Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, August 14, 2017

Monday, August 14, 2017: Kids Maximum Shelf: Lighter Than My Shadow

Lion Forge: Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

Lion Forge: Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

Lion Forge: Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

Lighter Than My Shadow

by Katie Green

Katie Green's graphic novel memoir, Lighter Than My Shadow, is a heavy book, both literally and figuratively. Simply holding the paperback gives the reader an idea of what is to come--the 500-plus pages of this illustrated novel are hefty paper stock, the book a significant weight in the hands of the reader before it has even been opened. Marketed with adult graphic novels in the U.K., Green's story is about as weighty as it can get: a young girl, diagnosed with anorexia, battles herself and her addiction and is eventually abused by a sexual predator. The reading experience is painful and exhausting as the protagonist repeatedly tries (and fails) to quell her illness and gain control of herself.

Katie's problems with food began at a very young age. Mealtimes were tough at home: her parents would scold her for not eating and would force her to finish everything on her plate. Eating was "even more difficult at school." Her friends would all finish before her and leave her alone, an easy target for bullies and for her own unhealthy thoughts. A brief stint of family counseling helped with the disordered eating for a while, but when puberty hit, Katie's body issues increased and she began bingeing to deal with the pressures of bullies and her changing body. She remained thin, and her friends noticed:

"I wish I could be anorexic... to be able to just not eat if I wanted to."
"You'd never have the willpower." 
"Hehe no, look at me! I'd do anything to be skinny like Katie."

Katie began comparing her body to others--"they all seemed so perfect.... skinny... curvy... sporty..."--and saw her own body as out of proportion.

One Lent during high school, Katie and her friends gave up junk food. This was a turning point for her; she felt "healthy. Clean and light." When Lent was over, she and her friends binged on all the junk they had denied themselves; the eating made Katie feel heavy, obese. The author depicts her post-Lent binge as Katie surrounded by a mess of black scribbles with a protruding stomach and thick thighs, both of which she cuts clean off with a meat cleaver.

The illustrations of eating get darker and darker, Katie's throat coated in black scribbles, the dark haze flowing down to her stomach. This same black cloud follows her from room to room as it sits inside her. She is shown being ripped apart by the perceived unhealthy food until she eventually reaches a hand down her throat to pull the blackness out. But her attempts at purging were never successful.

The disordered eating got worse as she began to use food as a reward: "One bite each time" she finished a page of homework. It was "better still," though, if she didn't "eat it at all." Katie ate less and less, wanting to fade away, fighting with her family as they tried to help, until she finally found herself in the hospital. Her recovery work began in earnest after her release: she went to therapy; her parents monitored her food; she stayed at home.

But when she went back to school, the disordered eating took hold again. Eventually, Katie sought nontraditional help and was hooked up with a therapist, Jake, who worked "with stuck energy in the body." Slowly, through session after session of touch therapy in his tent, Jake made Katie feel stronger and healthier. But as he built her up, he tore down her other relationships, asking her why she let her parents run her life, why she let them speak for her. Although Katie began to feel like she was getting better, the illustrations make it clear that she was still fighting the disordered eating--still surrounded by the black cloud, and being misled by an older man in a position of power.

As she started college, Katie continued to limit her intake, did yoga frequently and kept in touch with Jake. When she met a potential partner, Jake suggested her relationship with the young man was unhealthy, that he was controlling her. When Katie tried to have sex with the young man, the darkness came in as strongly as it ever had--and she broke up with him, at Jake's urging. It was only after this experience that she realized Jake had been sexually assaulting her when she went in for "treatment." All of the work she had done--all of the strength she thought she had gained--felt like a lie. She thought her entire recovery was a lie.

And so Lighter Than My Shadow goes. Katie makes steps in her recovery only to find herself limiting her intake. She feels strong but is unable to stop herself from bingeing. Over and over, Katie makes progress, only to trip and fall along the way. The black-and-gray illustrations (with occasional splashes of color) set the tone and mood, depicting the bleakness of living with an eating disorder and the pain of uncovering abuse. The black scribbles are a constant; they stream out of a crevice in her head, they encroach upon her space. They take over one page, then another and another, until there is only darkness. Anyone even remotely familiar with addiction will recognize the immense frustration and weariness with oneself that comes with this process--and anyone who reads this book, addiction or no, has no choice but to experience the malaise along with Katie. The outcome is ultimately positive--Katie's recovery steadies and evens out by the end of the work--but Lighter Than My Shadow depicts the road to recovery with extreme precision and care. It is tedious. It is painful. It is triggering. It is frustrating. It is recovery. --Siân Gaetano

Lion Forge, $19.99, paperback, 516p., 9781941302415, October 3, 2017

Lion Forge: Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

Katie Green: "I can't write this book if I die."

Katie Green is a U.K.-based author and illustrator. Green grew up in the London suburbs and moved to Bristol in 2002 to study, where she stayed for 10 years and recultivated her love of drawing. Her debut book, the graphic memoir Lighter Than My Shadow, took almost five years to complete and chronicles her descent into--and recovery from--disordered eating and sexual abuse. Green now lives in Devon with her partner and their rescue dog, Jack.

Had you always wanted to illustrate your memoir?

No, I initially thought it was going to be prose--I was that person who thought that comics were for people who couldn't read proper books. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an illustrator of children's books and that's how I came to illustration in general. I picked up The Red Tree by Shaun Tan and thought I had this completely original idea to do a picture book for adults. I started telling my friends what I wanted to do and, when they gave me graphic novels, this whole world opened up to me. When I read my first graphic novel, it all fell into place. I thought, "This is what I need to do."

The illustrative depiction of the illness is very powerful. How did you come to this imagery? How did you make it visual?

It was a really slow evolution. I started drawing to express to my parents how I was feeling. I originally drew the eating disorder as a giant green monster erupting out of my head. That was my starting point. When I decided to do the book for real, that was the metaphor that I went to. I did a lot of sketching and painting and collaging trying to evolve the idea and I went through all kinds of iterations until I just did a little scribble on the page. And that's the picture that ended up on the spine: the girl on the scale with a little cloud over her head. The moment I drew it, I knew I had found it.

And the mouth on the stomach... that shows the transition from seeing the illness as something that was outside of me and some kind of enemy to realizing it was inside and part of me; that it was myself I had to face.

How did it feel creating this work?

It felt visceral. It got to a point where I wasn't analytical about it. I wasn't thinking about how I was expressing it. I was back in that moment expressing it raw and it felt really right creating it like that.

There gets to be this point where the illness is tedious--the reader gets sick of dealing with this illness and gets sick of dealing with her. Did you do that on purpose?

I really wanted to get across that this takes a long time--I wanted to get across the monotony of having to get up and face the same thing every single day. And it takes a long time to change the addictive thought processes. I would think, "I know better than this now. Why am I still struggling with this?" I wanted to be completely real about how long it takes but offer some kind of hope that it's worth it. The same with the abuse--I really wanted to put it in the story and show that I was able to have something that might vaguely be considered a normal relationship afterwards. That was a big fear of mine, that I would never be able to be close to someone. It's not perfect. It's hard. But it's possible.

Is this a story that you always wanted to tell?

Almost as soon as I was diagnosed with anorexia I knew I wanted to express it somehow. I couldn't find a book that resonated with me, really. I found one but it suggested that the eating disorder would always be there in the back of my mind and I was dissatisfied with that narrative. Telling my story became my reason for getting better, my ambition, my thing that I wanted to do, my focus. The thought of creating the book is what got me through recovery. I thought, "I can't write this book if I die. So I've got to at least stick around for that long and then I can reassess the situation."

So you knew that you wanted to tell this story before you recognized your history of sexual abuse?

Yes. The abuse in fact happened after I had decided I wanted to make a book. So that just screwed everything up and made it a lot more complicated. But then it made me even more certain that I wanted to tell my story. I was chosen and preyed upon because of my vulnerability. And that's what happens. I realized that if I wanted to make this book real, I couldn't leave the abuse out. I couldn't tell a truthful story without including it.

How does it feel to promote this work, which shows some of the worst things that have happened in your life?

In one sense, it's really weird. Because I've had to do a lot of work in therapy about moving on from this being my identity, and the only thing I talk about. And yet, by the decision to write about it and the book being recognized as successful, I have to talk about it and people perceive it as my identity.

But I had this moment this morning and it's the first time I've really taken it in... I turned all of this really horrible stuff in my life into something really positive. For myself. Regardless of what anyone else thinks of it. I just really took it in for the first time: this turned out alright. --Siân Gaetano

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