Monday, December 3, 2012

Musings: Marbles

Marbles by Ellen Forney
Ellen Forney's graphic novel Marbles:  Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me is one of those that instantly appealed to me.  I enjoy graphic novels, and for some reason, I really enjoy memoirs in the comic format (I don't particularly like memoirs in other formats).  I don't know much about mental illness, so I thought reading about it from the POV of someone who deals with it on a daily basis would be a good way for me to learn more.

And this book was a great learning experience, but not exactly in the way I expected.  In a way, I'm glad.  If I'd had a better idea of the author's lifestyle, I probably wouldn't have picked the book up.  But more on that later - I don't want it to dominate the review.

The book is about a bipolar woman struggling to be normal.  She is diagnosed with bipolar disorder right around the time she reaches age 30 and shares a very intimate story about her struggles with it.  Forney is an artist, and a lot of the medication prescribed for bipolar disorder can inhibit creativity.  Forney doesn't want to lose her edge or her inspiration, so she isn't sure that she wants to be medicated.  But at the same time, she hates the ups and downs of manic-depression and wants very much to get healthy.

Forney does a lot of research into artists that struggled with mental illness, pointing out that many of the world's great artists struggled with some sort of disease while working at their art.  Edvard Munch's The Scream is an iconic painting that could be a visual representation of a horrible hallucination.  Sylvia Plath's writing was heavily influenced by her stay in a mental hospital.  Etc., etc.  Forney wonders if she will lose her edge by getting better.

This is an intensely personal memoir, sometimes uncomfortably so.  Forney tells her story in simple, black and white drawings (though the art she shares from her personal journal is much more detailed and complex), but the events themselves are not at all simple.  Bipolar disorder has many, many symptoms.  For example, she shares a story about how she once flirted with a wall, partly as a joke and partly because she was just really turned on at the time.  She also shares socially awkward and inappropriate conversations that she has with complete strangers, only realizing later that she made people feel ill at ease.  Her highs through manic times and lows through the depressive times just exhaust her and wear her out, and she hates being so inconsistent all the time.  I didn't realize until this book just how imprecise the medication for bipolar disorder is.  There are so many different treatments, and people react to them in so many ways, and it's so much more an art than a science.  But for the patient, it can seem like a never-ending trip through Hell, never finding something that works.  Forney details all of this in a truly heart-felt memoir.

I mentioned before that if I had known more about the author's lifestyle, I may not have read this book.  Forney smokes a lot of pot.  As does her mother, who is a doctor.  Forney thinks it's really cool that she and her mom are both stoners.  Forney is also very open about her sexual encounters.  Generally, these are the types of books I avoid.  If that's also the case with you, I can see why you might give this one a miss.  But I found that learning more about Forney's journey was well worth a little bit of discomfort on my end, so I hope you stretch your boundaries a bit, too.

Note:  This review is based on an advance reader's copy.  I received a complimentary copy to review.


  1. I'm very skeptical of the idea that creativity is so bound up in mental illness that mental health should be avoided. Mental health should never be avoided. No work of art, no matter how wonderful, is worth the pain mental illness brings everyone affected by it.

    I'm also of the opinoin that pot never made anybody more creative. Happier for a while, sure, but not a better artist.

    And I'm just not boing to talk about sex at all.

    While I don't read many of them, judging from what I see on book blogs, memoir may be the genre most suited to the graphic novel.

  2. Thank you for dropping in to comment on Life Wordsmith! How's Chicago? :-). I don't read many graphic novels, but I find that this is perhaps too intense for one? Or maybe it's just that I associate graphic novels with some light-hearted reading.

  3. I just finished it, and I think I liked it much more than you did, Aarti. Actually, I loved it. I have tried to read more stories about mental illness since 2007, and the genre has yielded some extraordinary gems. Marbles is definitely one of those amazing books. The author's illustrations are incredibly evocative of her disease, allowing the reader to experience the author's ups, downs, and her methods of coping. I loved this book and am totally going to stalk Ms. Forney's comics and books from now on :)

  4. I read a lot of books about mental disorders, because my family deals with them, and you would be surprised at how many people who are chemically imbalanced turn to pot. I'm not for it, but if it relieves their suffering, I can't say that I judge them. I think I would find this memoir enticing and very illuminating, and so I will be adding this to my list. Thanks for the very sensitive and deeply understanding view of this book. These are the kinds of reviews I cherish when looking for a book about mental illness.

  5. I don't read many graphic novels but have enjoyed some. This one sounds like something I'd be interested in, especially since I deal with mental health for my work!

  6. I think I might take your advice and give is a miss as those things you mention are not exactly favs

  7. I like graphic memoirs, too. Thanks for the review! I think I'm going to read this one.

  8. I tend to agree with James, though of course each person should decide for themselves whether or not they want to be medicated. It's just a huge pet peeve of mine to see people say they're really glad artist x or y who lived in the past had no treatment options, or else we might not have the great artistic legacy they left behind - as if their lives and suffering and humanity didn't matter at all. Anyway, I'm definitely curious about this and will pick it up sometime!

  9. This sounds really interesting. I also tend to enjoy graphic novel memoirs. Glad this one worked out for you despite the less appealing parts of it.

  10. I'm fascinated by books written (or drawn!) by people who have mental illnesses. I find it interesting to get an "inside view" as a way of understanding what it feels like to experience these conditions.


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