by David B.
Fantagraphics Books, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Aug 7th 2002
Epileptic is a graphic
memoir in black and white, translated from three original French books titled LAsenscion
du Haut-Mal. It tells the story of
the family of three siblings, Jean-Christophe, Pierre-François, and
Florence. Pierre-François is the
narrator and we see how he learns to express himself through drawing,
eventually becoming a graphic artist.
His older brother has epilepsy, and the family becomes dominated by
their pursuit for a successful treatment for Jean-Christophes condition. But Epileptic is not so much a
medical history as an exploration of the meanings and implications of the
illness for the family and especially for the artist and his perception of the
Pierre-François was preoccupied by
war and fighting since he was a young boy.
He takes great pleasure in tales of warriors killing each other in
battle, and soon he and his brother take to drawing similar stories in book
length form. Both brothers suffer from
rage, but express it in different ways.
His enthusiasm for drawing takes on the strength of an obsession; the
obvious psychological interpretation is that he channels his emotions into
drawing since he is unable to express them more directly to his family. Pierre-François learns the story of his
grandfathers horrific experience in the First World War, and one of the most
powerful sequences of the book sets out the terrible deaths he was witness
to. In a striking exchange between
Pierre-François and his mother, she asks him, Why are you so intent on telling
these stories about your ancestors?
Theyve got nothing to do with your brother, do they? He replies, Theyre important! Our ancestors were locked in a constant
struggle to escape their misery.
We see the struggle of the family
with Jean-Christophes illness as they take him from one specialist to another,
with no two experts holding the same opinion. Master N, a Japanese guru who
heals using macrobiotic principles, especially impresses their parents, because
his weird blend of Eastern approaches seems to be the most successful in
helping Jean-Christophe. The family
goes to great lengths to participate in Master Ns healing, going to live on a
commune and becomes prey to the power struggles in the small group. Its hard to understand quite why the
parents are taken in by the bizarre ideas of the different people at the
commune, but its not surprising when the experiment comes to an end and they
The plot tends to bounce from one
theme to another, and while the effect is not confusing, it is at times
bewildering. What really holds the book
together is the artwork, which is distinctive and powerful, drawn confidently
with bold lines and very unusual imagery.
Some of the medical characters are drawn as animals: for example, Master
N is a cat, because that is what he looks like to Pierre-François. The young artist has a powerful imagination,
and especially in the third section, the pages are dominated by images
mysticism and death when as a teenager Jean-Christophe is put into residential
facility for the disabled, and their mother mourns the loss of her son and the
death of her father, for a period becoming preoccupied by a quest to get in
touch with her dead parent with the help of psychics.
Some might find fault with this
work in its bleak portrayal of the life of the epileptic. Once the decision is made that
Jean-Christophe can no longer live at home, the narrator comments, His illness
has taken over. He is now handicapped,
destined to live in a handicapped universe.
This certainly does not allow for the possibility that people with
disabilities might be able to participate fully in the world with others, but
this might well accurately reflect Pierre-Françoiss view, and it probably
reflects most peoples opinion of disability at the time. Another concern is that it provides very
little insight into Jean-Christophes experience or the nature of epilepsy; the
story is very much taken up with the authors perspective, and even though his
brothers illness is the central subject at hand, his brother remains a mystery
Yet Epileptic is an
extraordinary work, highly original artistically and very different in tone
from literary depictions of growing up in a family which includes someone with
a severe medical problem. It is
fascinating, engrossing and perplexing.
© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring
how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help
foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the