I saw The Secret to Superhuman Strength (2021) by Alison Bechdel on NPR’s Best Books List and was immediately intrigued. I’d already read the graphic memoir, Fun House, by Bechdel, which I enjoyed, but this one seemed right up my alley. I have a hard time describing Bechdel’s graphic memoirs because they’re such an interesting mix of genres. You have the cartoon element, the deeply personal stories, and the mix of literature review and biography thrown in as well. In Superhuman Strength, Bechdel discusses a number of writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Jack Kerouac–with Fuller being the most interesting to me.
I grew up with a very active father, and our family did active things. However, my teenage years were quite sedentary. It wasn’t until college that I came back around and began to jog, and it wasn’t until after law school that I began to road bike. The road biking took on a new kind of intensity. I got better, which made me feel better, and so I did more of it. I was devastated when I got the inevitable overuse injury. I felt like I’d lost my purpose in life. But all that intense energy had to go somewhere, and it eventually led me to Crossfit. The constantly changing workouts were good for my battered body because I never did anything long enough to really hurt myself. I loved the challenge, the new skills, and the constant stream of personal bests. It led me to a new career and finally feeling comfortable in my body. I’ve moved on and mellowed slightly, but I cannot understate the effect exercise has had on my life.
So when Bechdel talks about how the mind and body work together, I fully understand. Although I’ve toned it down a notch, I still love challenging myself and improving. Working out helps me so much, both mentally and physically, and it’s an integral part of my life. It was fascinating to see how exercise affected Bechdel’s life as well. When she was young, she was a fearless skier–until after her first big fall. She took up jogging as a kid before it was a thing. Then she moved onto karate, yoga, road biking, and more. Sometimes the exercise helped her, and sometimes she used it as an excuse to punish herself, procrastinate, and escape from her life.
I loved it when Bechdel’s exercise routine was something I have done. I fully understand how good running can make you feel, how I felt after my first yoga class, and the fun of road biking, but not all of our exercise modalities overlapped. I believe this book would still be interesting to non-exercisers, although maybe not so relatable. I love how she included things happening in the world throughout the decades in clever ways–often television screens in the background. And there is a strong, feminist theme: Bechdel used exercise programs meant for men as a child, looked into the inequities in Margaret Fuller’s life, and highlighted feminism with commentary about her own life. Throughout the book, Bechdel was searching for meaning, enlightenment, for her mind to calm down. She sometimes achieved this in short bursts with long runs or very intense bike rides, but it never lasted.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.