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Getting Graphic: An Illustrated Memoir Explores the Creative Side of Mental Illness

By Stephanie Dinkmeyer, NAMI Communications Intern


Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me

By Ellen Forney


Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Ellen Forney something in common: They’re all creative artists with a history of mental illness. The main difference is that you’ve probably never heard of Ellen Forney (and she is also still alive).

In Forney’s new graphic memoir, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me, she explores the sometimes blurry line between creativity and mental illness. The book is a 237-page journey that begins before Forney’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder and ends years later in a more stable, happier existence.

A skilled artist, Forney renders simple cartoons, realistic self-portraits and reproductions of masterpieces from her favorite artists, all in black-and-white. But the power of her talent is in her ability to express, often without words, the feeling of her mental illness. In the illustrations of her manic episodes, the page is filled with lines and words and shapes and scenes. It is more like looking at a piece of art rather than reading a cohesive story like the rest of the memoir, your eyes flitting around without direction. It is loud. It is not easy to read.

Her illustrations of her depressive episodes are difficult to read as well, but for a different reason. They are barren and wordless, with only a few lines on the page. One page is just 14 small illustrations of a faceless person slowly moving from lying in bed to lying on the couch. You can’t help but feel the quiet emptiness and isolation.

Forney leaves nothing off the page. In addition to documenting the minutiae of her mental illness, she asks the big, tough questions like, “Who gets to be crazy-brilliant, and who’s just crazy-crazy?” and “If I get treatment, am I killing any chance to do my best work?” Forney was skeptical of the suggested treatment. She writes, “Maybe being bipolar is a gift! I don’t want balance, I want brilliance! Meds would hold me down!”

Much of Forney’s story is dedicated to the exploration of the “tortured artist” concept. Forney explains that characteristics of creative people often overlap with some of the aspects of bipolar disorder, such as loose associations and a penchant for mental imagery. And an artist’s lifestyle, often rife with job and financial instability, intense emotions and an irregular schedule, might intensify a pre-existing mental disorder.

In the end, Forney finds balance. She admits that she kind of misses her manic episodes—but not really. Although she felt “powerful and sexy,” she also was “restless, impatient, insatiable and obsessive.” Living a balanced life does not mean living a boring, unproductive one, she finds. Forney’s memoir, simply by its existence, is a clear indication of this revelation. — Stephanie Dinkmeyer, NAMI Communications Intern