This semester, I am thoroughly enjoying teaching my Literature and Composition Graphic Memoirs class. There is so much to unpack, and we haven’t even gotten to the book-length memoirs yet. Recently, I had students read excerpts from Lillian Smith’s The Journey and a section of Laura Jones’ My Life in Movies. Today, I want to talk about the ways that these seemingly disparate texts, sequestered from one another by time and medium, work together to help us think through the ways we recall and remember the past.
For me, Smith’s The Journey is a profound book. It’s an existential journey into ones self where Smith looks at her life and the travels she takes, seeking to find that stubborn hope that humans constantly latch on to in their lives. Her travels take her to her past, her hometown in Jasper, Florida, and memories of some of the people she knew. She recalls her friends Midge and Martin, each who experienced disabilities, and another towns person named Carl who, as she believes when writing the book, had cerebal palsy. When she was growing up, he was merely the town “idiot.”
Carl looms large in her memory, not as a friend but as someone she feared. Someone who the town caused her to fear because they did not have words or knowledge to describe him. So, they labeled him as the sin of his parents, “crazy,” or “idiot,” words that flowed easily to them. These labels caused Smith to not get close to Carl as she had with Midge who was deaf and could not speak or with Martin who used crutches and braces to get around.
It is Carl that she points to when writing about the ways that we shape our memories. She begins chapter two by stating, “My town that follows me where I go is not the town a tourist would see or the Chamber of Commerce would claim; nor is the Carl I remember today the real Carl.” Who was/is the real Carl? Smith’s memory does not contain him. Instead, it contains an imagined Carl, one that is larger than the actual Carl, one that is more frightening than the actual Carl. One that would not resemble the Carl seen in a photograph.
She talks about memories in terms of photographs and paintings, writing, “The memory has so little talent for photography. It likes to paint pictures. Experience is not laid away in it like a snapshot to be withdrawn at will but is returned to us as a portrait painted in our own psychic colors, its form and pattern structured on that of our life.” While a photo can be perceived in different ways by different people, it ultimately serves as a factual representation of the event, for Smith. The painting, on the other hand, is what we make of the memory. What we construct. What we bring with us back into the past “in our own psychic colors” along the canvas of our minds.
When we place our memories aside, we expect, as Smith continues, that when we return they will be unchanged; however, “when we lay it away, a wonderful thing happens: a new experience is created out of its secret union with ourselves.” We enliven the past with the present in a melding of the two that brings what we know in the moment to what we experienced in the past. Or, we dive down the hole of nostalgia and romanticize the past, again painting it with our psychic colors hoping it stands up to our recollections.
I see this painting at work in Laura Jones’ My Life in Movies and the other graphic memoirs I assigned this semester. Each one, in its own way, deals with memory and the past, the restructuring of that past, and what we are to make of that past. In My Life in Movies, Jones, along with illustrator Jason Jones, creates a memoir through five “mostly inappropriate” films that her mother took her to as a child. In the excerpt we read for class, her mother takes her to see Sigourney Weaver in Alien.
Jones details when her mother and sister moved into her grandmother’s house and the ways that the dynamics at play in the household mirror the maternal anxieties and dynamics in Alien. Jason Jones’ images and Laura’s words, combine the movie and Laura’s life into a singular narrative that has the two running in parallel with one another. They are painting the picture, not taking the snapshot.
A couple of sequences drive this home. One occurs when Laura talks about her mother’s fits of rage. In the top panel, Jason Jones’ image shows Laura’s mother in profile, screaming towards the left. Her mouth open wide and her tooth looks like a fang. Laura’s words read, “My mother’s rages were legendary.” This image somewhat recalls the alien braking out of Kane’s chest from the film. Jason depicts this earlier, and the positioning, apart from the coloring, is similar. Later in the excerpt, we get an image Laura eating food and a bubble with the same alien.
The next panel on the page shows the results of her mother’s rage, a broken guitar. The final three panels depict the holidays, a time that as Laura puts it, “set her [mother] off.” She would go to her bedroom only to emerge to take pictures of the kids opening presents. This image, of Laura’s mother taking pictures as they open presents, makes me think of Smith. While the panel showing Laura and her sister does not show them as happy, we only see the top of Laura’s sister, and Laura has her hand on her forehead as she looks down, the usage of the photo to capture the moment, solidifies it on the film. It becomes, as Smith puts it, “fact.” (Even though I would argue with this.)
We see Laura’s mother with the camera pointed at us, the reader, then her smile as she snaps the picture. That picture, though, does not tell the story. It does not tell how Laura or her sister remember the event. It tells how the photo took it. Through My Life in Movies, Laura paints the past, eschewing the photo that remains. She brings her life with her. She brings her experiences back with her. She brings her understanding of the maternal undertones of Alien with her to reflect on the memories of her childhood. She creates, as Smith says, a “secret union with [herself].” She reveals herself, not the simulacrum of the photograph.
There are other moments such as this that stick out, but I want to conclude by looking at the page where Laura talks about Jaws being the first movie that her sister saw, when she was two. What I like about this page, and Jason’s pacing, is that it moves from subject-to-subject within the scene. The opening panel starts outside with Jaws on the marquee as Laura talks about it being the first summer blockbuster. The next shows a queue of people on line for tickets. The third shows Jaws attacking a swimmer, as Laura narrates, “It was also my sister’s first film.”
The penultimate panel shows a closeup of her sister’s face, both eyes looking up at the screen. The final panel shows one of her sister’s eyes, wide open, staring at the screen in horror. The narration reads, “She was almost three.” The movement here is what I enjoy. It’s a movement into a moment, into what could be a photograph. It’s a painting of the fear that Laura’s sister saw as she gazed at the shark attacking the person. Movement from the broad (community) to the personal (sister) is powerful because it brings home the way that the moment affected a large group of people but also, and most importantly for Laura, her sister.
These are only a couple of examples of what I’ve thought about as I looked at Smith and Jones together. What are you thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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