My Year of Reading Memoir: Tangles by Sarah Leavitt

Alison Staff Image

In choosing my memoir this month I had a few criteria:

1) I wanted to read a graphic memoir. Graphic memoir is one of my very favorite genres. I even did a staff pick about it in September. I think that in utilizing comics as a medium, memoirists provide a unique and immersive reading experience. Not only are they telling their stories, they’re quite literally showing them.

2) In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to read something by a woman. Fortunately, though women are still fairly underrepresented in comics, there are a lot of graphic memoirs by women from which to choose. My research consisted only of pulling every graphic memoir written by a woman from our collection at Beechview and seeing what I connected with. And I still had a pretty significant stack.

3) Since I have promised to explore “new and exciting” memoirs, I wanted my choice to have been published within the past five years.

4) I wanted to read something that isn’t too widely known. While I highly recommend checking out graphic memoirists like Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi, there are, as I type this, over 76,000 reviews of Bechdel’s Fun Home on Goodreads. I wanted to read and blog about something that doesn’t have more reviews than Heinz Field has seats.

I chose Tangles: A story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me by Sarah Leavitt. Tangles is 1) a graphic memoir, 2) was written by a woman, 3) was published in 2012 (just hitting the five year mark), and 4) has only 832 ratings on Goodreads. I feel really fortunate though that it fit my criteria, because Tangles turned out to be a profoundly affecting story of a daughter losing her mother and a mother losing herself.

Tangles begins with Leavitt reflecting on the woman that her mother, Midge, had been—on her career as a kindergarten teacher, her happy marriage, her close relationship with her sisters and on her gentle and nurturing manner as a mother. Then, in a chapter titled “Signs,” Leavitt reveals the first indicators that her mother, at fifty-two, was starting to change. She began to struggle with simple tasks like opening doors and stepping out of the car, she couldn’t remember directions to places she’d been visiting for decades, she forgot things her daughter had told her when they spoke on the phone. And she was angry. Whenever anyone pointed out a task she was having trouble completing or a detail she had mis-remembered, she would get very upset, so much so that it took a great deal of coercing to get her to go to a doctor. When she finally agreed, the diagnosis was Alzheimer’s.

 

The remainder of the memoir details Midge Leavitt’s eight year descent into the darkness of Alzheimer’s and the way that her family, especially Sarah, copes with the effects of the disease. And, if I’m being honest, it’s pretty devastating. Leavitt’s art style is very simple, almost child-like, which marries well with the themes of the memoir. Leavitt’s mother eventually slips into child-like levels of helplessness. Her vocabulary narrows, her handwriting becomes less and less legible until she can no longer read or write at all, she must be prompted to eat and she struggles with basic hygiene and simple everyday tasks. Eventually she becomes a shell of the woman she once was.

But within this very sad story, there are moments of sweetness. Leavitt compiled Tangles based on the sketches, notes and diary entries she compiled over the course of her mother’s disease. Within the tight-packed panels of the narrative are occasional pages containing only a small drawing and a snippet of Leavitt’s conversations with her mother. One conversation, titled “Oh Broccoli, Who Are Simple,” is about Midge exclaiming that phrase while happily eating broccoli. On another page she sweetly takes credit for passing gas and the whole family breaks out in laughter. Others pages feature messy notes that Midge wrote to Sarah or Sarah’s long-term girlfriend, Donimo. In this moment, Midge’s Alzheimer’s is still present, but so are the remnants of the funny, nurturing woman who loved nature and Granny Smith apples and cats. And who, above all, deeply loved her family.

Tangles doesn’t really read like a traditional graphic novel. There are rarely speech bubbles, just a narrative that runs through the panels with accompanying images. In his book Making Comics, Scott McCloud refers to this method of storytelling as duo-specific, and it’s difficult to pull off without seeming redundant. In this instance it’s very effective and would probably be a good stepping stone for someone new to the medium.

If it’s not yet obvious, I highly recommend Tangles. It’s 1) a beautiful and poignant graphic novel 2) written by a very talented woman that is 3) a relatively new and fresh addition to an ever-expanding genre and 4) wholly deserving of a wider audience.

-Alison

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Alison is a library clerk at CLP Beechview who enjoys both making and reading comics, cooking and writing creatively. Her favorite genres to read are memoir, science fiction, literary fiction and nonfiction.