Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness
By Darryl Cunningham
Published by Bloomsbury USA; $15 US
I won't lie and say I've never made a rude crack about the mentally ill, but I'd like to think that for at least the better part of my adult life I've found the very placement of the word "mental" in the phrase "mental illness" arbitrary and stupid. Not because it's inaccurate but because of the commonly held beliefs that certain mental illnesses aren't even illnesses, that they are something the victims can simply "get over" if they will it, and most absurdly that a mental illness isn't a physical illness. In spite of the fact that by "mental" we usually mean that which pertains to what goes on in our brain, and that with the exception of perhaps a few notable cyborgs all of our brains exist as parts of our physical bodies, we do not consider mental illnesses or their symptoms as physically inevitable as a broken arm or a black eye or pancreatic cancer. We think that with as little exertion that a sleepy thirty-something needs to finally get up and do those few miles on the exercise bike he's been promising to pedal, victims of crippling clinical depression can just shove that stuff out of the way and be the best Nike ad he/she can be.
Darryl Cunningham seeks to combat these myths while telling touching, poignant stories in Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness. Cunningham spent years as a health care assistant in a psychiatric ward, and while there he kept a journal with the intention of eventually publishing a book about his experiences. Though he was already an illustrator, his original intention was to write a prose book. That changed when he read Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. The autobiography convinced Cunningham he could tell a powerful and gripping story with black-and-white pictures.
Some of the chapters deal with specific disorders or conditions such as "The Dementia Ward" and "Bipolar Disorder." Some deal with the sometimes heartbreaking outcomes of severe mental illness like "Blood" and "Suicide." Cunningham offers anecdotes from his hospital work - some sad, some funny, some scary - and he also educates the reader about the realities of mental illness and those who suffer it. A good example is the chapter "People With Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives" in which he lists famous and influential people who wrestled with their mental health like Winston Churchill, Judy Garland, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He informs without sacrificing the emotion of the work. He uses pictures to more lucidly articulate conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia that are often sensationalized in movies and on TV but are rarely explained.
Cunningham draws most of his figures almost to look as if they were rendered by children. Most of his characters sport impossibly square shoulders and rubbery, elbow-less arms. There is something about this minimalism that makes it that much more affecting, particularly in some of the few violent moments of the book. Occasionally Cunningham goes in the opposite direction with photo-realistic drawings such as the lion's share of the panels in "People With Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives." The "People With..." chapter goes back to more cartoon elements usually when Cunningham describes the downfall or breakdowns of the famous and semi-famous figures he describes. It gave me the sense that the rest of the book was drawn as it was because somehow the mentally ill became less real or less important to the rest of the world once their illnesses more strongly steered their fates.
While it feels strange to refer to anything in a work like this as a "spoiler," the final chapter is something of a surprise so I'm apprehensive about revealing it. Suffice to say it's something Cunningham hints at earlier in the book a few times, and the way he handles it is perfect. It succeeds in making Psychiatric Tales a book not just about illness, loss, misunderstanding, and pain; but also one about hope.
I already have recommended Psychiatric Tales to friends and I probably will again. Anyone who has ever been touched by mental illness (and really, who the hell hasn't?) - either their own or that of a loved one - would find it enlightening. If it becomes required reading for medical students, I won't complain.