Author: Claire Lordon
Publish Date: October 10, 2023
Publisher: Candlewick (imprint of Penguin Random House)
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1536213676
Author website: https://www.clairelordon.com/
by Laboni Das
“If I don’t have much of a present, what kind of future will I have?” asks Claire Lordon, the protagonist in One in a Million. As much as it is an exposition of the harrowing ordeals of medical trauma, depression, and anxiety, One in a Million is a poignant testament recounting Lordon’s personal odyssey with Cushing’s disease caused by pituitary tumor. With a prevalence of 2-5 cases per million children per year, Cushing’s disease is as rare as it is devastating.
One in a Million is a recollection of significant moments in Lordon’s life and how she felt about them. Lordon reconstructs her memories through detailed diary entries written during her high school illness and through candid conversations with her parents and friends. These recollections are presented in the form of her debut graphic novel, fourteen years after those events took place. Notably, at variance with other memoirists, Lordon has challenged the therapeutic unleashing of medical trauma through creative processes (like writing or drawing), maintaining that “[i]t was supposed to be cathartic, but I stumbled and got stuck along the way, reliving my worst moments. I cried. I sat unable to move, scared to draw what I had experienced” (“Preface”)
Lordon takes the reader swiftly to a picturesque frigid winter’s day in Salt Lake City, Utah, precisely on 10 January, 2007. In the subsequent pages, Lordon informs the readers that she was healthy and active prior to the onset of Cushing’s disease symptoms. Lordon arranges photographs from her tween years, wherein she excelled in sports and academics beside her passion for creating arts. However, her life took an abrupt turn during her early teenage years when she began experiencing fatigue and unexplained weight gain, marking the beginning of her medical journey. Lordon’s life became a relentless cycle of medical examinations, including MRIs and CT scans, 24-hour urine collections, and blood draws. Without a definitive medical diagnosis, despite undergoing a battery of tests, seventeen-year-old Lordon found herself making more rounds to the hospitals than her school and descending into depression. Following the detection of abnormalities in her pituitary gland, medical professionals at Salt Lake City recommended her for further evaluation at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Ultimately, on April 12, 2008, following an extensive medical tests and sampling at the Mayo Clinic, Lordon’s condition was conclusively diagnosed as Cushing’s disease. On June 6, 2008, Lordon underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In August 2006, Lordon underwent another surgery and got another third of her pituitary gland removed. The memoir ends with Lordon’s enrollment at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the autumn of 2008, following the successful surgical removal of her pituitary tumor.
The memoir’s essence is anchored in the deployment of dark grey splash pages, each replete with various visual metaphors that serve as Lordon’s experience with depression, anxiety, fear, insomnia, nightmares and brain fog. For instance, a sequence of ten pages artfully illustrates Lordon’s depressive phase where the panels morph into an abyss, wherein her persistent efforts to emerge from the abyss are repeatedly thwarted by an unidentified foot, symbolizing ongoing battle with her mental health condition. Elsewhere, Lordon vividly captures her fear before the surgery in a full-page dingy panel, grappling with several pressing uncertainties such as “Am I going to die?”; “What if I get worse?”; “What about college/my future?”; “Why me?”; “Why now?”; What if my surgery isn’t successful?” (p. 172). Lordon’s use of such visual elements effectively captures the psychological distress experienced by a seventeen-year-old adolescent, who, ideally, should be relishing her high school years and diligently preparing for admission to a reputable college.
Interestingly, the title of the work captures both the rarity of Cushing’s syndrome and that Lordon is “one in a million” to her mother. That said, the expression also instills in Lordon a sense of being “one in a million” empowering her to confront and overcome such an exceptional malady. Another interesting aspect of the narrative is Lordon’s deliberate use of archives. Realizing the potency of archives, Lordon adeptly arranges them to augment the emotional resonance and authenticity of the narrative. Towards the end of her memoir, Lordon arranges a sequence of visual archives including a selfie captured in May 2007, a photograph taken prior to her first pituitary surgery in June 2007, a painting, a photo with her pet from July 2008, and a photograph marking her departure for RISD in August 2008 among others.
In the epilogue, Lordon mentions that her medical hardships were not over with these surgeries. In the summer of 2009, she underwent another surgery involving the removal of her adrenal glands. Following her graduation from RISD, she returned to the Mayo Clinic for radiation therapy for the tumor indicated in her MRI reports. Lordon competed with all the IMPOSSIBLES; she joined a post-collegiate lacrosse team, completed a New York City Marathon and raised more than $2000 towards brain tumor research and support. Though woven out of medical trauma, the memoir ends with a resounding message to the many teenagers grappling with illness: “The future is bright.”
Laboni Das is a PhD graduate student in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli (India). Her research concentrates on graphic medicine, health humanities and dementia studies.