Sarah Leavitt’s first memoir tracks illness through comics

What do you do if your mom is dying? How do you make the most of the remaining time you have with her? How do you preserve the last of the moments you might spend together? For Sarah Leavitt and her mother’s six-year battle with Alzheimer’s she took mountains of notes and sketches in an attempt to get every detail on record which she then adapted into a graphic memoir her first book: Tangles .

As she writes in the book’s introduction “I often felt like Harriet the Spy or in darker moments like a vulture hovering and waiting for mom to say or do something that I could record and preserve even as she slipped away from me.” It’s a fine line that Leavitt walks but it pays off in how acutely observed every panel is and how attentive she was to the sensitive and ultimately harrowing experience.

“When my mom got sick I always knew I wanted to write about it I just wasn’t sure what that would end up being” says Leavitt who first wrote about the experience in essays short stories and poems. From there she put together some sketches into a chapbook which then gave her the idea of turning it into a full-length comic.

“Part of why I wrote the book was to preserve that memory and to preserve this record of her” says Leavitt. “If I hadn’t written it down and recorded it it would be gone.”

But it was hard. Leavitt had six years worth of notes journals email correspondence and small drawings to sift through and turn into a narrative. On top of this there was just the sheer gravity of the situation — the recent loss of her mother Midge.

“There were times when it was really hard to work on it at all because it brought up too many memories” says Leavitt. “Most of the time I think I separated out a part of me that tried to make it a good story and a part of me that was still mourning my mom. I feel really strongly that non-fiction has to be a good story as well.”

The book is told in linear fashion in short chapters starting from her childhood and the obligatory introductions to her family tree. It isn’t until the first early signs of Midge’s illness that the story and art zero in on their purpose and inevitable destination. Leavitt’s drawings are thin and fragile full of shaky lines and vulnerability that capture the silent gradual trauma of the situation.

It all begins innocently enough. Midge starts forgetting directions. She gets frustrated and unresponsive. But the family remains in denial. Then she loses her sense of smell has trouble putting on clothes and her writing (scanned onto the page) becomes harder and harder to read. This affects each member of her extended family differently and every reaction is recorded and presented with the thoroughness of a police report.

By the time Midge is completely lost and dependant on the care of others Leavitt reflects on the brief moments of clarity and reflection her and her family exhibited. “I hate what’s happening to me” Midge quietly admits at one point. Near the end Leavitt’s father tells her over the phone “I think she wants to kill herself but she isn’t capable of it now.” Just dwell on the sheer weight of that. Everything is left in warts and all — the frustration anger and utter exhaustion but also the moments of humour kindness and pure familial love.

“You somehow have to make that experience into something that matters to other people” explains Leavitt. “And so that’s how choosing what you’re going to say how you say it and what you show becomes important. It’s in how you say what you say.”

And Leavitt can take consolation in the fact that she isn’t alone. In the growing world of autobiographical comics there seems to be an offshoot sub-genre of family illnesses. Leavitt joins the ranks of David B.’s Epileptic Miriam Englelberg’s Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person and David Small’s Stitches all of which she expresses great enthusiasm and respect for.

“There’s something about that form that attracts people…. It’s a different way of communicating what’s going on” she says describing the wide variety of audiences that have responded to her work.

“I don’t know what it is but maybe someday there will be a university course coming up” Leavitt says with a laugh. “I was trying to think of what to call it — Graphic Trauma.”