In love and in sickness

IMG_0333   My first reaction to opening this book to its first page, seeing its weird and dark abstract drawing that seemed to depict something so alien to myself, was to think: “oh god, I just opened a science fiction – horror comic didn’t I?”.

Later, as I continued to turn pages and examine the picture boxes, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find out I had actually stumble upon one of my favorite generes. A memoir. Or, to be more accurate, a graphic memoir. For those of you who don’t know a graphic memoir is basically a comic drawn about the author either about their life or a specific time in their lives. For Alison Bechdel in her two graphic memoirs “Fun Home” and “Are You My Mother?” they encompassed two different perspectives of her childhood and young adult life. For artist-authors Julie Doucet and Julia Wertz they wrote about specific times in their lives. And for Frederik Peeters, he wrote about the time he fell in love and about his conflicting thoughts and reasons for why he was in love. And about health. Health in both the physical and emotional sense.

Frederik Peeters wrote his beautiful graphic memoir “Blue Pills; a positive love story” in 3 months. It was published in Geneva in 2001 and would not be translated from french to english until 2008. The book itself won several awards including the Premios La Carcel de Papel in Spain and the Polish Jury Prize in Angouleme, a prestigious French comics festival. If you’re not impressed with those titles, which should be just a little given the talent that usually rolls through those festivals, then you should be impressed with the content he deals with.

Most of us have read a love story. Those ones where the main character seems to be going through his or her life feeling like there’s something missing but they don’t quite know what and they don’t usually notice it until they randomly feel this cosmic attraction to this person they see randomly on the street or in a party or in their class and they begin acting like a child for the rest of the book until the last chapter when everything has resolved itself. Those types of books get turned into movies or become the subjects of tv sitcoms or romance dramas that ends up getting nominated for an award and one of the supporting actors gets recognized and later they get their own line of cheap perfume that’s sold in SEARS. This book will never become one of those movies or awful shows that could of been good if you didn’t have to sit through it every other night because your mom doesn’t want to watch anything else.

I have never been much of a fan of love stories; besides my natural cynicism and disbelief in cosmic order in determining emotions I have just never found myself especially draw to or interested in most love stories. To me a good romance needs a good writer who knows how to write such a story plot in a way that’s interesting to read even if the plot isn’t that good. But since most good story telling takes much plot building which requires time, an impatient person such as myself has never found herself quite impressed with the long, drawn out process of attraction and courtship that eventually turns into this completely fictional relationship that I wouldn’t care about if it even happened in real life. And other books just don’t know how to write love in an interesting or believable way that I feel like I’ve wasted my time reading the book.

It’s no wonder I was single all through high school, huh?

But of course my biggest problem with most romances has always been the characters never seemed believable. They all always were too clean, simple and perfect that they could have these clean and simple relationships that were so easy that it made me angry. That’s not real. People aren’t clean and new the first time you meet them. There are tragic backstories yes but there’s more than that. There are crippling anxieties, facial imperfections, old relationship baggage as well as family baggage, learning disabilities, different sets of beliefs, different career paths, allergies, weight issues, physical limits, emotional stunting, perverse kinks, and bad breathe. Fiction has always had a hard time telling romance to me, there are only a handful of authors who can tell it well to me.

Maybe it’s because he’s speaking from experience but Mr. Peeters told his romance in the exact way I believe romance should be approached: by acknowledging everyone’s flaws and trying to understand why you’re afraid of them. Although Mr. Peeters doesn’t go into much detail about his own personal flaws, besides general ignorance and lack of experience, he tactfully discusses the reasons and events that have made his and Cati’s relationship so rocky. It’s especially great how he covers discussing her son. Strangely enough they never give the boy a name in the book. He’s always known as “L’il wolf” to his mom and as “the little one” to Mr. Peeters. Perhaps this was to show how he’s not his dad? Given that a father and mother name their child, and since Cati has already given him his personal nickname, maybe Mr. Peeters feels it would be over stepping his boundaries by naming him in this book. As a way of separating himself from the special bound only a son and father can have and not one that can be shared with a child and his mother’s boyfriend.

In regards with his interactions with Cati’s son the book takes on another depth of emotion when it comes to the questions and uncertainty. How can you love a child as your own when both of you understand you’re not the real parent? And just how can an adult relate to a child? One must establish authority yet not become a dictator, and you have to know the limits for acting friendly without trying to replace their real parent. It’s a strange game of push and pull, setting up these boundaries that real friends and parents don’t have to do. In a way, every child can see and understand this construction process, but they just don’t know what to do. And it becomes hard, the difficulty in what seems like it should be an easy yet important process makes them angry and defensive. Because it’s hard for them too, being the recipient of this confused affection and them trying to understand how they should act is also confusing and hard on them too.

How many times have we ever been confronted with something that’s impossible? And I don’t mean something that simply seems impossible but is characteristically impossible. We’ve been told since we were little kids that nothings impossible. That no wall is too high and mountain too steep. That if we work hard, put all of our heart into it and if we truly believe then we could do anything.

Except cure AIDs. We cannot cure AIDs. In fact, many of us don’t even know how to deal with AIDs, whether it be us or another person who has it. There’s this thing about AIDs, about any terminal illness or injury that can’t be fixed or solved, that when we’re confronted with it we become awkward around it because we’re dealing with this mixture of pity and disgust that’s automatically hard wired into our perception and understanding of the disease. And the thing is, we really don’t understand it. Not me. Not you, my reader. And not even the doctors who we run to, sitting on those cold iron benches, holding in our tears and just wishing they’d hold our hands and explain to us why this had to happen to us.

Frederik Peeters was given a new gift and gave us a new perspective when he met Cati and then wrote this book about him and her. Or should I say Cati gave us this new perspective? Mr. Peeters writes this book from the perspective of a lover of a woman with HIV, instead of as the more common story as someone trying to deal with HIV. Now I’m not claiming that survivor stories aren’t important and incredibly impactful, I myself love a good memoir and survivor stories make for incredibly impactful stories for us in times of need. But I have almost never found a story that tells from the perspective of the survivor’s lover. And that story is just as important.

Now before I go any further maybe there needs to be more explanation about what HIV really is. I don’t think this book is the best source to get an actual definition of HIV, not to say there isn’t any mention of the actual science of HIV but just that there’s too much real emotional conflict about the affects of HIV that it’s too hard to find the definitive meaning. HIV is a disease that sends a virus to attack your t-cells (immunity cells), that help you fight off diseases and other viruses, by turning them into more copies of the virus. This leaves you more vulnerable to random infections and other bodily discomforts and if the virus attacks too many of your t-cells then it becomes AIDs. HIV can be treated for, even though it cannot be cured, preventing it from becoming AIDs. For more information on the treatment and symptoms of HIV you can find them at https://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/what-is-hiv-aids/ and  http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/index.html.

Mr. Peeters tells the story as an outsider desperately trying to support a person with HIV. But he has to be more than just a supporting beam but also a shoulder to lean on as well. He has to watch as Cati tries her absolute best to support her son who also has HIV. Acting as someone’s personal support system is already hard enough when they’re in pain but while trying to be their council in their time of need is something that takes much tact and careful planning. But HIV is something we’re not used to listening to.

We already have this dirty image of HIV, something clouded in uncertainty and forced forbiddance to be mentioned. It’s like we’re children asking our parents a question but they keep hushing us and forbidding us to even mention it that we ourselves become afraid of it. So this always makes me wonder about how Cati must feel when she tells someone, a doctor or close friend or lover, that she has HIV. How must it feel to tell someone every little dirty thing about you that can only be seen under a microscope?

So this leads to how people react to learning someone with whom they regularly associate with has HIV. Mr. Peeters stated that people have two common reactions: friendly (understanding and encouraging) and familial (protective and wary). Give that these are the general reactions who the hell would want to tell anyone this? After all, do you really need to tell anybody? Or maybe, how many people do you actually need to tell? How many people in your family, how many close friends, people you work with, actually need to know this? Because at a certain point it must start feeling like you have to tell the person sitting next to you on the bus that you have HIV.

But of course you need to tell others, or at least certain others. Like your potential lover. It was a very brave scene when Cati manages to tell Mr. Peeters she has HIV. And he was even more brave to accept that she has HIV and still pursue a romantic relationship with her. And yes, that does mean sexual.

Perhaps another lesson on HIV is needed here on the transmission of the disease. The book actually covers this nicely and I really appreciated the clarification. Basically the disease can really only be transmitted through bodily fluids, but things like spit, urine, tears and vaginal discharge are too weak to transmit the disease. Really only sperm and blood can transmit the disease. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have sex! Even if it’s only the woman who has HIV it’s highly advised that the man always wear a condom for possible random transmission that could come from open sores or an accidental cut. (Also, it’s always advised that a couple use a condom for protection from STDs even if the woman is on birth control.)

But at the beginning of their relationship they didn’t know this.

“As though we had to make love with straightjackets,” Mr. Peeters describes about his and Cati’s lack of understanding the limits of HIV. Which seems infinite when no one really understands what HIV is. “In our heads… groping our way…”

It’s understandable though, both of their timidity to learn and share their problems. After all, it’s one admitting their past in dirty detail and the other trying to feign ignorance while attempting to learn more. Them trying to learn about how HIV would affect their relationship leads to understanding how Cati views herself. Cati often talks about how she wishes she would have been more careful when she was young, making reference to her past mistakes while never really actually telling us about them. Which is perfectly fine to me. It gives us, as readers, a barrier that we have to respect and shows how Cati has set up her own boundaries. While she may be fine with people knowing she has HIV she doesn’t believe people have an intrinsic right to know how she got it. But the weight of the disease is obviously shown to hold her down and keep her in a forever present state of “on the ground” as opposed to where everyone else lives their lives. It’s obviously seen in the bags under her eyes and how thin she’s drawn along with how all of her movements seem planned and lacking in enthusiasm. Soon we see that the disease itself has personified itself within her. A creature carrying other deadly creatures inside itself seems to be how Cati would describe herself.

“If I infected you I’d never get over it.”

What a horrible thought, that you could condemn someone else to your own personal hell by getting too close to them. But, in a way the disease must have become a part of her identity. When you spend so much time going to doctors, taking pills and keeping it hidden from the general public, well, it would be hard not to integrate your illness into your personification. But there’s a boundary that must be kept between yourself and the illness; just like in any relationship one must be able to separate their identity from their relationship in order to maintain a healthy mental stage. Mr. Peeters reminds both us and himself in the book of Cati’s difficulties with her condition and with herself.

“But remember Cati sometimes also confuses herself with the virus… her relationship with the illness was very unstable and conflicted…”

So who do we go to to keep us informed and help remind ourselves where we begin and where the illness ends? Well, doctors are the short and only real answer in this case. Mr. Peeters has an obvious discomfort when it comes to doctors. But on some level I suppose we all do. I have known more people in my life who hate going to the doctor, here people with HIV need to trate it as a part of their routine. And yet, no matter how many times we see our doctors or how nice they are and how friendly they’re to us; there’s just this glass wall between us making it clear that these people are the ones in charge even though they can’t really control anything. They’re simply reporters. And we’re always desperate for their approval yet anxious of their opinions.

Both the uncomfortableness of dealing with doctors come with the completely maddening and antagonistic ordeal in dealing with science. Mr. Peeters has some conflicting views on science in this regard as well. As an incredibly intelligent man, one who relies on reason is is absolutely appalled at the idea of destiny, he has some very strong opinions when it comes with dealing with science.

“Science is tactless!… They ain’t afraid of a paradox, huh!”

And we have to understand why he feels this way: because science makes us powerless. No, I don’t mean we don’t have electricity or all of the amazing advances and incredible philosophical and political discoveries we’ve made by using science and technology, but it makes us understand our limits. It makes us confront our limits, staring at their imposing molten walls that have all of the reason and logic to support them, and forces us to understand that in most cases there really is nothing we can do. And that’s what Mr. Peeters feels with Cati and her HIV and how Cati feels with her son and his HIV.

I hate feeling useless. Now imagine someone has this incredible disease, someone close to you, and they hurt everyday from it. But you don’t have it. You watch them, try to comfort them and try to do things for them to make them better; even if you can see it’s to no avail. When they refuse help or say you can’t help them it hurts, and when they let you help you understand that what you do doesn’t really matter. Maybe if you had their disease too you’d be able to help more… or at least talk to them about it. But no. That wouldn’t help anyone at all. Nothing really helps. And that’s part of the reason we all feel so anxious when we’re around someone who’s sick like Cati. It’s because we’re completely useless to them.

Mr. Peeters transfers his guilt in feeling useless by becoming angry with, well, science I’d say. His general lack of knowledge about HIV and what he can do and the limits that both he and Cati have and how much uncertainty there is for Cati’s son. And uncertainty follows them everywhere. In how people may react to their relationship, to learning Cati has HIV, to learning something new about the disease or by being asked a question they don’t have an answer to. Uncertainty follows where ever they go, it follows science and often science gives an answer that’s impersonal and cold. Science can’t be personal and it can’t be consoling when no one understands what’s happening but they know they’re useless.

But I’m glad to say there isn’t a real tragedy that happens in this book. Well there is, but the tragedy is what opens them up to the story. The tragedy begins the book upon a discovery and the book becomes more like an extend resolution. Both of them trying to resolve from the climax of the story the real way a resolution happens in life. Through long periods of playing questions and answers and asking hard questions that leads to crying and then hugs and kisses and more problems that seem to come constantly with less answers. And that’s what a romance really is. A long extended resolution after a climax.

My favorite of the book has to be when Mr. Peeters is explaining to Cati’s son why the elephants in “Dumbo” are afraid of the mouse. “Because it’s so small! People are often scared of what is very small or invisible… they think it can hurt them… you know?” It’s almost obvious why I love this part. It’s such a simple answer that describes the entire book in a few sentences told to a mere three year old.

I suppose the only part in the book I didn’t like was when Mr. Peeters describes seeing Cati again for the first time in years during a New Years party in 2000. He didn’t know she had been diagnosed with HIV so at the time she just seemed like this woman he had had a strange attraction to since his adolescence.

“She was frail and pale… More beautiful than ever…”

I suppose it’s just from me not being able to tell if he meant she was pale and frail yet still beautiful or she was beautiful because she was frail and pale.

The art work in the book is that of, what I would describe, classic French illustration. I have an absolute love for this style of caricature as it exaggerates the people to the perfect proportion of individual yet similar to their real life counter parts. Also, the shading is incredible as the entire book is done in black and white so his use of black and shadows is perfect for both dramatic, emotional effects and giving dimension to the areas around him. His use of angles and perspective is top notch as nothing remains flat and you can actually see movement in the way his characters are drawn instead of just people standing or making athletic poses in tiny boxes.

If there is any moral or lesson to be derived from this book I would take it down to this simple bit of advice: the best thing you can do for someone you care about is to be happy and try to make them happy too. It’s hard, it’s difficult and painful and sometimes leaves you crying for hours, but it really is the absolute best thing you can do. Because you don’t know if you’re doing it right. You don’t have a list or book on how to make a difficult situation more comfortable for someone else and you definitely don’t have anything to fix everything that seems to be wrong. But the least you can do is be patient with them and everyone around you, try to make the best of it, find out your limits and the rules to the game, and just take it as it goes.

“Life before everything. Right?”