I have read many a graphic medical memoir in my time, from Harvey Pekar to John Porcellino, from Marbles to Stitches, stories about cancer, dementia, deafness, diabetes,herpes, HIV—I’ve read them all. So for me, My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s has a lot to compete with. What, exactly, are the makings of a good illness memoir? I’d posit that they are the writer’s personal connection to the material, the systematic and smoothly integrated description of the condition which enhances the reader’s understanding of the subject, and a visual narrative flow which builds upon itself to help the reader take it all in.
Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s story of his experience with Parkinson’s does fairly well with the first two and falters somewhat on the final point. The Parkinson’s in question is his own and, since it’s a degenerative condition, the book is largely about learning to cope with and treat the changes as they come along. He shares his personal experiences well—how Parkinson’s affects his working life as an editorial cartoonist (it eventually leads to his leaving his job), how it can literally stop him in his tracks while he’s walking and how adopting a silly stepping pattern can get him moving again, and how having a degenerative condition can easily sink you into a pretty deep depression if you’re not extremely deliberate in how you deal with it. These snapshots of life and his depiction of the disease as a dark, ominous shadow self are moving and effective. Clearly, his experience of Parkinson’s means a great deal to him and he has given great thought to how to cope with it and continue to create. His approach to the more clinical aspects of the condition are interesting as well. He details his interactions with doctors and the experimental brain and nerve treatments he goes through, which vastly improve his quality of life, but are not without risks or doubt. His descriptions of the technical elements of brain surgery and rehabilitation are engaging and informative.
The trouble with My Degeneration comes in Dunlap-Shohl’s editorial cartooning background. He is excellent at visual snapshots, single panels that speak volumes, and likewise at specific moments of interesting information. But the flow from image to image is disjointed and the sense of narrative flow is nearly lost in that visual clunkiness. The choice made to chop the story up into chapters keeps it clear that Dunlap-Shohl wants to tell a story with distinct parts, but the tone and audience seem to change from page to page, much like a series of effective but disconnected editorial cartoons. Sure, there are truly fascinating moments of insight and powerful images here, but they do not add up to a story which truly helps you understand the condition. Thus, I can only recommend My Degeneration with reservations. There is certainly much to learn here, but it is in snippets and snapshots rather than in sum total. Not a bad thing, but overcoming that editorial cartoonist’s urge would have pushed this into truly impressive territory.
My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s
by Peter Dunlap-Shohl
Penn State University Press, 2015