Copyright 2018

Review: Marbles by Ellen Forney

Are all artists crazy? Do I sacrifice my creativity taking pills? Do I have to give up smoking marijuana?

Ellen Forney searches for the connection between artistry and mental illness in Marbles, a graphic memoir about her bipolar diagnosis and subsequent healing process. The novel starts out with a manic episode of tattoos, parties, and flirting. Forney’s style springs across the pages, her illustrations sprawling and her eyes cartoon swirls of excitement. As the novel progresses, we come crashing down with Forney as she reaches a depressive state. The zany words and illustrations give way to blank space and a woman who wears her illness like an inseparable weight. Through her diagnosis and a precarious balance of exercise, medications, and mindfulness, we experience in pictures and text the painful, slow process of treating mental illness.

One of the topics Forney repeatedly ponders is whether or not medication will stifle her creativity. She reads furiously on illness and its connection to great artists from Georgia O’Keeffe to Sylvia Plath. Her conclusion: mental illness, suicide, and psychosis seem higher and more inextricably linked to artists and their creativity than to other people. Forney ultimately understands that she sacrifices more being off medication than being on it because she doesn’t complete art, no matter how much preparation she does, when she reaches depressive states. After years of different medications, exercise, and episodes, Forney achieves a balance that allows her to be an artist and treat her illness.

While reading, I felt as if Forney personally extended her hand to me and invited me to share her memories. The drawings are both artistically quirky and startlingly real in their snapshots of depression, excitement, and the uncertainty of illness. I saw myself in many of Forney’s frames, having flashbacks to my own struggle as a writer trying to care for herself without sacrificing her creativity. At the same time, I saw how different mental illnesses act despite being categorized under an umbrella term. Mental illness is a personal experience for everyone, even when the diagnosis and subsequent medication is the same.

Marbles is a learning experience, an emotional roller coaster, and a sobering look at bipolar disorder. Be sure to bring a pen for notes and a heart for healing.