At a recent conference I attended for English educators, a panel of writers was discussing the phenomenon of the memoir, and debating what the popularity of the form has to say about today’s readership. The objection that the panelists had was the tendency for memoirs to reinforce the spirit of self-preoccupation that characterizes so many of the narratives in contemporary popular culture.
These writers had some compelling examples to draw upon, but noticeably absent was any mention of the graphic memoir. I wasn’t really surprised by this, however. If there is a form of writing about one’s experiences that eschews a focus on the self it is the graphic memoir. In works by writers like Alison Bechdel, Sarah Leavitt, and now, Ravi Thornton, the visual canvas seems to steer the memoirist away from self-preoccupation, saying instead to the reader: “This is what happened. See for yourself.”
Ravi Thornton’s latest work, HOAX: Psychosis Blues, wants us not only to bear witness to the effects of mental illness, but to reflect on the impact they have both on the individuals themselves and on those closest to them. However, rather than having us simply watch the toll that such an illness takes on her brother, Rob, who ultimately lost his battle with schizophrenia in 2008, Thornton shows us someone capable of remarkable clarity and insight despite the darkness. “Hoax” is the name of a poem that Rob wrote, one that had a profound impact on his sister and prompted her to develop both a stage musical and a graphic novel.
The latter begins during Rob’s treatment some months after his first psychotic episode, and then alternates between the years of his illness—short segments that show Ravi’s remembered interactions with her brother—and his own poetry, illustrated by a number of different artists, including Mark Stafford, Hannah Berry, and Bryan Talbot. This alternating narrative scheme is remarkably effective, putting not only a human face on schizophrenia but showing a mind desperately trying to come to terms with it through poetry. Given the subject matter, the reader may suspect that Thornton will simply chart the terrifying effects of mental illness on her brother. However, her penchant for quiet reflection here is brilliant. She demonstrates a special ability to show us schizophrenia’s impact in those day-to-day moments we wouldn’t necessarily think about, like the discussion of a parent’s illness during a quiet car ride or an awkward conservation about the purchase of a phone contract that can’t be paid for. Thornton is so good in these scenes, that when they culminate in an exchange she has with Rob’s metamorphosed essence after he has died, the reader simply accepts it.
As Thornton herself notes in the afterword, the graphic novel is not intended as a sequel to her dark stage musical, Hoax: My Lonely Heart, which focuses on the time period leading up to Rob’s first psychotic episode:
“Whilst chronologically one follows the other, I don’t really think of the graphic novel as a sequel to the musical. My brother’s manifestations of his illness were so immediate and yet at the same time so distant that I felt compelled to explore both of these extremes.”
Indeed, the most intense moments in Hoax: Psychosis Blues can be found in Rob’s poetry, which comes alive across canvases that range from the whimsical to the phantasmagoric, but with verbal-visual combinations that always serve the interests of the poet’s sometimes dark, often profound, and always thought-provoking insights.
Although it’s easy to feel heartbroken by the end of a work whose subject matter is mental illness, the reader instead feels strangely comforted. Like listening to the blues, the process of reading Thornton’s graphic novel is cathartic and speaks to us about a shared experience–not only the shared moments between Ravi and Rob, or what the latter shares with us through his poetry, but what Thornton herself shares about the narrative of mental illness. Indeed, we can only come away from Hoax: Psychosis Blues with a fuller and more profound understanding about schizophrenia and its impact.
Later this year, when the debate gets going about the best visual narratives produced in 2014, this exemplary graphic novel by Thornton should be in the discussion.
I’m convinced, in fact, it will be.