Mental Illness As Magic In ‘Gingerbread Girl’

We’ve talked a lot about mental illness and Homeland here, and as a corollary (and possible pick-me-up), I wanted to recommend Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover‘s Gingerbread Girl.

The short graphic novel follows Annah Billups, a 26 year old who insists that she has a missing sister. And not just any sister: her Penfield homunculus, which she says her father removed from her brain during her parents divorce, grew into a full-sized sister for her, and who subsequently appeared, only to seem to be avoiding Annah in the city where she lives and loves. As a result of that surgery and loss, Annah claims to feel things less, both physically and emotionally, an excuse for her to behave less than admirably. She schedules two dates for a single night and goes out with the woman who shows up first, is sexually manipulative, and often generally inconsiderate. But she’s still charming and compelling: damage is not incompatible with charisma, and in fact, the two can go together quite handily.

So is Annah insane? It’s never clarified: a Penfield homunculus is, of course, a way of illustrating brain functions rather than a real thing. But the story of her missing sister Annah has a certain magical quality to it that’s a lovely representation of the divorce from self. Annah wants to feel normal and whole again, but Ginger doesn’t want to see her, she dashes around corners and runs out of stores. And while Homeland gives us a Cassandra rendered explicable and admirable to us even as she’s stigmatized by the people around her on-screen, Gingerbread Girl is told significantly from the perspective of the people Annah hurts and loves, from the people (and in several cases animals) she encounters along the way, who are more inclined to be charitable with her than we might be.

It’s also a good way of illustrating the challenges of treatment. It’s one thing to massively reset your brain with ECT therapy. It’s another to have a problem that’s magical rather than scientific. We’re making advances in brain science, but we’re still not far enough along for true cures to depression and dementia, as in Rise of the Planet of the Apes to seem like the provenance of fantasy or science fiction.