When Life Swallows You Whole

Recently in our class we read Nate Powell’s brilliant graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole.  The art alone in the graphic novel is magnificent, as is the story line, but what stood out most to me was the treatment of psychological disorders within the story.  One of the main characters, Ruth, is diagnosed with schizophrenia along with obsessive compulsive disorder.  Her odd fascination with bugs, specifically cicadas, is the focus of her obsession.  She’s seen collecting the bugs throughout the graphic novel and they appear in several of the panels, crawling out of the ceilings and later carrying her off.  Her schizophrenia diagnosis is what interested me the most, however.  Her schizophrenia stems from the way which she treats her bugs.  They are a part of her life, they dictate her in a way, and no one else can see what she sees.  She later admits in the story that she believes these visions she has are a calling from a higher being.  The cicadas are, in essence, her religion.

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There is also Perry, who is seen frantically drawing pictures in the beginning of the graphic novel.  He draws these pictures as commanded by a little wizard eraser who he cannot seem to escape, no matter what he tries.  Then there is there grandmother who is severely ill, but she also claims she saw things like Ruth did.  Psychological depression runs rampant in the family, but it is the way the two children were “diagnosed” that is interesting to me.

Ruth is forced to see a doctor and she is prescribed several different medications to help with her disorders, while Perry simply goes to see his primary physician over an injury he receives and is told that he’s okay.  The fact that he talks to and is ordered around by a small wizard eraser is completely brushed over.  So my question is, why are they treated in such different ways when they both have clear signs of a mental disorder?

I believe that this is a sign of sexism within the graphic novel, and here is why.  Women have always been viewed as the weaker gender, while men are supposed to be strong and not have mental problems.  However, we all know that this is not true. Mental disorders affect everyone.  And yet, Perry’s was still written off so quickly while Ruth is instantly medicated. I believe this shows the innate belief that women are still the weaker gender and therefore need more help to deal with their mental disorders.  Men also often view it as a sign of weakness if they have to seek help for a problem they cannot fix themselves.  Perry never goes out of his way to seek help from a professional, he only divulges his problems to Ruth who does her best to help him.  Ruth is forced into seeking help by her family and school, yet she embraced her disorder to the point of it destroying her–it swallowed her whole.  We never quite figure out what happens to Perry, but at the end he is seen feeding the frog as well with his grandmother standing behind telling him to “Watch out, it’ll swallow you whole.”  So we never learn what happens to him and how he deals with his problems, the focus is entirely on the disease that is consuming Ruth.  I find it odd that the focus is so entirely on Ruth, yet there is still the air of sexism surrounding it.

However, I believe that this was a case of intentional sexism.  I think that Nate Powell portrayed the treatment of Ruth and Perry so differently as a stab at society for how we treat people with mental illnesses.  There is a stigma surrounding people who have mental illnesses, I know this personally. I think that by contrasting their treatments so harshly, he is saying something about how we treat people in the real world too.  Ruth is condemned and marked as crazy, while Perry is basically told to buck up, something that often happens in the real world as well.  There is still the belief that mental illnesses are either silly or nonexistent, or that people who have them should be heavily medicated to deal with their problems.  Most of society shows little sympathy for mentally ill people, even in this time, and I think that is portrayed very well in this graphic novel.

Image Credit:  Ruth