Graphic Medicine en abyme: drawing sketching-as-therapy in Ellen Forney’s “Marbles”

Lisa Diedrich shares an extract from her recent keynote address “Graphic Analysis: on drawing illness and care as queer in graphic narratives” at Curating Health: Graphic Medicine and Visual Representations of Illness (Stockholm, December 2018).

At Curating Health: Graphic Medicine and Visual Representations of Illness, organized by the Nordic Network for Gender, Body and Health, I presented a keynote titled “Graphic Analysis: On drawing illness and care as queer in graphic narratives.” I took seriously the “curating” prompt by assembling what I called a “queer curation.” My curation was queer not because all the artists I discussed in my talk might be said to be queer but because they help us to think about comics and graphic narratives as a queer form: they demonstrate how to do queer formally. In the longer paper, I first explored how representations of identity and illness are staged through a process I call drawing en abyme, a doubling operation integral to representations of the self-becoming and/or -unbecoming-self. I then discussed drawing mirrors and mirroring (in Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite van Cook’s  7 Miles a Second), before showing other examples of drawing en abyme as interior duplication: drawing painting as witnessing (in 7 Miles a Second), drawing sketching-as-therapy (in Ellen Forney’s Marbles), and drawing comics as care (in MK Czerwiec’s Taking Turns). In this blog piece, I focus on examples of textual interior duplication and drawing en abyme as a form of mental health therapy in the work of comic artist Ellen Forney.

Forney’s graphic memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me (2013),which addresses her experience of bipolar disorder, demonstrates how drawing can offer a therapeutic method for externalizing internal thoughts and feelings. The graphic narrative incorporates a number of images both of and from Forney’s sketchbook, offering a self-reflective commentary on the process of drawing. In a sequence at the centre of Marbles [Fig. 1], photographs of the sketchbook and its contents are paired with later images that offer annotated reconsiderations of the earlier sketches, effectively doubling them through re-drawing. At the top of the page Forney describes the sketchbook as the place “where [she] could face [her] emotional demons in a wholly personal way” (92); below this Forney sketches herself drawing her depression out onto the page, which is in turn recursively reconnected to her brain via a lightning bolt.The image literalizes the therapeutic process of drawing en abyme: her inner experience is visually doubled (her drawing of her brain and her drawing-of-her-drawing-of-her-brain are alike but not identical), and also textually re-doubled when she ends the page by describing the simultaneously “scary” and “comforting” experience of seeing her feelings externalized on paper (92).

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In a text box at the top of the facing page, Forney explains that she had “initially taken the sketchbook off my shelf because I wanted to draw a mental image I’d been having” (93). This page has a photograph of a closed sketchbook, overlaid with two further text boxes in which Forney describes the mental image: “A tall, leafless tree, with a thin trunk and long, thin branches bending in the wind, and at the end of one branch, a nest perched precariously” (93). Turning over, we see two attempts to give visual form to this image [Fig. 2]. On the right-hand side is a spiral-bound sketchbook open at a drawing of the tree and nest, the words “my nest”, “hide”, “fear of falling”, and “don’t think”, handwritten in the bottom right corner. On the left, a text box explains that when Forney showed the original drawing to her therapist, “she said it didn’t look so precarious,” to which Forney adds, “but I already knew I hadn’t drawn it right” (94). On this page, Forney revises the original image: “My mental image was more like this”, a text box states, an arrow pointing back towards the re-drawn tree and nest perched precariously on a thin branch that extends away from the trunk, which is not grounded, but floats in a white void. In a handwritten annotation, Forney adds that the tree is “extremely but indeterminately tall” (94).

Turning the page again, we see another duplication from Forney’s sketchbook: the perspective has changed to give a birds’ eye view of what appears to be Forney in the nest, her body contorted into a self-protective ball, hardly recognizable as human, except for her eyes, which are visible but squeezed shut. On the left, Forney has re-drawn the nest making it “twiggier, with pointy things sticking out and sticking in” (96). In this series of doubled images, Forney draws and re-draws as a way to nail her feelings down. She realizes, “I didn’t get nearly the same relief if I only came close” (96).

Forney directly links this practice to meetings with her therapist [Fig. 3]. She describes how when she would leave the session she would “sometimes feel desperate” (98) and would have to retreat into a restroom to cry. In this public/private space, she would take out her sketchbook, look at herself in the mirror, and draw what she saw. At the bottom of the page on which she describes this process, a rounded panel serves as a window into the enclosed space of the bathroom where we see Forney at the mirror drawing. Text in the white gutter on either side of the panel explains the therapeutic effect of drawing into the abyss: “In my sketchbook, I’d trace the familiar lines of my face, and I’d calm down and come back into myself. Inert on a piece of paper, the demons were more handleable” (98). When we turn to the next page of Marbles, we see a sketch of Forney gazing straight back at the mirror/us with the words “crying in the bathroom” written in the top corner. By incorporating the sketchbook and drawing sketching-as-therapy into Marbles, the demons are externalized further—now implicitly “handleable” by the readers of Forney’s work. The final image in Marbles is also of a bathroom mirror; Forney’s reflection looks directly out at her reader with a sly smile. “I’m okay!” is written on the mirror image, words and text conveying a measure of health, externalized in the possibility that we, the readers, are also reflected in this image of feeling ‘okay’. Forney has drawn us a passageway to okay-ness as a very queer curation.

Lisa Diedrich is Professor in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Stony Brook University. Her books include Treatments: Language, Politics and the Culture of Illness, and Indirect Action: Schizophrenia, Epilepsy, AIDS, and the Course of Health Activism.

Ellen Forney’s Marbles can be purchased online here.

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