It’s not often that I find a book so compelling and so helpful that I fangirl over the author. In fact, it’s not often that I literally can’t contain my enthusiasm in a professional situation. NYCC increasingly vies with SDCC for big names and bigger spectacle, but I always most enjoy the genuine experiences – getting to talk to people with a common interest, getting to boost a small artist. The Lion Forge booth at NYCC may not be the biggest, but to me, it’s the brightest. Getting the chance to interview Katie Green, author of the beautifully illustrated Lighter Than My Shadow, was the highlight of the entire weekend for me.
What Is Lighter Than My Shadow?
Last year at NYCC, I snagged a copy of Katie Green’s book. For months, it sat on my living room coffee table waiting for me to read it. Black and white illustrations seemed dismal during the long New England winter. Moreover, the size and heft of the book meant I’d need time to read it – which I didn’t have at that point.
This, dear reader, was strongly unfortunate.
If you only read one graphic novel this year, make it this one. Lighter Than My Shadow traces Green’s story of recovering from an eating disorder, during which she realized she had been sexually abused. The story, compelling in itself, benefits immensely from her amazing artwork.
However, the book changed my life and opened up conversations with my nine-year-old in ways I never expected. During the Spring semester, before I left teaching, a student struggled with the same recovery process as Green. Reading Ligher Than My Shadow not only helped me help that student but gave me the strength to recognize their struggles more intensely.
Sure, as a teacher, I had students, mostly female, writing papers about Anorexia. However, as I’ve learned from my young friend, what we think we know and what we really know are two different things.
Why We Need Books About Eating Disorders
Statistics from the National Eating Disorder Association should scare every parent out there. When researchers followed a group of 496 adolescent girls for 8 years, until they were 20, they found:
5.2% of the girls met criteria for DSM5 anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.
When the researchers included nonspecific eating disorder symptoms, a total of 13.2% of the girls had suffered from a DSM-5 eating disorder by age 20.
Anorexia is the third most common chronic disease among young people, after asthma and type 1 diabetes.
Males represent 25% of individuals with anorexia nervosa, and they are at a higher risk of dying, in part because they are often diagnosed later since many people assume males don’t have eating disorders.
Subclinical eating disordered behaviors (including binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, and fasting for weight loss) are nearly as common among males as they are among females.
We recognize the idea of eating disorders, but we don’t really recognize them. In fact, we don’t even like to talk about them, which is why Lighter Than My Shadow matters so deeply.
Why We Need to Explain Predatory Behaviors
Moreover, a few months ago, when Kiddo picked the book up from the coffee table where it sadly languished again because I’m clearly not organized, it opened up some very difficult discussions that parents need to have more often.
According to RAINN, sexually abused teens more often than not know their abuser. Their website shares the frightening statistics:
The majority of children and teen victims know the perpetrator.
Of sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement, 93% of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator:
59% were acquaintances
34% were family members
7% were strangers to the victim
Even more disturbing, in Green’s case, her abuser was someone purportedly helping her with recovery. This person she trusted betrayed that trust. When Kiddo read the book, we discussed in depth that some adults work to gain your trust only to use you.
Parents, we don’t want to have these conversations. I know we don’t. However, our most vulnerable children – be they LGBTQ+, Black, Latinx, Asian, struggling with mental health problems or eating disorders – are at risk. Finding the right words to work through these risks is hard. It’s flat out painful. However, that’s why a book like Lighter Than My Shadow matters even more. It’s not because sexual abuse is the problem (although it is); it’s about creating an awareness of predatory behavior.
Why Green Wrote Such a Personal Story
Katie Green is the typical soft-spoken geek. She’s kind and gentle. However, despite the emotional difficulty of writing the book, she explained, “I couldn’t really find books that really talked about what I was going through.”
Early in her recovery, Green notes that she devoured everything there was to read about eating disorders. Unfortunately, “they all seem to tell me either if I just think positive or love Jesus everything would be ok, or I was going to be stuck with this forever. I wanted to communicate something that was in the middle – something that is honest about what it was and how hard it is and still kind of hopeful.”
This primary issue returns to why we need to discuss eating disorders more. Not only do we need to recognize them, but we need to find materials that discuss them honestly. Green originally published the book in the UK five years ago, with Lion Forge publishing it in the US just last year.
Let’s chew on that for a moment. In 2013, so few books about eating disorders showed the depth of experience that Green needed to write this book so others experiencing the same thing had representation.
Moreover, Green explained that after writing the book, “The thing that was surprising is that people want to talk about the eating disorder much more than they want to talk about the abuse. I think our culture has a fascination with anorexia in particular.”
The more I reflected on this comment, the more I realized that my students who did write about eating disorders looked at media and statistics but rarely delved deeper. Our society often looks at eating disorders with a morbid fascination – the idea that they arise less out of mental health struggles and more out of media representation. If Lighter Than My Shadow teaches anything, it’s that the overarching issues contributing to eating disorders are multivaried.
In fact, eating disorders themselves are multifaceted. As we continued to talk, Green explained, “I did [binging and restricting]. That was something that was really important because a lot of people think it is in these discrete boxes, and the truth is most people dabble in all those behaviors.” By limiting our understanding of eating disorders, we glamorize and reduce them in harmful ways.
How Green Explained the Sexual Abuse
As Green noted, most interviews focused on the eating disorder as opposed to the sexual abuse. Whether out of concern or not, she explained, “It’s not easy territory, but there are far more people who’ve experienced sexual abuse than an eating disorder. I never get any questions about that, and I think part of that it’s people don’t want to upset me. They don’t want to put me in a position where I have to talk about that in public, but I feel I made my statement that I’m really ok about talking about this.”
Given the opening, we discussed the impact of writing about the abuse.
First of all, I want to appreciate that you have not come in with what most people say which is a statement that tells me “well that must’ve been really cathartic” because it really wasn’t. It was very hard to write. Particularly the bits about the abuse were very raw. I would draw a tiny panel, and then cover it up with a piece of paper so I didn’t have to look at it while I drew the next piece because it was just horrible. After it came out, it was easy. I think the writing process was the hardest bit, but I kind of wasn’t prepared about the effect of spending all that time thinking about all that stuff would have. It hit me really hard. I had to go for a whole recovery process after writing the book which I didn’t anticipate.
As we sit in a continuous swirl of “it happened to me too,” it’s easy to ignore the impact on the individual that comes from reliving the story. Discussing the #MeToo movement, Green’s generally quiet, low-key voice turned a bit excited. She replied, “I’ve so enjoyed walking around New York. I saw an amazing thing on the subway – a blank piece of paper that said ‘I didn’t report it because.’ People had been filling in their story why they hadn’t reported. It was really profound and touching. I think things like #metoo are helping people feel like it’s ok to talk about it which is great, always a good thing.”
In a time where sharing has become empowering to many survivors, we need to recognize that the emotional violation arising out of a trusted person taking advantage of a situation is equally, if not more, harmful.
I guess coming to terms with the fact that you’ve been betrayed is a massive thing to deal with. I invested so much in believing him, wanting to believe him, thinking this man is helping me. The background that I hope came through in the book is that as someone recovering from an eating disorder, you are told not to trust your body, so I didn’t trust myself to know what was best for my recovery or not. When I met him and trusted him, he’s telling me what’s best for my body, I have to believe him. I don’t know what’s right for me because when I tried to look after myself, I nearly died. To go from that to reframing every moment you’ve spent with someone and realizing they had another motive altogether was really traumatic. I think those first few months after I realized it, I don’t think I slept at all. I think I was just running through all those memories all the time and realizing “he didn’t mean that. He meant something else.” That was hard.
When asked what advice she would give to young people, Green explained,
If you have an instinct that something’s not right — listen to it. Don’t have anyone tell you that because you’re young or inexperienced that you shouldn’t trust your instinct. That’s something that I really struggled with. I had an instinct. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want it to be happening. I knew that because I was lying. I was lying to people around me, but I was afraid. The best advice I can give is trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right.
As parents, we want to protect our children. Protecting our children, however, can’t come at the price of silence. We need to take on the difficult jobs of teaching them to trust themselves. Not every adult will be there to protect them. Having the right stories that open these discussions make our job, if not easier, at least more approachable.
Because Lighter Than My Shadow Is One of Those Stories
When my nine-year-old picked up the book, I almost stopped them. After all, the heavy themes may be much.
If I’ve learned two things about my child they are these: 1) saying no only makes something far more enticing, and 2) having difficult conversations is the way to leave behind a human better than I am.
Green’s story, although dark in many places, also provides hope. She set out with a goal of showing people that despite the long, continuous recovery process, all is not lost. And the art, more than anything else, creates a narrative that allows a variety of ages to learn this lesson meaningfully. Green explained,
I definitely needed both. When I was thinking about writing the book, I was thinking about writing prose. I was one of those people who grew up thinking that comics were for people who couldn’t read. I was 22 before I read my first comic, and it was Maus. Then I read Blankets by Craig Thompson, and both of them just blew my mind. It was like discovering I could read a whole new language, and I knew straightaway that I wanted to tell my story in that way.
It’s a different kind of literacy. It’s definitely not illiteracy.
Further, in discussing the creative artistic process, Green explained,
I did a huge amount of preparation before starting the book. I went to art college knowing that ultimately, this was the project I wanted to do. I did a lot of developmental work on my style and thinking about how I was going to represent the illness. I was working in mixed media and trying things, and then one day I was at my desk and I sketched the image which is on the spine, the girl standing on the scales with the cloud over her head. Then instantly, I realized this was it — the whole rest of the book flowed from there pretty much. It felt like I didn’t have to try after that.
For my kid, the art helped negotiate the discussions. Depicting her eating disorder visually, she drew a monstrous mouth on her stomach. For example, Kiddo asked, “why is there a mouth on her stomach?” I then asked follow up questions. Why do you think? She’s hungry. Yes. But she doesn’t want to eat? No, but she throws up. And thus, with just a few pictures, we were able to use the visual text to work through the themes.
The same was true for the sexual abuse. “Why is she flying?” “Well, do you think she liked what was happening?” “No.” “And sometimes people pretend they’re somewhere else when bad things happen.”
Do we like having these conversations? Nope. Do we like having them at 7am when I had them? Ohhhhh heccccck nope.
Are they important?
What Is Katie Green Planning Next?
In this case, I feel like the Owl in a Tootsie-Pop ad, “the world may never know”… until it’s published. Currently working on several projects, all Green would tell me, despite my very best journalistic efforts was,
The things I want to write about are the important things. I don’t think I’m a fiction writer. I think I have other things I want to talk about that are big, and important, and related.
I think it will be personal. Everything I write will be personal because that’s my voice.