A confession: I hate working out. With the exception of dog walks — do those count? — and the occasional tennis game, I get exactly no exercise. I am, in short, the opposite of what Alison Bechdel, in her supremely good graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, calls “the vigorous type.” Bechdel herself is vigorous to a degree she seems to consider mildly pathological. In The Secret to Superhuman Strength, she looks back on decades of exercise obsessions — hiking, biking, skiing, running, yoga, and more — with a combination of rueful amusement, confusion, and her signature desire to analyze. Is her exercise addiction, she asks, a pursuit of unattainable self-sufficiency? Is it preventing her from acknowledging not only her fundamental human dependence on others, but her mortality? Or is it a route to humility, self-knowledge, and perhaps even enlightenment?
These may seem like big questions for a book featuring roller blades, Jack LaLanne, and several different gripes about the price of bike gear, but Bechdel thrives at odd intellectual intersections. She’s a research magpie with a sense of humor, constantly given to tucking illuminating facts or quotations where they might seem not to belong. In her two previous memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, Bechdel intertwined autobiography with literary criticism, psychology, and various forms of cultural theory. Here, she fits her life-in-workouts into a broader lineage of exercise-obsessed, socially progressive writers who were “intent on some kind of inner transformation” through physical means: the Romantics, the Transcendentalists, the Beats. (Among her loveliest panels is a drawing of the Beat poet Gary Snyder skinny-dipping in the Sierras with his wife and child.) At the same time, she hooks her quest for physical fitness into the Zen Buddhist pursuit of oneness with the universe. For Bechdel, exercise, at its worst, can be a prison of self-obsession. But at its best, it becomes, spiritually as much as physically, a “way of enlarging my tiny, puny self.”
Compared to Bechdel’s prior memoirs, The Secret to Superhuman Strength is not just enlarged, but expansive. It covers more time; it ranges more freely through space; and it uses color with abandon. In Fun Home, Bechdel used only black, white, and turquoise; in Are You My Mother?, black, white, and red. Now, she permits herself the whole spectrum — and uses it to excellent effect. (I should note that Bechdel’s wife, the artist Holly Rae Taylor, helped color the book; in fact, she appears in a late panel, coloring.) In a two-page spread depicting the “cardio-pulmonary frenzy” of gym life, the neon shades of ’80s Lycra dominate. In a panel showing Bechdel’s first trip to the L.L. Bean store, which serves as an icon of vigorousness, preppy pinks and greens dominate. And on the recurring pages when Bechdel, in the midst of some physical challenge, smacks up against a revelation, color vanishes in favor of austere, luminous washes of gray watercolor: inner peace in visual form.
Bechdel’s epiphanies are, in general, either short-lived or belated, and yet they add up to deep wisdom. Take a moment early in the memoir, when she looks back on her childhood ability to be completely present in the moment while skiing. Above a full-page black-and-white panel showing her young self at the top of a ski run, she writes, “Soon I would lose this immediate, unreflected grasp of reality. I would become nearly paralyzed with thoughts of achievement, thoughts of self. I would become my own worst obstacle.” I myself was briefly paralyzed by that page. Until that panel, I had been telling myself that, as a non-exerciser, I was exempt from what seemed to be the book’s fundamental observation: the more we chase physical perfection, the further we run inside ourselves. The skiing panel widens the analysis. It makes clear that athletic excellence is a stand-in for attainment of any type: ideal career, dream house, perfect relationship, and so on. All can be sources of great joy, but all, if pursued single-mindedly, slowly render us incapable of change, connection, and growth. Understanding this, of course, is the secret to superhuman strength — or the secret Bechdel has to offer. Somehow, I suspect she’s still seeking more.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), by Alison Bechdel, is now available on Bookshop.