Bridging the gap between art and mental health through graphic medicine

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Suzy Becker is a local author, illustrator, and cartoonist for The New Yorker. Her hit book, All I Need to Know I Learned from a Cat, which sold over 2 million copies. But after a writing fellowship and a brain tumor, she eventually found herself using her skills to help children and adults articulate and deal with the critical voices in their heads.

Becker joined Radio Boston to discuss graphic medicine and mental health. You can also listen to a previous Radio Boston conversation on graphic medicine here.

Interview Highlights

On transitioning from a humor book to helping with the mental health crisis:

Becker: "So wrote the cat book, wrote a couple other humor books. I was really ready to write in a different form, which I couldn't explain to my publisher was more how I think as a cartoonist, a little bit longer text and illustrations. So I applied for a creative writing fellowship at Harvard. Thought I'd never get it. I get this thin envelope, which to me meant rejection. Got it. And then I was euphoric. And in my euphoria, I didn't celebrate. I stayed up cleaning my baseboards and things — [I] ended up having a seizure. I ended up finding out that I needed brain surgery."

"So they scheduled it and I had an awake surgery. Seemed to be going well. I asked them as they're getting ready to close up because I don't want them to distract it to put some music on. I couldn't get the words out at the time. So that surgery kind of unexpectedly wiped out my speech, reading and writing, and Harvard was kind enough to put a couch in my office, but I couldn't work on the book project I thought I'd work on. So I started writing what I thought was going to be a chapter about my brain surgery or a short piece. And it ended up being an illustrated memoir called I Had Brain Surgery. What's Your Excuse?"

"I tour that for 20 cities. And, you know, there's the literary crowd that's there, but there's also a small group of people who are survivors. And those people came up of brain surgery, brain injury, cancer, things like that. And they thanked me for writing this book because my experiences, which I detailed — they had felt really alone in there. So they'd never read anything like it ... they also found the humor of the book and the irreverence of the book. You know, it's it's hard to make a joke about brain surgery or brain tumor if you haven't had one. Probably. I'm assuming."


On what graphic medicine is:

Dearing: "I want to take a break there for a second, because we've done a segment on graphic medicine on Radio Boston before ... but even having done that, I was having trouble picturing right until I saw some of your material. So picture something that is the size and shape of a PowerPoint slide, right? It's got some sketches and balloons overhead and people are talking, but also printed text that is citations from research. I mean, this is the way the brain works. Like, I felt like I was seeing a snapshot of your brain."

Becker: "Yeah ... that's what I wanted to do and that's what I couldn't explain to my publisher. And I did it in this form, but then I did it again about the baby decision and getting pregnant in early parenting [and writing the book One Good Egg.]

On graphic medicine workshops with kids:

Becker: "The first thing I'll do with kids is have them get out some Crayola crayons and talk about feelings that they associate with emotions. And then they'll start to see that different kids associate different feelings with different emotions, and different kids need different things when they're sad or angry or whatever. And we get to that key point that a lot of adults also don't remember. It's that when someone's sad or angry, you don't do for them what you do for yourself. You have to find out what works for them. Like maybe I want to play games or hear jokes when I'm upset, but somebody else may just want you to sit quietly next to them, you know, shoulder to shoulder and look at a fire or whatever it is. So anyway, kids get that. They start to learn, most importantly, how to articulate what they need for themselves."

On helping kids with the monsters in their heads: 

Becker: "Just by getting it out and onto the paper and having it there. So now, sometimes if that monster comes to visit, their teacher can say, 'Oh, I think the monster's there.'"

"And the teacher knows what every kid's monster is. Whereas before the teacher doesn't know what's keeping that child from raising their hand necessarily ... We are always told to use our voice. 'I want to hear this in your voice.' We have so many voices. And that's what's also great about graphic medicine and graphic memoirs that you can personify these voices or create little characters for them. In addition to that — in addition to be able to parse out those voices — I can say to them another thing which, you know, here we are, we're saying we have these voices. We're always told not to make those voices go away, silence them. We can't, unfortunately, they're going to be with us. So all we can do, I tell them, is acknowledge that they're there."

This segment aired on March 10, 2023.


Headshot of Tiziana Dearing

Tiziana Dearing Host, Radio Boston
Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.


Headshot of Bart Tocci

Bart Tocci Freelance Producer, Radio Boston
Bart Tocci was a freelance producer for Radio Boston.



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