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"It's Sad, But Not Crazy"—Memory as Construction/Performance in Graphic Memoirs

By Jennifer Daniels Klug

When my brother and I sat down to outline the structure of a memoir project about the deaths of our parents, it became clear that we remembered some things differently. The basic fact of their deaths by murder/suicide in 1998 are relatively clear, and a matter of public record. There are some things, however, that my brother and I remember differently. He will tell you that his knowledge of the physical reality of how our mother died is based on hearing me reading her death certificate to him. In his mind, those facts were experienced and are held in my voice. Yet I've never seen my mom's death certificate; I have intentionally never looked at it and I do not know what it says. Like the graphic memoirists Alison Bechdel and David Small, we were encountering the problem of memory. My brother's recollection and my own cannot both be literally true—at least one of us has a false memory. As we try to navigate these conflicting memories, we also realize that what we want to tell is not the literal history of what happened, but our experience of it. That experience can be in a large sense "true" while it may also be at times inconsistent with the literal, historical truth. A memoir may be more about experience than literal facts—but when you're telling someone else's story as well as your own, the distinction between what "really" happened and what it was like to live through it is extremely important. To that end, graphic novels and comics provide a much more versatile tool box than a traditional written memoir or autobiography—an ability to keep the reader aware of the distinction between experience and history.

This "problem of memory" is not new to scholars, and certainly isn't unique to graphic novels or comics. In his influential work On Collective Memory, initially published in 1950, the French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs claimed that memory is held in common, by a society:

[I]t is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories. If we enumerate the number of recollections during one day that we have evoked upon the occasion of our direct and indirect relations with other people, we will see that, most frequently, we appeal to our memory only in order to answer questions which others have asked us, or that we supposed they could have asked us. (38)

Halbwachs's concept of social memory is perhaps the reason we tell stories about our experiences. The important experiences of our own lives aren't generally singular and isolated—they make up our stories and they form the fabric of our connections to each other. Halbwachs says, "The individual calls recollections to mind by relying on the frameworks of social memory" (182). In fact, it is largely the demands on that "social memory" that lead us to the effort of recollection, which manifests as story-telling.

The stories, though, are where the disconnections or inconsistencies happen, too. We remember things differently. In his ambitious and complicated three-volume work Time and Narrative, first published into English in 1984, Paul Ricoeur addresses the crucial if unanswerable question of how—or if—our memories can be relied on to produce precise historical accuracy. My own experience would suggest that they can not, but as Ricoeur says, "The question about historical knowledge ‘standing for' the ‘real' past is born from the simple question: what does the term ‘real' mean when it is applied to the historical past? What are we saying when we say something ‘really' happened?" (vol. 3, 142). To what degree can we make that claim, and where does that line get drawn? This is the struggle with a memoir or a personal history. Depending on what "real" is, we're not always going to get it right.

Graphic novels can't solve that problem or answer the question of what "really" happened. What they do, however, is keep the awareness of this slippery nature of truth in the forefront of the reader's mind, and in doing so they address a larger truth—it's not always what "really" happened that matters. Sometimes the point is our experience of it. In their article "After the Witness," about video archives of Holocaust survivor testimonies, authors Michael Rothberg and Jared Stark say, "It is not enough to preserve a factual or artifactual record of the past. Rather the writer seeks to archive the survivor's very memory—not only what he has seen, but how he sees, how he remembers" (85). Depending on what truth one is trying to get to, what we see and how we remember can be at least as important as the historical facts.

In her article "Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative," Hillary Chute addresses how comics can be read on multiple levels, thereby allowing the reader to have a different experience than with traditional literature. The reader is more conscious of the process of how we construct meaning:

Highly textured in its narrative scaffolding, comics doesn't blend the visual and the verbal—or use one simply to illustrate the other—but is rather prone to present the two nonsynchronously; a reader of comics not only fills in the gaps between panels but also works with the often disjunctive back-and-forth of reading and looking for meaning. (452) [original emphasis]

It is the nonsynchronous, active nature of reading in the comics medium that allows an author to call attention to, and keep reader focus on, the subjective nature of a memoir. In this format of words and images and the interaction between them, the reader is forced to remain aware of the creator as both narrator and character. In that way, graphic memoirists keep at the forefront an awareness that the work is about an experience of the past, and cannot or should not be read as a history.

This discussion will focus on the graphic narratives Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel, and Stitches: A Memoir by David Small, and how the interaction between art and written narrative in these works allow for a layered or multi-voiced reading that is a way of addressing the problem of memory. In a traditional memoir, one text can create the impression that there is one truth, or one way to understand the past, but we know that is never the case. Even the same person remembering the same event at a different time will remember it or experience it differently, as my brother and I recalled two competing versions of the events after our parents' deaths. Bechdel and Small use very different narrative and illustration styles to tell their stories, but they both use the complex, layered reading of the comics medium in order to force the reader to remain aware that these are subjective retellings—or performances of memory.

Bechdel's memoir Fun Home is the story of her father's death, probably by suicide. Published six years later, Are You My Mother is the story of Bechdel's search for an authentic relationship with her mother, and also tells the story of writing Fun Home. For graphic narratives, Bechdel's works are extremely text heavy: her narrative boxes and dialogue bubbles pile up and threaten to overpower the artwork. It's nearly impossible to imagine these images without Bechdel's linguistic accompaniment, but this dependence upon language is more than a stylistic choice—Bechdel's stories are partially about language and the ways she simultaneously relies upon it and doesn't trust it. In an interview with Hillary Chute, Bechdel addresses her own uneasiness with language:

Part of why it took me seven years to complete the book was because I had to learn how to write. I had no faith in myself at the beginning. I was constantly deleting everything I'd written—well, no, not actually deleting, since I'm so anal-retentive. Instead, I created a massive heap of discarded, disorganized text which eventually threatened to suffocate me. It was a real struggle to get to a point where I trusted myself enough to commit things to the page. (1008)

Her distrust of language is reflected in both memoirs. Fun Home uses literary works as a framing technique, or "narrative scaffolding," as Chute calls it. Bechdel also gives us recreations of her father's letters, her own childhood journal, dictionary entries, dialogue from scripts, and image upon image of books. Language is her way of trying to understand her parents, her sexuality, and her past. At the same time, the words she doesn't have underscore the ambiguity at the heart of the novel: without a suicide note from her father, Alison can't be sure that his death wasn't an accident. This missing piece makes it impossible for her to resolve his death. The fact that all these forms of written language can't satisfactorily answer the question of her father's life and death isn't just a narrative conundrum, it's largely what this book is about. Bechdel uses the combination of words and images to get at this frustration and to show us the way words fail. In Are You My Mother, she says, "Language gets very confusing as it approaches this place where outside and inside touch. Or fail to" (28). Bechdel insists that the reader remain aware that she's not able to convey a solid truth linguistically.

The subjectivity of her telling is reinforced again when Bechdel recreates her childhood journal. Even at a young age, Bechdel was already struggling with a distrust of language and her own experience of reality. She becomes preoccupied with the notion that she can't be sure her words are literally true, or, at least, she does not want to take responsibility for the fact that they may not be. She recreates sections of her childhood journal, and her adult-self narrates over them:

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Of her journals, Bechdel says, "It was a sort of epistemological crisis. How did I know that the things I was writing were objectively true? All I could speak for was my own perceptions, and perhaps not even those" (141). This expresses an evident anxiety over her adult writing, as well—all Bechdel can speak to, she reminds us, is her "own perceptions." Ultimately, through all the ways language fails or is incomplete, we see that Bechdel has no words—not her own, not any of the works she appropriates—that can get at the truth of who her father was or what his death means. She approaches this concept both verbally, and verbally/visually, with the recreation of her drawn shorthand over her own journal.

To get at the place where "outside and inside touch," or more significantly, "fail to" touch, Bechdel's art shows us the distance between how things are presented and how they actually are, another cue to the reader to be aware of the constructed nature of a memoir. Throughout both novels, Bechdel redraws actual family photographs. We're not given actual photographs as documentary evidence; instead, we're given recreations of them drawn in Bechdel's hand. The reader is prompted to remain aware that what we're getting is Bechdel's recreation of her family's history—everything is being filtered through her. Perhaps the most explicit illustration of this subjectivity is in Are You My Mother, where Bechdel gives us a series of photographs of her as a baby being held by her mother:

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Here we are visually reminded that Bechdel has recreated these images. Although they're realistically drawn (as her photo representations always are), she has overlaid her art tools to make the reader aware of the process of recreating them. In her article "What's the Matter of Seeing in Graphic Memoir," Nancy Pedri speaks to this sort of meta presentation, in which Bechdel shows us the process of recreating documentary material. Pedri is speaking here about Fun Home, but her analysis applies as well to the image above: "The clear suggestion is that what follows, like what came before, both verbally and visually, is an authentic personal experience that has been filtered through Alison's recollection as well as her artistic rendition of that recollection." Bechdel draws her artistic tools to reinforce that this is a "rendition."

It is also important to note that Bechdel has created her own sequence—something that we know is of utmost importance in comics. She says, "I don't have the negatives, so there's no way to know their chronological order. But I've arranged them according to my own narrative" (Mother 31). Bechdel admits she can't get at the objective truth of sequence without the negatives, which she doesn't have. She recreates and then re-orders these images to create her own narrative, which may or may not have much in common with how the event unfolded in a historical context. Bechdel isn't claiming to give us history, though—she's giving us her story from her hand, in the order she constructs. This is the balancing act that Bechdel performs in this work. While she's warning us not to take everything at face value, she's also being clear that there is a truth at the heart of this story. She didn't create these photos from nothing—they are drawn from real family photographs, which do represent a visual "truth" from a moment in time. This event really did happen, but what we see is the way Bechdel "performs" or recreates it from a distance in time. Reordering the negatives into her own sequence mirrors the process of writing a graphic novel, and once again reminds us of the constructedness.

By keeping us aware of these stories as performances and herself as a performer, Bechdel is commenting on the process of creating a memoir, something this discussion has established she is conscious of and preoccupied with. In Fun Home, her mom is a performer in the obvious sense—she's an actress. Her father is a "performer" in the sense that he's an "artificer," preoccupied with the appearance of things, and at least partially hiding his identity as a gay man. In the act of creating her memoirs, Bechdel literally performs the story by recreating it. In an interview from 2006, Bechdel said, "I can't even draw the simplest pose now without a reference shot" (Chute/Bechdel 1009). In Are You My Mother, she creates an image of herself creating an image from which to create an image:

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This moment she's recreating comes after she's had a breakthrough in her awareness of her relationship with her mother. Throughout this work, Alison's mother remains unable or unwilling to give Alison the sort of positive reinforcement she craves. She does not give Alison the validation that her work—or her need to process her past in this way—is important or valuable. After a conversation with her mother, Alison says, "Whatever it was I wanted from my mother was simply not there to be had. It was not her fault. And it was therefore not my fault that I was unable to elicit it" (228-229). After she has this powerful and freeing realization, Alison breaks down in tears—a moment that we experience with her. Four pages later, however, we're reminded that it was not "that moment" that we experienced with her. She shows us her reenactment of the scene: she shows us that she photographed herself posing, to make us aware once again that what we're getting from this work is not what happened, it is Bechdel's recreation (art) of a recreation (pose) of how she remembers things happening. She wants the reader to know that she is performing memory through a subjective, constructed re-telling of the past. The floating sentence above the image, "When I look I am seen, so I exist," reflects this act of looking at herself to allow us to see her.

In her book about family photographs, Family Frames: Photography Narrative and Postmemory, Marianne Hirsch examines the nature of the family photo and what we can learn about ourselves and our family dynamic by examining these photos. She references Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida, which is part scholarly examination of reading photographs as texts, and part memoir about his search for his mother's true memory in photographs of her. Bechdel's analysis and recreation of family photos is very much in this tradition. While Barthes ultimately does discover a photograph that he feels reveals the "truth" about his mother, he doesn't publish the photograph in Camera Lucida. The actual image is something that he keeps private; what he gives us is a recreation of his reading of that photograph/text. Hirsch writes, "In his book, his mother's picture exists only in the words he uses to describe it and his reaction to it: the image has been transformed and translated into a ‘prose picture,' what W.J.T. Mitchell has called an "imagetext" (2). Bechdel is working on more layers simultaneously than either Barthes or Hirsch. She gives us "imagetexts" or "prose pictures" not instead of, but next to, on top of, underneath her artistic recreations of her family photos. Again, her fear of misrepresenting what "really happened" compels her to keep the reader hyperaware of her "telling."

If Bechdel's works are word-heavy as a means of showing her preoccupation with language, David Small's Stitches is the exact opposite. Most of this book is light on language, which reflects his theme of being unheard. If it's nearly impossible to imagine Bechdel's images without her linguistic contributions, it is equally difficult to imagine Small's memoir needing more words than he uses. Bechdel's images work with the words. Most of Small's images work because there are and could be no words that would express what he's trying to tell us, which is the story about a child who had no voice, figuratively and then literally. The bulk of the storytelling here is accomplished through drawn art. In her article on Bechdel's Fun Home, Agnes Muller speaks to the way silence can be used in comics, and it applies here to Small's work:

In other words, the use of a visual structure makes silence perceptible in a way that written words alone, by definition, cannot. Unlike musical notation with its precisely measured rests, written language has no specific signs for a pause or silence; its only recourse is to mention silence, with the effect of breaking it in the process. (17)

Since this memoir is largely about Small's lack of a voice or his inability to make himself heard, to write about that would be in some ways to undo it. Bechdel's language dilemma is that in spite of how much of it she has access to, it is ultimately ineffective. Small's struggle was that he had limited ability to express himself verbally, and even more significantly, was not heard. He talks about the nonverbal communication that occurred in his family. His mom's slightest movement could indicate her rage: "The mere moving of her fork a half-inch to the right spelled dread at the dinner table. Her furious, silent withdrawals could last for days, even weeks at a time" (16). His brother drums and his father hits a punching bag, both nonverbal forms of expression. David develops his own means of silent communication: "And I, too, had learn a way of expressing myself wordlessly . . . Getting sick. That was my language" (18-19). These words that he uses to tell us about his silence spread over two pages, with six panels of silent art between them—a distinct contrast to Bechdel's works.

The book shows additional ways in which David's language is thwarted. David literally loses his voice when he is stricken with throat cancer that was caused by his exposure to radiation. After surgery, he can only speak in a hoarse whisper. His parents withhold the word "cancer" from him, and he only learns of it when he finds an unsent letter (another example of thwarted or ineffective language), which says, "The boy does not know it was cancer" (204). Interestingly, "the boy" is unnamed here in the moment when his illness is finally given a name, which is a reflection of how language is dysfunctional inside his family.

There is another powerful word that David is denied access to, this one earlier, before his diagnosis. He goes to visit his grandmother with his mom, and while he's there she is physically abusive to him. She burns his hands (the source of his expression through art) after he tells her he doesn't like the food she has prepared. When David's mom returns, he tries to tell her about it:

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David's mom physically silences him to try to prevent him from saying the word "crazy." In a family with a history of mental illness, this enforced silence is dangerous. His mother will not allow him to access the words he needs.

Small does not use as many literary references as Bechdel does in her works, but there is at least one instance of him showing us that language in literature is also not something he can access in a productive way. If Alison is drowning under literary references that give her no satisfactory answers, David is prevented from even trying to find or experience expression through literature. "All those books in his room ... all that SMUT!" (153) his mother says, before we see an image of Lolita. Then she burns David's books in a trashcan, perpetuating her pattern of denying him access to language. This access is temporarily restored when David's mom thinks he will die from his cancer. She offers to get him anything he wants, "within reason, of course" (172). David initially says he doesn't want anything, but then he says, "... There is something you can get. I forgot to bring along the book I was reading. But oh, wait. I forgot. You stole that from my room and you burned it up" (173). After a stare-down, she goes to purchase the book for David and brings it back to him, but the offer is too little, too late, and the words no longer offer David any solace or escape.

Language, then, will not be an outlet for David during his childhood, so he turns to art. In the first segment, "I Was Six," Small gives us an image of young David literally disappearing into his art, as over a series of three frames he goes head first into the page (62). This is an explicit visual cue that what follows is not meant to be taken literally. David has disappeared into his artwork, as the only means of expression that is open to him. We become aware of Small-the-narrator drawing David-the-character's experiences, in a way that a traditional memoir could never accomplish. He is a narrator who uses art to escape, an artist who will create a story that is bigger than the literal truth.

Small uses his limited language to show us the way he didn't have access to language or being heard. He also uses artwork to show us the ways he wasn't seen. In her article on Stitches, Ilana Larkin says, "Small's drawings, particularly his depiction of his characters' often absent eyes, demonstrate how the memoir incorporates the theme of being unwilling to see, a metaphor that pictorially represents both David's bodily trauma and his annihilation anxiety" (185). Bechdel's claims "When I look I am seen, so I exist;" in Stiches, not being seen creates "annihilation anxiety" for David. The way Small presents this concept visually, with characters who have no visible eyes, leads the reader to consider subjectivity and the active nature of seeing and being seen. As Larkin says, "[A] world drawn in naturalistic detail set against a mother who has no eyes—indicates that we, as readers, are not solely in a realistic world. Rather, the memoir chronicles both memory and internal subjectivity" (186). This method of making us aware that we're experiencing David's internal reality is powerfully illustrated in the scene where David is trying to tell his mother that his grandmother is crazy. His mom refuses to allow him to fully speak the word, and her action against David seems violent. But then she turns and when her gaze is directed away from him, we can see her eyes:

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Her refusal to give David her gaze transforms into a look of visible fear when her sight is directed towards her own violent mother. Small doesn't tell us that his mom was afraid of her mom, that his struggle with mental health is something that runs in his family. By drawing his mom's gaze here, he gives us this moment of seeing his mother's fear; we read it that way. For just a brief moment, his mother becomes the scared child. We're also aware that he understands this, because it is drawn from his hand. This is the sort of multi-layered reading that graphic memoirists can elicit. Bechdel uses language to show us how important language was; Small uses art to show us that he was unseen and unheard. Both of these subjective tellings are only possible because of the interaction between words and art in graphic narrative.

Small's sense of performance is accomplished differently but no less overtly than Bechdel's. Stiches is paced with a cinematic precision, a device that calls attention to performance. One example is the establishment of the setting in the beginning. The first page is black with white letters: "I was six." The next page says "Detroit." The third page is a full frame of the skyline of Detroit, and then the next ten frames over two pages step us closer to David, through the city, to his neighborhood, to his house, to his door, into his living room where he's drawing. The setting is established in a deliberately paced, movie-like way. This is a device that Small uses throughout the memoir, calling our attention the fact that the story is intentionally constructed or staged. He doesn't mean for us to read it as a literal historical telling; he structures it to be read as a construct. This is a performance of his experience of his childhood.

David's breakthrough moment with his therapist is the performance-within-the-performance, the heart of his story and the beginning of his recovery. We've already been prepped for role-play, in the beginning when David pretends to be Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. This sets up the moment when we meet David's therapist, who is drawn as the white rabbit, a strong visual indication that the therapy story is not meant to be taken literally. This is a performance/recreation of the progress that was made and the breakthrough that David experienced in therapy, which is a new understanding of his dysfunctional relationship with his mother.

As we move to the climax, David's doctor/rabbit is walking him through his context. He denies that David's behavior is "crazy" (that word can be spoken, here). He says, "A boy who has had cancer ... a boy whose parents and doctors did not tell him he had cancer ... a boy who had to find out the truth on his own ... is this crazy? No. It's sad. But not crazy" (253). And then he says he will tell David the truth. "Are you ready?" (254):

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"Your mother doesn't love you." These are words that may not be spoken by a literal psychiatrist—certainly not one dressed in a rabbit suit—but in this subjective world, here we're shown the realization that David needs in order to break loose and move forward, and it's presented in a way that is maybe more "true" than the "truth." Maybe Real David Small's Real Doctor didn't say those words to him, but it feels very true that it's a realization that he came to through therapy, which ultimately allowed him to grieve and move forward. This moment is beautifully illustrated, too, in a work which places so much emphasis on gaze. The rabbit doctor's eyes are sorrowful, empathetic, and engaging with David. David averts his eyes to consider or perhaps to try to avoid the truth of the statement, but the doctor's eyes capture and hold him. "How can you say that?" he asks. "Is it not true?" the doctor replies (256). It is true, at least in David's experience, and the following eight frames wordlessly show David accepting that truth, then the next twenty frames over eight pages show a rainstorm that symbolizes David's grieving. Then, "And so, we talked. After life in a house where silence reigned and free speech was forbidden, that office, three times a week, became a haven for me. There, things began to make sense ..." (268). As the memoir moves towards its conclusion, the words come more easily and we see David move towards a place of emotional and mental safety.

Both Bechdel and Small's books feel incredibly intimate, due in part to the sense of subjectivity. These memoirs give us a glimpse into the internal existence of the authors. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud speaks to the interaction between creator and reader: "Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice. An equal partner in crime known as the reader" (69). It is not only David who is on the receiving end of all those eyeless gazes—we are, too. The act of reading a graphic memoir often feels more intimate than reading traditional memoirs or other forms of literature due to the active engagement that's demanded from the reader. We cooperate with the author to experience these readings or performances—without our active participation, the performance doesn't occur. As Chute says, "Just as an author's spatial construction of the page can beg rereadings and deliberately confuse narrative linearity (in comics, reading can occur in all directions), the basic narrative requires a high degree of cognitive engagement" (Comics 460). Reading is never passive, but this sort of reading is more active than most, and demands more from us. By choosing to tell their stories in this medium, both Small and Bechdel enter into a relationship with the reader. In an interview, Bechdel speaks to that level of connection with the reader:

I do think drawing is a form of touch for me. When you are drawing a figure, you are touching them. You are creating this person's body. You are outlining their face. Their limbs. Their clothes. It is very intimate. . . . And I ultimately am trying to touch the people who are reading it, or wanting them to—wanting them to touch me. While they are holding this story about me. (Ruddick 211)

Perhaps this level of relationship, of touch, is what a memoirist is ultimately trying to accomplish. We're invited to understand, to experience, to participate in the story of a person's life and in so doing, to consider the nature of memory. When I consider telling my own story, I realize that my goal is to invite that sort of active relationship with a reader, as a means of fostering a conversation not only about the events that occurred, but the ways we process and retell those experiences; in that way, my own story can become something bigger and more universal than history.

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

---. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.

Chute, Hillary, and Alison Bechdel. "An Interview with Alison Bechdel." MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 52, no. 4, 2006, pp. 1004-1013.

---. "Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative." PMLA, vol. 123, no. 2,2008, pp. 452-465.

Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Translated by Lewis A. Coser, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Hirsch, Marianne. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory.Harvard University Press, 1997.

Larkin, Ilana. "Absent Eyes, Bodily Trauma, and the Perils of Seeing in David Small's Stitches." American Imago. Baltimore, vol. 71 no. 2, 2014, pp. 183-211,227.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1994.

Muller, Agnes. "Image as Paratext in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home." GRAAT, issue 1, March 2007, pp. 15-25.

Pedri, Nancy. "What's the Matter of Seeing in Graphic Memoir?" South Central Review, vol. 32, no. 3, 2015, pp. 8-29.

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative, Volume III. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer, University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Rothberg, Michael and Stark, Jared. "After the Witness: A Report from the Twentieth Anniversary Conference of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale." History and Memory, vol. 15, no. 1, 2003, pp. 85-96.

Ruddick, Lisa. "Public Conversation: Alison Bechdel and Hillary Chute." Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, no. 3, 2014, pp. 203-210.

Small, David. Stitches: A Memoir. W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.

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