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A Graphic Memoir That Confronts the Weirdness Within

Category: Art & Culture,Books

PASSING FOR HUMAN
A Graphic Memoir
By Liana Finck
Illustrated. 222 pp. Random House. $28.

You know when you have a book report due but you’re not sure you completely understood the nuances of the book and you feel stupid and doubt yourself entirely and panic a little and you have to admit to Mrs. Johnson that it’s wonderfully written but you just aren’t smart enough to understand what the hell is going on in “Finnegans Wake”?

That’s exactly what happened to me with Liana Finck’s graphic memoir “Passing for Human.” Except that the self-doubt ended up being an entirely fitting emotion for confronting this book.

At first I focused on the illustration and design and considered using pretentious-sounding words to try to sound like I knew about art. Then I settled on exploring the idea of otherness and its impact on the human psyche. Then I drew a picture of me eating a spaghetti sandwich because I was hungry. None of it was right. I tore up all these attempts and started from scratch:

“Passing for Human” is a graphic work — Finck’s second, after her earlier “A Bintel Brief.” It is drawn in a straightforward pen-and-ink style but each simple drawing captures such raw emotion. It’s wonderfully intimate, like reading someone’s diary. And in a way that’s what it is. It tells the story of the artist’s search for her lost shadow. The first time I flipped through the book I wasn’t sure what that shadow represented: alienation, regret, creative angst, self-doubt? I read it again.

Finck tells the story of her life, beginning with her mother, who had a similar shadow that she lost and found. Her mother’s shadow speaks to her but is sent away and returns during her struggle to find love and fulfillment in spite of her anxiety about her own strangeness. Finck writes beautifully of this struggle but is suddenly beset with self-doubt that gnaws at her in the form of literal rats. She listens to the fear. She tears up the story. She starts the book again but this time focusing on her father, a man who struggled with feelings of otherness, of the fear of being discovered for what he is … a weirdo.

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It’s all so poignantly relatable that it makes me a little achy. But the rats of self-doubt return. Finck rips it up again. She starts over with her childhood. She starts over with her love life. She starts over with her shadow. Again and again she destroys her work, and herself, even though it’s all exactly perfect. I could recognize my own struggles with being a creative misfit as each chapter revealed itself (and was destroyed). Each section exposed more about the things we do to cut ourselves off from the frightening strangeness that makes us who we are, and how terrifyingly vulnerable it can feel to reveal that difference to the world.

What is the shadow? It holds us back, it pushes us forward. It hurts and it helps. I think perhaps it means something different to each reader, as good art should. To me, however, the shadow wasn’t as important as what made the shadow.

In every chapter the characters run up against the same fear of otherness that so many of us feel — the anxiety born of the knowledge that we are somehow “different,” the terror that accompanies the idea that we are alien and will be misunderstood or outed as broken. Yet that same sense of our own aberration is the very thing that makes us special, needed, that makes our voices unique. It is the light that shines inside us. And if you let your extraordinary light shine you will cast a shadow, a dark pool of fear that goes hand in hand with courage. Perhaps the shadowy fear is there not as a warning to dim your strangeness, but as proof that your inner light is shining like a beacon in spite of the fear. And that’s a good thing. We need beacons to draw us onward.

Finck writes: “A draw-er doesn’t draw because she loves to draw. She doesn’t draw because she draws well. She draws because once, she lost something. And by drawing, she will find it again.”

I believe with this book she found it. And she found me as well. In the light. And in the shadows.

Jenny Lawson is the author of “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” and “Furiously Happy.”


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