Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me
Freehand Books, 2010

It’s not just a problem for the curly-headed folks: even with straight hair, there are tangles, knots, and snarls. Everybody can relate to the struggle to make a course smooth once more. And these days, increasingly large numbers of readers will also relate to the experience of losing a loved one to dementia. As a memoir, Tangles has the potential to reach a wide audience and I hope that its format — I’d call it a graphic novel, but it’s not a novel — results in even more readers discovering this slim volume.

Even when Sarah Leavitt is drawing the curls that erupt from her head, the reader has the sense of every stroke, every tightly drawn curve, being deliberate and exact. And that’s as it should be; her mother, Midge, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1996, and the author kept notes and records for the duration of her illness, so this book has been in progress for many years. It’s no wonder that it is a polished document.

But that sense of purpose does not detract from the raw intimacy of the story. It’s so striking that there are times when you simply have to set it aside, to reflect. The reader can’t help but feel as though they have peered behind closed doors. Of course that is the nature of memoir, but this is an incredibly revealing tale: flinch-worthy at times.

The author has taken care to explain that this is her own story, her personal experience of her mother’s illness, but of course this takes place in the context of a family and many individuals come to life on the inked page. At the same time, however, the story contains many universals. For instance, Sarah Leavitt considers her mother’s hands, draws them, remembers them, seeks to preserve them on the page and in her memory. This is something that many readers, who have lost someone close to them, can relate to easily. But much of the memoir is very specific; this is definitely not the story of an Alzheimer’s sufferer and her daughter, it’s the story of Midge — who does have Alzheimer’s — and Sarah.

And their story is particularly poignant told in drawings. The frames allow for emphasis and content to be relayed in subtle ways. A difficult process (for instance, travelling in a thunderstorm) can be outlined in a series of smaller rectangular frames, and the emotive moment that follows (three women standing in the storm, catching raindrops on their tongues) can stretch to claim more of the page. Each event is significant, but the emotion swells as the image grows.

Emotions that are difficult to capture in words can also be portrayed with an image (for instance, a voluminous sunset in Mexico with two tiny figures in the foreground). Details can be captured without overt comment (for instance, leaving a nameplate half-visible so that the reader sees only the -IATRIST of it). And isolated moments can be captured in a single page-sized frame, so that the reader sees Midge sitting on the couch saying “I think the kitty can see what I’m thinking. I really do.” Enough said.

Some of the frames contain glimpses into other documents: notes in her mother’s and her father’s handwriting (the author lived at a distance, on the west coast, for many years), excerpts from reference letters written for her mother when she was still working, bits of a poem her mother wrote when she was a young woman.  This gives the impression that the memoir holds more than one, even two, people therein. It reminds readers of the wide-reaching effects of an individual’s life and love and work.

Unlike the raindrops in the thunderstorm scene, the tears in this memoir are drawn like droplets. They are not cascading lines of flat emotion. They are rounded and swollen. They are built to hold things. This is a highly emotive story. If you think it will hurt less in a drawing, you’re mistaken. But that’s the wonder of it too. If you think that you can’t be touched by a graphic “novel”, this memoir would be the one to prove you wrong.

Companion Reads: Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness (2009);  Catherine M. A. Wiebe’s Second Rising (2009); Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1964)

Drawing Conclusions is a series of posts which focus on works that reside in a graphic medium.