Ellen Forney: Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me

Forney, Ellen (2012), Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me, Robinson
ISBN 978-1-4721-0689-6

marbels coverYou know how when you feel a bit unwell and you go on WebMD and suddenly, you feel as though you were dying of a terminal illness because ALL THE SYMPTOMS FIT. Now imagine if you were given the DSM manual and asked to self evaluate your mental state and were given a list of symptoms – what are the chances you’d behave exactly as you’d do when exposed to the unfiltered WebMD? I have always considered these self-diagnoses a form of psycho-astrology. I have seen people rationalize the vagueness of horoscope prose as fitting for their lives. “Yes, yes, that applies to me! I am SUCH a taurus!” These self diagnoses of mental illness work, in my opinion, very much like that. Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir of bipolar illness, Marbles, is predicated on all these intuitions being perfectly valid and accurate – and applicable to people (like Michelangelo, Van Gogh or Randall Jarrell) who have been dead for decades or even centuries, because this flim-flam system of symptoms is impervious to questions of reasonable and evidence-based inquiry, of course. In American politics, there’s the Goldwater Rule, instituted by the American Psychiatric Association. It is well summarized by a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Yale and a member of the APA’s Ethics Committee who said: “If you’re going to talk to the press and spread stuff on your opinions, it’s important to at least say very clearly, ‘I have not examined this individual and therefore much of what I’m saying is sort of mystical black magic.” Or, as I like to say, psycho-astrology.

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A page from “Marbles,” depicting mania and the patient/therapist situation

Ellen Forney is a fantastic artist, and the book itself is extraordinarily well made. It combines a variety of styles and forms to tell the story of how Forney discovered and came to terms with her mental illness. There is so much that’s amazing and admirable and extraordinary about this book that it is quite regrettable that it is so thoroughly dedicated to the arguments put forward by Kay Redfield Jamison and some others. Jamison’s Touched by Fire is something like the spiritus rector of this book, and if you have done or read some literary criticism on writers who have admitted to or been accused of having a mental illness, you have probably crossed paths with Jamison or one of the other like minded writers. In Lowell scholarship, there’s Jeffrey Meyers, for example, who has just put out a new book that I don’t have to (but regrettably will) read to know what it is saying. This “mystical black magic,” rejected by the APA, but embraced by people writing on arts and literature, is not just invariably badly argued and based on flimsy evidence, but it is also, overwhelmingly so, dull and boring. In all of these cases, we find a complex work reduced to the (mis)firings of a few synapses. As a (good) philosopher would say: it is a category error. The weakness of these arguments does not, of course, reduce the seductiveness of their academic or popular application. An army of frequently contradictory studies have been marshaled to prove one point or another about this, with small sample sizes and dubious methodologies. Recently, a cultural movement to embolden (no pun intended) sufferers of mental illnesses has been instrumental in enshrining many of these ideas as not just profoundly true but fundamentally emancipatory.

hyperbole1What’s most remarkable (and regrettable) about Marbles is how single-mindedly it pursues its ideological thesis about mental illness instead of delving more deeply into the actual experience of mental illness. The book is always strongest when it finds images, scenes and examples for the way the suffering person’s mind, Forney’s graphic representation, deals with depression, mania or the liminal states in-between. There is a series of panels showing Forney in the shower as the fog of depression lifts that are extremely well paced, well drawn and true to at least my experience. Forney’s skill in this area is immense. She manages to do two different things, equally well. One is finding the right kind of scene or situation to encapsulate the manic or depressive state of mind her memoir-self is in, the other is finding the right art to go with it. The visual grammar she employs for mania is vastly different from the one she uses for depression and this goes beyond what she draws. The crushing emptiness and devastation wrought by the depressive state is rendered in sometimes sequential art of solitude, sometimes in stark, powerful images drawn on a single notebook page. We get a page of the notebook itself, binding and all, to represent the way these states of mind are resistant to the usual flow of narrative. Many who write about the experience of particularly heavy depressive episodes will repeat this indescribable aspect of it. And this isn’t just true for memoirs. The Hypo, Noah van Sciver’s graphic biography of young Abraham Lincoln uses a breakdown of routine pencilwork to represent the heavy melancholy that sometimes took hold of Lincoln in his formative years before his engagement to Mary Todd.

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A page from “Marbles”

I do not, however, think, I have ever seen an artist achieve this level of reflection and complexity while still remaining completely in control of a coherent narrative, although some have come close. Just looking at depression (in this review I discuss comics dealing with OCD and schizophrenia), there are two texts in particular that are extremely well made, and approach the topic from two different angles. The fundamental problem is, for these books as well as for Marbles, that some aspects of autobiography are more problematic in graphic form, I think. And critics much smarter and way more accomplished than me have tackled this. I recommend, for example Mihaela Precup’s The American Graphic Memoir: An Introduction as an excellent primer on the subject. I am here however particularly interest in a remark by  Georges Gusdorf who once wrote about autobiographies which he called “scriptures of the self” that in them the “subject remains an I, who refuses to transfer his problematic to the level of we.” There is no direct access to meaning, no community. There is only the gnarled core of “revelation” – and for Gusdorf, autobiography is a way of negotiating, revealing this revelation. Autobiography, according to Linda Peterson, is inherently a genre of self-interpretation, and much has been made of how, with enlightenment, it has become this very linear story of self examination and masculine self-projection. That is not, however, how graphic autobiography, especially of depression and other hard to reveal subjects works. A key to understanding how these work is, I think, in Hsiao-Hung Lee’s study of Victorian autobiographies, which frequently have ghosts, fairy tales, doppelgangers and other elements that undermine the structure of normal autobiographies, presenting instead “a submerged counter narrative.” This tradition is the one we find in these texts here, and for two reasons, I think. One is textual in the sense that the tradition of autobiographical comic books is one that comes into the genre sideways, through odd texts like Binky Brown, and is often tied to all these genres that came out of the mid to late 19th century, from Dickens to ETA Hoffmann and others. Fantasy, science fiction, horror.

cotter 4The other reason is personal, in the sense that one frequent topic of writing about your own depression means acknowledging that there are fissures in your self, that there is a profound, fundamental discontinuity between various impressions of what one’s self is. That’s why a book like The Nao of Brown, written by a person not afflicted by the mental illness he describes, feels so exploitative, because Dillon has not gone the extra mile of research to make his book work. Dillon finds one visual language that speaks for all states of his afflicted character. By contrast, Marbles frequently comes up against the impossibility of doing both: depicting a certain mental state and keeping to a fixed visual grammar. There’s a curious phrase in an essay by Shari Benstock who insists that for Woolf, the past doesn’t exist as subject matter, but “rather as a method.” A method? Aside from all the implications this has for modernist fiction (and I am sure there’s a study to be done that applies Woolf’s thoughts on fiction and method to the perennially undervalued work of Jean Rhys, by the way), it’s very interesting to look at this as a very fitting way to describe graphic memoirs, particularly memoirs of mental illness. If the past of people with mental illness is discontinuous, if it feels partly not within the subject’s control, then this informs the methods writers and artists use to cope with telling stories of a self and that past. The two books I want to mention here as providing different angles on the idea of writing graphic memoirs of depression are Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, a collection of pieces from the webcomic of the same name, and Joshua Cotter’s dense, but magnificently realized memories of an unhappy childhood, Skyscrapers of the Midwest.

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A page from Brosh’s book

Allie Brosh’s book is the most conventional. Consisting of short stories, told in chronological order, with images roughly within the borders of realism. Brosh, to tell a story of a self, has created a visual character that is a stand-in for herself. Unlike Marbles, you couldn’t really recognize the author behind the cartoon figure. That figure, however, is the central visual element of all the stories. Importantly, it doesn’t really change except in size, no matter whether the story is one of early childhood or recent adulthood. In it, I think Brosh contains an implicit theory of emotionality. By contrasting the vibrant energies of that cartoon self, displayed with a gusto that exceeds realism, with an environment that is static and does not react in a way that is commensurate to the cartoon self’s agitation, Brosh succeeds brilliantly in creating a visual representation of extreme states of emotionality that stresses both the exterior aspects of it, as it interacts with people, as well as the interiority, loneliness of it. Marbles shows images made during that time as representations of interiority. Brosh doesn’t need that. She uses images of surreal distortion of environments very sparely, and when she does it, the effect is immediate and plausible as a mental effect that we immediately comprehend. Like Marbles, it also relies heavily on text. There is some commentary, but the most effective kind of text just offers us the distorted mind of a person in a depressive episode, presented clearly and sequentially, thus increasing the effect of the fundamental strangeness of these thoughts. There is very little in Brosh’s book that corresponds to Ellen Forney’s therapy-trained commentary from the ‘healed’ outside.

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A page from Cotter’s book

Meanwhile, Joshua Cotter has even less of that. It is less explicitly autobiographical, although various hints exist. Taking a page out of Art Spiegelman’s book (Spiegelman, Crumb and other underground artists are also clear touchstones for the book), Cotter’s book is filled with people-like cats. It is a chronological story-in-scenes of growing up in the Midwest. Frequently, Cotter interrupts the story to give us a surreal tale that sometimes – but not always – is explicitly framed as coming from the protagonist’s brain. The overwhelming feeling is an oppressive melancholy and loneliness that at times makes it hard to read. The visual language, Cotter’s art, is consistent, almost oppressively so. It’s a book dense with shadings and crosshatching. A palpable feeling of texture. In his next book, Cotter would go away from the uniformity of style that he employs in Skyscrapers of the Midwest, but that doesn’t make this one a consistent realist narrative. The truly crushing moments of emotional volatility are all told with surreal or fantastic visual elements. One of them is the fantasy of the protagonist, who was fat and unpopular in school and who imagines himself as a powerful robot. The other one is stranger, it’s of some kind of alien slug that attaches itself to people. Indebted, no doubt, to artists like Charles Burns, this device has no simple resolution. It can mean death, or just a warping of the spirit. It is, as Gusdorf said, a problematic that is inexplicable and doesn’t easily fit narratives. In fact, of the three texts, Skyscrapers of the Midwest is the most, as Gusdorf would have it, Gnostic. Brosh evades simple explanation, but she does provide commentary and some context. We get none of that with Cotter. In fact, the book ends on a scene that is both fragrant with light, and devastating. It’s a conversation between the book’s protagonist and his brother. It culminates in the protagonist’s admission – which, I think, is an admission even to himself- that he doesn’t know what’s “wrong” with him. The dark inexplicable core of depression – there’s no easy resolution. Not for Brosh, not for Cotter.

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One of the many journal pages depicting an attempt to visually capture depression.

For Ellen Forney however, there’s a semblance of a resolution, and that’s because, despite making that impression on the surface, the memoir only appears to be about experience. In fact, it’s an intellectually structured discursive text about creativity and bipolarity. Trust meds, trust science, trust psychiatry, don’t trust yourself. This is the mantra and it’s repeated over and over and over. Forney uses the word science with an incredible frequency and insouciance. Creativity is testable! “Science has an answer for this, too!” Her model scientist for the creativity idea is J.P. Guilford, about whose model of the intellect John B. Carroll wrote “Guilford’s model must, therefore, be marked down as a somewhat eccentric aberration in the history of intelligence models; that so much attention has been paid to it is disturbing.” Similarly, Forney describes an odyssey through medication, which is so disturbing and disheartening that it is ultimately puzzling that she arrives at an affirmation of medication and isn’t instead questioning the placebo effect. For every page of visually powerful, arresting or simply awe inducing art, Forney offers an artless page containing thought bubbles, square boxes summarizing dubious science or koans to her well being. The discursive nature of the book is borne out by the two last chapters. The penultimate chapter is a full adaption of the incurious nonsense about creativity and mental illness, with Kay Jamison’s god-awful book and Guilford’s “eccentric aberration” as guardian angels. I have not really gone into detail about the nonsensical idea of mining the lives of people long since dead for evidence of mental illness. It relies too much on the accuracy of testimony and what the American Psychiatric Association calls “mystical black magic” – I have no patience to dismember that theory, but I do want to recommend Janet Malcolm’s book on Sylvia Plath, the writer who is most frequently posthumously psychoanalyzed (incidentally, in Marbles, Forney meets someone who did their PhD on Plath who says “you need to know her biography to really understand her work,” if you can believe it, I mean JESUS fucking Christ), which is a good antidote to all that.

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The final chapter, then, offers adherence to the medical science of psychiatry almost like an article of faith, telling her younger self to trust the psychiatrist. In the middle of this review there is a lot of talk about autobiography and the indescribable and unsayable and how visual art tries to get around it etc. I then offered Allie Brosh and Joshua Cotter as two incredible artists who dealt with the issue in two different ways. But ultimately, it is Ellen Forney who had the strangest resolution to this. Her frequently silent descriptions of experience and her discursive portions are at odds with each other. Just one example among many: the experience based portions say that mania has only become such an immense problem now that Forney is watching herself, is constantly self medicating with 5 different kinds of meds, keeping journals, basically creating her own doppelganger, her own postmodern detective that watches her suspiciously: is this a sign? Are you up? Are you down? The art “balanced” Forney produces now and the art she documents at having earlier produced provide an interesting contrast as well. I admit: I am biased as someone who has been diagnosed with depression and suicidal ideation and has never been on medication for any serious length of time. Ultimately, more than anything, this feels, despite the discoursive nature, like an enormously private event: this is Ellen Forney telling herself that all will be well. I’ve heard that one before. At least the art is sometimes extremely good. Read it for the art, and skip the last two chapters. Please.


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