storyofmytitsThe Story of My Tits is not a sexy expose of massive and masterful boobage, but rather a fond requiem for a womanly bosom lost to the all-too-common scourge of breast cancer. But happily, it is also a memoir of a life filled with many stories beyond and inclusive of those titular secondary sex characteristics.

The Story of My Tits, as its name might evince, is what I would call a “lady memoir” par excellence. It is about a thoughtful woman, her development from a young girl to a college co-ed to a young wife, a hardworking mother, and finally, a middle-aged woman finding herself. This could all feel like well-trodden territory, but Hayden makes it feel fresh.

The framing device of her body’s story helps this. She begins with memories of her late and slow-progressing puberty, waiting and waiting in vain to be large-chested enough to buy a bra. She moves through her college-aged sexual awakening and romantic missteps—men who appreciated her small breasts, her breasts changing shape and size as she gained and lost weight, and finally, her relationship with the man who would become her husband and her integration into his family. From there, she recounts her anticipation of and care for her children, and how nursing them changes and challenges her relationships to her breasts yet again. When she arrives at the story of her double mastectomy and subsequent reconstruction, she does not make you feel as though it were a great tragedy or insurmountable obstacle. Instead, the experience of cancer is but one more essential moment in the story of an aging, maturing, and changing body.

Another very wise choice that Hayden makes to keep the story from feeling self-centered and self-pitying is to frame her experience and illness within the wider web of her family’s stories. Early in the book, her mother goes through breast cancer while at the same time struggling with her husband’s infidelity. Hayden, a young adult at the time, admits how thoroughly clueless and scared she was at the prospect of her mother’s mortality, letting her mother suffer on her own rather than caring for her. As Hayden grows up, she experiences her mother-in-law’s gradual decline from lung cancer while she is carrying her own children, her husband’s stepmother’s weakened state (also from breast cancer), and her father-in-law’s sudden death. In spite of all these harbingers of mortality, Hayden tells tales of unreserved joy, great adventures, and deep familial love. Perhaps her way of dealing with the cancer experience is by understanding that part of everyone who has faced grave illness “belongs to death” (a concept she revisits again and again to great effect), but that we must still look for and follow examples of people living their lives to the fullest.

One more thread she traces through the book to make this more than a memoir (and perhaps this spoke the most to me) is that she uses her cancer diagnosis as a way to finally figure out what her life’s work should be. Throughout the book, we see her going from job to job, writing for other people when what she really would like to be doing, what she had wanted to do since childhood, was draw. The stationary free time that illness affords her gives her a chance to discover (wonder of wonders) the storytelling magic of the graphic novel. Discovering the possibilities of the genre as a full-fledged adult fills her with glee and energy that she was losing fast, and experiencing that rush of finding oneself in the form should appeal to any graphic novel reader, comics creator, and even the erstwhile doodler among us. That she then is able to use that excitement to develop The Story of My Tits is a perfect moment of narrative empowerment.

Although Hayden’s narrative choices demonstrate that her cancer experience is not the only thing that has happened in her life, she does also write powerfully about her illness. Her questions about what will happen to her nipples (they use thigh flesh and tattoo it with an approximation of milk ducts), her return to a flat chest in the limbo before reconstructive surgery (one almost wonders if it would be easier to stay that way), and her conversations with other breast cancer survivors (one woman tattoos dragons onto her chest in lieu of reconstructed nipples), all of these speak to the strangeness of treading into the landscape of cancer and the power and perspective that the experience can give.

Hayden’s illustration style is also strong, serving the nervy, many threaded narrative well. Four-paneled pages with busy backgrounds, identifiable open-faced characters, and snarky scribbled asides owe something to emotionally evocative, visually frenetic artists like Roz Chast and Lynda Barry. Surrealist moments, like when she imagines her mother as a wounded deer, and sees visions of her future children running through her new home, blend and flow into Hayden’s almost equally quirky real life. Her style is pleasant and intricate but not earth-shattering—it works to integrate you slowly and surely into her story, until you realize you’ve been reading for hours, cried three or four times, and can’t put the book down.

The Story of My Tits is an illness memoir that is so much more than that, and a life story with special focus on illness. The interplay and ever-presence of life and death in Hayden’s many-threaded narrative bring a gravity and beauty to a story that could have easily felt self-interested. All in all, it’s a very mature and satisfying endeavor, well-plotted, sure-handed, honest, kind, and a joy to read.

The Story of My Tits
by Jennifer Hayden
ISBN: 9781603090544
Top Shelf, 2015

  • Emilia Packard

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Emilia has been reading graphic novels rabidly since her best friend handed her Craig Thompson’s Blankets over winter break during her sophomore year of college. From that day, her fate was sealed — at Grinnell College, she created, edited and drew strips for a student comics magazine called The Sequence. As an MLS Student at the University of Illinois, she spent way too much time filling up her backpack (and her roommate’s backpack) with the treasures of the Undergrad Library’s comics collection — never less than 40 books at a time. Just in the past few years, she’s worked at libraries and archives in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Indiana, and Austin, Texas and consumed their graphic novels collections with great gusto. She has been drawing her stick-figure avatar, Flippy-Do, since she was about 10 years old.

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