Author: Ellen Forney
Publish Date: November 2012
Publisher: Gotham Books
Where to buy: http://marblesbyellenforney.com/order.php#.VJMKjBCE
Author website: http://marblesbyellenforney.com
guest review by Northwestern Medical Student Frank Barrows, Chicago, IL
In Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, Ellen Forney tells an uncomfortable tale about her struggle over several years to accept and manage her bipolar disorder. Through black and white images inked in thick oily black you get to know Ellen, and she drags you through her manic days as you try to keep up, and she holds you down in her depressed days, malaise oozing off the page. A fascinating read, I can’t definitively say I enjoyed reading the book despite the fact I’ve read it twice in two weeks, I can say it’s affected me. It’s a heavy book.
While sifting through my mixed feelings on Marbles, I wrote a note to myself, I hoped I had nailed down the thing that had kept me from fully loving Ellen’s character. I called her “self involved”, which is a petty insult for a memoir. Really this is a story about growing up, about how one woman’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder made her reevaluate her life, questioning who she was as an artist and how she could define herself. She gets to explore how big her disease is, how much of who she thinks she is has been a manifestation of a disease and what is truly her own nature. These questions are uncomfortable to ask and uncomfortable to watch someone struggle with.
While retrospective in nature, subtleties in the book hint that the strong and engulfing poles in bipolar disorder are easily accessible for Ellen. The illustrations move your eyes around in an exhausting manner and you get to feel the social discomfort that Ellen is oblivious to in her early undiagnosed manic state. When depressed Ellen’s drawings hold you there with her, smaller with heavier shading, I too don’t want to leave my blanket burrito but I also don’t want to put down the book. She gets you to feel the nature of her disease and was uncomfortably close to the exhausting and all consuming nature of her disease. It’s hard to feel why mood disorders can’t simply be “snapped out of” but this book gets you close.
In Ellen’s book she reads and quickly dismisses a memoir about bipolar disorder, when reaching an uncomfortable part of the book dealing with the author’s bout of hallucinations Ellen cast the book aside, only to return to it years later to rediscover the very relatable nature of the memoir. I fear that this is what Ellen is trying to do with her book, that when I put this book on the shelf it won’t be there for long. I don’t know what more in Marbles there is for me to discover but I feel like I’ll be back.
What I am left with is a lingering feeling that I never really knew Ellen, that I knew her disease and it defined much of her life. This is the fear Ellen has in her book, that she is more disease than man. And while there is a lot left on an interesting person who has great narrative ability and great retrospective wit, as she perfected in her comics I Was Seven in 75, I got to know mostly disease through out the book, the manifestations of her mood disorder and the parts of herself that she casts off in the end of the book. As Ellen struggles to find the true unwavering part of her character I too am looking for her, although ultimately that’s not who this story is about. I’m left with a dilemma, whether this book kept me uncomfortable because I felt like I was observing a very real depiction of someone struggling with a psychological illness or if I really felt uncomfortable with how easy it is to identify with the pathologies of Ellen’s illness. Frequently dismissing my own memories that Ellen elicited, reminding myself that I am not crazy, I’m not diagnosed. Maybe Ellen’s book reminds us that we’re all probably a little crazier than we’d like to admit.