first things my therapist said to me, I told her, "My dad killed himself. Maybe I'm having some reaction to that." She said, "Well, did you ever feel angry at your father for killing himself?" I was like, "What are you even talking about, anger? Why would I feel anger?" But as soon as she said that, I could feel something start to change and I just learned how to have feelings. It took many years, but I learned that it was okay to have these feelings that I had been keeping at bay my whole life. Right around that time, I started studying yoga. I stopped doing martial arts a few years earlier, and then was moving into yoga. At the same time, I was doing this intensive work in therapy, I was learning to pay attention to my body in a really different way than I had done in karate. Yoga was all about looking in and not out. In karate, we were always braced for attack.
AB: In yoga, I realized that I was grappling with my own self in this very deep interior way.
AS: And how is pain treated in yoga versus martial arts? How did you think about it differently?
AB: Well, I learned in yoga to observe the pain rather than just label it pain and recoil from it, really pay attention to how it feels. If you examine it closely, it's a tingling or a pulsing. There's all these kinds of sensations that you can notice when you don't just call it pain and resist it. That, of course, had an emotional analog. I was learning to do that with my feelings as well, but having that grounding in the body helped with that. The yoga and the therapy were very beneficial to one another.
Yoga eventually fell away in Alison's life, but she stayed in therapy for 30 more years. As she ended one romantic relationship, began another with her partner, Holly, and tried to figure out her complicated relationship to her work, too.
AB: I always just kind of automatically reflexively prioritize my work over everything else, including my partners. My therapist would just throw up her hands when I would talk about how my work is my life. I would try to explain to her, "I'm a memoirist. This is what I do." She would say, "It's what you do. It's not who you are." I really had a very difficult time understanding the difference. When I met Holly, who told me she was polyamorous, I was very curious about that because it finally, maybe it would be okay that my priority was my work.
AS: Did that give you a sense of permission to really just say out loud, "You are not my only priority. Work is also my priority"? Is that something you could admit in previous relationships, or did it feel shameful?
AB: No, it always felt shameful and wrong. Honestly, it didn't work out that way with Holly when it was okay to finally admit that. I feel like I started slowly beginning to understand that my work is really not the most important thing. It is very important, but my work was not meeting certain very basic needs. Whenever I would finish a big project or a deadline, I would have these abysmal periods of just feeling really lost. I know that's because the work isn't life. I needed to engage with life in those moments.
AS: How did you start to understand it? What shifted in how you understood the limits of work?
AB: I would notice that I'm spending all my time working. I'm trying to write about my life, but I have less and less material to draw and the more time I spend sitting here on my computer, or at my drawing board. That's just a sort of mathematical reality. I wouldn't say I've really cracked this nut, but I do feel like I've made a lot of progress and that I'm much more likely to stop working at the end of the day and not keep working into the evening or stay up late. I'm able to have weekends when I don't work at all. It's actually better for the work. That's how I rationalize it in my crazed workaholic brain. If I take time off, then I'm fresher on Monday.
AS: Yeah, and you're also secretly working because you're creating content for your work.
AB: Right, exactly.
Another issue that came up over and over again for Alison in therapy was alcohol. She started drinking more in her 30s, around the same time that a knee injury put a stop to her running.
AB: I started drinking in an increasingly habitual manner until I got to the point in my early 50s that I just had to have the drink, multiple drinks. I had to drink with dinner and I would often keep drinking throughout the rest of the evening. I kept trying to tell myself, "Oh, it's fine, I'm still productive and it's not like I'm getting wasted. I'm just trying to relax." I drank the way I learned to drink in my family. My parents drank with dinner or had a cocktail and then had beer or wine with dinner. I was replicating that pattern, but for the same reason too, that was how they managed their tension. That's how I learned to manage my tension. Weirdly, my finally being able to stop drinking happened at the same time that I quit therapy after-- Well, with this particular therapist, it had been almost 20 years. She found that a very interesting coincidence. She had a funny theory about it. I'm sure it was absolutely right. She would talk about how I always wanted to do everything myself, like I couldn't really let her help me.
AS: That's interesting.
AB: Yeah. Only when I was winding down and ready to leave could I stop drinking. Because I had to do it myself.
AS: Does that feel true?
AS: How did you know you were ready to stop therapy?
AB: I realized I was sort of looking at the clock, not with anxiety that the time was going too quickly, but that it was going too slowly.
AS: How did you end it? How did you bring up that you thought you might be ready to leave?
AB: Well, she had a whole routine. We spent a full year continuing to see each other after deciding that it was time to end. Some people are, I'm sure, rolling their eyes like, "Who would go on with that?" but I liked that plan.
AS: It's sort of like knowing you're getting to the senior year of high school and then you have all of the milestones of the senior year of high school, so you're really finishing that last year.
AB: Yes. It was a way of really processing what we've done together, too, to really explore all of that.
AS: You've recently taken back up running. You're running again. You're jogging again for exercise. Can you describe for me what felt different doing running for exercising? What did you get from running that other exercising didn't deliver for you?
AB: There's something magical that happens in running. I don't know what it is. Running is just hard. You're slamming your body into the ground with every step. Whatever weird brain chemicals it makes, it comes from that impact. It's quite addictive and it's a very positive kind of addiction.
AS: Are you fearful of what will happen when what happens to your body and running - when your body can't tolerate it anymore?
AB: Yeah, I am. I know it's inevitable, no one keeps running forever. I'm hoping I'm going to find other ways to maintain my peace of mind before I lose the ability to run. I ran across an entry in my teenage diary as I was working on this book. It was addressed to my older self. I was excited about a run I had just gone on. I was talking about how good I felt and I said, "You better still be doing this when you're old and gray."
AS: Wow. I wonder, so your younger self was telling your older self how to take care of your body. If you could give a message to that teenage self about how to take care of your body. What is important about it? What would you tell that person?
AB: I don't think I would need to tell that person anything. I think she knew very well, how to do it. I wish I hadn't spent as many years drinking as I had, but apart from that, I feel pretty pleased with how I've taken care of my body.
That's Alison Bechdel. I love her new book so much. It is called The Secret to Superhuman Strength. Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Katie Bishop. The rest of our team includes Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, Yasmin Khan, and Andrew Dunn. The Reverend John DeLore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I'm on Instagram @annasalepics that's P-I-C-S, and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Thank you to Olivia den Dulk in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Olivia and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
Alison told me she still does not like to ask for help. Even if she’s not feeling well, she doesn’t like to rely on her wife. But the indignities of aging? That they’re happy to discuss together.
AB: I might feel more self-conscious if she were not having signs herself, but we point out stuff all the time, we both have been doing it looking at our creepy skin and she has this crazy gray eyebrow hair.
I'm Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
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