My Brain is Hanging Upside Down by David Heatley

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My Brain is Hanging Upside Down
By David Heatley
Pantheon

In a book defined by brutal honestly, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down has one moment that stands out as perhaps even more telling than the rest. On the final page of the first section, David Heatley picks up a copy of The Comics Journal that features an excerpt from the strip that preceded it.

Reading a review of the piece to himself, the artist is genuinely shocked at the suggestion that the strip finds him, “experimenting with his bi-sexuality.” After revisiting the strip, Heatley comes to grip with the assessment, with a thought bubble that reads, “huh…I guess it does read like I’m bisexual. I always think of myself as ‘straight.’”

In the world of autobiographical comics, we often assume that the most affective works are also the most honest, that surely there’s a power that derives from the ability to approach life in the most transparent means possible. However, we also take for granted the fact that, even in the most candid of works, there remains a certain distance.

There are, after all, just some aspects of our lives that we’d prefer not to share with the rest of the world. It’s a filter that Heatley seemingly doesn’t possess, and where other artists largely prefer save those particularly loaded moments of their lives that they care to divulge to mine as much emotional currency as possible—be it comedy or tragedy—Heatley is content to horde them, stacking emotionally charged memories into neat little piles.

The result is a mosaic of extreme emotional resonance—128 pages of densely packed remembrances of a life that read like a one long, exceedingly cathartic session of primal scream therapy. Broken up into five sections, Heatley dives unblinkingly into his own life’s dealings with sex, race, his mother, father, and the rest of his extended family.

The first section, “Sex History,” lays out a format largely adhered to by the remaining chapters, beginning with several vivid pages from a dream journal, featuring fully remembered fantasies that are alternately fascinating, creepy, confusing, and occasionally, sweet. One wonders why Heatley opted to open each of the sections (save for the final, “Kin,” which features an anecdote from the making of the book)—perhaps he was egging the reader to revisit them after reading the pieces that followed–which, in the case of “Sex History,” is the eponymous strip–in order to form their own interpretations.

The Sex History strip is a 14-page, largely chronological piece that boils down the most telling, confusing, frustrating, and embarrassing moments of the author’s sexual life. After reading a few short sequences, it’s not difficult to understand why the aforementioned Comics Journal article arrived at the conclusion that it did—Heatley’s long string of sexual awakenings, large and small, alternate between experiences with female and male alike, the latter of which often drives the author into extreme fits of guilt.

Heatley appends the discovery of TCJ article as the beginning of a page-long post-script, beginning in 2004 and taking us close to the present day. Ultimately, he offers up something of a happy ending in the arms of a loving wife to whom he has “never [before] felt so attracted.”

Black History
approaches the topic of race in a similar fashion. Heatley maps out nearly every relationship he’s had with an African-American over the course of his life, from friendships to rivalries to far more casual interactions, paying close attention to the manifestations of his own subconscious racism and the need to make himself belong (“Trying to joke with him or show him I’m different from other white people will only backfire and make things more awkward”). The latter is particularly fascinating in light of the fact that much of the piece is supplemented by reviews of the “black music” that has formed a soundtrack to Heatley’s life. It’s an interesting secondary look into the author’s history on the topic, but proves one of the less successful asides of the book, ultimately not adding all that much to the conversation.

The remainder of the book finds Heatley exploring his family relationships, first with “Portrait of My Mom,” then “Portrait of My Dad,” and ultimately “Kin,” which spans his family history from his great-grandparents to the birth of his daughters. Like “Sex History,” the last section ends on an uplifting note, painting a picture of a man who is better off for having survived a life of so many emotional extremes.

Nearly every panel of My Brain is Hanging Upside Down is an intensely personal experience, but Heatley never really feels like an exhibitionist, so much as a person intent on working through each one of his issues. No one, save for the author will be able to connect with each and every experience in the book, but most readers, if not all, will likely find a piece of themselves in some of Heatley’s experiences. As for the remainder of the memories, every one can be recognized as—if not familiar—then at least as an intensely human experience.

–Brian Heater

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  1. sexual music
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