Life rarely works out the way you expect it to.
When people are forced to adjust to periods of significant change, we often turn to familiar comforts while we struggle to adapt. Such comforts could be as simple as a phone call home, or time spent observing old traditions with a loved one.
Which is why the most jarring of changes are often those that affect our most familiar, static comforts.
Sarah Leavitt’s graphic memoir, Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother And Me, opens with an anecdote about how the author used to suffer from nightmares that only her Mom could make go away.
In it, she compares herself to Madeline from the popular children’s books, and equates her Mother to the kindly and ever-watchful character of Miss Clavel. At that point in her life, her Mother was a constant that she could always find comfort within.
After her Mother, Midge, starts exhibiting early signs of Alzheimer’s Disease, the lives of Sarah and her family are permanently altered as they struggle to cope with something no one could possibly plan for.
Tangles revolves around the journey of Sarah’s family as they try to make sense of an impossible situation. Their story is shared through a web of memories and retrospectives, woven together by Leavitt’s sparse, emotionally-expressive style of illustration.
After recently reading through Tangles myself (in one sitting no less!), I can attest that it really is a powerful book. I would add the disclaimer that it is not for the emotionally fragile, unless of course you are okay with the likelihood that this book will bring you to tears.
That being said, Tangles is not just one long, depressing story of loss by any stretch of the imagination.
The relationship that Leavitt portrays between her and her Mother is one filled with love, mutual dependency, and a fierce protectiveness that’s speaks volumes about the nature of family. Even at some of her Mother’s most advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, moments of happiness still manage to shine through.
Ahem… So ends the book review component of this post. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet Sarah Leavitt, who is herself Vancouver-based, at the Calgary launch party for Tangles this past Monday.
The wonderfully personable Miss Leavitt agreed to sit down with me and chat about her inspirations, the reception she has received for Tangles so far, and her experience putting together an original graphic memoir. Although Sarah has published prose, poems, and minicomics in the past, Tangles is actually her first published book.
“When my Mom got sick,” Sarah says, “I was really obsessed with recording everything. I had my journals and sketchbooks, and I would often doodle little things that she was doing. I started taking writing classes, and I wrote some poetry as well as some essays about what my family was going through. One time my sister and I were talking about the really stupid stuff that people had said to us when they found out my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I made that into a comic that was later published in Geist magazine.
After she died in the Fall of 2004, I spent a month house-sitting for some friends to get out of my house. I was sitting in their attic with all this stuff spread out around me, and I decided to put all of the notes and sketches together in one place. This writing teacher of mine saw what I had put together and said, ‘I think you’ve found your medium’.”
According to Leavitt, her teacher’s advice made sense. She realized that the graphic medium really would be the most natural way for her to tell the story of her Mom’s experience with Alzheimer’s.
Leavitt had already began to explore a growing interest in comics. She had illustrated a few minicomics, some of which were published in Modern Dog, and had found a collection of comic creators working in the medium that genuinely inspired her.
“I started out reading Maus and Persepolis,” she says, “and from there I got into Seth, and I really like Louis Riel by Chester Brown. I love Kim Deitch – his work is so detailed and fantastical, but simultaneously edgy.
I was also very inspired by Miriam Engelberg, who wrote a graphic memoir called Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, and Brian Fies, who wrote a webcomic called Mom’s Cancer that was later collected as a book. I actually wrote to Brian when I was trying to sell my book, and he has been so amazing – he blurbed my book and he has really been super helpful.”
Sarah admits that setting down to write a full-sized graphic memoir as her first published book was daunting, but she says it helped that she didn’t realize how much effort it would actually take.
“I think it was good that I didn’t really know,” she laughs, “because I probably wouldn’t have done it. I did my first version of Tangles when I was doing my MFA for Creative Writing at UBC. It was much shorter and rougher than it is now, and I submitted it to a publisher who promptly rejected it. I realized that I was going to have to redraw every single page, and so I did.
I went from drawing on 8 1/2 x 11″ sheets of paper to full 12 x 14 bristol board pages. I drew everything with pencils first, and went over them with technical pen. It was a real learning process, from trying to figure out how to scan and realign everything to even just something as small as getting the format right for the font.”
After her first rejection, Leavitt hired an agent, and, armed with a polished version of her original story, wound up connecting with Freehand Books. Freehand wound up publishing the book, which was released this past September.
One of the reasons that Tangles is so successful at evoking a strong, lasting emotional response is because of Sarah’s unflinching candidness in telling her Mom’s story. Not long into the book, it becomes clear that this is a very intimate look into the lives of Sarah and her family.
“I never thought of doing it otherwise,” says Leavitt, “I don’t think I would want to do it if it was less honest. I didn’t want it to be a rosy story about ‘my mom was sick and we all pulled together and it worked out’, because it didn’t. I wanted to show that there were ways in which my family was really awesome and we all worked well together, but there were also ways in which we kind of sucked. It took us a while to try to figure out how to deal with the situation, and I think that’s true for anybody that’s ever had to take care of anybody with Alzheimer’s.”
When I mentioned to Sarah that it certainly takes guts to put such an intimate perspective of your life out there for the public to read, her response was a modest one:
“I think a lot of it is denial. A friend of mine messaged me on Facebook and said they had seen copies of my book in a bookstore in Vancouver after it released, but before I had my official launch. Then it hit me that, wow, people can go in there and read about me who don’t know me at all. Strangers are going to be reading my book!”
Of course, it isn’t just Sarah’s life that readers of Tangles are privy to. The story also predominantly features her father, her sister Hannah, and several other individuals who are either extended family themselves, or friends of the family.
Sarah says that the response she has received from others that were in the book has been overall positive so far.
“My Dad has been kind of stunned by how people talk about him. He just did what he had to do, and he took care of my Mom in this really beautiful way.. I’ve told my Dad things that people have said to me about him after reading it, and he’s been like, ‘wow, it’s like I’m a character in a book!’ and I tell him, that’s because you are a character in a book’. ”
Tangles has been met with enthusiastic reception, pulling in strong initial praise in addition to being shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize.
Some highlights for Leavitt have included meeting her idol, Lynda Barry, who admitted to having cried when she read Tangles for the first time, and having a totally broad and varied group of people tell her that they took something of value from her graphic memoir.
“I think it’s really cool when people connect with it that don’t have my same experience. It’s especially cool when people read it that don’t normally read graphic novels. There was this older gentleman at an event in Edmonton, who I would guess was in his seventies, that came up to me and based on my book asked for a list of graphic novels that he could check out at the local library. I thought that was fantastic.”
As far as the response Sarah has received from individuals that read it and also had a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she says that it has been pretty intense.
“People just come up to me and tell me these really beautiful, often personal, things about their family members, or they come up and thank me for talking about the subject. I have also had a few people come up to me that were just crying so hard they couldn’t really talk.”
I asked Sarah if she could have every person who reads her book take at least one thing away from it, what she would want that one thing to be.
“I would like them to feel moved in some way. I guess it’s what most artists want, but it is a significant thing to me if my work could have the power to move someone to tears or to laughter. ”
For more from Sarah, you can check out her official website or view more about Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother And Me over at Freehand Books.
-Written by Kevin de Vlaming