By now you’ve most certainly heard about Ellen Forney’s immense talent and infinite heart illustrated in her graphic memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me, an artwork documenting her struggle with mental illness. Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder prior to her thirtieth birthday, and in her latest venture she is refreshingly blunt about her highs, lows, and never-ending quest for balance. Though already celebrated for her contributions as a cartoonist for The Stranger (and her other books), the rest of the world has finally embraced her brilliance —- apparently Marbles has already made it near the top of The New York Times “Best Sellers” list and now Seattle is going to have to share her with everyone else. Upon reading Marbles you can’t help but fall for the woman — such an autobiographical portrait is inevitably difficult to create, which is why the brutal honesty that unfolds in its two hundred and fifty-six pages makes such a lasting impression.
Hers is the kind of story that you dive right into, with the first pages showing Forney getting a tattoo. The image is heavy with thick black ink and dense lines, and her facial expression is intense and animated, which we later learn is a sign of one of her manic episodes. We then move right along to her psychiatrist’s office, a place Forney finds herself after her initial therapist decides that the latest up mood swing she has experienced is a little more than just feeling “jazzed” — an amazing adjective, by the way. So, with a chuckle, we dive into something that is completely unfunny, the immense struggle that she faces to maintain herself and her sanity. A journey that is riddled with dark humor and duality, two things that strongly represent the author herself, and the dueling aspects of her personality. Things are funny, but in a semi-disturbing way, and her brilliance is served up with a little bit of crazy.
This “crazy” is a central topic for Forney as she attempts to understand the relationship between her mental disorder and her creativity, along with the fear of dulling her innovative spirit with mood-stabilizing medication. She does feel an element of pride upon becoming part of “Club Van Gogh” — minus the missing ear —though the question of how much suffering she is supposed to endure in order to belong plagues her.
In Marbles we see more of her manic episodes, most likely because that’s when the bulk of activity occurs in the story. It’s fascinating how she meticulously documents her rapid spiraling-out-of-control during her manic states with spinning conversations, hyper-sexuality and whirling ideas. Forney really opens herself up in the novel, never shying from the embarrassing and raw reality of her circumstances. When she illustrates her birthday party, Forney covers two pages with her twisted limbs flailing in every direction, ideas flying from her orifices, lightning bolts catapulting from her mind. And then when she slowly slides into her depression, she illuminates the rats gnawing around her mind — everything that is scary, frightening, dark and overwhelming. The saddest drawings show Forney, a small pile on the bed, eventually getting up with blankets draped around her, only to stumble to the couch and fall asleep into another little lump. Her loneliness and isolation during these periods is palpable, and she draws it all for us, bleak and simple.
At this point it’s imperative to discuss what could be considered another critical character in this graphic novel: Forney’s medication. She spends the bulk of this novel trying to find balance, chemical-wise, life-wise and otherwise. Ranging from the sleeping pills she takes to slow her down, to lithium (which causes weight gain, skin problems, mental slowness) to marijuana, Forney tries everything to find harmony in her body and mind. Initially opposed to the mere thought of “dulling” her creative mind, we watch as she learns what she must do to survive.
Bipolar Disorder also offers her a new awareness of her relationships—the understanding of which friends can handle her while she’s ecstatic, which ones can deal with her while morose, and the ones that only last during certain episodes. We watch her alienate some, intrigue others and carefully develop an essential and sweet relationship with her psychiatrist Karen, the one who ultimately helps guide her through her difficult journey.
But the most amazing relationship is the one that Forney fosters within herself, and her process of self-actualization is the core of this whole memoir. She admits that at times taking care of herself has seemed boring (because of the whole “tortured artist” thing), but she finally understands artistry can still flow from the balanced mind. She accepts the complex process of managing of her disorder and the decidedly social stigmas. She even learns to embrace the extensive schedules she’s forced to create, and those awkward moments where she finds herself acting like a crazy lady, like hugging a tree in the arboretum, shoeless and crying -— who hasn’t done it? This ability to find the dark humor in situations makes her lovable and human.
Aside from her sincere voice, it is the style of Forney’s book that truly holds our attention. The starkness of the black and white drawings and the symmetry of text, sketches and charts offer a distinctive experience for the reader. Everything feels acutely Seattle, with maps of Doe Bay and small illustrations of her connections with people in town,everyone from the owner of Re-bar to local musicians and weekly columnists. She also provides charts relating to her disorder, one helpfully illustrates how to use alternate nostril breathing to relax, and another shows how to take your pills like a champ, which is funny, haunting and in the end, a lovely piece of art.
And that’s what Marbles is after all, a true work of art. Beautiful illustrations of Forney’s endless quest to become the best writer, artist and human that she can be. This novel really opened my eyes; I had scant knowledge about bipolar disorder and zero idea about the complexity of finding the correct combination of drugs. And that’s why this book is brilliant; not just because it’s witty, beautiful and honest, but because there’s something we all can relate to. Whether you’re hoping to more clearly understand a friend or family member, or perhaps yourself, Forney wins over everyone with her talent and charm. And forevermore will I embrace her mantra (and one of my favorite illustrations of the book) that “neatly-applied lipstick = not crazy.”
Oh Ellen, we love you.
Ellen Forney will be reading on Thursday, November 29 at 7 p.m. at Elliott Bay Book Co. // 1521 10th Avenue // Free