Detail of Cover of the graphic memoir Tangles by Sarah Levitt

Graphic Medicine: A Personal Story

By Jill L. Newmark ~

When the idea for an exhibition on graphic medicine was initially introduced in the Exhibition Program at the National Library of Medicine, my first thought was “this will be cool because they’ll be lots of cartoons!”  Graphic medicine is an emerging genre of medical literature that combines art of comics and personal illness narrative.  The National Library of Medicine is actively collecting this genre of literature, and many titles are featured in the exhibition Graphic Medicine: Ill-Conceived and Well-Drawn!.  Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I loved reading the comics section of the newspaper especially following the adventures of Beetle Bailey, Family Circus and the Peanuts gang.  It was the first thing I’d ask my Dad for when the Sunday paper arrived at our house.  As a kid, I would buy the latest Archie or Richie Rich comic book or sift through my brother’s Spiderman and Batman comics.  Reading comics was fun, entertaining and enjoyable as a kid and it still is.  But until I began working on the Graphic Medicine exhibition, I never fully realized the extent to which this art form could become so meaningful or how an exhibition about comic art would touch me personally and inform me of the power of the personal story told through this art form.

Cover of the graphic memoir Tangles by Sarah Levitt
Cover of Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me
Courtesy Sarah Leavitt
National Library of Medicine #101134333

As the Exhibition Registrar in the History of Medicine Division of the library, it is my responsibility to connect with the artists and lenders who contribute their work and their objects for display in one of our exhibitions.  Adding objects to a display not only helps illustrate content, it can add rich and powerful imagery to an exhibition.  The Graphic Medicine exhibition is undeniably based on illustration and imagery, and on books created to tell about the human experience with illness and caregiving.  When the curator, Ellen Forney (a cartoon artist herself), decided to add original drawings to the display along with books, she began making her selections.  It then became my responsibility to secure permissions for the library to use the images, artwork and books in the exhibition.  As part of that process, I retrieved copies of the selected books from the NLM collections and reviewed the copyright information that appears at the front of each book.  But my attention did not stop at those first few pages.  I was instantly drawn into the books by the comic illustrations much as I had been as a child when I saw a new comic book on the newsstand.  One particular book, Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me, caught my attention, not only by the illustrations, but by the content.

Leavitt’s graphic memoir describes her experience with her mother’s early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.  Through her illustrative narrative, she takes you on a journey through the devastating path of her mother’s Alzheimer’s, the rollercoaster of emotions experienced by herself and her family as caregivers, and the eventual loss of her mother to the disease.  Leavitt’s stark black and white drawings communicate the devastating nature of the disease and brings her world into focus, creating a poignant, personal, and touching story.

As I began reading the book, Leavitt’s story started to become my story.  The rollercoaster of emotions she described became my emotions.  The pain she felt became my pain.  My mother, like Sarah’s mother, had suffered through this same disease—slowly declining, slowly losing her ability to speak or comprehend the world around her, slowly become a shell of her former vibrant self, but still showing an occasional glimmer of the mother that I knew and loved.

Through Leavitt’s work, I gained a new appreciation for the graphic art memoir.  When I shared with Leavitt how meaningful the book was for me and how what she described was so familiar to me, she first said that perhaps it was a “weird coincidence.”  She then admitted that maybe it happens a lot.  “Alzheimer’s is so cruel and so painful,” she told me and added how happy she was that I had found meaning for myself in her book.  The medium of graphic and cartoon art can make difficult subjects accessible and understandable.  Such is the case with Tangles, a graphic memoir that makes an excruciatingly painful journey understandable, open, poignant and personal.  I am grateful to Leavitt for having the courage and the strength to re-live her heartbreaking experience with Alzheimer’s.  Through her book, I found some comfort for my own painful experience and the profound loss of my Mother.

Drawing from Tangles by Sarah Levitt, showing a bare branched tree, blown over and broken.
Courtesy Sarah Leavitt

An informal portrait of Jill L NewmarkJill L. Newmark is an Exhibition Specialist for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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