Her mother’s daughter
ARE we genetically destined to turn into our parents and repeat their mistakes?
This question haunts Susceptible, the graphic memoir of Canadian artist, writer and musician Geneviève Castrée.
Some of us would have railed at the unfair cards life has dealt us – admit it, you must have whined “If only we could choose our parents!” once or twice. At least when you wondered what it would have been like to have a trust fund or blue blood. But Castree admirably sidesteps this in her courageous autobiography.
She begins her life story with her “birth” – as a small child caught up in the veins of a leafy shrub.
“I often think about what is innate and what is acquired ... I wonder if it is possible for a sadness to be passed from one generation to the other,” she asks.
As she struggles to escape her “veiny prison”, her wild fetters bind her tighter and tighter to the point of suffocation, until her umbilical cord is suddenly cut.
Release, unfortunately, does not bring the freedom it promised, we discover as her life unfolds.
Going by her nickname Goglu, Castree draws us into her troubled adolescence through a lyrical span of cycles and circles of images and text. Her world is shaped by her emotionally-stunted mother Amere and the men she gets involved with: her absent father Tete d’Oeuf who sees her as an unwanted burden, and her abusive “stepfather” Amer, who not only rejects Goglu but also isolates her from her mother by setting the coke-snorting and free-loving Amere further along her self-destructive path.
As a child, Goglu’s only escape from her harsh daily reality is her daydreams, especially of her distant father who she remembers fondly riding away into the bright light. (Later, she realises he is in British Columbia, “a mythical kingdom where dads go to disappear”.)
She then seeks refuge in art and punk rock as she stumbles towards adulthood with its promise of independence.
Goglu finds herself repeating her mother’s mistakes though, from drugs and hooking up with the wrong men, to getting knocked up at 17.
In an attempt to break the cycle that seems to be predestined for her, Goglu decides to terminate the pregnancy and take control of her fate.
Heavy stuff for a graphic novel, you say?
Funnily, despite the dire circumstances of Goglu’s life, Susceptible is not as bleak and miserable as you might expect.
The deeper we get into Goglu’s seemingly hopeless existence, the stronger her relentless spirit shines.
Castree’s approach to her memoir, and its resulting tone, are the reasons why. Told retrospectively in bursts of memories, the story gives us the impression that time has given her the strength to stand back from her painful past and assess it objectively.
Instead of blaming her mother for all her woes, like many confessional memoirs do, Goglu tries to understand the societal forces that shaped her mother’s life and which in turn, are shaping hers.
It has also allowed Castree to infuse the darkest episodes of her life with some dry humour and wit.
One such surreal, but hilarious chapter is House Fire 1, which depicts how her mother and a lover deal with a television that catches fire in the middle of the night.
There is a certain glibness to the narration; what did not kill her has made Goglu a stronger woman.
Yet Castree does not try to make light of her ordeal either; the accompanying text to her intricate drawings is in small, cursive fonts that force you to look closely at her experiences in all their grim details. They demand attention, and do not allow you to detach yourself from the story.
Another striking feature of Susceptible is how Castree makes use of her space – there are the more traditional panels and word balloons, but most of the memoir is told in blank pages that leave the characters floating in white space. The open, empty spaces are both foreboding and comforting, assuring us that Goglu can free herself from her fate, no matter how uncertain it is.
And this is how the book closes, with Goglu finally making the break from her mother – “I am eighteen. I have all my teeth. I can do whatever I want.”