Review: Marbles, Ellen Forney

I started keeping a new TBR spreadsheet a few months back, with different tabs for pleasure reading, research reading, and forthcoming books. Maybe some weekend when I’m bored, I’ll set it up so that I can track when I read/review one of the books on the list, and it’ll make automatic pie charts of my percentages of gender, nationality, and whether the American cover was better or the British one. (Currently all that stuff is on another spreadsheet.)

(Yes, I like spreadsheets. Sue me.)

Anyway, Marbles, by Ellen Forney (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), was the very first book added to my new TBR spreadsheet, and I have already read it, although it is only February. I feel like such an efficient reader now! I may make a habit of it. Maybe once a month, I’ll make it that I have to fish or cut bait on the oldest book currently sitting on my TBR spreadsheet. That could be a good way of keeping things currentish while also giving myself a joyous feeling of accomplishment.

Marbles is a memoir of Ellen Forney’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder and her subsequent struggles to understand and manage it. Ana recommended it in a comics round-up post last year, and what caught my eye in the review was this:

Part of me was afraid Marbles was going to be yet another exercise in romanticising mental health issues in the name of ~art~. … But as it turns out, Marbles is very much an exploration of all the reasons why this idea is uncomfortable, and that was what made it such an interesting read for me.

Hooray! Like Ana, I’m unhappy with the notion of Art and Madness They Be Linked — or, more specifically, I’m unhappy with the notion that Sylvia Plath would never have produced such brilliant work if she’d been on Xanax. (Sylvia Plath is here synecdoche for all mentally ill artists in the history of ever.) Forney wonderfully takes on these ideas from all sides in Marbles. When she’s first diagnosed, part of her feels proud: She is a crazy artist! They didn’t have medication and why should she? And part of her feels confident: Manic Ellen can organize everything to make life easy for Future Depressed Ellen.

(I sympathize with that so much! I am always trying to do things that will help out Future Jenny. It’s impossible to know what Future Jenny will have on her plate, you know? Best to take care of it now. I paid $50 into my 2014 taxes when I paid my 2013 taxes. Oh, also, I have already filed my taxes BOOM I am the responsiblest of citizens.)

But when she hits a depressive episode, she finds that it is far less manageable than she expected/remembered. (“My head was a cage of frantic rats” is an experience from my life.) So she dives into the fun and exciting world of psychotropic pharmaceuticals. I loved Forney for discussing the ups and downs of medicating with such honesty and humor: She acknowledges that life on the meds is difficult, but life off of them was becoming impossible. Taking them isn’t a perfect fix. There are side effects, which require additional medications; some meds work badly for her, and some don’t work at all. It’s a frustrating, messy, exhausting struggle to finally reach a balance that works.

Though Forney talks a lot about art and madness, she wonderfully doesn’t draw any broad conclusions, concluding instead that there aren’t broad conclusions to draw. For all her early fears that medication would destroy her creativity, she ultimately realizes that achieving balance with her bipolar disorder enables her to continue being creative. She knows this is true of her, not of everybody, and takes pains to say that different creative people respond differently to mental illness and differently to treatment.

So I liked that. I like it when someone is willing to look at a hard question and give the (potentially) unsatisfying answer, It depends.

I also wanted to mention something else about the diagnosis scene that interested me. Forney’s therapist takes out the DSM-IV and reads through the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Forney recognizes herself in every single one of them, and she thinks this:

My own brilliant, unique personality was neatly outlined right there, in that inanimate stack of paper. My personality reflected a disorder, shared by a group of people.

I was very struck by that. I’ve struggled with depression since high school, and when I’m on a downswing, it helps to read the DSM-IV’s list of symptoms, or take the Beck Depression Inventory. It frames all the things I hate about myself as a disease, not something intrinsic to me; it must be terribly sad and difficult to feel that everything you like about yourself is really just your disease.

  • Amber

    I have so many conflicting feelings about everything in this post. Since I was diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the idea of mental illness. On the one hand there are things about myself that I don’t want to see as part of my personality, on the other hand I don’t like to see all of my “quirks” turned into symptoms of something fundamentally wrong with me.

    The art/madness thing bugs me too, especially since it often involves pointlessly diagnosing people who are no longer alive. Modern psychiatrists have writen papers diagnosing Nabokov as Asbergers, Wilde as HPD/ADHD, Twain as ADHD…and that’s just the writers I’ve seen given this treatment. Scientists are usually labeled Autistic. It’s sad to see “talent” become “pathology”.

  • “Though Forney talks a lot about art and madness, she wonderfully doesn’t draw any broad conclusions, concluding instead that there aren’t broad conclusions to draw.” Yes, exactly – this was my favourite thing about the book. This review was wonderful – thanks for writing it <3

  • Oh and another book I absolutely must read. What do you think of the possibility that creativity is always potentially healing and helpful. Not necessarily so, but always potentially so. And so there is a distinct tendency towards creativity either in difficult mental health situations, or just plain difficult situations. Is that too inflexible? I’m trying to write a book on crisis and creativity, so I’d be very grateful to know what you think.

  • I love this review, and I love that you take on this trope. Illness can have redemptive features, no question. But i loathe the idea that illness is critical to Art. Also, sometimes I think that the implication is that without the mental illness, Artist X’s life would have been without struggle, and therefore it would have been all bland like vanilla. This is crazy talk! Whose life is without struggles and difficulties?

  • What I really like about this book is Forney’s honesty. She shows readers what being bipolar looks like, the highs and lows, and the adjustment to medication. I came away from the book glad that I knew more about the disorder. Great review.

  • This sounds really interesting! I don’t read a lot of memoirs and I sometimes wonder if I am missing out. I should really fit more nonfiction reading into my life! I think that I will add this one to my TBR. Thanks for your honest review 🙂

  • aartichapati

    Fantastic review, Jenny! I too really enjoyed this book, though I think it is one that I needed to simmer over a bit. It was so amazing to me that Forney was so open about her life in this book. It felt so raw at some parts.

  • ‘My personality reflected a disorder, shared by a group of people’. That makes me think of a book I read recently – there’s a talent there, but oh it’s actually the disorder. I think it’s interesting to consider it from Forney’s point of view, and sad, as you said. This sounds a good book, and I like the approach it takes.

  • Athira

    I need to read this one. I keep telling myself that every time I read a review of this book and then forget about it. Glad to see that you think it doesn’t glorify madness in art so much.