David Heatley, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Pantheon Books, 2009). $24.95, hardcover.
By Alex Boney
I never begin reading a memoir without some sense of trepidation. Memoirs are intrusive by nature, even if the reader has been invited in, and I never really feel like I have the right to access someone else’s personal memories and reflections. Memoirs are different from autobiographies in the same way that blogs are different from online profiles: in each of the former, the writer is expected to divulge information in a deeply personal, confessional way that often makes the reader uncomfortable. At worst, memoirs come across as excessively self-indulgent and narcissistic. But at their best, memoirs give readers insight into human experiences they may not have encountered before. And usually, greater understanding and empathy emerges. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, probably the high-water mark for graphic memoir, works this way. Although the subject matter of Bechdel’s memoir is difficult, painful, and sensitive, her techniques—specifically, her use of literary underpinnings such as Proust and Joyce—create a detachment that allows the reader a comfortable distance from which to view her experiences. Not so with David Heatley’s My Brain is Hanging Upside Down. Heatley is as visceral as Bechdel is cerebral, and the result is a book that’s embarrassing, provocative, uncomfortable, and…well, enjoyable in much different ways.
Heatley labels his book a memoir, but My Brain is Hanging Upside Down is not structured in any recognizable way. The book is broken up into five thematic chapters (Sex, Race, Mom, Dad, and Kin), each of which explores Heatley’s life experiences from different perspectives. The chapters occasionally overlap, but no clear sequential or chronological thread guides the book from beginning to end. Rather, Heatley’s memoir is comprised of a series of narrative fragments. Using a technique pioneered by Rick Veitch in “Rare Bit Fiends,” the first four chapters of My Brain is Hanging Upside Down begin with graphic renderings of dreams that Heatley has had over the years. The dream sequences, while bizarre and surreal, set the thematic tone for each of the chapters.
Heatley’s disjointed technique runs the risk of throwing the reader entirely off from the very beginning. There never seems to be a solid footing in this book, so at times it’s difficult to care very much for the “character” at the center of it. Heatley doesn’t trace any distinct growth or development, and the stories he relates are often offensive and disturbing (especially in the dream scenes). The art of self-deprecation has become a staple in underground and independent comics, from Crumb to Pekar to Ware. And in many cases, intimate self-revelation is used to shock readers into believing that the artist is way cooler or more “human” than the reader. Shocked by circle-jerks, drug use, or body fluids? Well, brother, you just haven’t lived the real life. But in Heatley’s book, these experiences never really come across like this. They aren’t rendered in a way that solicits indie cred or empathy. Heatley’s not a schlub like Pekar or a reserved outcast like the characters who populate Ware’s stories. He’s just telling the story of his life and not holding anything back. And it works.
The most effective (and by far the longest) chapter in My Brain is Hanging Upside Down is the section titled “Race.” While the rest of the book is colored in traditional multi-tones, the “Race” chapter is rendered in black-and-white pencils and inks. The correlation between style and content is obvious, and it would be easy to read Heatley’s approach to this chapter as gimmicky and too-clever-by half. But the experiment pays off in unexpected ways. Heatley’s style is minimalistic to begin with, but the black and white technique simplifies his work even further. The trick is that this chapter deals with the most complex issues and experiences in the entire book. Aside from surface aspects, there is nothing black and white about the vignettes and commentaries that guide the reader through the most honest and engaging section of the memoir.
My Brain is Hanging Upside Down is a book that I wanted to give up on after the first few pages. I wasn’t pulled in immediately, I didn’t particularly care about the author’s subject (himself), and I was about to dismiss it as yet another pretentious, indulgent, too-cool-for-school indie project. But I’m glad I stuck with it. While it took a while to catch the rhythms of Heatley’s narrative, I did eventually find the structure interesting and the subjects compelling. Essentially, this is a book that reflects how fragmentary human life is—especially in our interactions with other people and our limited understanding of each other’s experiences. There is genuine, convincing, lived-life value in the stories Heatley relates, and I’m glad that there isn’t a whole lot of self-analysis along the way. Some of these experiences are poetic and significant, while others are not; I appreciate that I’m allowed to see them and evaluate them on my own. Although I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to experience many of these episodes myself, I’m thankful that I was able to see them through someone else.