The Librarian Is In

By KATRINA SPENCER

AVERY

While it is not directly referenced in the book, I feel certain that the title of this graphic memoir refers to the common parlance phrase we use, “to lose one’s marbles.” It’s a euphemism used to avoid saying things like “schizophrenic episode,” “hormonal imbalance,” “depression,” “suicidal thoughts” and many others that carry *weighty* stigmas and may seem scary or overly clinical when rendered bare. Herein, cartoonist Ellen Forney bravely chronicles a journey spanning almost 4 years of attempting to manage her bipolar disorder with a combination of medications, exercise and a human support system after receiving her diagnosis.

Ellen fears how her parents might receive her diagnosis, what her friends will think and also how her creative bursts of energy will be impacted if she treats herself with mood stabilizers. After all, there are certain characteristics resulting from her disorder that she rather enjoys. 

However, she knows both what it is to be intensely “up” and what it means to be miserably “down.” As Ellen regularly meets with a psychiatrist to try and find the right dose of lithium, Tegretol, Klonapin, Depakote, Zyprexa and other prescribed drugs, she draws cartoons that attempt to depict what is happening in her mind and in her heart. 

The result is this black and white tome that is perhaps appropriately “uneven.” At the beginning of the work, Ellen shares vignettes from her life in which she gets a tattoo, has her 30th birthday party with drag queen attendants and stages a nude photo shoot in a swimming pool locker room. 

In other moments, she visits a library and learns about other artists whose lives seem to suggest destabilized emotional and hormonal states. 

And in others, she painstakingly documents the impact of each drug and how its side effects differ from others so she can share this information with her psychiatrist. 

Overall, the work is certainly brave, needed and makes efforts to mirror her experience closely. 

On a critical note, I would *not* say the work is “beautifully drawn” or particularly artful. It feels like a wealth of amateur sketches that happen to engage a compellingly original storyline. 

How many graphic novels can you name that address a personal narrative of coping with bipolar disorder? Not many, I suspect. What I love about this work is that Forney teaches a broader audience about bipolar disorder, revealing that one can be high functioning and have a mood disorder; one can be hesitant for a variety of reasons to disclose their diagnosis with loved ones; and while one can value his/her/their creativity, they can still embark on a successful journey of learning to manage it. 

Ultimately, I must ask myself, “What does a reader need from this work and does it deliver?” I think readers with and without the disorder need to know that it is okay to fear change, mind-altering prescription drugs and how a disorder can impact the self and relationships. Forney certainly gives us that.

For other works like this, see Allie Brosh’s “Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations,” “Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened,” a graphic narrative work that is a memoir and written by an author who experiences depression or Fabien Toulmé’s “Ce n’est pas toi que j’attendais,” another memoir written by an author whose daughter was born with Down’s Syndrome which leads to developmental, emotional and cognitive disabilities. “El Deafo” by Cece Bell is another graphic memoir that discusses hearing impairment.

Literatures & Cultures Librarian Katrina Spencer is liaison to the Anderson Freeman Center, the Arabic Department, the Comparative Literature Program, the Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies (GSFS) Program, the Language Schools, the Linguistics Program and the Department of Luso-Hispanic Studies.

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