In general I tend to really like illustrated/graphic memoirs, and The Secret to Superhuman Strength is no exception. In this one, Alison Bechdel tells some stories from her life, organized by decade, through the lenses of 1) exercise/physical pursuits and 2) ideas about/struggles with self-transcendence. Tied to the latter, there is a lot about Buddhism in this book (particularly Zen Buddhism), and writers like Jack Kerouac, Margaret Fuller, and Adrienne Rich make repeat appearances, too. There’s a lot going on, but I think it really works: whether she’s talking about the Diamond Sutra or her first long bike trip, Bechdel’s narrative voice makes for enjoyable reading. It was lots of fun to read about Bechdel’s childhood forays into meditative physical pursuits, from tossing a tennis ball by herself to skiing with her family to how she started to run “to blow off steam” and eventually realized it was both a way of “recovering” and “losing” herself (66, 68). Bechdel writes about getting very into karate when she was in her 20s, and about doing her first pull-up from a dead hang in her 30s (yessss!), and about various relationships in her life (romantic and familial, and her relationship with herself, and her relationship with her work) and how those relationships changed/shifted at various points as her physical pursuits changed. Throughout the book, I like the interplay between the words and the drawings, and how sometimes they relate in a literal way while other times they only relate metaphorically. One of my favorite pages in the book is near the end, when Bechdel is talking about Buddhism and exercise and drinking and the tensions between them, and the drawings show her setting up and walking on a slackline, with three panels showing (through the colors, the trees, and her clothes) the same place in spring, in summer, and in fall.

One Response to “The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel”

  1. E Says:

    I had to zip through this one before it was due and feel like I did it short shrift. It resonated with me deeply, as did her previous book, and I’m looking forward to a reread.

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