CARTOONIST ALISON BECHDEL didn't write a book about her father until after he was dead. Writing about a parent who's still living is a much thornier undertaking—which perhaps is why Bechdel's new graphic novel Are You My Mother? has far more to say about Bechdel herself.

Implicit and explicit in criticism I've read of Are You My Mother? has been that Bechdel's mom, well, really isn't that bad. Diffident and detached, sure, but compared to the mood swings and closeted homosexuality of Bechdel's overbearing father—described in 2006's Fun Home—her mom is pretty tame. But to read Are You My Mother? expecting a cartoon version of Mommie Dearest is to miss the point. Are You My Mother? is less about Bechdel's relationship with her mother than it is about her relationship to her own life, and her attempt to understand the forces that shaped her personality and consciousness. Bechdel's mom plays a pivotal role in clarifying that understanding, as mothers often do; she's the fulcrum on which many of Bechdel's realizations inevitably turn.

But other figures factor in as well: There's psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, whose highlighted works crop up frequently; Virginia Woolf's formal experimentation into the nature of perception gets a nod as well. There's also a series of therapists whose questioning throws Bechdel's issues—with intimacy, self-worth, and the value of her work, among other things—into sharp relief over the course of the book. In the same way that Bechdel turns to literature to understand and explain her relationship to her father in Fun Home, psychoanalysis becomes a tool in the book Bechdel devotes to her mother.

Despite its title, Are You My Mother? is not really the story of an unhappy childhood, or even of a troubled relationship between mother and daughter. Ultimately, it's a process of self-interrogation, of mining past scholars of the human psyche in the hopes of finding usable bits she can bring to bear on our own experience. (There's also lesbian sex.)

Are You My Mother? is almost obstinately theoretical at times, and it's certainly wide open to cries of self-indulgence or dryness. But there's something both admirable and universal about this account of one woman trying—with an old, odd set of tools and a lot of time on the therapist's couch—to puzzle out why, exactly, she is who she is.