(Illustrated) memoir and ethics

Memoir has become big, and problematic, business in the past 15 years. In 1995, Dave Pelzer published A Child Called ‘It’, and began the rise of misery lit. The genre has undergone a number of permutations since its creation, and it has brought about the consideration of a number of questions about the aesthetic and ethical problems of the memoir. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces is another important book for thinking about the contemporary memoir, as it ignited a controversy when it emerged that the events related in the book – parts of Frey’s addiction to drugs and the events surrounding it – had been falsified or embellished, provoking a large amount of discussion in popular discourses about the ethics of authority and authenticity in memoir. To write a memoir in contemporary culture, is to confront all of these issues, which have made it both a morally charged and potentially overworked and clichéd genre.This post looks at the ways that illustrated memoirs – autobiography told through graphic novels or comics – have offered an interesting and different way of dealing with the problems of autobiography and memoir, and how they have confronted those problems directly. Many of these works are involved with childhood, and with trauma, and the ways that those two events can be understood in retrospect. In this way, they are similar to misery literature, but I wish to show that in a number of important ways many examples of work in this genre do not fall victim to the same criticisms – that such works are overly sentimental, simplistic in their concern for redemption and consolation, and born of an impulse to commodify suffering; or they are falsified and inauthentic, the characteristics that sometimes earn this genre the name ‘misery porn’ – but nonetheless do write with a keen sense of their bearing upon all work that is concerned with individual suffering and its authenticity.

Owing to the degree of artifice and construction involved in their creation, an illustrated memoir cannot claim to be a document in the same way as non-illustrated ones can; even if a work of the latter kind is openly retrospective, they can maintain an illusion of writing to the moment, even if it is not the case. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is perhaps pre-eminently concerned with its own status as a memoir, and as a piece of literature (and the possibility of its not being). The book – which calls itself ‘A Family Tragicomic’ in its subtitle – is a kind of autobiographical Bildungsroman in that it follows Bechdel’s childhood, through her discovery of her sexuality and artistic talent, but it is also a memoir of external development, through her description and working through of her closeted gay father’s death.

Despite this form’s inability to pertain to document, it is actually more able to literally display documents, and this technique is used repeatedly through the book. So, for example, when Bechdel’s father’s suicide is explored within the book, she writes “There’s no proof, actually, that my father killed himself” (27), and in the panel below the newspaper reporting her father’s death is shown; when Bechdel is enumerating the reasons to believe that her father’s death was suicide she writes of “The copy of Camus’ A Happy Death that he’d been reading and leaving around the house in what might be construed in a deliberate manner” (27), and Bechdel describes how he had left one line of the book highlighted, which is then displayed; and Bechdel writes that “Dad also left a marginal notation in another book” (28), which is shown to be a birdwatching guide with a date marked in it, and Bechdel asks “The date is five days before he died. Do people contemplating suicide get excited about spotting rufous-sided towhees?” (28). Much of Bechdel’s relationship with her father is based on and grows around a shared interest in books and reading, and the Bechdel character comes to learn a number of things about her father from his reading choices and practice, so the interest in documents pervades the book and the relationship that it narrates. Documents and the written word thus come to figure within the book rather than (and as distinct from) its text; thus, though the illustrated memoir is unable to perform its being concurrent with the action, it can present documents from the time of the action alongside and distinct from the narrative voice, in a form that is visually more similar to the actual document being described.

Craig Thompson’s Blankets, another illustrated memoir (where Fun Home claims on its front page to be ‘A Family Tragicomic’, this claims to be ‘An Illustrated Novel’), is also concerned explicitly with its own relation to other texts, in particular the Bible. One of the crises at the centre of this novel – that of questioning and losing faith, and uncertainty about the interpretative possibilities of the Bible – is thus a crisis of text, in text. The central character – also called Craig Thompson – narrates his progress from childhood to incipient adulthood, and describes the problems of getting there. Just as in Fun Home, the memoir revolves around (though is by no means at all only occupied with) a central trauma – in Fun Home Bechdel’s father’s suicide, and in Blankets Thompson’s elliptically suggested sexual abuse at the hands of his father, and his bullying at school. These are all traumatic childhood events that would be fitting narratives for misery literature, but they nonetheless resist that category (being, instead, literature about misery). Partly this is owing to their awareness of their literariness – and so are conscious about the ethical issues that arise from their writing within the writing itself – part of it is to do with their constructedness, which means that they resist the lazy commodification and easy ‘messages’ of the misery literature genre.

On the copyright page for Fun Home, the dedication reads, in the same (pseudo-)handwritten typeface of the narrative voice within the text: “For Mom, Christian, and John. || We did have a lot of fun, in spite of everything.” On the same page in Blankets is written (in the same typeface as the rest of the paratextual notes, but not as the writing within the main body of the work) “This graphic novel is based on personal experiences, | though the names have been changed, and certain characters, | places, and incidents have been modified in the service of the story.” and the dedication, which sits on its own page after the contents page but before the main body of the work, reads “For my | family, | with love”. Both of these books claim to be personal, and both feature characters with the same names as their authors, and very similar biographical histories. Further, through the use of these paratextual remarks, both authors do more to align themselves with their characters (though Thompson’s remark also makes room for any possible divergences from fact, and is suitably specific in its remarks as not to create any meaningful doubt of the events portrayed, but vague enough as to allow for no possibility of accusations like those directed at James Frey). The aligning of the author with the central characters also serve to roughen the book: especially when Thompson is describing his discovery and development of drawing and illustrating, one is constantly reminded that the text that this is being described through is a product of this process. The book thus describes the processes that led to its own creation.

Writing the illustrated memoir (or a memoir at all) can function more than simply, but powerfully and importantly, narrating the self and events surrounding the self. Both Blankets and Fun Home do so – in the case of Blankets Thompson draws attention to the ambiguous role that Christianity has played in his life, and in Fun Home Bechdel (similarly ambiguously) discusses gay rights and what they mean for herself and for her father. However, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis goes further than this: by writing memoir, its authors is able to shed light through both narration and illustration on certain political facts, which nonetheless intertwine with the personal. In the introduction to Persepolis, for example, Satrapi writes,

Since then [the Islamic revolution], this old and great civilization [Iran] has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why writing Persepolis was so important to me. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists. I also don’t want those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten.

One can forgive but one should never forget.

Just like Blankets and Fun Home, this is an illustrated Bildungsroman, and where in those novels passage through childhood is used to identify the importance of certain events within that childhood. In Persepolis, this begins from the opening page: in the first panel, Satrapi writes “This is me when I was 10 years old. This was in 1980.” (3), in the second, there is a drawing of a class photo (on which Satrapi is “sitting on the far left so you don’t see me” (3)), and following this Satrapi describes the Iranian ‘Islamic Revolution’ and the process that led to Satrapi’s wearing a scarf in the first panel.

Like Blankets, Persepolis is a text occupied with religion; like that book, then, it is one occupied also with the possibilities of text. (Fun Home also includes a number of references to and images of religion, but it is primarily other people’s rather than the narrator’s own.) Early in Persepolis, the central character says that she wishes to be a prophet – “Like all my predecessors I had my holy book” (7) – and later she learns about the history of the Iran and elsewhere through books she is bought (“To enlighten me they bought books” (12)). She describes how her “favorite was a comic book entitled ‘dialectic materialism’ […] In my book you could see Marx and Descartes.” Just as in Blankets, any discussion of comics or illustration is packed with an important self-reflexivity: since this is both illustrated and an autobiographical memoir any such mention becomes about the book as well as within it.

All of the above texts are concerned about the ways that one’s own experience can be related; each deals with the epistemological problems of the narration of self and experience in their own way. The illustrated memoir is perhaps better than any non-illustrated memoir could ever be in this sense: it is holding in tension two different epistemological possibilities, since it performs its narrative in two distinct and potentially opposed concurrent spaces and techniques, the visual and the verbal. In the illustrated memoir, the voice of the narrative is usually in the reading present, retrospectively describing the events that are taking place (and is always in the case of these three novels), while the illustrations must be read as the present of the story, unless they are placed in some kind of framing device. Thus, in Fun House on page 20, the illustrations display two images found by Alison after the death of her father, and one of herself. Surrounding these images are textual comments: “He’s wearing a women’s bathing suit. A fraternity prank? But the pose he strikes is not mincing or silly at all. | He’s lissome, elegant”, “In another picture, he’s sunbathing on the tarpaper roof of his frat house just after he turned twenty-two. Was the boy who took it his lover?” The questions, it seems, exist in the present of the book’s writing, and though they have not decided on the right interpretation of the photographs they are nonetheless clear about the possibilities of interpretation; in the present of the image, however, the drawings are presented, held by two hands (presumably Alison). There is some suggestion within the novel that Alison is autistic (and at one point Bechdel writes “if our family was a sort of artists’ colony, could it not be even more accurately described as a mildly autistic colony?” eliding the two), and she certainly lives in a house in which communication is difficult and stilted, and so despite the fact that the verbal is the novel’s main way of delivering information, that same method of commuication is subject to scrutiny and suspicion. Nevertheless, as Jennifer Lemberg has demonstrated, the visual is restricted in its possibilities of knowledge too: “Crucial events remain beyond our sight, such as the instants just before and after Bruce’s death: no matter how many times we revisit the empty stretch of highway where he died, we cannot see her father’s death, cannot be certain of why or how it happened”, and nor can Alison. Just as two times are presented, so are two possible affects and states of being: Bechdel is not concerned with evaluating the one against the other, but the mere fact of their competing existence means that the epistemological arrogance that is displayed in bad memoir (and the worst of misery lit) is decidedly avoided, and instead the memoir holds the possibility of wrongness and the importance of messiness within its pages.

The illustrated memoir is, in its occupations and its concerns, practically no different from misery literature. Both are concerned and raising concerns about many of the same issues: the authority and authenticity of the self in a fictionalised narrative (as all narratives, particularly ones recollected through works of such artifice are); the suffering of childhood, and its relation to one’s adult life; and why exactly one would describe and enact those traumas and sufferings. However, illustrated memoir’s, and all good literature of misery and suffering’s, distinction from ‘misery lit’ is primarily stylistic: not only are these concerns taken on and worked through in the former where they are not in the latter, the illustrated memoir’s usefulness is shown in its very existence, as the artifice and design of the novel is testament to its worth.

(This piece was written for a university course.)


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