Sometimes the message of a book is more important than its medium. A case in point would be Tyranny by Lesley Fairfield, which tells a very personal story of one girl’s battle with anorexia and bulimia. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, over 11 million people in the United States have an eating disorder. Not much attention is called to this fact, though that rate is more than twice the rate for Alzheimer’s disease. And eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. But sometimes where dry statistics don’t succeed in making a point, a personal account that is informed by the experiences of an author who has lived through the experience like Fairfield does.
The book tells the story of Anna, a typical young adult who is trying to get a grip on her problems with anorexia. In asking her inner personal demon, Tyranny, how she got to her current state the story flashes back to her experience just after puberty, where her body image first became a factor. We then follow Anna’s life as she begins to control what she eats at first to fit into trendy clothes, but then to keep herself pretty for a potential boyfriend. But after her first overeating episode at a summer camp, Anna soon feels pressure both at school and in her relationship and resumes her worries about her weight. By the end of the school year, she has both dropped out and lost her boyfriend. It is at this point where Tyranny first makes an appearance in her life. Tyranny is a personification of Anna’s eating disorder, the voice inside her head that tells her she’s too fat, or that she shouldn’t eat, or even when she needs to purge after binge eating. For the rest of the book, through therapy and hospitalization, it is Tyranny that Anna must defeat.
In using a personification for the disease itself Fairfield makes a wise choice. It would be much easier for readers to dismiss a character’s inner thoughts as stupidity or foolishness. By moving the problem into the physical plane for Anna to interact with, Fairfield shows us how dealing with mental illness isn’t just a matter of deciding to think differently. Tryanny, by being distinct from Anna, shows her loss of power in the situation, the fact that her rational thought processes have no control over what the disease makes her do. And Tyranny, drawn as a squiggle of scribbled lines in a vaguely human form, is allowed to take over not only Anna’s life but also the art of any page she is on as well with her expressiveness. Tyranny is able to heap scorn on Anna’s ideas much more dramatically than a real person would.
Artistically, the character of Tyranny is the best thing about the book. Unfortunately the rest of the artwork isn’t quite up to the same standard. Fairfield’s figures often look static and posed. Also her line never varies, making her figures that should draw the eye’s attention to them instead blend in with the background. This problem is only compounded by the grey tones that are used to provide color. Fairfield uses a light grey and a slightly darker one, neither closer to black than white, and again indiscriminately on both background and figures so everything reads to the eye as a greyish muddle. The art as a whole would look less insubstantial if more black and a varied line was used. Luckily, the message of the story carries the weight the art does not.
Even with the reservations about the art, Tyranny is a book that should be on every library shelf in both in school and public libraries. Anorexia and other eating disorders often start as teens begin to go through puberty. And like many other mental illnesses, they are both hard to see right away and easy for their victim or rationalize and justify. Fairfield should be praised for being able not only bring the personal nature of eating disorders to light, but also for doing so with an honest account. Especially when it is in a medium that has a good chance of reaching its intended audience.
by Lesley Fairfield
Tundra Books, 2009