The Best Medicine: Documenting illness through comics

Posted: September 5, 2011 in Articles, Creative non-fiction
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Published April 3 2011 as “The Comics Cure” in The Ubyssey, newspaper of the University of British Columbia. Part of monthly column “Comics with Miranda Martini.”

If you’ve sat in a clinic waiting room before, you’ve almost certainly seen a poster on the wall asking you to rate your pain based on scale from one to ten, with pictures to guide you. One will likely be a dopey, guileless grin, ten an exaggerated pout with big fat tears running down its face.

This system points to an interesting phenomenon: when it comes to describing pain and illness, our first instinct is to say it with pictures. Perhaps this could explain why the illness memoir has done so well in the form of comics. There’s something about being able to see, in pictures, someone’s experience of illness that’s almost like looking at a person under an x-ray. It makes the dim, slimy world inside us all suddenly and undeniably real.

“Somehow in the cartoon form, panel by panel, the absurdist part of this whole experience comes out in a way that it wouldn’t if I were just writing an essay,” said Miriam Engelberg in an interview with NPR.

She should know. Engelberg’s groundbreaking graphic novel Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person opened up the genre when it came out in 2006, shattering notions in the medical community that a diagnosis of cancer (especially breast cancer) should have a transformative effect, making you kinder, braver, more spiritual. Engelberg pulls no punches; her funny, caustic writing style and honest drawings opened up a dialogue of dissent, or at least doubt, within the health advocacy community, and—more importantly—gave patients who had been suppressing feelings of shame and weakness their first mental x-ray.

There has also been a proliferation in recent years of graphic novels about the other side of pain caused by a major illness—the grief and confusion felt by people who are forced to watch a loved one get sick. UBC Creative Writing MFA alumna Sarah Leavitt turned her thesis project, a collection of sketches, notes and reflections documenting her mother’s premature decline and death, into the moving and terrifying Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother And Me, released last year.

While the physical health memoir flourishes, the mental health sector of graphic memoirs has only just started to put down some roots of its own. Most people are comfortable with the idea of the mentally ill artist, the Van Gogh figure shunned and tormented during their lifetime and celebrated as geniuses after their death. This fetishized portrait of the “crazy but brilliant” mentally ill person denies the real mentally ill community the voice it deserves and—in a world where mental illness is ghettoized within medicine and mainstream society alike—desperately needs.

In the last few years, a few books have begun to appear that address this need, depicting honestly the toll mental illness takes on the sick person, their family and the entire community. Clem and Olivier Martini’s book Bitter Medicine: A Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness documents the Martini family’s experience with schizophrenia, from the authors’ younger brother Ben’s diagnosis as a teenager to Olivier’s own diagnosis and subsequent troubled relationship with Alberta’s mental health sector. Although the main narrative is from Clem’s perspective, it’s Olivier’s drawings that bring the story to life, while also providing a unique narrative of their own. The drawings are disturbing, likely because they give a face—many faces, actually—to the hallucinations and anxieties that “normal” people, no matter how sympathetic they are, don’t ever have to see.

In one of her last entries on her LiveJournal before her passing in 2006, Engelberg thanks a fan for recommending the 1982 version of The Thing, then adds in parentheses, “The problem is—no movie is as scary as cancer.”

The books I’m talking about are scary. That is because it’s a scary feeling, witnessing what you’d rather not witness in yourself or people you love. It’s scary because my aunt battled cancer for a year. Chances are someone close to you has as well. It’s scary because there is a history of schizophrenia in my family. (Disclosure time: Clem Martini is my father, Olivier Martini my uncle.) These are roads we’d all rather not go down.

But the fact that Engelberg was able to stare it down, give it shape and voice, even laugh at it, might make it just a little bit less scary for someone else. For another patient, it might be the one thing that can open the closet and show that the monsters aren’t real, or are at least not as big as they were imagined to be. Comics might not be the best medicine for the loneliness and fear that illness can bring into a person’s life, but they are at least a powerful voice for hope, and that is—mercifully—highly contagious.

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