Alison Bechdel Seeks Enlightenment via Fitness
In her new memoir, 'The Secret to Superhuman Strength,' the 'Fun Home' cartoonist scrutinizes her quest for spiritual solace through 60 years of athletic obsessions
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Last week, I texted a doctor friend a photo of my banged-up face, with the question: “So, do you think I need stitches?” It had happened hours earlier, during my fifth-ever surf lesson. After briefly catching a whopping one-foot wave, I toppled off my board and into the Pacific. My body somersaulted like it’d been thrown in the washing machine, along with my massive foam surfboard. Before I could cover my face, I felt it—THWACK!—a plastic fin to my eyebrow. I surfaced, dizzy, and touched my temple. The cut bled dramatically, as head wounds do, more bark than bite. As I paddled back to the beach, I heard a 12-year-old boy bobbing nearby yell, “Whoa! Holy shit!”
Surfing, I’m gathering, is 90 percent learning how to read the ocean and alter your actions to accommodate it. In no other sport does the track, court, or field change as the ocean does, on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. Bleeding from the face felt humbling. Not just because the wave that caused it was one foot tall, nor because a 12-year-old clocked it. But because it reminded me how insignificant I am, barely a drop in the Pacific Ocean, completely subject to its whims. Maybe it was the blood loss-induced dizzies, but as I dragged my board to the beach, I felt like I’d lost my sense of self. It was freeing. I have a suspicion Alison Bechdel would understand the feeling.
Bechdel is known for her cartoons, particularly Fun Home and Dykes to Watch Out For, rather than her athleticism. But her latest book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, out this week, makes a strong case for the intrinsic interconnectedness of creativity, spirituality, and an elevated heart rate. As detailed in the new graphic memoir, Bechdel has spent her 60 years on Earth trying every solo sport and workout fad under the sun. She’s dabbled in swimming, running, karate, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, cycling, yoga, hiking—the list goes on. Bechdel doesn’t discuss surfing in her book, but I’ve been channeling her athletic enthusiasm during my recent morning beach trips.
The book opens with an introduction from present-day Alison, and then we jump back to baby Alison in the hospital, immediately whisked out of her mother’s arms. Bechdel was born in 1960, so each decade of her life fits neatly with a new calendar decade. The Secret to Superhuman Strength is divided up accordingly. We follow the writer through her adolescence, through her years writing in New York, cartooning in Minnesota, and eventually settling down in Vermont. This memoir intersects with Bechdel’s others—Fun Home is about her relationship with her dad, and Are You My Mother?, her mom, both of whom play supporting roles in this book. We meet Alison’s girlfriends (lots of them), her workaholic tendencies, and her anxieties over Fun Home’s massive, unexpected success.
Each of these life stages is explored through the lens of athletics and the outdoors. In her first year of college, Bechdel proudly scales a 20-foot wall intended for team-building exercises all by herself—which, she realizes in hindsight, planted in her the (false, damaging) idea that she didn’t need anyone but herself, a resonant theme through her 50s. After her father dies by suicide, Bechdel copes by plunging her physical and emotional energy into training at an all-women’s karate dojo. As Bechdel dives into the stress of writing cartoons full-time in her 30s, she runs up and down a Vermont mountain while on deadline, simply to retain some sense of control.
Sure, The Secret to Superhuman Strength could stand alone as an entertaining look back at the rise of various American workout trends. But it’s much more than that, as Bechdel’s running, cycling, and skiing serve as a backdrop for her own spiritual and creative development. In her 30s, Bechdel moves to rural Vermont, where her obsession with work ravages her sleep schedule and bleeds into her relationships. “If I had to choose between only riding downhill or only riding uphill for the rest of my life—an existential question that I pondered often,” Bechdel writes of road biking in Vermont in her 30s, “I would take the uphill.” When a girlfriend asks Bechdel what life might look like if she weren’t always metaphorically riding uphill, Bechdel tells her: “I…I wouldn’t deserve to exist?” Many endurance-oriented readers might relate.
With this book, Bechdel establishes her place in a long line of progressive thinkers who have sought spiritual growth via physical activity. Bechdel bounces between her own biography and those of other prominent writers whose passion for exercise and the outdoors informed their creative lives: the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who took weeklong, solo walking tours, abandoning his wife and children to do so; Margaret Fuller, the Transcendentalist who often escaped the hustle of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to stroll in nature; and Beat writer Jack Keroac who, in his semi-autobiographical novel The Dharma Bums, finds Buddhism while climbing Matterhorn Peak (named for its sort-of resemblance to the Matterhorn in the Alps) in California’s Sierra Nevada.
In intersplicing her story with the greats’, Bechel situates herself in the Jock Literary Canon. (She’d hate that I called her a jock—she rejects the term in the book’s introduction—but, come on. You wrote a full book about working out, you’re a jock.) In her words, physical activity has always “afforded me the illusion that I might somehow stave off death.” It’s common knowledge that regular exercise is linked to increased life expectancy, but Bechdel isn’t being so literal. Through rigorous movement, she’s always trying to find the fix that’ll unlock something within her—and make her whole.
It’s clear Bechdel has put Kerouac’s experience, as detailed in The Dharma Bums, on a spiritual pedestal. The novel follows Kerouac and the poet Gary Snyder climbing and camping on Matterhorn Peak, discussing Buddhist ideology, escaping city life, and finding unexpected serenity in the expedition. “The fact that they did this back before it was really a thing has always entranced me,” says Bechdel early on in her book. Indeed, this is her M.O.: find her Matterhorn, write her Dharma Bums. She ran laps around her central Pennsylvania town in the ‘70s, when jogging was barely a thing; she practiced yoga in the ‘80s, before there was a CorePower on every corner; she did bodyweight workouts in the ‘90s, as they grew into fashion. With each new workout comes a new flicker of hope in Bechdel: maybe this will be the thing that fixes me, maybe this will be my Matterhorn.
You shouldn’t read The Secret to Superhuman Strength if you’re actually looking for the secret to superhuman strength. No new way of working out brings spiritual ecstasy. Towards the end of the book, Bechdel and her wife, Holly, climb Matterhorn Peak. And wouldn’t you know it? They don’t achieve nirvana. In fact, the closest Bechdel gets to enlightenment is one afternoon early in the book, in her early twenties, enjoying Central Park on magic mushrooms. “I could see that my self—the self indicated by my driver’s license, encased in this skin, thinking this thought—was not real,” says Bechdel. “I knew that I’d had glimpsed into the true nature of things.” She’s always trying to chase that feeling. Sometimes, she almost gets it back, but it always fades.
Despite slicing my face open on a fin, I’ve spent the past week scouring Facebook marketplace to buy a used surfboard. I’m hooked on the new sport. While I hope it doesn’t only come via face injury, I’m chasing that same athletic euphoria that Bechdel does throughout The Secret to Superhuman Strength—that sense of losing myself to my own sense of utter exhaustion, to however nature is feeling that day. Reading Bechdel’s book during my early surf days has injected a sense of existential meaning in my pursuit. Perhaps I, too, can be a part of the Jock Literary Canon.