Fade To Blank: How I Made It To Eighteen

Posted by on September 25th, 2010 at 5:26 AM

Rob reviews How I Made It To Eighteen, Tracy White’s “95% true” memoir (Roaring Brook Press).

Tracy White’s How I Made It To Eighteen is a perfect example of an artist understanding and embracing their limitations as a draftsman while still creating a work that’s visually powerful.  White’s story is a fictionalized account of her own time spent in a mental institution after she checked herself in as a 17-year-old, in her alter ego as “Stacy Black”.  That followed an incident where she punched her hands through a window pane and then cut herself.  White’s line is thin and scratchy, but her extensive use of white as negative space is the key to the book’s visual power.  In a mental institution, white is a frequently present color, oppressive in its omnipresence.  White uses a few simple tricks to effortlessly convey information working around that blank space: cramming characters in corners of panels, having characters “bleed” out of panels, employing double-page splash panels, using erasure to indicate where characters are fading away, etc.

This image and the following image originally appeared in an article in Comixology

White’s narrative strategies are also interesting.  As much as the book is a confessional spoken through her own voice, it’s also a story where White went out of her way to use the voices of others in order to tell her story.  She starts each chapter with a quote lifted from her medical record, providing a clinical view of her experiences.  Between chapters, four of Stacy’s friends are asked questions of her and respond as though they are a sort of Greek chorus.  White is careful not to establish anyone’s view of Stacy (including, and sometimes especially, her own) as the objectively correct view.  Each of her friends has flaws and blind spots of their own.  Her childhood friend Maria is like a sister to Stacy, having grown up nearly from birth with her, but that familial relationship brings its own conflicts.   Her boarding school friend Violet was a fellow-traveler in terms of experiencing similar problems with addiction, but she’s so firmly gripped by the language of rehab that she finds it hard to relate authentic insights.  Her actress friend Lola is seemingly the healthiest of her friends in terms of her success, but it’s obvious that she’s deflecting her own trauma.  Finally, Ashley became her friend in the institution, and she emphasizes that their bond grew out of their both seeing each other at their lowest points.

The power of this comic is in its depiction of details.  The prized and desperate phone calls to her boyfriend, the frequently stultifying boredom of institutional life, the desperate search for activity, and the struggle for personal control and dignity are all a hellish reminder of the awfulness of the experience.  Yet White emphasizes that awful as it was, Stacy would have been dead without it.  There was no miracle cure to be found in the hospital, but rather a slow and painful process of attempting to clarify one’s personal issues.  Medicine stabilized Stacy, but it took time for her to admit to other problems.  From a narrative standpoint, White’s reveal of a significant problem toward the end was dramatic but not melodramatic.  It represented another way of trying to control one’s environment when one felt out of control, and White emphasizes that it was her deflection of this problem (and her other issues) that led to her feeling lost.

White skillfully walks a line as a creator in this book.  Her Stacy is sympathetic in some ways, but also prickly, stubborn and self-deluding.  Her situation is dramatic, but White never attempts to gild the lily by playing this up in a maudlin fashion.  This is a story meant to convey hope, yet White’s tone is not a lecturing one.  She offers up her story not to show that she’s unique, but rather that her feelings are common and that no one feeling them is alone.  For someone going through a similar experience, I imagine this book could be a companion in the way Ashley was for Stacy: two people feeling alone and desperate, and bonding over that shared feeling.  As a work of art, How I Made It To Eighteen is remarkable in its restraint and starkly beautiful in its execution.

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One Response to “Fade To Blank: How I Made It To Eighteen

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