Guttergeek review: I’m Crazy

Posted by on December 14th, 2009 at 5:54 PM

Adam Bourret, I’m Crazy (2009). http://www.im-crazy.com/

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Another Canadian has been haunting my end-of-year dreams, this time Adam Bourret. Like Rilly’s Pope Hats, reviewed last week, Bourret’s I’m Crazy is the winner of a Xeric Grant, which allowed him to bring his remarkably honest and moving story into print. And like Pope Hats, I’m Crazy focuses on what happens when everyday life and extraordinary visions (and visitations) collide. That, of course, is where the similarities end. I’m Crazy is a work of autobiography by a young man who has battled with courage, humor, and love against Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a somewhat grab-bag term to describe a very wide range of mental illnesses which share in common primarily an inability to control obsessive thoughts. The TV version of OCD is a character like Monk or the guidance counselor on Glee, fretting over germs and battling unseen enemies with constant handwashing and the precise arrangement of objects on the desk. But OCD comes in many flavors, not all of which make for good primetime dramedy. Bourret’s OCD is definitely of the not-for-primetime variety.

All of which makes his openness and honesty about his struggles, his secrets, and his visions all the more remarkable. This is a book that literally holds nothing back, even the deepest, darkest secret whose unspeakableness frames Bourret’s encounters with many of the people he grows close to, especially Alastair. The course of his relationship with Alastair provides the narrative structure to the book, which is otherwise broken up into short vignettes, moving back and forth in chronological time from his earliest struggles with the disease through his present-day moments of real victory, however fleeting such victories must necessarily be when struggling with mental illness. There are many autobiographical comics addressing struggles with mental illness, and a surprisingly large number of them also touch on OCD, a disorder to which cartoonists seem especially prone (a tradition extending from Justin Green to Alison Bechdel). But I cannot think of another book as fearless and generous with its window on the disease and the places it takes you.

Bourret is a naturally gifted writer and it is the prose and pacing of the book that marks its most original and affecting moments. But the often rough primitivism of his pen works well here, especially when it shakes free from the seeming influence of David B.’s heavy use of stark black-and-white symbolism in Epileptic. And there are some really effective visual sequences, when Bourret lets the art do the storytelling-—for example, in the sketch “Chopping Beans for Mom,” which recurs throughout the book to describe both the recurring dangers of the disease and the little victories over those dangers that add up to a very substantial achievement. The cutting of the beans is in contrast to the other recurring symbol of the rooted tree–the symbol of the disease itself and the ways in which it turns the mind and body into fertile soil for another species of being. Each successful cutting of the bean is a beanstalk that will not take root, a tree that will not tear apart all the hard work of putting back together since the last episode.

On his website, Bourret playfully suggests I’m Crazy as “an awkward, possibly embarrassing gift!” As someone who knows the ravages of OCD all too well from his own family, this is a book I will be saving for my young ones when they are in need–not only of the courage and clarity Bourret provides, but also of the humor and heart that is ultimately the book’s most impressive feature. Mental illness is by definition an isolating disease, and a book like this is worth an army of jackhammers to tear down the walls that are so quickly and cooperatively constructed by the patient and the society that cannot bear to look in the eye any person brave enough to say “I’m crazy!”

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