Lighter Than My Shadow

by Chris Bertram on October 6, 2013

Last Thursday I went to the launch party for Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow (just published by Jonathan Cape) a graphic memoir in which she tells the story of her descent into and recovery from anorexia (and quite a bit besides). It is a big book, 524 pages in all, which somewhat belies its title, yet I read the whole thing in one sitting. I know I’m not alone in having done this: once you start, it is very hard to stop. It is compelling but a hard book to read: I felt the tears welling up several times. It is also a great book. The graphic format works perfectly for the story and Katie – a terrific illustrator – has managed to convey very vividly some little part of what it felt like from the inside. The black cloud of despair, the screaming monsters in the head, the desperate urge to control, control, control and the sense of alienation from those closest to her, the pain she knows she’s inflicting on them but can’t help doing so.

When she spoke at the book launch Katie said that she hadn’t written the book to help anyone. Nevertheless, I’m sure it will help one very large group of people, the people who can’t imagine what it is like for someone in her position, who can’t understand the sense of compulsion, and why the sick person can’t just “pull themselves together”. In giving voice to this inside, Katie has pulled off something comparable to what William Styron did for depression in Darkness Visible. That’s a pretty high standard of comparison, I know, and I’m feeling swayed by the immediate experience of just having read Lighter Than My Shadow, but I don’t think it an unfitting one.

I should disclose a slight interest. I know Katie slightly (she’s a friend of one of my children) and a photo I took is on the cover flap. So I’m not entirely impartial. Still, I think this is, objectively, a very great achievement. And I don’t mean to relativise in a way that suggests that it is great for someone who has gone through her experience to have produced something this good. I mean that it would be great for anyone to have created this, even though her experience is a condition of having done so. Anyway, people out there, this is a book that most of you ought to read. You can get it at Amazon of course, but better to buy from somewhere else. (The Guardian had a feature on the book last week.)



Alan 10.07.13 at 2:55 am

Thanks so much for this.

My ex-wife starved to 65 lbs over 7 years while I ballooned to 232–not knowing till near the end of this horror about the co-dependent nature of the disease as involving close relationships (reciprocal weight-loss and -gain is not unusual for people involved). It’s a very complex and thorny condition, but fortunately she found treatment for the underlying depression and it saved her life, though our marriage did not survive even so.

I will never forget one evening as she undressed for bed, facing away from me, and her skeletal appearance was much like images of starving people in the sub-Sahara, and I gasped in that realization. There is a sorites of experience of this horrible disease that lends denial not just to the victim, but accomplices. In that moment I realized I was an accomplice.

Again, thank you, and thanks to Green.


Meredith 10.07.13 at 5:41 am

I’m one of those people for whom food is a source of joy and also a lot of work to produce (in kitchen, garden, market). So in some ways these issues are always totally foreign to me, but, when I think about it, they also always make absolute sense. Some of the people to whom I am closest have been anorexic in what were actually wonderfully creative responses to my la-dee-da, tone-deaf confidence in “all is well! eat up!”
Thanks for calling attention to this very interesting story and book, and the whole issue, which belongs here at CT.


Chris Stephens 10.07.13 at 1:42 pm

Chris – Thanks for the info about this book. I couldn’t quite tell from the excerpt for what age it’s written. In particular, I have a nine year old daughter who is into graphic novels. Do you think it’s appropriate for that age?


Chris Bertram 10.07.13 at 2:48 pm

@Chris Stephens, no, there’s some very dark stuff in there, not just about the anorexia. Certainly not for a nine-year-old, this is for young adults at the earliest I’d say.


LF 10.08.13 at 1:24 am

Thanks for posting this Chris, after reading only an excerpt of the book, my initial view echoes your own: that it’s a despairing but insightful work, beautifully illustrated and not, as is sometimes a danger in graphic novels, over-reliant on the textual development of narrative and emotion. Katie’s zine looks equally brilliant.

On a related note, which partially motivates my enthusiasm, the graphic novel Persepolis (and its eponymous film) is a brilliant and personal rendition of growing up through the mire of both depression, and the social and political instability of late twentieth century Iran. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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