Director’s Commentary: Ethics of Show & Tell – Katie Green on creating Lighter Than My Shadow
We’ve been following Katie Green‘s work for a good while here on the blog, and her major new work, the autobiographical Lighter Than My Shadow has been on the Must Read list for most of the blog crew. Dealing with Katie’s own eating disorder and the effects on not only her life but those around her in a very open, honest manner it is incredibly touching and has such lovely personal moments, which help to leaven the serious subject matter. We’ve said on here before how much we’ve admired writers and artists who have used the medium to explore illness, both mental and physical, and how it has affected them and others. It is something the comics medium is very good at, and the medium is also very good presenting these often difficult to discuss subjects in a very open and accessible manner, be it Al Davison’ Spiral Cage, Brick’s Depresso or Darryl Cunningham’s landmark Psychiatric Tales.
It’s heartening to know that both sufferers and medical professionals have found the medium useful in both creating awareness of problems and in helping cope with them. Katie has posted a lot on her own blog about the years that went into creating the book, and I am delighted that she has taken more time out from the flurry of book launch events to talk to us here about Thinner Than My Shadow, which is a book which should really be on your reading list:
This blog post is adapted from a presentation I made at the Graphic Medicine conference in Brighton earlier this year. It’s about the ethics of publishing sensitive material, and as such I’ll state up front that the following contains one pro-anorexia image used for comparison, as well as some discussion and one illustration of sexual abuse.
Lighter Than My Shadow is my graphic memoir of eating disorders, abuse and recovery, just published by Jonathan Cape. It took seven years of thinking about and five years of doing to produce the 507 page, 2kg monolith that I can’t really believe is finished, yet somehow is now on sale “in all good bookshops.”
It’s not the easiest subject matter, and as such I was full of questions during the creative process about how much is appropriate to show and tell. My mission in creating the book was to be unflinchingly honest, to really dig in to how horrid my experience had been. I’d read so many books on the subject that seemed only to scratch the surface. I wanted to show that it does get better, but not shy away from how hard it can be and how long it takes (hence 507 pages). But was there a risk that such honesty could be harmful to potential readers?
Allow me to explain where this anxiety came from.
When I was anorexic, my mind became obsessed with numbers. I was constantly mulling over how many calories I’d eaten (or hadn’t), how much weight I’d gained (or lost), what time I would eat next and how much I would have (or how little). And there were things that exacerbated these thoughts. I read anything I could get my hands on about the illness that was consuming my life, obsessively trawling books and websites for information that might help. Instead what my brain latched on to was the numbers. I made endless comparisons with how much (or little) other people were eating, how much (or little) they weighed. It gave me a yardstick against which to measure my own illness. The result was always as follows: I was not ‘sick enough’. I needed to lose more weight. I needed to eat less. Knowing how the anorexic mind works, I did not want to provide any such yardsticks in my own book.
There’s also the problem that weight is not always the best indicator of how sick someone is. It’s so often what’s cited in sensationalist media about eating disorders, and to me always rings of trying to shock. And it’s true, the low weights that people suffering with anorexia may drop down to are shocking, and I’m not saying that their lives are not in danger. I just think it can be a bit of a red herring, and so often treatments focus only on weight restoration, forgetting that this is an illness of immense psychological distress. Someone who looks ‘normal’ or even ‘fat’ may be suffering just as much as someone who looks sick.
So, I was clear from the outset that it would be neither relevant nor helpful to quote my weight – at its lowest or at any point in the story. That decision was a no-brainer. The problem (and of course the great strength) of comics is that you do not need to tell, you can show, and I have worried that publishing several hundred pages of drawings of an emaciated body may be just as harmful, if not more so, than quoting my lowest weight or calorie intake.
Readers here will be familiar with the argument that graphic storytelling can be much more powerful than prose, and we are all aware of the problem of pro-anorexia websites and ‘thinspiration’ which are rife on the internet. You’ll understand then how big my concern is that I’ve created something so strikingly similar to this kind of harmful imagery.
It’s my hope that the context in which my images are presented, and the intention of my work resolves this problem. Though they appear similar when viewed in isolation like this, I’ve tried to remember that my illustrations are in fact part of a 507 page narrative which does not in any way glorify anorexia, and whose intent is precisely the opposite.
Sometimes I wondered whether I really needed to take responsibility for this kind of thing, and whether my worry was misplaced. What’s the point in being so thoughtful about what my book contains when there is the whole wide internet out there? Anyone seeking this kind of imagery can find it with ease and in abundance. And yet, I am completely responsible for the kind of imagery I put out into the world. Even if it’s irrelevant in the wider context of what’s out there, in the wonderful self-contained format of a book, perhaps making careful choices is not entirely meaningless. I hope.
At least with eating disorders, the kind of information or imagery I might choose to omit was predictable. With abuse, things that might be upsetting are extremely diverse, and also very specific to individual experience. There are of course some obvious things: scenes of rape or abuse in books or movies, news stories. But there are other things that may seem benign, but because they relate very specifically to my experience of abuse can be more upsetting. Certain coloured lights, the smell of marijuana, someone saying a name…
I spent some considerable time wondering how to tell this part of my story without upsetting anyone. Then I remembered the time after the abuse when I withdrew and avoided the whole world, because almost everything beyond the sofa and my teddy bear reminded me in some way of what happened.
How could I possibly know what would upset people? To me, a music festival is one of the most traumatic things in the world. To someone else, perhaps a scene of my Dad putting his hands on my shoulders is equally upsetting. Or walking in the park. Or having a one-to-one with a teacher. I soon realised that I could look at every scene in the book like this and end up with no story.
Instead I returned to my motivation to be unflinchingly honest, and the question of where my responsibility lies in sharing this kind of material.
I didn’t write a conclusion to this ramble because I’m not really sure there is one. There are of course ethical implications in showing and telling such a personal story that I know will resonate strongly with the experience of many who’ll be drawn to read it. I think the important thing is that I’ve given the issues great thought, and as a result of my great thought, I made some decisions. Whether they are the right decisions is perhaps not for me to decide. Though I tried never to be gratuitous, I erred on the side of truth over censorship, remembering how hard it had been for me to be open about my experiences, even with those closest to me. I decided I had more of a responsibility to be honest, to tell the things that are hardest to find the words for. Perhaps some will find the book shares too much, but I wonder, who we are really protecting if we’re so cautious about these issues we’re afraid to ever discuss them?
FPI would like to thank Katie for taking the time to share some thoughts about here work here. You can keep up with Katie via her site and Twitter. Lighter Than My Shadow is out now from Jonathan Cape; you can read a 24-page preview here.