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Review of "Epileptic"

By David B.
Fantagraphics Books, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Aug 7th 2002

Epileptic is a graphic memoir in black and white, translated from three original French books titled L’Asenscion du Haut-Mal.  It tells the story of the family of three siblings, Jean-Christophe, Pierre-François, and Florence.  Pierre-François is the narrator and we see how he learns to express himself through drawing, eventually becoming a graphic artist.  His older brother has epilepsy, and the family becomes dominated by their pursuit for a successful treatment for Jean-Christophe’s condition.  But Epileptic is not so much a medical history as an exploration of the meanings and implications of the illness for the family and especially for the artist and his perception of the world.

Pierre-François was preoccupied by war and fighting since he was a young boy.  He takes great pleasure in tales of warriors killing each other in battle, and soon he and his brother take to drawing similar stories in book length form.  Both brothers suffer from rage, but express it in different ways.  His enthusiasm for drawing takes on the strength of an obsession; the obvious psychological interpretation is that he channels his emotions into drawing since he is unable to express them more directly to his family.  Pierre-François learns the story of his grandfather’s horrific experience in the First World War, and one of the most powerful sequences of the book sets out the terrible deaths he was witness to.  In a striking exchange between Pierre-François and his mother, she asks him, “Why are you so intent on telling these stories about your ancestors?  They’ve got nothing to do with your brother, do they?”  He replies, “They’re important!  Our ancestors were locked in a constant struggle to escape their misery.” 

We see the struggle of the family with Jean-Christophe’s illness as they take him from one specialist to another, with no two experts holding the same opinion. “Master N,” a Japanese guru who heals using macrobiotic principles, especially impresses their parents, because his weird blend of Eastern approaches seems to be the most successful in helping Jean-Christophe.  The family goes to great lengths to participate in Master N’s healing, going to live on a commune and becomes prey to the power struggles in the small group.  It’s hard to understand quite why the parents are taken in by the bizarre ideas of the different people at the commune, but it’s not surprising when the experiment comes to an end and they return home. 

The plot tends to bounce from one theme to another, and while the effect is not confusing, it is at times bewildering.  What really holds the book together is the artwork, which is distinctive and powerful, drawn confidently with bold lines and very unusual imagery.  Some of the medical characters are drawn as animals: for example, Master N is a cat, because that is what he looks like to Pierre-François.  The young artist has a powerful imagination, and especially in the third section, the pages are dominated by images mysticism and death when as a teenager Jean-Christophe is put into residential facility for the disabled, and their mother mourns the loss of her son and the death of her father, for a period becoming preoccupied by a quest to get in touch with her dead parent with the help of psychics. 

Some might find fault with this work in its bleak portrayal of the life of the epileptic.  Once the decision is made that Jean-Christophe can no longer live at home, the narrator comments, “His illness has taken over.  He is now handicapped, destined to live in a handicapped universe.”  This certainly does not allow for the possibility that people with disabilities might be able to participate fully in the world with others, but this might well accurately reflect Pierre-François’s view, and it probably reflects most people’s opinion of disability at the time.   Another concern is that it provides very little insight into Jean-Christophe’s experience or the nature of epilepsy; the story is very much taken up with the author’s perspective, and even though his brother’s illness is the central subject at hand, his brother remains a mystery throughout.

Yet Epileptic is an extraordinary work, highly original artistically and very different in tone from literary depictions of growing up in a family which includes someone with a severe medical problem.  It is fascinating, engrossing and perplexing.  Highly recommended.


Link: Fantagraphics Books website


© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.