Battling Alzheimer’s with a Comic Book
Why Sarah Leavitt created an autobiographical comic that documents her mother’s decline from Alzheimer’s disease.
by Rachel S. Cohen
People usually associate comic books with bright colors, superheroes and maybe even Bazooka Joe bubblegum. Recently, however, the art of comic books and graphic novels (essentially long comic books) has evolved to tackle more serious topics. Sarah Leavitt, a finalist for the 2010 Writers’ Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize, is a Jewish comic book writer. Her book, Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, documents her mother’s decline from Alzheimer’s disease and how her family coped. As I learned from speaking with Sarah, comic books are so much more than what kids purchase with their lunch money at the corner store.
I’ll be honest – when I was asked to interview a comic book writer, I immediately froze. I know nothing about Batman or Superman. When I researched your work, I realized that they aren’t necessarily even colorful or funny! Can you comment a little on what it means to you to be a comic book writer?
Yes, the world of comics is big! It helps to think of comics as a form, not a genre. So, within comics, there are many different styles, genres, and traditions. My work up to this point has been autobiographical – Tangles, and then some shorter pieces in anthologies and magazines – and my style is pretty simple and unschooled. My current project, my second book, is a big shift for me. It’s historical fiction, and the art will be a bit more complicated, a bit more polished.
How did you wind up writing comic books?
I’ve always drawn, all my life, and I had done a few tiny comics here and there. In my thirties, when my mom had Alzheimer’s, I got serious about writing and kept copious notes about what was happening. At the same time I met a writer/cartoonist who is about twenty years older than me, and she got me interested in making comics. I had thought I would write a prose book about my mom, but at one point, I put together some of my writing about her with some of the sketches I had done of her and realized I needed to make a comic book. And I want to keep doing comics because I am fascinated by the process of putting words and pictures together to make something new.
Can you tell us a little about what makes Tangles different from other graphic novels we might read?
Well I think I was lucky to publish Tangles at a time when graphic novels were getting more and more popular. Also, a lot of people have experiences with Alzheimer’s and, to my knowledge, Tangles is the first comic to deal with the disease. I think the comics form can help people connect with the story. People seem to like the honesty about things that are often taboo, like the gritty details of helping your parent with personal care or laughing hysterically in the middle of a hellish situation.
How did you document this painful and confusing part of your lives and then ultimately piece together this book?
I kept journals. I wrote notes on napkins and scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes. I wanted to make sure I recorded as much as possible. I also made little drawings to help me remember what happened in specific situations. All this material (quite a pile) eventually became a book. My mom died in 2004, and I finished the book in 2009.
How was the creation of this book helpful or therapeutic for you?
It certainly helped me to have my journal and sketchbook when my mom was sick. It gave me an outlet. And then the process of turning that into a book helped me make some sort of meaning out of the horrible experience. I have a lot of anger about her illness, how she never got to grow old or know her grandchildren or do any of the amazing things she would have done as a smart, passionate, politically active woman. I have spent a lot of time being angry and deeply sad about the unfairness of it all. Having the book out in the world continues to be a very moving experience, and I love to get letters and emails from readers, or talk with people after I do readings or workshops. I think my father has also liked connecting with people who’ve read the book. It helps him remember that the care-giving work he did, pretty much 24/7 for six years, was a beautiful, inspiring thing.
For other people facing a family member or friend’s decline as a result of this disease, how might your work help them?
I never wanted Tangles to be a self-help book; I wanted it to be a literary memoir that would move people, whether or not they shared my experience. That’s the power of a successful memoir, to reach across differences to communicate what the author experienced. I do think my book is different from other memoirs about Alzheimer’s; I am younger than most people whose parents have Alzheimer’s, I’m a lesbian, and it’s a comic book! But there are similarities, too: that peculiar experience of loss that comes with the disease, when someone you love is still alive but gradually losing bits of him or herself. I included a lot of moments of dark humor, because that was a big part of how my family coped. I also talk about my family being Jewish, but non-observant, and how my mom’s illness inspired me to join a synagogue and search for comfort in Jewish traditions.
Do you have any plans for what direction(s) you want your work to take in the future?
Yes, I’m working on my second book and hope to actually finish it soon. And I have been teaching workshops and classes about creating comics, and I want to do more of that. I want to create as many comics as I can, given that I have a full-time job and some significant procrastination problems.
About the Author
Sarah’s first book, Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, a graphic memoir, was published in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany to international critical acclaim (LA Times, Vanity Fair, Globe and Mail, The Guardian). She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia, but is largely self-taught as an artist and cartoonist.
Rachel is a Brandeis University graduate with an MSc in health communication from Boston University. While she enjoys writing whenever she can, she earns a paycheck as a grants administrator at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.