Bad Medicine, Great Book
‘Rx: A Graphic Memoir’, Written and Illustrated by Rachel Lindsay
Ironically, when I hear the words “memoir” and “mental illness” together, it tends to send me into a state of (temporary, non-clinical) depression. Despite our society’s growing acknowledgment of it, mental illness still carries a huge stigma. Translated into literature, this means the burdened stories of those suffering it are often dark accounts of people and institutions at their grimmest.
All of these things are present in cartoonist Rachel Lindsay’s book, Rx: A Graphic Memoir. But to Lindsay’s credit, she also finds a way to tell this tale of struggle with nonstop verve and creative energy.
From the get-go, Lindsay’s pulsing, popping images of life in a millennial’s New York City draw you in. I want to actually hang out on some of the lovingly-detailed blocks her self-protagonist visits. Equally engaging are her character interactions, including one early party scene in which she uses dark and lit figures to astonishingly vivid effect. And cutting through the alternating sadnesses and rages are witty visuals, like an imagined version of her mental hospital called “Club Meds”; a stretch when she is literally reduced into her medical reports; a recurring motif about the three steps of substance ingestion that calls to mind Requiem for a Dream; and an ominous cloud of smoke that grows and crowds into the frames as her disorder takes over.
As for Rachel’s story, it almost seems too fictional to believe. As early glimmers of her neurochemical challenges surface, Rachel finds herself working in advertising, specifically for–wait for it–mental-illness pharmaceuticals.
The noose tightens as Rachel comes to recognize her need for such medications and her growing unease with essentially pushing them on others like her. She faces the very modern dilemma that she must stay at this job for insurance that allows her to afford the meds she needs.
A familiar sense of path-not-chosen dissatisfaction also festers beneath the surface. Rachel believes herself a “sellout” for going corporate when she could instead follow her talents for cartooning and music. Eventually, all these pressures explode in an unforgettable set piece of “the new Rachel” quitting, giving herself a makeover, and packing her bags to “become an artist in Arizona!” To Rachel, this is freedom, but to her parents and the world it suggests instability. As her mania reacts badly to this pushback, she ends up committed against her will.
Here, too, Rx departs from the genre by eliding self-pity or endless tirades against the mental health industry. She has plenty of criticism, all of it legit. But Lindsay wisely refocuses the story here on her personal journey to fight back, try different things, and eventually reframe her understanding of what her “problem” with this system is and how to live within it. The cool thing is that by the end, you realize that this meticulous artistic project you’re reading is, in fact, one of her main avenues forward into this life.
Rx stirs up all kinds of negative feelings in the readers, but it also balances them with a constantly shifting set of tones that perhaps reflects the roller coaster ride of bipolarism. But it’s a ride that will somehow make you feel good despite also feeling bad. Every individual’s story of mental illness is sui generis, but Rachel Lindsay’s account is, ironically, so full of life that it sticks in the mind long after you put it down.
(Grand Central Publishing, Sept. 4, 2018)