Graphic memoir: Sarah Leavitt's 'Tangles'
It’s tough to read Sarah Leavitt’s “Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me” without thinking of Alison Bechdel. Both artists use comics -- what we might call graphic memoir -- to get at the deepest of family (dis)connections, and both possess an almost fearless willingness to reveal. Yet whereas Bechdel is interior, obsessive, always turning her story back on itself, Leavitt is more off the cuff, using a series of short, almost standalone fragments to frame a collage-like portrait of the effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Leavitt’s mother was 52 when she began to exhibit symptoms of the disease; for the next eight years, until her death at 60, she and the family struggled with her slow but steady diminishment. For Leavitt, this is primarily a personal story -- or more accurately, a story about the loss of the personal, about becoming untracked in the world.
Halfway through the book, Leavitt makes this explicit by asking her mother to participate in a video. The older woman agrees, suggesting they begin with the day she got lost. “I knew I had to walk down Smythe Street to our house,” she recalls of the experience. “Part way down, I got lost. I mean, I could see where I had to go, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. It seemed so far away.... I could see further down the hill, but it didn’t make sense.”
Here, Leavitt parts the curtains on Alzheimer’s just a little, recording it from the inside by evoking in her mother’s language the disorientation, the loss of place, the inability to make connections that the disease provokes. A similar breakdown, of course, afflicts the family, which gradually loses its ability to communicate, to breach Alzheimer’s walls. “I caught myself wondering what Mom thought of herself,” Leavitt writes. “I realized that part of me believed the real Mom lived somewhere else, unchanging, immortal, observing the new Mom.”
What she’s getting at is the essence of who we are and how we operate, of what underlies our neurons, what defines identity. “This is a hard thing to say,” her mother says after Leavitt shows her a few pages of this book, at the time a work in progress. “I’m not a real person.”
But what defines reality? That’s the central question, although “Tangles” doesn’t (can’t) provide an answer. And yet, in framing her loss and her uncertainty through the lens of love, Leavitt manages to find a fragile resolution: conditional, moving, rigorous and heartbreaking at once.
-- David L. Ulin