January 2013

Grace Bello

nonfiction

Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir by Nicole Georges

Nicole Georges's graphic memoir Calling Dr. Laura is a lesbian hipster's fragile coming of age story. The author reveals her history much like a friend would on Facebook: her tale feels both private and public, both raw and crafted, both nonlinear and chronological. In the comic autobiographical tradition of Alison Bechdel and The Stranger cartoonist Ellen Forney, Georges creates a darkly humorous personal narrative about denial, alienation, and dysfunction.

Twenty-something illustrator Nicole is keeping a couple of big secrets from her mother. One is that she's a lesbian. The second is that she believes that her biological father may be alive. She wants to confront her mother. However, when her mother reacts to her sister Liz's coming out with scorn, Nicole thinks twice about confiding in her mom. Through flashbacks interspersed with scenes from Nicole's relationship with her girlfriend Radar, the narrator reveals her history of keeping secrets and ignoring serious physical, emotional, and psychological problems.

What the author does well is convey her alienation from her family and from herself. She writes, "You tell the story two steps away. Almost objectively. Like you saw it on TV. That far removed." This reticence extends the story's drama. She explains her childhood struggle with stress-induced encopresis -- uncontrollable bowels and chronic constipation -- due to her abusive stepfather. Georges writes of her and her mother, "We scrubbed and hid and kept this as a shameful secret." Both literally and metaphorically, young Nicole keeps things inside. As a result, Calling Dr. Laura feels a bit distant rather than intimate. But for Georges, this lack of intimacy rings true; it underscores how, though we all have wounds, needing to hide one's pain can heighten the suffering exponentially.

Her relationship with her girlfriend Radar is the heart of the book. Whereas Mrs. Georges hushes uncomfortable truths even if it means putting her daughter in physical and psychic danger, Radar seeks to cut through those silences. Nicole's sister Liz mentions to Radar that she has something to confess to Nicole, which Nicole quickly shrugs off. Radar insists, "This is the time, Nicole. You can't hide from this forever." Nicole eventually does speak with her sister Liz, which leads to her big discovery that, yes, her biological father is still alive. Later, Radar tires of Nicole keeping their relationship a secret from Mrs. Georges. When Nicole plans to visit her mother, Radar says, "The only way I'd support you going home is if you said, 'I'm gay, who's my dad?'" Not only does the tough but caring Radar serve as the mother that Nicole never had, Radar pushes Nicole forward and forces her to take a realistic look at her family and her identity. When Nicole avoids her problems, Radar says, "I can't talk to you right now. When you're making choices to hurt yourself like this."

Despite the poignant Nicole-Radar relationship, it feels like Calling Dr. Laura doesn't go quite deep enough. But what sometimes makes up for it is Georges's darling artwork. When Nicole describes her paralysis at the slightest stressor, she illustrates the adorable, YouTube-famous fainting goats. When she wants to portray how she wishes she had been taken care of, she draws herself caring for her wounded pet chicken. Yes, we rely heavily on Radar for the book's moral compass, but Georges shines in these precious tableaux of animals, her kindred spirits.

Perhaps, like Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life and Salman Rushdie's third person Joseph Anton, contemporary memoirs are now, by default, told at a remove. Maybe, as on Facebook, modern narratives gloss over real dramas in favor of images of girlfriends, pets, and YouTube sensations. Calling Dr. Laura is a tragicomic graphic memoir with a stunning indie aesthetic. I only wish that the author had revealed more of herself in it.

Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir by Nicole Georges
Mariner Books
ISBN: 978-0547615592
288 pages