Vancouver-based lesbian cartoonist, writer, and editor Sarah Leavitt’s graphic memoir Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me is not for the faint of heart. It’s a powerful work, to be sure, but this power comes at quite a cost: Tangles is ultimately a heartbreaking and difficult read. At the same time though, it’s honest, beautiful, and important, perhaps because it’s so hard to read at times. If you’re looking for graphic narratives focused on queerness, Tangles isn’t that, although Leavitt’s sexuality does play a small part in the narrative. The memoir is, however, an impressively complex look at the issues that come with aging and ill parents, with a striking honesty and straightforwardness.
I’ll get what I liked least about the book out of the way first: the drawings. Maybe I’m spoiled by the density and complexity of Alison Bechdel’s two graphic memoirs or the lush colour and detail of the Y: The Last Man series, but I found Leavitt’s drawings sparse and unpolished. The people were little more than stick figures, and were roughly drawn. There were hardly any background or setting drawings, which made the large pages feel kind of empty. Leavitt may have done the drawings this way to some specific purpose, a benefit of the doubt I’m certainly willing to give her, but to me they seemed simply to be evidence of a lack of effort or time or resources on her part to refine the visual aspects of the book. It’s not that I thought that the graphic medium didn’t (or couldn’t have) served the memoir well; rather, it’s that I felt the potential of the cartoons for the story overall wasn’t exactly harnessed.
Leavitt is very talented with words, though, especially using sparse dialogue to great effect to characterize the difference between herself and her family. For example: her dad: “Oy vey, Sarah! Not everything is a feminist battle! Relax!” Her mom: “Sweetie, I’m glad you’re happy, but do you have to use the word ‘dyke’?” Her sister: “All I want is for some guy to ask me to marry him. Then my life will really start.” I also particularly enjoyed how Leavitt focused on her family’s love of words and how her parents taught her and her sister “that language, words, and books belonged to us, that they were exciting and powerful, and that being smart and good with words was one of the most important things to strive for.” I think Leavitt has certainly lived up to this teaching with the written part of the memoir.
I appreciated that Leavitt portrays a different kind of coming-out story other than the I’ve-known-since-I-was-five variety. After moving to Vancouver from Fredericton, Leavitt phones her mom to tell her about all her new friends, a lot of whom are lesbians; she also tells her mother that she thinks she might be a lesbian too, even though she has a live-in boyfriend at the time. Her mother is very supportive, but points out that she might just be excited about her new friends and not actually be a lesbian at all. Leavitt’s response is: “By that point, I’d decided that I did want to be a lesbian, so Mom’s theory worried me. But then my boyfriend moved out.” When she ‘officially’ comes out to her parents a little while later, they say “That’s great honey. But didn’t you tell us that already?” I found all of this refreshing for a few reasons: a) Leavitt doesn’t shy away from the politically dangerous territory of ‘choosing’ to be queer (her ‘wanting’ to be a lesbian); b) her parents’ reaction is simultaneously supportive and nonchalant; c) Leavitt explains how explicitly her sexuality is linked to her feminist, anti-racist, and other political activism.
After establishing the characters of her family, herself, and her relationship with them, the memoir begins to address its main focus: Leavitt’s mother’s diagnosis of and battle with Alzheimer’s. The emotion of Sarah and her family’s slow discovery that their mother or wife has early onset Alzheimer’s (she began showing symptoms at only age 52) is palpable. It’s heartbreaking, actually, to watch the person Leavitt’s mother was fade away slowly throughout the narrative. The book slips forward and backward in time while gradually moving forward as the disease progresses and takes more and more of who she used to be. Make no mistake, this is a painful book. One of the most agonizing scenes is where Leavitt and her mother are walking down the street holding hands and two teenage boys yell “dykes” at them; Leavitt writes: “Whenever I’d held hands with Mom in Fredericton I had worried that this would happen. It finally had.” This is just one of many scenes that are fucking heartbreaking.
It’s the power of such scenes that push me to highly recommend this memoir, despite some reservations about the style of its visual aspects. If you do pick up this title, don’t say I didn’t warn you: have some Kleenex handy at all times.