Graphic Medicine: The Power Of The Pen And Brush- Suzy Becker
We all have different ways of dealing, or not dealing.
I don’t watch any news, too graphic. I limit my listening to the car, and one news cycle. It took me years to realize the news has its own Top 40. The second cycle is a little refresher, the third, just a top off… I could set my clock radio alarm at night feeling like I was on top of the news.
In the year before COVID, I saw two different immigration-themed art exhibits: Barbara Cohen’s Camps of Concern—paintings inspired by photographs of refugee camps, and Tom Kiefer’s poignant photographs of immigrants’ personal effects, El Sueno Americano. From 2003-2014, Kiefer was a custodian at a border facility who could not bring himself to dispose of these totems. Taking in these shows was a form of “graphic medicine.”
Graphic medicine is an emerging field within the emerging field of narrative medicine. Narrative medicine, pioneered by Columbia University’s Rita Charon, has to do with narratives of caregiving, health and illness and the correlated benefits of their creation or comprehension. Graphic medicine describes narratives with visual components. There are some who narrowly define these visual components as comics. I am not one.
As a viewer, I was a beneficiary of Kiefer’s custodianship at the border and Cohen’s abstractions of the camps. They humanized a crisis, which is rooted in mind boggling global economic inequality, but is deeply felt in the portrait of a dirty, left-behind children’s t-shirt. Or a flash of DayGlo paint in dripping, dismal settlement surrounds.
As a maker, I am equally familiar with the benefits of the creation of works of graphic medicine. I began keeping a journal (not a diary) when I was eight. The act of journaling was a declaration that I was not alone– even if there were no kids my age in my neighborhood and I was not allowed to horn in on my little sister’s playdates. There was an implied or imaginary audience for the stuff I was putting in my journal. Medicine or self-medication for loneliness. To this day, I write and draw to say you and I are not alone.
Five years before the germination of the field of narrative medicine, I was diagnosed with a mass on my brain and underwent an awake craniotomy. It was the first time I’d spent a night (or three) in a hospital. Initially, I documented this new experience, the way I documented my first cat, as a lifelong dog owner, in All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat. But when the “successful” surgery unexpectedly wiped out my speech, reading, and writing, I documented my self, what was left, in case I lost that, too. As I recovered, and for several years after, I continued to write and draw and graph, clip out and curate…surviving, healing, venting, making meaning, framing and reframing my experience. All of that (edited), became I Had Brain Surgery, What’s Your Excuse?
People would ask me, the way they do when my book idea is a blob of jelly quivering in their hands, who is going to want to read a book about brain surgery? Plenty of people, I thought; they read about alcoholics who run with scissors and incest and why wouldn’t they, in the arms of their chairs, want to glean the gifts of my experience without having a hole put in their heads?
I suppose a lot of them did. But, if I really meant what I said about why I set out to write all along, a la Alan Watts, “Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest darkest secret, so we can wipe our brows and know that we’re not alone,” then, the real affirmation came from the survivors’ community: I have never read anything that quite so succinctly captured my experience. I have received hundreds of letters like this one.
When I workshop graphic medicine, everyone in the room experiences firsthand the eye-opening, heart-opening, if not world-opening benefits of carefully listening and viewing another person’s life experience in a safe space. Participants experience some of what I described as a maker—baring, making sense of, framing and sometimes reframing their experiences through writing, visual prompts, and having their creations heard and seen. By the end of the day, we will all experience a third layer of benefits, those which come from helping others enact transformations in themselves, as small or large as being empowered to give voice to their stories and say or show what it means.
In This Is How It Always Is, Laurie Frankel’s touching novelization of her experience with her daughter, she writes, “You get to thinking you’re the only one who’s like you… but that’s not so. When you’re alone keeping secrets, you get fear. When you tell, you get magic. Twice.
“You find out you’re not alone. And so does everyone else. That’s how everything gets better… You share your secret and you change the world.”
You share your secret, your story, you change your world. And I believe that if we actively seek, listen to and develop an understanding of each others’ experiences—whether at the borders of the country or the county lines—we will change, and possibly heal the world.
Suzy Becker is an author/illustrator and a New Yorker cartoonist. She began her career as an award-winning advertising copywriter, then founded The Widget Factory, a greeting card company. Her first book was the internationally bestselling All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat, now in the Double-Platinum edition All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat (And Then Some). She has since written and illustrated nine other books for kids and grown ups, including the graphic medicine memoirs I Had Brain Surgery, What’s Your Excuse? and One Good Egg.