Posts Tagged ‘graphic memoir’


Many weeks ago, while I was still reading Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir (2012) by Ellen Forney, I visited an Edvard Munch exhibition at Princeton University. I haven’t taken an art class in my life, but the angst erupting from Munch’s artwork is almost palpable. Of his life and work, Munch is reported to have said:

My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder…My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.

The titles of  his paintings offer sufficient clue (‘Anxiety’, Melancholy’, ‘Despair’, ‘Jealousy’) – Munch was tormented by mental illness for much of his life.

Author Forney is happy when Marbles begins. Deliriously happy. “Jazzed”, she says, “…everything was magical and intense and bursting with universal truth.” Scary happy. At the peak of her exhilaration, when she is excessively motivated to do too many things: party, run, swim, party, run swim, draw, draw, draw, and plan, plan, plan; her new shrink tells her that she is a textbook case of Bipolar Disorder.

A word about Bipolar Disorder is in order. Bipolar Disorder is not schizophrenia. Bipolar Disorder is a mood disorder where one’s mind oscillates between two opposite states: mania (the “high”) and depression (the “low”). This is different from Unipolar Depression, which is characterized by a constant low – just depression.

Shocked, Forney tries to resist treatment at first. Her “high” mind reasons, (a) how bad can it be? My ecstatic, energetic mind can plan to take care of my future “low” self, when that happens; and (b) medications might kill my creativity, and what am I without my art? What scares Forney into starting treatment is the shockingly high stats for hospitalization and suicide in the Bipolar population – as high as 1 in 5 commit suicide. The prognosis for Bipolar Disorder is not good – it gets worse, and then even worse, with the two polar states alternating more and more often (rapid cycling); and is characterized by destructiveness and a shortened life span. She starts with Lithium, and over the next few years, her psychiatrist constantly ‘adjusts’ her medication, trying to find the right potion for her.

Marbles has two major themes.

Creativity and Mental Illness

As an artist herself, Forney is troubled by the high incidence of mental illness in the creative population. At the Princeton Art Museum, I also looked at an iconic O’Keefe flower. Georgia O’Keefe, Vincent Van Gogh, Jimi Hendrix, Sylvia Platt, Anne Sexton, and Virginia Woolf are only some of the more famous artists who were anguished by mental illness, some succumbing to it. How does the illness affect creativity, Forney wonders. What does mania/depression/medication do to a person: What is the real me? What is the manic depressed me? What is the medicated me? What is just a side effect? How do you know which is which? What if the illness or the medication dulls creativity?

In his TEDxTalk, Andrew Solomon also ponders:

The next day I started with the medications and the therapy. And I also started reckoning with this terrible question: If I’m not the tough person who could have made it through a concentration camp,then who am I? And if I have to take medication, is that medication making me more fully myself, or is it making me someone else? And how do I feel about it if it’s making me someone else?

Forney attempts a fairly scientific analysis – she tries to define creativity and creative thought; and also looks at some of the other lifestyle-related factors that seem to be more or less typical in creative artists (and possible contributing factors): irregular sleep, high goals, stress, drug and alcohol use, intense emotions. Could it be that there is a link between creativity and being bipolar? Regardless, Forney finds a lot of variation in artistic output – mania, depression and medication seems to have affected different artists differently. Yes, there is a chance that the illness or the medication might kill creativity, but there is a chance that might not happen, that the medication might bring some semblance of control to one’s life. Ellen finds this a few years into treatment

Being bipolar

Forney’s drawings beautifully describe what it is like to be depressed, to be manic, to be scared about being depressed and manic, and to be on an ever-changing prescription and trials to find the best combination of popular, experimental, and even potentially fatal medication that seem to help. The side effects are colorful and varied, from poor word recall, and acne, to excessive hair falling. Lithium (a popular treatment for Bipolar Disorder) gives Forney bad skin, “a cyst the size of a marble”.  To treat this, Forney is put on Accutane (for the severe acne), spironolactone (an androgen blocker), and minocycline (an antibiotic). The antibiotic gives her a yeast infection, for which she was put on diflucan – “side effects meds for side effects meds”. Apart from the physical burden, there is the financial burden.  The therapy is often not covered by insurance, even generic medication is expensive, and the latest treatment can well run up to a grand – hard on an artist’s income.

Therapy often requires individuals to be acutely aware of their behaviors. Forney is required to constantly (almost obsessively) track – What is my mood? How much did I sleep? Am I talking too much? Am I feeling too sensitive? Am I interrupting people too often? Am I being excessively flirty? Anything can be possibly symptomatic.


Forney has a peculiar talent of amusing us with her very real burdens. It feels strange to say I enjoyed her book, but I did. If you’ve been affected, directly or indirectly, by a mood disorder, you might enjoy Marbles. If you want to know what it feels like to have a mood disorder, Forney’s drawings can help you understand.


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Another impromptu pick at the library, Tangles: A story about Alzheimer’s, my mother, and me (2012) by Sarah Leavitt, may well be one of this year’s most rewarding reading experiences I’ve had.

I tend to stay away from illness memoirs. I don’t have the courage to read them. Even flipping through them and catching sight of painful, hopeless words and phrases here and there throws me into a deep gloom, and an even deeper dread. If I had ever imagined that physical illnesses are in any way worse than mental illnesses, or more painful, or more distressing, was I ever wrong! Illnesses that manifest themselves in the form of bodily pain, and that force us to confront our own mortality, are terrifying to imagine. If a person, because of impaired cognitive ability, is spared the knowledge, is that not a better situation?


The only reason I picked up a memoir about Alzheimer’s, a memoir of sickness and dying and sadness, is because I do not have an Alzheimer’s phobia. I was able to read and weep through the book, and appreciate how utterly beautiful it is in its tragedy, without being struck by debilitating terror.

Tangles is a graphic memoir by writer and cartoonist Sarah Leavitt, whose mother, Midge, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s very young, at 54. Midge’s disease progresses over the next 6 years, and her family (and towards the end, caregivers) care for her as best as they can. Sensing that she is slowly losing her mother, Leavitt begins to take notes and draw sketches to remember her mother before and during her illness.

I often felt like Harriet the Spy, or, in darker moments, like a vulture hovering and waiting for Mom to say or do something that I could record and preserve, even as she slipped away from me. Sometimes she would pull on the page or grab my pen as I tried to write. The pen would skid and make a mark and I’d label the mark: “Mom moved my pen”. I wanted to keep every trace of her.

When my son was born, like many other mothers and fathers, I wanted to capture his every moment. I have little scribbles in my diaries from those years that tell me on which date exactly he made his own little joke for the first time, his cute mispronunciations, the first time he smiled, ate sweet potato, or used words like ‘disappointed’. I like to read them and relive my joy, and feel all the love rush over me, right down to my toes and finger tips. These are little milestone moments that mark his progress, as he learned to think, pay attention, speak, laugh, and dress himself. Tangles, infinitely sad as my diary is jubilant, is also a memoir of progress, the cruel march of the disease, a heartbreaking journey in reverse, as Midge’s abilities are slowly affected, and she stops writing, talking, dressing or feeding herself.

Some things became precious to me, like her poetic mistakes.

Sarah starts by briefly describing her mother’s family and childhood, and draws a picture of a vibrant, passionate, nature-loving and kind kindergarten teacher. Since Midge starts to show signs of the disease at only 52, her family mistakes them for menopause, or stress. She is often confused, forgetful, moody, and angry. Once diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Midge’s deterioration is steady and relentless. As she becomes a shell of her former self, and assumes a different identity, her relationship with her closest family members shifts as they assume new roles.

(Sarah): Waaah! I want my mommy!

As she forgets to read and write, so does she forget to keep clean. Sarah writes of being embarrassed by her mother’s smelly clothes and breath, but soon realizes that her mother’s deterioration will present greater challenges that call for a lot more strength.

(Mom): I’ve lost all my sweetness


Me: Are you OK, Mom?

Mom: No. I just can’t tell what is and isn’t.


Me: Oh, Mom, I thought you were sleeping.

Mom: I don’t know if I am or not.

A few months after moving into a nursing home, Midge, who by now isn’t walking or talking, becomes weaker, stops eating, and dies, although she had stopped living years ago.

Sarah’s drawings and writings are remarkably candid, as she tries to capture moments of joy, and pieces of her mother as she really was, amidst all the anger and sadness.

Heartbreakingly beautiful, Tangles is a testament to the power of the graphic format.

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