The Secret To Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel 2021
Alison Bechdel is a brilliant cartoonist and writer whose latest graphic book is a memoir. ‘The Secret To Superhuman Strength’ refers to an ad she responded to while a teen-ager in an attempt to improve her skinny, undeveloped, and ill-fitting body. That attempt was repeatedly replicated through the years as Bechdel substituted exercise (weight-lifting, yoga, karate, running, in-line skating, cross-country and downhill skiing, biking, rowing, meditation, and on and on….) for self-awareness and emotionally coming to terms with who she is.
The book is organized into decades beginning in the 1960’s when she lived with her father (a closeted homosexual funeral home owner who committed suicide when Alison was in her teens), her mother (a repressed and distant figure), and her two brothers in semi-rural Pennsylvania. As we accompany Alison on her life journey through the decades until the present, she tells her story with an engaging combination of graphics and text. It’s like reading a comic book written by a Pulitzer Prize winner in literature. It’s clever, insightful, sad, honest, and very funny in places as when she alliteratively refers to the others on a meditation retreat as the ‘deluded, dimwitted, and denial’ crowd.
Through the book, Bechdel cites her literary heroes and inspirations—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Kerouac, Snyder, Emerson and Margaret Fuller, Adrienne Rich, Thoreau, Didion, Suzuki, Trungpa—as she moves from Pennsylvania to New York City to Minneapolis to Michigan, and finally to her present home in rural Vermont. Along the way, we meet various paramours until she marries Holly, to whom the book is dedicated. Her Mother makes frequent appearances until her death in the 2010’s.
Bechdel was awarded a MacArthur genius grant which enabled her to drop her 25 year column, Dykes to Watch Out For and complete her first book. Her marriage, her successful books (especially ‘Fun Home’ which was turned into a Tony award winning play on Broadway), her connection to her mother, and her years of therapy appear to have enabled her to reach enough ‘inner peace’ to find some satisfaction.
You don’t have to be an angst-ridden, obsessive Lesbian living in rural Vermont to love this book. If you haven’t read a graphic novel or memoir, read this one and you’ll be hooked