I met Sacha Mardou for the first time for the first time just last year, when she and I were both at MoCCA, but because we had been corresponding for over a decade online, it felt like we were just old friends running into each other again. It certainly helped that I've been reading her work for years, from her minicomic Manhole to the first volume of Sky in Stereo, which came out in 2013, to her autobiographical comics online and on Instagram. Though much of her comics are fiction, reading them always makes me feel like I'm getting to know more about her: her youth living in England, her life with her family in St. Louis, her thoughts as she navigates the different pieces of herself. I was really excited to interview her about the second volume of Sky in Stereo, which came out last year and which kept me riveted from the first page to the last. We also got a chance to talk about her newer work and where she's headed next. I'd gladly hang out and chat with Sacha any day.
Sarah Glidden: How are you feeling about part two of Sky In Stereo finally being out?
Mardou: Really good… there’s also this little bit of me that feels like it doesn’t belong to me anymore, it belongs to the world...I went to therapy on Tuesday and my therapist said to me “how was that experience for you, writing the book?” And something just melted in me because nobody’s ever asked me that before. I mean, I wrote a whole book about it (being in a psych ward!) and no one’s ever asked ‘how was that experience for you?’ So yeah. It’s been quite heavy and harder than I thought it would be. This a big deal for the teenage me, you know? But it’s cool it’s done and the fact that it’s done means I’m free. On to my next project!
I don’t know when you actually finished working on it, like making the very last drawing, but it must’ve been a little while ago.
...it was over a year ago, because we had some delays. It was meant to go to print earlier and it was messed up so it’s been pushed back and pushed back. So yeah, it’s been done for awhile. Let’s just say that.
I know that it’s fiction but obviously it’s based on some real things that happened to you in your life that were really impactful, so I know that for me, writing memoir, it really feels while you’re working on it like you’re stuck in that period of time. Did it feel like that for you, when you were working on this, like you were back in that seventeen, eighteen-year-old self and reliving these moments?
Yes. Yes and no. Because I think while I was writing it I was quite careful to communicate the kind of explosive emotions in it… at arm’s length. Like, I didn’t want to feel it as I was drawing it, so I was a little bit distant and I think that emotional distance is somewhat present in the narrator’s voice. But of course, the act of making the book meant I had to kind of go through it again and, yeah, there have been these parallel levels of dealing with it. I needed to make the best story I could and use different parts of my brain, so on one hand, it’s like “it’s a book be rational” and then the other part for me is like “that was a really rough thing the teenage me went through and I have to kind of help those parts of me.” I had to some healing work around that as well because I never really dealt with it. I just made a book about it.
Yeah, that’s really interesting. You know something that you just said is that you try to keep some emotional distance from it, but something that I really noticed about these two books, because I reread your first book as well, and also thinking about your therapy comics, which we can talk about later, is that you’re really able to represent thought in a very immediate way that I haven’t really seen a lot in comics before. Moment to moment, you’re going through Iris’s thought process and what she’s experiencing in a thoughtful way. It’s not “this is what I’m feeling or that’s what I’m feeling.” But I’m kind of wondering: how do you do that, as a writer? How do you just be present in a thought? Because it isn’t something that’s really evident or that I see a lot in other people’s work.
Well thank you for noticing that. I don’t know! I chose to do first person so I could kind of get inside Iris’s head as she’s kind of losing grip on the reality (the thing that we all agree on as reality, right?) So she’s …. entering the territory of a mad girl, but I’m still using her voice as your guide and the artwork can show you one thing and you know her narration can do another thing and that’s really interesting. That’s kind of slippery. How much do you trust Iris? This is her worldview! So the most interesting thing to me to do was to show her thoughts and her perceptions and then also show reality becoming something she’s not in control of anymore. So yeah, I don’t quite know how I did it but it was intentional.
Oh yeah, you can definitely tell that it’s intentional. It just struck me; for example, in the end of the first book, her first sign of mental breakdown when she’s looking for signs in the streets and the litter on the ground, it’s very specific and, to me, I very much believe that somebody experienced seeing that Mars Bar and taking it as a sign. It strikes me that that would be difficult to write, either as fiction or as building off a memory that’s twenty years in the past..either would be really hard! [Laughs]
Well I wrote it in notebooks before I started drawing any of it and then I started doing thumbnails and scratching out how this is going to look, and then in order to make it look how it was in my head I had to go to some visual references. I went on Google Maps and zoomed in on the street view and I actually retraced the route that Iris walked, which is actually where I used to live in Prestwich, in North Manchester…somewhere that was still locked in my mind. It was quite freeing to zoom in and see that all the trash that you see on the streets is still there. I mean, it’s not like 1990s Coca Cola cans but it’s still a hot mess. Like, Dr Pepper cans, and Mars Bar wrappers.
Is Manchester pretty unchanged since you lived there in the nineties?
Yeah, well, so when Tony Blair was Prime Minister he gave a bunch of money to Manchester and gave it this facelift. And we also had a bombing in the nineties and so a big chunk of it needed rebuilding. So Manchester got this cosmetic face-lift but the bones of it are still very much the same. It’s still this grimy city, lots of unemployment, lots of swagger and attitude. And it’s a really creative place with some really cool people doing cool stuff. And weirdly it’s a very friendly place, so much more friendly than London, and yet, at the same time, there’s so much social animosity. Like, I stood at the train station in Manchester waiting for a tram to get me to the city center and there’s a woman on the other platform and she was just giving someone shit for no reason, like “what the F- are you looking at?” And it was just like “oh yes, this is exactly what Manchester’s like, there’s social aggro for no reason. Why is everyone so angry here?” Super angry. That’s not changed.
Is it still a big center for music the way it was? I mean, I guess it can’t be the same as it was in the nineties.
I don’t really know because I’ve been away for so long, but it always had great venues for music. You could see all different kinds of bands, you could see the Afghan Whigs at this tiny little sweaty club and it was so intimate and cool. And you could also go to the arena and see Elton John or something, so the whole spectrum is there in Manchester. Yeah people are very much into that.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about growing up in the Manchester music scene, and talk about getting into comics at the same time?
I was kind of coming of age then, like I was sixteen in 1991 so in 1992 Nirvana were a big deal and I saw them play, but they were obviously an American band and all the Manchester stuff, all the house and club scene and the Happy Mondays, that was like the late eighties and I missed that. And then the next era that came about was something I didn’t like at all, with Oasis being big, and that really was a lot of cultural identity for Manchester. So when I was like sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, it was all American bands I would go to see because it’s like I didn’t really like any of the local stuff at all.
Yeah, I mean that’s what it’s like...what is handed down to us in history isn’t always reflective of what it was truly like at the time, so you think about all the bands from that particular era like the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, but in actual fact there was another band that was way bigger than them and that was James. Everybody loved James. People would walk around with James “Come Home” t-shirts and they’re completely forgotten by history but they were like the biggest Manchester band and no one cares anymore you know [Laughs]
That’s funny, yeah. They’re kind of a one-hit wonder here I think.
Yeah. They’re kind of a one-hit wonder in the UK as well. Sorry James, for anyone who likes them.
I’m a big fan of Ian Svenonius who talks about this in his book, how a band like the Velvet Underground were not really appreciated in their time and maybe there was something about them that was just off! That they just kind of smelled wrong or something about them came off wrong. And yet a band like Free were like super popular and everyone was like “this is great, this feels so good” and yet, twenty years later with the benefit of history it’s like, oh yeah Free are crap and the Velvet Underground are really good, but at the time, that’s not really how it was, so I don’t know. It’s funny. What’s cool is that my publisher, Dave Nuss, is a big Manchester music scene fan and so we have good conversations about that and he loved the musical aspect of Sky in Stereo and all the kind of songs that are playing in the background. I really kind of want to make a mix CD of those to like sell. [Laughs]
I could make a Sky in Stereo Spotify playlist! Yeah, that should happen. I’ll get Dave on that [Laughs]. I’m sure he’d be more than happy to do it.
I Googled some of the lyrics of the songs as they came up, like the Nick Cave song that Iris listens to after she breaks up with her boyfriend, just ‘cause I wanted to hear the soundtrack of this to add something to the comic [Laughter].
Oh yeah. Thank you. It’s a big part of it for me. To know that the music is this other world that Iris kind of has. It’s better than her grey reality. It’s such a big part of her and just how intense everything is at that age. She constantly has a song playing in her head.
You did a really good job with that. One thing I like about Sky in Stereo and that I don’t see a lot is it’s kind of a slice of life comic in a way. I don’t know if that’s the right phrase to use but it’s about someone’s real actual life, and nothing too fantastical happens except for the drugs [Mardou laughs]. But she just feels like a very real person, the other people, her mother, her friends feel like real people and it feels really grounded in reality and it’s something that I love to see in comics. It’s kind of like my favorite type of comics. Like the new Hartley Lin book.
So you kind of get into the head of a teenager, of working and how you have to understand all these details of working. I’m just curious how you decided what to show in Iris’s life, and what not to show.
For me, it’s different to slice of life in that I was trying to use a strong structure in Sky in Stereo. It kind of comes down to editing. I think with slice of life, you don’t really need a start or stopping point. You can just kind of drop in. I really enjoy that. When I go to comic shows I always look for that genre of comics. I love it. But I really wanted to have a definite novelistic feel for Sky in Stereo and so I wrote a ton more than I actually used. I wrote two preliminary chapters that got completely cut. It was really about editing real life events and changing whatever I wanted to change. And using different characters as well …Like it’s not autobio, this isn’t exactly how things played out in my life, and certain characters are completely different.
In the first book, Iris’s stepdad is a composite character of a bunch of guys I knew. Like older Northern guys, a little bit of my actual stepdad, mainly my uncles. It was interesting ‘cause it gave a whole different dynamic to my mom’s relationship. I didn’t want to write about my mom’s real relationship with my stepdad and how that worked. I was very much like “Oh let’s see where this goes.” It was experimental. I wrote, and rewrote and edited and mixed things around until I had it how I wanted it. It was fun for me, and it was good and it brought out things that I didn’t know were necessarily going to be there.
I had Iris pretty set in stone because she was a version of me, like a cipher for what happened to me, but everyone else was up for grabs. In the second book, many of the nurses were cut and molded into one person so I could use the best –or worst- things that I remembered... I did that with Iris’s friend Miki as well. She’s a really important character in the second book. She’s this girl who’s in the hospital, and she’s had a parallel experience to Iris: she’s taken drugs, she’s heard music and also has this religious background (Hare Krishna). But she’s actually based on someone I knew from when I was 10. They were things that … made for such a better story and it felt true. So for me it’s very far from autobiography, and yet, at the same time, it still has that naturalistic feeling.
Iris kind of looks like a young version of me as well, which I didn’t intend. It’s just the shorthand that my hand will do. It’s like “Oh, it just looks like me, sorry!” [Laughter] But I know Phoebe Gloeckner had that as well in her books. Minnie looks like a mini-version of Phoebe, but its not really meant to be her. It’s just muscle laziness I guess.
Is it difficult when you’ve made a fictional work, but has had pieces of your real life, especially with your family or maybe people who know some parts of your life but not all – do you have to constantly remind them that “no, that isn’t actually me”?
Yeah. Well.. my family members have a certain amount of delicacy. Like, they don’t want to upset me or something. So it hasn’t really come up. Thank god for embarrassment ‘cause it saves you having all these conversations about your work! [Laughs]. People are too delicate to go there.
Sticking with the theme of family, I was really impressed by how you represented Iris’ mother. I think it could have been easy, with a story like this, for the mother to be the bad guy because she called the police, and that’s how Iris ends up at the start of book two in a mental health institution. But you can really feel the warmth between Iris and her mother, even when they’re fighting and even when Iris is being the teenager who’s like “Mom just doesn’t understand.” I was wondering how much of the book was written before you had a child versus after, and whether having a child yourself made you reevaluate that mother-daughter relationship and how it would look on the page?
I scripted it all before I had a kid. Right up until the very end of my pregnancy, I would go to this coffee shop an hour before my job at the library started, and I would do my thumbnails there. I expected when I had a baby that it would just easy, she’d… be next to me napping and I’d just be drawing pages of Sky in Stereo and that totally was not the reality! It took about four years for me to get back to it after she was born. But it was all finished and scripted and some of it was thumbnailed.
The question about the mother – I was really interested in this push and pull between Iris and her mother. That relationship was really interesting to write and explore as well. I was really informed by The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I’m such a huge fan, I’ve read everything that Sylvia Plath has done. All her diaries, all her letters to her mother, and stuff like that. I remember reading some quote about Sylvia Plath and her mother, that was just this psychic pull and repulsion there. Like she needs her but she’s always pushing her away. And that informed me a little bit and so when I was showing the relationships in Iris and her mother, and this marriage that her mother entered into so she could become a Jehovah’s Witness, and how its not a real marriage. She doesn’t really want to marry him, otherwise she would have married him years ago. Iris’s mom Gina and Doug do break up at the end of Sky in Stereo, and that’s a little way for Iris and her mom to reconnect and that was really fun to draw. But that’s not how it worked in real life at all [Laughs] …I never really sat down and figured “How do I do this? I need a plot and a subplot.” But when you start working from characters these things sort of arise naturally and it gets more interesting. As long as I wasn’t bored, I felt like I was on the right track. If something started to feel like a chore, it was like “Oh, maybe this isn’t working then and I can cut it, change it.” That’s just been a good rule of thumb, just going from your instincts. ‘Cause I read a lot, and I know what I like to read, and if something just starts to drag I’m like “I’m not going to keep reading this.” [Laughs] I tried to apply that to my own work. Just let that guide me.
Do you have a little book with all your characters, like “this character in the mental institution is like this and like that” or does it just come out while you’re working on this script and the thumbnails?
I had cheatsheets for pretty much everyone. I had a sheet for all the nurses, and a map for the whole hospital to make sure the doors open the same way every time. [Laughs] To draw that I watched a load of videos and images from abandoned psychiatric hospitals and plugged together some stuff from memory and came up with something that looked right. It was hard to keep track of everything like that. So you need to do it, especially for longer work… its like 300 pages so you need to keep an eye on continuity and that kind of thing.
It was really a lot of characters, in both books but especially in book two you have other patients, you have nurses, doctors. You have family members who have worked in facilities like this, is that right?
Yeah, my mum was a geriatric nurse who worked in old peoples’ homes, and then I had an aunt who worked in hospitals and prisons as a psychiatric nurse. Growing up I would just hear stories about stuff that went on. It’s just so darkly humorous. That black sense of humor that I think nurses need, especially psychiatric nurses need a lot of ‘cause its hard stuff that they have to deal with and its so unexpected. Everyday is different. And full moons are truly challenging. [Laughs] It’s true.
How did you get into that space? Something that really strikes me in both books is that you have a great ear for dialogue, and the way people talk and how this certain person might have an accent or might have weird slang that they use that other characters don’t use. First going back to teenage-hood and how teenagers talk to each other is already something a little bit difficult, but I would imagine that going into this mental hospital and trying to build dialogue around what’s going on there must have been a challenge. How did you face that?
I’ve got a really strong memory for certain things and I have a really good memory for things people say. It’s kind of a gift and a curse because I can say to somebody “Oh you absolutely said that” and they’re like “What’re you talking about? No I didn’t.” And my husband (Ted May) is American and I’m English, and we watch British TV together, so I’ve, in recent years, become something of a mimic so I can do certain accents for him and things like that. I was quite into drama at school and I gave it up when I went to university. But I was really interested in acting for a while. So I just get in a sense of people and from people-watching, and drawing them in my sketchbook and that kind of thing. Thank you for thinking I do it well, ‘cause its just something that I enjoy, that I don’t really find that hard. You just have to think about someone and then do a little imitation of them [Laughs]. Look in the mirror and try to get their body language, you know?
Yeah. I’ve always wanted to try writing fiction, and it just seems impossible to me. I’d still like to do it someday, but that I think is the thing that I find the most daunting is like if I were trying to write one of these characters who’s also in the institution, if I tried to make up something they would say I’d be like “Well how do I know that they would say that? I’m not them.” So I think you have to trust yourself, really. I think you approach all these characters with a lot of warmth. Nobody’s being made fun of for what they’re going through. Even if they’re acting out in ways that can be shocking. Or even moments of humor, but you never feel like anyone is being mocked.
I think it’s that shift to empathy which is the moment it all starts to unlock for Iris. When she starts to realize that these people are all not having a great time either. That’s a real moment of pathos. But seeing in the book where there’s this character June, and she’s a very funny, larger than life character and she wets herself on purpose. The nurses know her so well and they’re just disappointed in her and they make her wash her own underwear. But the wet pants just sit in the sink for days and days. Finally Iris has this moment like “This poor woman! Give her a break! I’ll do it!” And she washes her underpants. It’s this unlocking in the story, like suddenly the universe is conspiring with Iris is like “Okay. Here’s the real world, go out and experience it.” It was a fun shift. It’s empathy. It’s really important. [Laughs] It’s a real doorway.
That moment, I mean I don’t want to spoil anything, but it circles back to a moment toward the end of the first book where she is in the middle of having this breakdown and she’s looking for these signs and she finds a nurse’s outfit. The moment where she’s saying “Oh, the nurse’s outfit! That’s right. The cycle’s complete.” Did you have this all planned out from the start? That that connection would happen and that’s how she would start to pull herself out of this?
We have this tendency to tell ourselves stories to make sense of stuff that happens and we can do that in ways where actually that’s not what happened, but that’s your way of making it okay for yourself, is to tell yourself that story. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that was one of the things I just pulled out of my own experience. And I really liked the way it came out on the page … and worked as this puzzle that was unlocking. What was really happening happening is she’s kind reached the end of a cycle and it’s like “Okay now you’ve found what you’re looking for, this is where it lead you, now you have to just let it go.” She just has to let it go and recognize that all the psychic meaning she’s read into things, is a story of her own invention. It’s like ‘sanity’ is a decision that she takes.
Yeah, and it’s interesting because it happens gradually, which is realistic. Because we’re with her inside those thoughts, we’re going along her and there’s no outside voice saying “Iris is having this thought, but clearly not sane.” And so it’s almost shocking at certain points when you think you’ve been lulled into thinking that she’s okay, and then something happens and you realize that she’s freaking out, hearing voices. So you really are drawn into this experience with her.
I didn’t really know what I was undertaking when I started writing. I just knew that I always wanted to write about this experience. I started it in 2005 to 2009, when I had my baby and then stopping and started drawing it for real in 2012. So it’s been in my mind for a long time. It’s been on paper for a long time.
What originally started the process was rereading The Bell Jar, as an audiobook. Something about listening to it rather than reading it on page, it was like I could just ….feel the structure of the book in the air and then it came to me how I could do this with Sky in Stereo. Sylvia Plath has informed this quite a lot on many levels. The mother-relationship and the psychiatric stuff. Like, this is something that women write about: there’s Girl, Interrupted there’s The Bell Jar, there’s Prozac Nation. I read all those books and was like “Okay, well what is it that I want to do ‘cause I have this story too and it’s not the worst thing in the world that can happen. It’s alright to have had this experience. It’s just a way to deal with the shame of it.” At the time (in 1993) all my friends were doing drugs and I was just the one who got caught out and had to go and get some medication at the hospital. Back then I was like “oh my god, I’m so lame.” And now it’s actually 30 years later, it’s like “Oh I got this. It’s okay.” [Laughs] “We can use it.”
It’s clearly a very scary experience for Iris and I assume you in a lot of ways, but I also felt in the book that in some ways it was a positive experience to her that – I don’t want to give anything away – but at the end of the book, there’s that little cell that’s floating with her on the bus that she saw when she had her trip, so it seems like she’s opened up her doors of perception to different ways of thinking about her place in the world, and about her experiences. I think that by the end she finds a way to get back to reality, but also she takes some of that with her. Is that how you …
Yeah, yeah that’s exactly right, and that was really exciting to me. That she can walk both worlds in a way. I feel that too. As an adult, as a grown person, when I see homeless people on the street or the crazy person on the bus, there’s a lack of judgement there for me. There but for the grace of God go I. That person is carrying something around with them which is maybe a little more honest than the rest of us. [Laughs] … Iris has seen the other side of normalcy and has made the decision to get back on the bus and join everyone and be normal. She’s conforming and doing all the things you’re meant to do. She’s going to go to college hopefully, and that kind of stuff. But at the same time there’s still a window there, she knows what that was like. It’s kind of a privilege. A dark privilege but it worked out okay for her.
It’s a happy story by the end.
It is, to me. Thank you for noticing that and asking it.
I wanted to go back a little bit. You said you studied drama a little bit in school?
Yeah I was really into it for a while actually. I read Stanislavski and Brecht, I was like “I love this.” But I didn’t really want to act and by the time I gave it up I was like “Oh god drama’s stupid, and drama students are really up themselves.” But in retrospect I think it was a really useful thing for me to have studied. I’ve got a window into acting, and how to be something you’re not. I definitely have used it in my artwork. I try and be naturalistic when I’m drawing body language. Daniel Clowes is really good at using acting in his comics and it’s something he talks about, and I don’t feel like people talk about enough. For me it’s like a really important thing. If somebody’s in a graphic novel and they’re just narrating whilst waving their arms out – it drives me a bit crazy. It’s like “You can do better than that, just work a bit harder on body language.”
Sometimes I’ll actually act out what I’m working on, and then you feel how your body is and then you can draw it. In your book, a lot of the panels are framed as a “long shot “ so you see a lot of people’s bodies, and you see a lot of how they’re moving – what’s your approach to body language and to acting with comics when you’re writing?
I don’t really think I’ve ever formulated an approach. One thing that I did pay attention to how Gabrielle Bell in her comics uses a lot of three-quarter lengths, and full lengths, and she doesn’t do very many close-ups. I was really into that at the time, and so that informed a decision like “I’m going to do that too, I’m going to focus on three-quarter and full length.” It was appropriate for the story because the hospital walls and the curtain dividers between the beds are such an important part of the story; they give this feeling of being closed in and enclosed. So drawing like that gave me an opportunity to use it… to give you that sense of confinement. Then when her friend Miki escapes, she’s just like “Woo hoo!” and there’s nothing behind her on the page, like this girl’s breaking out of here so she doesn’t get to have any hospital paraphernalia around her. Stuff like that. In the book I’m working on now, I’m actually doing a lot more close ups and headshots, but it’s just intuitive. This next book – its about these three couples who are mismatched in age, like May - December couples. Drawing their faces close up was important because it’s intimate and sexy, and they’re all aging or young and naïve. Seeing or showing that difference. So it depends on the story.
Strange Kind of Love?
That’s its working title, yeah. I keep getting ideas for new titles, so it might change, but yeah. That’s currently what I’m sticking with.
You included a preview of book two at the end of book one, and you include a preview of Strange Kind of Love at the end of Sky in Stereo 2. Where does that come from?
It comes from being totally naïve, and not realizing that a book would have loads of end pages. [Laughs] So I was like “Well I need to use those end pages, so let’s include something from the next book.” But I think it works as good marketing. It shows the reader “Thank you for reading this, and here’s a bit of the next book.”
It definitely does. I really want to read Strange Kind of Love now. Where are you in the process of that at the moment?
It’s all fully thumbnailed, and I’m about to start drawing it for real. I’ve got a year so I need to get on that. [Laughs] I’m gonna do the ‘Miracle Morning’ thing and start getting up at 5:45, and just draw five pages before I go to work I think.
Yeah, absolutely I love talking about them.
I love them too, and I think a lot of people who aren’t even necessarily into comics have been finding them. Can you talk about how that started and when you decided to start drawing these sessions? Maybe describe what they are for people who don’t know or aren’t familiar.
I made this website for them (https://ifscomics.com/) and they are 10-panel comics which I drew for Instragram so you can just read them on your phone. They’re based on experiences in therapy, or with guided meditations that I do which are therapy-based, or about parenting, or emotional intelligence. So, in 2016 when Donald Trump won the election, I’d already been having really strong anxiety for a while…and I finally entered therapy to see if that could help, and it was not what I expected! Therapy has changed my entire life, and it’s been both amazing and really difficult…I did talk therapy for about a year then switched to this particular model of therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS).
I began drawing the process because what happens in IFS therapy is …. You’re guided in a meditation to feel what’s going on in your body, and identify things, and you name them as parts of yourself … So then you start talking for those parts, like speaking for them, not about them. You’re actually using that direct experience of how these parts feel. And what can come up is completely unexpected!
But this is like a real healing model for me and so I would draw it because often when I close my eyes I have a visual sense of what’s going on inside me like I can kind of see it in this little peephole, you know? So I would draw it for myself and when I very, very tentatively started like putting raw bits of these comics on Instagram, they would get so many more likes and comments than anything else I was doing on there. It was like, “wow people really respond to this and I guess it’s not just me who feels like this” so it really opened something for me. It felt okay to share this stuff because nobody said anything nasty or mean, everyone was just completely welcoming and accepting and like “me too,” which was really helpful to hear. And then I just started making the comics a bit more intentional. And because I’ve been doing IFS for over two years now, I’ve got like a lot of material to work with! So everything I draw and put out is kind of out of order, it’s just is whatever I feel like drawing or putting out that week. It’s been interesting.
But how do you, again, I’m going back to this, how do you remember your thought process? You have very precise moments where, you’re like “wait another part is coming in now, who is she, she is this person” and I’m just reading these thinking that I can’t remember, when I’ve had an argument with someone or a conversation, I can’t even remember the gist of what we were talking about sometimes because your emotions take over so much. Even when you’re talking about meditations, how do you just go back to the little moments of that meditation enough to be able to write about it? It’s impressive.
Well, thanks. I think it’s partly because I do have a really good memory for certain things. And this folds into the conversations I have with myself! The other thing is I’ve always kept a journal since I was in my twenties, so I’m used to being introspective and writing everything down. I have to remember to burn all this, one day before I die so my kid doesn’t inherit all this shit. [Laughs.] When I go to therapy I take the Metrolink, and after therapy I use the ride home to start writing everything down in my journal. So I kept track of that. I felt really like I did have to write this stuff down in order for me to process it. And the actual fact of drawing it in my sketchbooks for myself, is kind of like that extra step of processing this. And when I would draw it something magical would happen, like ‘oh I really understand this now!’ Like I really can see what happened to me and I really understand how it makes me feel and how it affects my behavior and stuff like that. So for me drawing was like the magical component. And if I can draw my feelings, suddenly like ‘hey I’m doing pretty good now, You know?’
That’s really cool. I was listening to one of your podcast interviews from a couple years ago and you said you used to do a lot of diary comics that you wouldn’t post because you didn’t want to post personal stuff.
But it seems like now, especially with these, which are about your innermost feelings, it seems like you’re a lot more comfortable putting personal stuff out there. Was that scary to cross that line?
It was. I was so guarded for many years. I had a sad childhood where a lot of unpleasant stuff happened. Not exactly to me, but to the people around me and I didn’t always have a good connection with my family. I was very introverted and I just had to figure a lot of things out on my own and then when I decided to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses when I was about fourteen, I felt very much apart from people. It was like another door closing. So throughout my life I always felt like my childhood was really embarrassing and I didn’t want people to know about it. I was ashamed of my dad and the stuff he did. And so it led to this suit of armor that I would wear inside. So you know, I’d act cheerful and hide my anxieties, but I was guarded too. I didn’t want anyone to get close to this stuff.
So going to therapy was kind of a big deal. It was really hard to let that guard down and just start talking but I kind of knew I had to do it because my anxiety so spinning out of control. I had stress acne continually for two years! And so I’ve done enough therapy now where it’s like I’m kind of like okay with it and that guarding was actually part of the problem. I was feeling so much internalized shame and I that I had to repress my emotions and feelings of not being good enough, I felt out of step with everyone.
I have a really great therapist who’s been so magical and helpful, and being able to draw it and finally share it and … I feel completely different now. I’ve been on this reading journey for the past five years, reading about spirituality, sociology and psychology, and I keep finding people who are saying the same thing over and over again but in different ways and in different fields. And so from people like Brene Brown who’s a social worker doing all these books on how to be a more empathetic person and business leader or mother, and then also like Seth Godin in the world of marketing is also talking about the same kind of emotional awareness. It really comes from getting a bit honest with yourself and being okay with who you are. Which sounds like a cliché, but it’s such a freeing step when you realize “okay well I had some shit happen in my life but it doesn’t mean I’m not good enough” you know?
And that was really hard to reach that point. So I don’t want to minimize this, like “all you have to do is this” because it was two and a half years of crying and writing and snot and tears and all this kind of stuff. It was really hard. But I’m so much happier for it and I do feel like that as this has really helped me so much. So there’s nothing wrong with me I’m just as good as anybody, right? I’m fine. Which is so obvious but I didn’t know it. So it’s like if this stuff can help me and I didn’t know about it then I’m not the only one who didn’t know about it. So for me, putting these therapy comics out into the world is a way of just saying thank you to therapy and thank you to IFS because it helped me so much and it’s not “woo woo” and it’s not spooky it’s not secretive or anything like that. It’s for real! I’m writing the comics that I wish I had been able to read when I was starting on this journey. That’s all I’m basically doing.
Yeah. Well it brought things to a head for sure. It came out in 2015, which is when my anxiety just started to build and build. And so it was definitely a part of it but I didn’t know that at the time. And then Donald Trump was also to thank! Everyone’s going through that.
Yeah. A lot of cartoonists. I mean--and you know we talk online sometimes with other female cartoonists--and I think a lot of us have been talking about how difficult it’s been since 2016 to focus on work or even to know what place our work has in the world and whether this is even worth doing.
I know. And I know not everybody, not all my friends and especially not all my female friends were fans of Hillary Clinton but regardless, she was also this highly qualified deserving woman who was completely rejected publicly and yet she also got loads more votes. So it was I really felt strongly it was definitely a woman being rejected and I felt like a real hit from that it’s like ‘oh god men kind of hate us’. Which and I know is not strictly true but it also felt really true at the time. It’s like oh people are way more misogynistic than I realized. And it was like a gut punch.
You’re not naturalized, are you?
No, I can’t vote. I’ve got a green card.
Yeah. Does that make you feel extra powerless that this is all going on?
I was kind of entertaining the idea of citizenship but then when Donald Trump won I just was like “no I’m going to wait and see.” I’m happy with a green card for now and I like the option of having two countries to live in. I feel very lucky and fortunate.