Ellen Forney: Forays into the 'Crazy Artist Club'

Artist Ellen Forney on bipolar disease and "Marbles," her bestselling graphic memoir.
Crosscut archive image.

Artist and author Ellen Forney

Artist Ellen Forney on bipolar disease and "Marbles," her bestselling graphic memoir.

There is no genius without a mixture of madness.
-- Aristotle

Shortly before her 30th birthday, Seattle artist Ellen Forney suffered a severe manic episode. Her psychiatrist diagnosed bipolar disorder. As she became a member of the “crazy artist club,” Forney worried that medication might destroy her creativity.

In her new graphic memoir, "Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me" (Gotham Books), Forney courageously details her struggle to find mental stability and still remain creative. With vivid illustrations and illuminating words, she introduces readers to bipolar disorder and to the symptoms of her own battle with it. She describes the intense highs and debilitating lows as she worked with her psychiatrist and informed her family and friends of her illness.

Marbles has been on The New York Times bestseller list for five weeks, and has been praised for its accessibility, powerful imagery, candid revelations, and inspiration.

Ellen Forney grew up in Philadelphia and has lived in Seattle since 1989. She created the Eisner-nominated comic books "I Love Led Zeppelin" and "Monkey Food," and collaborated with Sherman Alexie on his National Book Award-winning novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian". Her other books include "Lust: Kinky Online Personal Ads from Seattle’s The Stranger", and an earlier graphic memoir, "I was Seven in ’75."  She is the recipient of The Stranger’s 2012 Genius Award for Literature.  She has been teaching comic art at Cornish College of the Arts since 2002.           

Robin Lindley:  What prompted you to write Marbles?

Ellen Forney: I was really private about my disorder for a long time, and I knew it was going to take a lot of strength not only to be “out” about it with people, but also to go back in my own history and excavate a lot of painful experience.  But as a cartoonist, it’s in comics that I process difficult things in my life—through my art.  Marbles is a processing of this experience that was in me that I wanted to get outside of me.

It’s an informative and very candid book.  You are a successful teacher, and your desire to inform others comes through.

Thanks. It was meaningful for me and I hope it’s meaningful for a lot of different people [such as] people in therapy and therapists, and in [teaching] Psych 101 as a case study and introduction to a very common mental disorder.

Marbles is much more accessible than a dense text like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV.  Can you talk about your research?  You include excerpts from your journals and sketchbooks in the book.

One of the many reasons I wanted to put the book together was to have a place to put the drawings from my depression sketchbook because they’re so different from the rest of my work. They capture how I was feeling and I wanted to share them, but there wasn’t a place for me to do that.

In An Unquiet Mind [psychiatrist and bipolar disorder sufferer] Kay Jamison, she included a poem that she had written when she was manic, and it was really helpful to have this glimpse of how she was feeling and thinking at that time. Just reading her words, it became more vivid how she was at that moment.

I had the sketchbooks and journal of how I was feeling and doing at that moment, and I thought [this material] would lend vividness to the story and an awareness that this was a real story about a real person.

In putting out this book, to diminish the stigma, it really had to be true to me.  So, as I was processing this history and trying to make sense of it, I needed to be very clear and candid with my self.

Art gave me context. To have that art in the context of a story allows us to take it in, in a way that is more approachable.  As humans, we like stories. One of the powers of comics in general is the emotional impact of the artwork as a strong part of the storytelling. 

And your complex journey is like a Stations of the Cross experience.

At the outset, when I was trying to figure out what I would tell in this book, I had pulled away from telling my own story because I felt my own story was not so dramatic.  Crosscut archive image.I had never tried to kill myself.  I had never run down the street naked thinking I was God.  I never went on horrible shopping sprees and ran up $100,000 in debt. But I talked about it with my comics mentor Jim Woodring, an extremely accomplished cartoonist, and he said, “No. It’s your story that I want to hear.”  So I set off and re-felt the difficulty and the richness of my own history.  I realized that I did have a lot to share.

I think many creative people can identify with your concern that medication would dampen your creativity.

I was terrified.

And weren’t you resistant for quite a while?

It was for a few months. I was really manic over the winter of 1997-98 and then landed in the spring and quickly descended into a very dark depression. At that point, I realized that I needed help and that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own.

It was clear to me that I needed to take meds. That was the only way I was going to stay stable. Lithium was a tough one for me, like it is for a lot of people. I had a very hard time with the side effects. I had forgotten being off and on Lithium and, interestingly, so did my psychiatrist because both of us had such a strong feeling of my being a “model citizen” in taking my meds, so we both forgot about it.

I have taken my meds and not gone off my meds since then. 

I was stunned by the array of different medications your psychiatrist tried before getting the correct dosages for your stability.            

I have to say my list of psych meds is very short compared to the psych meds of many other people.  People say they have a drawer full of meds [beyond] everything I tried—and that’s literally true.

And you’re very open about how your marijuana use interfered with the effect of some medications.           

Yes. I wasn’t that heavy a pot smoker, and I thought it wasn’t important to the story, and I was a little embarrassed about working against myself that way. But in my research, I found that substance use and abuse is extremely common for people with mood disorders. I realized that if I left that out, I wouldn’t be helping people who had even more of an issue with it than me. 

And now you have a sort of a Hollywood ending.

Yes  I would say that I am relatively stable. You can never say that you’re stable period. It’s something that I’ll always have to deal with.

You write that it was helpful to study history and the lives of the many artists and writers such as Van Gogh, O’Keefe, and Michelangelo who also suffered mood disorders.

Right. The sense of history is helpful [and] gives us a perspective on who we are. I found that important in thinking about being bipolar and trying to figure out what that means. In a broader sense, thinking about other artists and writers who have struggled similarly gives a certain comfort. We seek community and that universal quality of belonging — that we’re not alone.

Marbles has struck a chord with many readers.

I’m so pleased to hear from people and find that all of the things I hoped for have been happening. For example, people have told me that their partner understands now. One woman who is 20 now had been misdiagnosed and struggling since her teens. Her mother heard me on NPR and gave her this book. The daughter said that she had never written an author before and she told me that recognized herself [in Marbles] and it gave her a lot of inspiration and hope.

I also heard from a psychiatrist who gave the book to some of his patients and recommended it to his residents. It’s just reached a lot of different people, and it has moved them in a way that I had hoped but not necessarily counted on. 

It’s been extremely satisfying to feel that I’m helping in these different ways.


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