A Brave Graphic Memoir Throws a Light on the Shadow of Mental Illness

LighterThanMyShadow_KatieGreenKatie Green didn’t originally plan to be an artist or the author of an acclaimed and rivetingly personal graphic memoir. The desire to create art was there, but, she explains, “I just wanted to please my teachers and be a good girl,” and her teachers and her grades identified her as a future scientist by the time she was 15.

Unfortunately, Green’s teenage years were not all about studying and getting good marks. As she reveals in her graphic memoir, Lighter Than My Shadow, an eating disorder eclipsed her life to the point where she was hospitalized and had to spend weeks out of school. Once back in class and among her chums, her anorexia still shadowed every moment. An alternative therapist who was supposed to help her regain her happiness instead took advantage of her, derailing her recovery well into her college years.

Through the honest exploration of conflicting emotions—Katie expresses at one point that her anorexia was the only thing that she felt proud of and that made her feel more interesting—and through Green’s delicate yet powerful artwork, Lighter Than My Shadow reveals the long-lingering anguish people in recovery secretly live through while friends and family assume (or hope) that everything is again okay.

Describing mental illness is challenging, but Green says that comics are well suited for it. “You can drift seamlessly in between the world that is supposedly real and the world that is inside someone’s head...which is exactly the experience of having a mental illness. The things that are not real to other people are extremely real to you.”

LighterThanMyShadowBlack squiggles clouding above Katie’s head or, in harder times, swamping most of the panel are a visual metaphor for the hold Katie’s mental illness has on her—the shadow that follows her wherever she goes.

Lighter Than My Shadow was published in the UK four years ago and finally reached US shores this month. When asked how it felt to have her difficult personal story out on the page for everyone to read, Green says, “I feel different about it every day. I have some days where I feel really glad and excited that it’s out there and that people can read it, and it seems to be helping some people. And there are other times when I just feel embarrassed and sort of wished I hadn’t done it. Which is maybe not a good thing to say, but I’m just trying to be honest.”

But readers have reacted positively. “I get a lot of grateful emails and a lot really moving emails from people who’ve connected with the book in a certain way, whether it reflects their own experience or their friend’s experience or their son or daughter’s experience, and it’s really touching. It’s painful as well to hear that these people are struggling with the same things. But that I’ve given them something that I didn’t have—to help them feel like they’re not so alone with what they’re struggling with—is really special.”

KatieGreenAfter Green realized that biology was not the career for her, she went back to school for art. Art education in the UK, she says, encourages people to find their own voices creatively, including by challenging them to work outside their comfort zones. “I was always encouraged to draw in a style that was less cute. And I tried! And I tried, and I tried. And after a certain period of time you realize that you have a voice of your own, and there’s nothing I can possibly do to make my drawings less cute. It’s just the way they come out.”

Yet when Green decided to tell the painful yet ultimately hopeful story of her eating disorder, her abuse, and her stop-and-go recovery, she chose words, initially, as the way to express her experience. She planned to write in prose. Then she read The Red Tree by Shaun Tan and realized how images could be the way to show what had happened to her. “I thought I had a really unique idea,” she says, laughing at herself, “that I was going to express this complex experience of mine in pictures. I told my friends about it, and they were like, ‘Yeah, Katie, graphic novels are a thing that exist, and maybe you should start reading some.’ ” They gave her a copy of Maus, which was the first graphic novel she read.

I ask Green if she had another graphic novel in the works.

LighterThanMyShadow2“No. I feel like I disappoint people when I say that, but Lighter Than My Shadow took a lot out of me.” Green pauses. “I definitely want to do more comics but I’m not ready yet.”

It’s this sort of bracing honesty that gives Lighter Than My Shadow the fierce authenticity that readers have been reacting to. I finished Green’s memoir determined to look more closely at my friends and loved ones to make sure I’m not missing struggles masked by a benign surface.

The Amazon Books editors named Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow as one of the ten best books of the month of October.

 


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