In some ways, And Now I Spill The Family Secrets reads like a police file or murder board, carefully drafted forensics shots of the crime scene as a frame for analysis: transcripts of conversations, reproductions of documents, photographs of persons of interest. It is a reconstruction of an adolescence, a reconstruction of a family. I was two thirds of the way through reading it before I realized I hadn’t seen dialog and faces at the same time, that it was so thoroughly different from most graphic novels I’ve ever read. The emotional strength of the narration, the way the story is laid out, drew me in and made me stay up late to get just a  few more chapters in. It’s curiously engaging, the people we see are only drawings of photographs, to give us just as much context as the meticulous interiors of apartments and houses. There’s no visual action, no living characters on the page, only in the words. 

The book begins with a moment all too familiar to those with a much recorded and photographed childhood, hearing a truth or context that changes something you mostly only “remember” via photos and videos. Is she an unreliable narrator or is what she knows about her family predicated on incomplete understanding and information? Over the course of the book she moves back and forth between the modern day and stories about the past, including her grandmother’s early life and the time her grandmother and mother have spent hospitalized. Extensive documentation comes with the parts that aren’t about Kimball herself, or conversations and asides about why she can only get scant information about some areas. The bulk of the story is about her childhood and teen years, growing up in the ’90s with divorced parents and the strange trajectory of her father’s second marriage. The story focuses on what family means day to day, for supporting one another, and what it might mean as pathology for mental illness. 

The art is draftsman style line art of buildings, inside and out, with varying gray washes for shading. Despite the lack of characters and action in the locations, the narration and minute personal details (a label for the location of a memory, haphazard shoes on the floor) makes the pages buzz with the same emotional connection you might have looking at a photo of your childhood home. Kimball excels at transferring that experience to the reader. The interiors are can be claustrophobic and there are times when she lets a bubbled conversation unfurl over a black background or highlights just one image swimming in black. 

It’s an arresting memoir but not good graphic medicine. It doesn’t claim to be graphic medicine but it seems important to make the distinction when so much of the book is about bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and there are still so few realistic depictions of those in literature of any kind. Dr Ian Williams, the founder of and the one who coined the new genre term “graphic medicine” defines it as the “intersection between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.” For all of her extensive family history excavation, she doesn’t place a lot of context on their experiences against fuller knowledge or information about mental illness. It feels like she offers her mother’s bipolar disorder as a condition to explain a lot in her life without making it clear that it’s an individualized experience, that many people are capable of getting it under control, that many others struggle at finding a good medication or at staying on their medication. Maybe part of that was not going into more detail on what her mother’s actual treatments have been and respecting her privacy, but the few Kay Redfield Jamison quotes about mania and depression just made me want a lot more context. Even the mention of her mother’s spending binges (common symptoms of mania) being hints isn’t fleshed out for people who don’t already know that detail about bipolar.

I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys family history memoirs and wants to read more about how children experience divorce, a good read-alike for Fun Home. Because the connection between the art and the text is more illustrative than carrying the story the way other graphic novels do, it may be more accessible to people who aren’t familiar with graphic novels or worry about “missing” something in trying to navigate back and forth between pictures and text. It would be a good choice for a book group as there’s a lot to talk about in Kimabll’s intentions and how her family’s wishes contradict the story. There’s no content that would cause any issues beyond the frank discussions of suicide and mental illness. Older teens might find it interesting but the level of introspection will be better appreciated by adults. Readers who are interested in graphic medicine depicting schizophrenia and bipolar should try Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell, States of Mind by Patrice Guillon and Emilie Guillon, and Marbles by Ellen Forney.

And Now I Spill the Family Secrets
By Margaret Kimball
Harper Collins, 2021
ISBN: 9780063007444

Publisher Age Rating: Adult

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)

  • Sunny

    | She/Her Youth Services Librarian

    Sunny is a Youth Services Librarian in Fairfax, Virginia, running storytimes, tween tech programs and 3d printing clinics – and even the odd animal program. When she was in her late teens, a half-dozen kind spirits bestowed upon her their beloved comics, steeping her in ‘80s and ‘90s superhero canon, Sandman, Strangers in Paradise, Love and Rockets, JTHM, Gregory, and more indie comics than you can shake a stick at. From these humble origins grew great powers that she's honed for decades, as she is now tasked with purchasing graphic novels for her system. Outside of the library, she works on her side hustle editing audiobooks (a job that actually predates her library career by almost a decade) and reviews audiobooks for AudioFile magazine. Somewhere in there, she's raising a 7-year-old daughter who loves DC Super Hero Girls and Bone. She also wishes she had more time for messing about in boats or knitting or crafting or baking or blogging her library work or visiting craft breweries and cideries with her mom, waiting for the best coincidence of food trucks. She's equally aided and hindered in her quests by the antics of her faithful sidekicks: a barky but sweet mutt named Fiver and a cuddly, vicious gray tabby named Monkey.

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