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Alison Bechdel Takes On Exercise Trends In 'The Secret to Superhuman Strength'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Alison Bechdel, has a new graphic memoir. But let's start with some background. She wrote and illustrated the graphic memoir "Fun Home," which was adapted into a musical that won Tony Awards in 2015 for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book for a Musical. The story is about how Bechdel grew up in the funeral home her parents ran, which was opened by her great-great-grandfather. The F-U-N in "Fun Home" is short for funeral. When Bechdel came out at age 19, she learned that her father had had gay relationships throughout his marriage. And Bechdel's mother knew about it all along. Soon after Bechdel talked with her father about his secret life, he threw himself in front of a truck and was killed - at least that's how Bechdel thinks he ended up killed by that truck.

Before writing graphic memoirs, Bechdel wrote and illustrated a comic strip called "Dykes To Watch Out For." Her new graphic memoir, "The Secret To Superhuman Strength," is about her obsession with exercise and getting stronger - running, skiing, bicycling, Pilates, karate, weightlifting, mountain climbing, yoga. The exercise obsession has been an attempt to shut up her anxious mind, unite mind and body, reach a state of transcendence and look and feel as physically strong as possible. She's been inspired by the great literary transcendentalists as well as by musclemen. But extreme exercise has also created problems, like many obsessions do. Alison Bechdel, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

ALISON BECHDEL: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: You're so in your head, thinking all the time, drawing autobiographical comics. But you're also really into your body and to strength and endurance. Tell us about the disconnect between mind and body that you wanted to fix.

BECHDEL: (Laughter) Well, this has been going on for my whole life. You know, I feel like - I just have always had a lot of energy. And I've enjoyed physical activity. And it has worked out to be - to kind of save me from my other predisposition of being extremely self-conscious and very caught up in my head. So exercise has been a way of, like, modifying that, you know, very cerebral thing going on.

GROSS: So hoping that outer transformation would lead to inner transformation?

BECHDEL: I guess that's the idea. Yes (laughter).

GROSS: You also have an inner old Republican man (laughter) inside you. Who is that man? And what is he - why is he a part of you?

BECHDEL: (Laughter) You know, I'm a feminist. I'm a lesbian. I'm a total, like, blue-state Democrat. But I do acknowledge that I have this part of me that just wants to be left alone. I don't want to be connected to other people. Other people are, like, a problem (laughter). I don't really believe that. But there is this strain in me that understands that rugged, individualist archetype, you know, like, you can do everything yourself. And you don't need anyone's help. So I also see that that is a problem. And the book, for me, was a way of trying to overcome that aspect of myself.

GROSS: What, the inner old Republican man?

BECHDEL: Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. And how is exercise a way to do that?

BECHDEL: Well, exercise, for me, it is physical. It's very much about being in my body. But it's also kind of a metaphysical thing that I'm after. There's something that happens for me when I'm, you know, working out intensely, where my mind just quiets down. And I feel myself, my everyday self, the self that we all identify with, the self on our driver's license. You know, that self can be very pesky and annoying. And I like it when that self quiets down. So that happens often when I exercise.

GROSS: You see exercise - your obsession with exercise is being a product of your generation. What are some of the trends in exercise that you've witnessed and participated in as well as some that you've witnessed and thought, not for me, thanks?

BECHDEL: (Laughter) Well, I feel like I have been - my life span has sort of coincided with the whole modern phenomenon of exercise. People didn't really exercise much before 1960, which is when I was born. So I grew up watching Jack LaLanne on TV. I grew up looking - seeing the Charles Atlas bodybuilding abs in my comic books. And when I was 6 or 7, my parents took up downhill skiing. So that was my first actual organized athletic activity. And I really loved it. That, too, was like just a trend that was sort of coming into the fore. Like, wealthy people had skied. But starting in the middle of the century, more regular people could afford to go skiing. And that became a thing. I took up jogging in my teens in the 1970s when that was a big craze.

GROSS: You have not mentioned Jane Fonda aerobics, which was so big in - was it the '80s?

BECHDEL: (Laughter) Yes. My mother totally was a Jane Fonda fanatic. But that was happening at a time when I was very immersed in studying martial arts. There were a lot of similarities between the Jane Fonda workout and aerobics and the kind of martial arts training I was doing. It's all very super aerobic.

GROSS: So you refer to Charles Atlas and how, you know, you wanted to be Charles Atlas when you were a kid reading comic books. But a lot of people won't remember who Charles Atlas is. So why don't you tell us?

BECHDEL: Charles Atlas was an early bodybuilder. And he made his fame and fortune by selling this - his program through, I think, mainly comic books for children, maybe - probably in other magazines, too. But certainly, it's like an archetypal childhood experience for people of my generation to have seen his ads. He's standing there in his leopard-skin Speedos with his big chest and shoulders. And it's accompanied with a cartoon, this wonderful cartoon of the bully kicking sand on a little, skinny guy. So the little, skinny guy sends away for the Charles Atlas workout program and builds himself up until he can knock out the bully next time this happens.

GROSS: Did you see yourself as the little, skinny guy who wanted to get muscles?

BECHDEL: Absolutely. Yeah. All these ads - I mean, there were other kinds of bodybuilding ads in the comic books, too. And they all talked about skinny kids and skinny kids whose ribs stuck out. And I was certainly - I would look in the mirror and see my ribs sticking out. And I just feel like, oh, man. I just want to be bigger.

GROSS: And it was, of course, a very male image of a physically, like, enhanced body through exercise. And you were a girl looking at that. Did you want his body?

BECHDEL: You know, it's funny to me. I mean, I did. I guess there was a certain amount of, like, gender fluidity going on. It didn't seem - there seemed to be no dissonance between being a girl and this body. I just thought, well, I'll just lift a lot of weights. And, in fact, you know, when women do lift weights as serious bodybuilders, they do kind of look like Charles Atlas. But I never went that route.

GROSS: So you met you mentioned Jack LaLanne on TV. And he had this, like, really early exercise show that was geared mostly to women who were home taking care of their home and taking care of their children. Describe your memories of the show. I remember when I was a kid kind of turning the the channels and watching him for a few minutes because it just seemed - it just seemed funny to me.

BECHDEL: (Laughter) He was funny. I mean, he was very charming. When I look at some of the footage now - like, they have clips up on YouTube - it's super condescending. Like, he's just, you know, so talking down to these housewives about, you know - you gals, it's really important to you to have a thin ankle, isn't it? But he also was very - he just had a cheery, can-do attitude about exercise. He made it very accessible and fun. He talked about how exercise gave you energy. I feel like I just - I learned something from him about, you know, relating to your own body. But I was also very fascinated with his physique. You know, he had this tiny little waist and these big shoulders and giant arms. And he was never showing you the kind of exercises that you would do if you wanted to get big arms. He was just showing funny little stretches and twists and things that housewives might want to do.

GROSS: So you were deep into, like, building your muscles, but you hated gym. You hated the gym uniform. Was this - does this again have to do with groups, like not wanting to do exercise in a group setting in school?

BECHDEL: Yeah. I just - you know, high school was just - you know, I was just paralyzed with self-consciousness for that whole period. And gym class sort of heightened it - you know, having to play sports and know what to do on the field and then the horrible shower we had to take. This was really traumatic for me. We had to, like, strip down and take showers as part of our gym class. I think - I feel like this doesn't happen so much in schools. They've realized how barbaric that was, and kids don't really need to take showers. But it was this rite of passage that they put us through.

GROSS: Did anybody make fun of your body?

BECHDEL: Uh, no. No. But I - they didn't mean to. I was, you know, completely just frozen with self-consciousness. Oh - and I would - I tried to undress in the toilet stall so people couldn't see me, but the gym teacher put an end to that.

GROSS: When you were old enough to start reading the literary transcendentalists, who also helped inspire your quest to unite mind and body and to reach some kind of transcendent state through, you know, physical workouts, who were you reading? And what were some of the ideas in those books that you found inspiring?

BECHDEL: I didn't actually read any of the real transcendentalists like like Emerson or Thoreau or Margaret Fuller until I was writing this book. I discovered them quite late in life. But I read Jack Kerouac's wonderful book "The Dharma Bums" when I was - well, I wasn't young then either. I was, like, around 30 when I read that book. And I love the way he wrote about being outside, hiking in the mountains and talking with his friend Gary Snyder, the poet, about Zen and about the universe. That was a really great model for me. And I felt like I wanted to try and get at something like that in my book, that way of just wondering about the world while you're out exercising in it.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alison Bechdel. Her new graphic memoir is called "The Secret To Superhuman Strength." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6 (LIVE IN PARIS, 1965)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Alison Bechdel. Her new graphic memoir, "The Secret To Superhuman Strength," is about her obsession with exercise and all the psychological and physical reasons that have fed that obsession. She wrote the graphic memoir "Fun Home" that was adapted into the Tony Award-winning musical "Fun Home."

You were - you came out when you were 19 and you were in college. Did that affect your body image and how you wanted to look and how it was acceptable to look within the gay community?

BECHDEL: Well, that's a really good question, Terry. You know, I was very fortunate to come out into a very strong lesbian feminist subculture where I immediately was, like, deprogrammed (laughter) of all the crazy female body image stuff I had picked up on during my teenage years - you know, all the worries about being too fat, all that craziness. Like, I had suddenly a political framework for it, and I could see how nutty that was. I'm very grateful that I had that experience.

You know, I started learning about how - you know, I would hear from women with disabilities about how able-bodied people are actually only temporarily able-bodied. I would hear from fat women about, you know, how fat is just, like, a normal human condition and it's crazy to perseverate over trying to lose weight. I had a very - really strong introduction to all these thoughts at a very young age, which I'm very grateful for.

GROSS: And you were able to start dressing the way you wanted to?

BECHDEL: Yes. Yeah. I, you know, was able to just wear the men's clothes, the androgynous outfits that I had always longed to wear as a child but was not allowed to do. I even got a pair of high tops (laughter) after I came out. It was - high top sneakers were always for boys, and I was never allowed to have them. Well, once I was allowed to get a pair, but only once.

GROSS: After you came out to your mother, she told you about your father having had all these gay relationships throughout her marriage to him. And then you talked to your father about it, and he told you he wanted to dress in girl's clothes as a kid, but of course, he wasn't allowed to do it. But he wouldn't let you dress in boys' clothes. And I just think that's so - so I don't know what. I mean, he knew what it was like. But he prevented you from doing it.

BECHDEL: You know, I honestly think he didn't grasp the parallel. I don't think - I know he was surprised when I came out. He had not expected that, which is so funny because it seems like, to me, I was so obviously, you know, a little lesbian. But by the same token, he was very obviously a gay man. And I didn't see it. So it was just a funny way that - although, we were very close. We just kind of missed each other in that way.

GROSS: So after you talk to your father about how you were gay and about how he was gay and had this secret life, he did - not long after that, he died. And he was killed by a truck. And you're pretty confident that he threw himself in front of the truck because why?

BECHDEL: My mother had recently asked him for a divorce. That - and it actually didn't - it wasn't my immediate thought, that he had killed himself. It wasn't - it was only after I got home on the day that he died and we got through this whole day of dealing with that. And my mother and I were sitting alone, finally, out on the porch at night. And she said to me that she thought it had been intentional. And immediately, I agreed with her. It seemed like it made sense. It seemed like it solved his problems. And I guess, too, there's a part of me that wishes it was intentional and not accidental, because for it to be accidental is just too sad and awful. But at least if it had been what he wanted, well, he got it.

GROSS: A month after his funeral, which was also a month before your 20th birthday, you went to a women's music festival with your then-girlfriend, Joan, who people will recognize from "Fun Home" if they've read the book or seen the musical. So this is a women's music festival in Michigan. Would you describe what the festival was like and why it was so important to you?

BECHDEL: Yeah. The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival in - this was 1980. It was a really remarkable, sort of utopian experiment in the wilds of Michigan. It was a music festival that was all women. And I'd never been in a - you know, any kind of setting where there were only women. And I was curious about what this was going to be like. And when we got there, it was just - it was mind-blowing. Women were driving the tractors. Women were building the stages and the - you know, putting up the tents. Like, it was this amazing, you know, self-sufficient community all run by women. And it was just also very powerful to be in a space where there weren't any men who were looking at you, harassing you, groping you, taunting you. You didn't even realize how omnipresent all that stuff was and what a toll it took on you until you had this amazing glimpse of freedom from it in this women's music festival space.

GROSS: But you don't usually like being in groups. So this was different?

BECHDEL: (Laughter) I would attend this festival for many years. And eventually, I did get kind of worn down by the group aspect. But that - the first time I was there was really just magical and transformative and, you know, an extension of these lessons I had been learning from feminism about just being embodied, you know, about the fact that there - the mind and the body are not separate, that they're one thing, that nature is not separate from us, you know, that we're all part of an ecosystem. That all felt like part and parcel of this feminist universe.

GROSS: My guest is Alison Bechdel. Her new graphic memoir is called "The Secret To Superhuman Strength." We'll talk more after a break. But first, here's a song from the Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of Bechdel's graphic memoir "Fun Home." The song is about coming out in college and her first girlfriend, Joan. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGING MY MAJOR")

EMILY SKEGGS: (Singing, as Medium Alison) What happened last night? Are you really here? Joan. Joan. Joan. Joan. Joan. Hi, Joan. Don't wake up, Joan. Oh, my God. Last night - oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God, last night, I got so excited. I was too enthusiastic. Thank you for not laughing. Well, you laughed a little bit at one point when I was touching you and said, I might lose consciousness, which you said was adorable. And I just have to trust that you don't think I'm an idiot or some kind of an animal. I've never lost control due to overwhelming lust. But I must say that I'm changing my major to Joan. I'm changing my major to sex with Joan. I'm changing my major to sex with Joan, with a minor in kissing Joan - foreign study to Joan's inner thighs, a seminar on Joan's ass in her Levi's and Joan's crazy brown eyes. Joan, I feel like Hercules. Oh, God, that sounds ridiculous. Just keep on sleeping through this, and I'll work on calming down so by the time you've woken up, I'll be cool. I'll be collected. And I'll have found some dignity. But who needs dignity? - 'cause this is so much better. I'm radiating happiness. Will you stay here with me for the rest of the semester? We won't need any food...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "THE BEAUTIFUL ONES (INSTRUMENTAL)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Alison Bechdel. Her graphic memoir, "Fun Home," was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical. Her new graphic memoir, "The Secret To Superhuman Strength," is about her obsession with exercise - running, bicycling, skiing, karate, yoga, mountain climbing, skiing. Bechdel is a self-satirist in examining the psychological and physical reasons behind these obsessions and how it's affected her life for better or worse.

You write about relationships in your new book. And the woman who is now your spouse was in a relationship with somebody else when you started seeing her, but the idea was it was supposed to be a polyamorous lesbian relationship. I mean, she said to you, why don't you write about polyamorous lesbian relationships (laughter)?

BECHDEL: (Laughter).

GROSS: Because her girlfriend had multiple girlfriends. I don't know if Holly herself did. Holly is the woman who is now your wife. So how did you feel about that, when you were seeing her and - was she seeing other people, too? She was in a relationship with somebody for sure, but...

BECHDEL: Holly was seeing one other person, was seeing Gwen (ph). And I found this very interesting. I mean, at that point in my life, I was in my late 40s, and I'd been through a series of, you know, monogamous relationships that had all ended. And I thought, well, maybe there's something to this polyamory. Maybe I should just give that a try. It wasn't that I wanted to have multiple relationships. What I wanted was (laughter) the ability to openly acknowledge that my primary commitment was to my work. I feel like that had kind of been my downfall in these other relationships; just, like, my obsessiveness with my work life and how I just always would prioritize that over everything. So polyamory seemed like a way where - that I could both have a girlfriend and my work.

GROSS: How did that work out?

BECHDEL: Not very well (laughter). I mean, I - it - polyamory was very difficult. I thought I would be, like, fine when Holly went off with her other partner, that, you know, I'd get to focus on my work. But in fact, I was quite jealous and preoccupied. I just - you know, to really have a healthy polyamorous life, you just have to talk a lot. You have to communicate a lot. And this is not my forte in life. I didn't like having to spend so much time processing. The whole point for me was to not have to do that, you know?

GROSS: Did you ask yourself if your inability to, like, overcome jealousy was a flaw in yourself or a flaw in polyamorous relationships?

BECHDEL: I felt like it was a flaw in myself that I was very interested in pursuing. And I - it was interesting to a point. You know, philosophically, it's interesting to think about, like, why do we have to have these exclusive relationships? Why can't you just have what you have with people? Why do they have to - you know, why does one have to negate another? So I struggled with that for a while. This story takes a quite tragic turn because Gwen died, you know, in the middle of all this.

GROSS: This is Holly's other partner.

BECHDEL: Yes. Yes. She was an avid paraglider and died in an accident. So that was just - that just, you know, kind of stopped us in our tracks and...

GROSS: Yeah. And you had come to really like her because the three of you were hanging out together a lot.

BECHDEL: Yeah. She was a really delightful person. And yeah, I was becoming friends with her, too.

GROSS: So after Gwen's tragic death and you and Holly remained a couple, did you both decide to be monogamous after that? Is that OK to ask?

BECHDEL: Yeah, that's fine to ask. We did not make any kind of sudden decision like that. It just sort of gradually crept up on us over the years. In fact, I feel like Holly continued to identify as polyamorous even though she wasn't actively having other relationships. And I feel like that identification has stopped recently, that she's not - she's finally decided that she's not actually polyamorous anymore.

GROSS: So you're married now. You got married after the Supreme Court...

BECHDEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Legalized gay marriage and marriage equality. How do you like marriage? Has it changed the relationship at all?

BECHDEL: Honestly, no. I mean, I'm an, you know, old-school lesbian feminist. I don't really believe in marriage. I kind of - I wanted to get married because it felt revolutionary. You know, it felt like I was subverting the idea of marriage, not like I was capitulating to it. Although (laughter) I see now that that was in fact - you know, we do get subsumed by these institutions. But I don't feel like it's really changed my relationship. I mean, I always felt essentially married to my partners, whether I was married or not.

GROSS: When you were in your 40s, I think, you started to - a project to document the disintegration of your body. What were you feeling that led you to that project? And what exactly were you - what exactly was the project?

BECHDEL: When I turned 40, I hit this point where I realized I was actually not immortal (laughter). So it was - I know people joke about turning 40, but I really felt it very deeply. Like, oh, my God, this is, like - this is the midway point in my life if I'm lucky. And that awareness just changed things. You know, I realized my time was limited. I needed to really - if I was going to do something in this life, I better get doing it, you know?

I always have a tendency to try really hard to make things happen, so I decided I was going to make a project of facing my mortality. I was going to start seeing a meditation teacher and try and learn how to get rid of my ego. But part of - another thing that I did at this point in my life was I started making an annual video, a video diary entry where I just - I talk about my year and how things went and what I'm thinking. But also, I would take all my clothes off and videotape my body (laughter). And the idea was I'm going to monitor my aging process just to see what this is like.

GROSS: And have you - are you still doing it?

BECHDEL: I am, yeah.

GROSS: So what have you been seeing? What kind of changes have you seen in the past approximately 20 years?

BECHDEL: I haven't really done this methodically, so it's hard to just, you know, juxtapose the images. Or, actually, I probably could if I'd sit down and spend some time on it. I see myself getting - you know, I'm getting an old-lady body. I'm getting one of those bodies like the older women at the Y who I see who are, you know, kind of twisted and distorted and bulging in strange places. And I can see that slowly starting to happen with my body. Like, there's - you know, even though I'm stretching and running and doing all this stuff, you can't stop the - you know, the process of gravity and age. You just start sort of crumpling in on yourself.

GROSS: You know what I like about the idea of your project documenting the changes in your body as you get older? - is I think it'd be wonderful to reach a place where I or we could look at our bodies as we get older and go, well, that's interesting as opposed to, oh, no, that's horrible (laughter). You know?

BECHDEL: Exactly.

GROSS: Because there's this whole thing about how an aging body is like - it's really horrible. You know, when I was younger and visiting my parents, their older friends would always say to me, don't get old. And I thought, like, what kind of advice is that? Like, should we be dying instead of getting old?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Like, what are you saying exactly?

But anyways, instead of, like, being in denial or having to, like, try everything we possibly can to prevent a process that's kind of natural, to just - to reach a point where you can say, well, that's interesting - my body's changing with age. Is that something you're striving for?

BECHDEL: Yes, it is. And I'm a little dismayed at my own resistance. I mean, we don't like aging, not because it's not attractive, but because it means we're dying. You know, that's the real reason we don't like it. So that's the - that's the root of it. That's the association. And yeah, I would love to be able to let go of that and just see the kind of amazing process that we undergo.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alison Bechdel. Her new graphic memoir is called "The Secret To Superhuman Strength." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH'S "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Alison Bechdel. Her new graphic memoir, "The Secret To Superhuman Strength," is about her obsession with exercise and all the psychological and physical reasons that have fed that obsession. She also wrote the graphic memoir "Fun Home" that was adapted into the Tony Award-winning musical "Fun Home."

How have you drawn yourself differently as you've gotten older? 'Cause you started - you know, how long have you been drawing yourself in your comics?

BECHDEL: I haven't - I guess I first drew myself in an autobiographical comic in my 20s or late 20s, early 30s. So, yeah, I've had to, you know, get some kind of graphic handle on how I'm aging. And in this book, you know, it runs in chronological order. It begins with my birth and comes right up to the present day. So if you flip through the book, I'm getting older on every page. You know, I draw myself in a sort of simplified manner. And sometimes I feel like I cultivate my personal appearance so that I look more like my drawings. Like, I have kind of a cartoonish haircut that's easy to draw. And I wear these, you know, glasses. So it's very easy - it's very easy to draw myself 'cause I already look like a drawing.

GROSS: (Laughter).

During the course of your book - like, in the book itself, your mother dies of cancer. And it's during the period - I guess around 2014, when - or 2012, when "Fun Home" was first published.

BECHDEL: Actually, it was - there was a very funny timeline surrounding her illness and death. I found out she had cancer on the day I got home from my book tour for "Fun Home" in 2006. I had been in touch with her during this whole tour, you know, checking in. I knew she was having a polyp removed from her colon, but she didn't tell me until I'd actually gotten home from the book tour that it had been cancerous. She was trying to, like - she didn't want me to worry while I was out, you know, doing my book tour.

And then she was, you know, fighting cancer. And this was interesting because I was starting to work on a second memoir, which was about her. And that was really - I did - it was somehow something I felt I had to do. I didn't like that I was doing it. I felt like I'd already intruded enough on my mother's life, but somehow I was compelled to keep writing about, you know, this family drama. And it turned into a memoir about her.

And I was writing it all the while that she was sick and going through chemo. And you know - she was a very valiant cancer patient. She would hate to hear me use that word (laughter). She hated all those cancer narratives, you know, of surviving and thriving. And in fact, she was quite private. She didn't want people to know she was sick. Her possible death was kind of looming over this whole book. As I wrote about her, I didn't know if she was even going to live to see the book. But she did, which I'm very grateful for. And that book came out in 2012. 12. And at the same time, "Fun Home" had been getting turned into a musical, but it hadn't actually opened yet. And in fact, my mother died, like, about five months before "Fun Home" opened at the Public Theater off Broadway.

GROSS: It must have been surreal to see your life and your parents' lives enacted in a musical on stage. I mean, you'd already taken that story and, you know, drawn and written it. But now there were other people embodying it, and you could watch from the audience. What did that feel like?

BECHDEL: It was amazing. You know, it's interesting talking to you now, like, I'm realizing how very closely that experience of seeing the play was bound up with my mother's death. And it was like both my parents had been brought back to life in this wonderful way, expressly for me in this, you know, stage show. It was magical. I loved the adaptation. I thought it was really well done and that it really captured, you know, the essence of my book, although it was its own separate, you know, aesthetic creation. And for me, too, my parents were - well, my mother was an actress. Like, she acted in "Summer Stock" all the time I was growing up. And my parents had actually met in a play in college. So there is some kind of really cool, you know, full circle thing happening for me to see my parents being turned into these characters in a play.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about something you said in The New Yorker. And you said that the aesthetic of gender neutrality appeals to you now and that you're always striving to be a generic person. And I'm wondering if you identify as she. So many people now are identifying as, you know, as nonbinary and using the word they instead of she or he to identify themselves. Is that something that you felt like you needed to think about?

BECHDEL: I identify as female, as a woman, as a she, but with a sort of my own little flourish of always feeling a certain amount of dissonance with that. You know, I cultivate a somewhat masculine appearance. That's just how I feel most comfortable. And, you know, it often gets me double takes in the locker room or in the ladies room. But those double takes are just part of how I see myself. Like, that's who I am. If I didn't get those, I would feel like something strange was going on.

I might, if I were younger, identify as nonbinary. And there's probably - I mean, certainly there's some gender fluidity going on for me, but I feel like I'm too old to really - you know, I've, like, figured it out. I'm just my own weird kind of woman. I - part of my life has been, like, expanding that definition and those possibilities. So, yeah, I'm going to enjoy that.

GROSS: Alison Bechdel, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much. And congratulations on the new book.

BECHDEL: Thanks very much, Terry. It was fun talking with you.

GROSS: Alison Bechdel's new memoir is called "The Secret To Superhuman Strength." Coming up, Justin Chang reviews one of the best films he's seen so far this year. It's called "The Disciple." This is FRESH AIR.

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