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Alison Bechdel Discusses A Lifelong Affair With Exercise In New Memoir

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

(Reading) We are a nation of toddlers dragging our blankets and bottles everywhere we go. That's what Alison Bechdel says in her new graphic memoir, "The Secret To Superhuman Strength." She's referring to our cultural obsession with fitness fads, many of which she indulges in herself - spinning, yoga, skiing - all illustrated in a book that covers her lifelong love affair with exercise. Alison Bechdel joins me now from Vermont. Welcome to the program.

ALISON BECHDEL: Hi, Lulu. Thanks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The title of this book, "The Secret To Superhuman Strength," comes from an ad from a pamphlet you saw as a kid. Tell me about this.

BECHDEL: Yes. As a child, I read comic books, like many children. And in those comic books, there were always ads for these bodybuilding things - like, these Charles Atlas guys and weight gain drinks and weird muscle-building devices you could get. And I was always very fascinated with those. And one day, I finally got up the nerve to send away for one of these things that promised me the secret to superhuman strength.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) And what did you find on the other side of that?

BECHDEL: Well, it was a great existential disappointment. It was just, like, this crazy martial arts manual that at age 9, I could not make head or tail out of.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

BECHDEL: It was sort of my entry into the adult world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, you are fascinated by the idea of strength - this idea that you can, you know, almost train your body to endure. Why did you want to take this on as a subject?

BECHDEL: Well, I feel like I've gone on an interesting arc with this idea over the course of my life. As a child, it was very appealing, this idea of brute strength, of other people having to capitulate to me because I was bigger and stronger. And as I got older, it changed into not so much physical strength as this fantasy of self-sufficiency - you know, that I didn't really need other people. And I feel like I've been struggling later in my life to really unlearn that fantasy - like, to really come to grips with how real strength is not physical, but it's something else. It's the ability to connect with other people. It's the ability to be open and vulnerable. It's the opposite of what I thought when I was a small child.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, this book is a memoir, like your others, and it takes us through different decades in your life and how you viewed, you know, fitness and this journey of sort of coming to know your body differently in each decade. Why did you want to make that about, like, the different periods in your life?

BECHDEL: I feel like, you know, exercise the way we do it now is a relatively modern phenomenon. Like, it was only probably in the 1960s - I was born in 1960 - that people started exercising as, you know, a part of their daily life. So I sort of wanted to track that culturally because as these trends have come and gone - from downhill skiing to jogging to yoga - like, I've done a lot of them. And so I chose exercise as a lens just because it's something that I am passionate about and I thought it would be fun. But the book is really about not so much physical exercise as about something metaphysical. You know, how do we know how to live our lives? How do we know we're doing the right thing, that we're on the right path? And it's kind of about my effort to just find my way in my life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, I'm thinking particularly about how you sort of grasp with menopause and, you know, that period in your life where all of a sudden, a woman's body fundamentally changes. I mean, it was a really sort of interesting way to look at that. Can you talk to me a little bit about, you know, that period in your life and how you wanted to document it here?

BECHDEL: I'm glad you asked, Lulu, because nobody wants to talk about menopause.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you've come to the right place.

(LAUGHTER)

BECHDEL: You know, I was not prepared for how actually different I was going to feel. It gives you a glimpse into aging in a very accelerated way. Like, all of a sudden, you're having trouble thinking, you're having weird hot flashes. I was having mood swings. It was a window into what it's like to get old. It happens, you know, relatively quickly instead of the slow aging process that we're going through every day. But then it subsides, and then you're OK.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What I also thought was so interesting was you're sort of grappling with the idea of barrenness and how that relates to your sense of yourself and, you know, your biological, I guess, purpose as a woman.

BECHDEL: Well, yeah, you know, I was never one of those people who felt like I wanted to have a child. It was never something on my list. But when I got to the point where it was absolutely impossible to do so, that was quite sobering, you know, to realize I was the end of my line. This was it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, you know, the book kind of ends on this really - I'm just I'm just leafing through it now. I mean, the illustrations are so beautiful, especially because they - you know, they have to do with you and the different moments in your life. But it sort of ends in this kind of optimistic note almost.

BECHDEL: You know, I felt strangely optimistic when I was finishing the book. One of the strands of the book is talking about how exercise is a way of getting to that state of flow that's so pleasant for humans, that state where you're just absorbed in what you're doing. And I was very pleased to find that as the book was coming together, as my deadline was getting closer and I was really working hard on the drawings for the book, that I did enter that kind of flow state. I felt really calm. I had this strange kind of inner peace. You know, the - I felt like my book was kind of bearing itself out - like, coming to fruition. Like, the things I was writing about trying to attain I was actually attaining.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so I guess do you feel like you know the secret to superhuman strength now? If you were going to send out a pamphlet in a crackerjack box or in a comic book, I guess, what would you say?

BECHDEL: What is the secret to superhuman strength? I mean, I think one secret - for me, anyway - is really trying to understand my own mortality, to really grapple with the fact that I'm going to die and to realize that that's not a terrible thing, you know? It's the circle of life, and that's fine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Alison Bechdel. Her new graphic memoir is "The Secret To Superhuman Strength." Thank you very much.

BECHDEL: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.