Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tragicomic: The "Fun" Way to Talk About Mental Disorders

And so we meet again, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. In the last two years, I have read this comic about family disfunction three times due to one teacher assigning it ever semester I have had her. Don't get me wrong, I really liked the book... well the first and third time at least. It is a hilariously morbid autobiography of Bechdel and her rocky relationship with her father.  

What interested me the third time around, however, had little to do with her father. What caught my eye was a section where Bechdel explained her childhood battle with OCD. It brought to light a serious condition that I had little exposure to in a funny but strangely serious way. 

Bechdel uses the term "tragicomic" in the title of her book to show her paradoxical method of explaining things that would be too uncomfortable to spell out in a more serious term. It actually reminded me of another Allie who used her comic in a similar way to reveal to her audience the complicated experience of depression.

Allie Brosh's half comic/half blog Hyperbole and A Half has been a large influence on the internet, even inspiring the "DO ALL THE THINGS" meme. As she was working on a book, she fell into a deep depression that halted the process. To explain the delay to her fans, she posted Adventures into Depression. A year and a half later, she felt the need to write a second post, Depression: Part Two to better clarify her condition, something she felt people had too little awareness.

Both pieces have the same feel of Bechdel's work, being so tragic it somehow becomes weirdly funny. This use of humor allows the reader to be masked from the uncomfortableness of the subject matter, which allows Brosh to demystify depression in a way that actually gets through to people. 

Mental disorders are complicated subject matter that involve many misunderstandings and lack of awareness. It is a human tendency to shy away from pain and hurt, making it hard for people who do suffer from these conditions to explain themselves to other people. Both Alison Bechdel and Allie Brosh have figured out a formula for making these painful subjects easier to swallow. Make them laugh, then make them think.

I'm curious, has anyone else found another book that helped them understand something that is usually too uncomfortable to talk about plainly? Let me know in comments below.


  1. It's funny that thats what you noticed after the first time. I noticed it the first time I read it and then payed attention to the father more the second time.

    1. I think I glossed over it the first two times because it did not connect as clearly to the father as much of her other section. I've never known anyone with OCD and I think it is helpful that she explains it so clearly, especially since people use the term so jokingly these days. It so much more serious than we realize.

  2. One of the blogs that I follow (which normally just makes fun of the elitist culture of metal music) published a post titled "Life Advice: Depression and Mental Illness :(" I still think it's one of the best written blog posts I've read and it uses humor in it just like it sounds like these two books do. If you want to check it out, here's a link: http://www.stuffyouwillhate.com/2013/01/life-advice-depression-and-mental-illness/

    1. That is a really interesting article. I'm glad people are finally feel safe enough to talk about these type of issues because so many people become unintentionally insensitive to people with depression, ocd, or the like. Plus, for people who do have it, they feel less marginized. I think it also helps people who are unaware that they might have the mental disorder connect the two together. I like that he is talking about coping tactics, because I know how strict reliance on medicine is entirely ineffective.