MONTREAL (CUP) – Mental illness is one of the few social taboos that is still completely ignored, misrepresented, or flat-out denied by much of the Western world. Von Allan experienced the toll mental illness can take firsthand – his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 11.
“It was when she starting having nervous breakdown episodes and being hospitalized that I realized ‘She’s not well at all,’” Allan said. “She was having problems, and the problems were such that I couldn’t help. There a really strong sense of powerlessness that goes with that. There’s nothing I could do.”
Reality paints a much different portrait of those suffering from a mental illness than many people see it. In fact, 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime, and schizophrenia affects one per cent of the population.
An illustrator and author, Allan translated his experience into his new graphic novel, the road to god knows…
Set in Ottawa during the fall of 1988, the road to god knows… is centred on Marie, a 13-year-old girl coming to terms with her mother’s schizophrenia. The novel opens with Marie returning to her family’s small, barren apartment following her mother’s release from a clinic after another mental breakdown.
While the graphic novel is fiction, many events and elements are based on Allan’s childhood. It’s deeply personal, and as the plot unfolds there are a series of increasingly stomach-churning breakdowns. With each episode, Marie is forced to confront her mother’s mental illness and with the help of a friend, Kelly, begins to comprehend her mother’s struggle.
What is particularly interesting is that Allan has decided to tell his story through a girl in her early teens. It’s quite difficult for an author to develop a central character from across the gender divide, but Allan has succeeded in Marie. It’s also clear that Allan has planted some of his personality in Marie; take, for instance, her love of tag-team wrestling. The result is a well-thought out and completely likeable tomboy that you’ll root for.
Allan’s art is simple, but fitting for the stripped-down storyline. What is most surprising is that Allan only began drawing just over ten years ago at age 25. Easily the most memorable panels come when Marie is visiting her mother in a mental hospital. Allan subtly bends the straight lines of the black-and-white checkered hallways, adding to the already unsettling atmosphere. It’s a nice touch that enhances his style.
When Allan set out to write the road to god knows… he approached the plot and theme with one simple guideline: “Don’t be up on a soap box, don’t be preachy, don’t be didactic, don’t try to be lecturing, or anything like that; certainly don’t say anything like mental illness is bad or the person who has it is bad.”
Allan has succeeded in every measure. The road to god knows… portrays only a tiny slice of life for those with a mental illness. It’s gripping, dramatic and will leave you with a deeper understanding of the relationship between those who are afflicted and the people who love them.
Published in Volume 64, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 11, 2010)