In 2015 writer Alice Chipkin and medical student Jessica Tavassoli were living together in Melbourne. The two Jewish day school graduates had been friends for years and as adults their paths had converged. Both were secular humanists venturing beyond the Jewish bubble. Both were figuring out their sexuality.
But their easy companionship began to strain when, around June that year, Alice noticed some worrying changes in her friend. Jessica confided that she was experiencing invasive, unsettling thoughts. At other times, she would cry uncontrollably for no apparent reason.
Alice watched her friend withdraw further and further into herself. It was when Jessica started talking about suicide – arguing,“I never chose to be born” – that Alice fully grasped her daunting and lonely predicament as friend-turned-carer.
“I could finally feel it,” she writes of that harrowing time. “I was out of my depth.”
The pair reflect on their experience in Eyes Too Dry, a graphic memoir about heavy feelings. The book has a split narrative; the characters, based on the women themselves, illustrate and tell the story from their own perspectives.
The book has already resonated within the community. A crowdfunding initiative sought $5,500 for production costs and exceeded that target by $2,000.
Eyes Too Dry is about the scarce resources available to Chipkin as she struggled to support her friend. The memoir is both a resource for others who may find themselves in a similar situation and a creative lifeline for Alice and Jessica out of an emotional wilderness to the more stable place they now inhabit.
As for Judaism, Jessica says it has “everything and nothing” to do with the memoir.
“Everything in the sense that it was one of the biggest platforms upon which my identity was built,” she explains. “The pursuit of academic excellence, prioritising science and articulation over art and humanities, has had a big impact on why I attempt to process my experience in such a cerebral way.”
Growing up, Alice experienced several streams of Judaism, including Modern Orthodox, Reform and Secular Humanist Judaism.
“A lot of it was very patriarchal and male-dominated,” she reflects. “I hadn’t found the right place, or the right people, but it was a really important part of who I am, things I know, my history, my sense of belonging to the community.”
Graphics were part of the creative process from the start because of their power in expressing subtlety. This was especially so for Jessica.
“What you might not be able to articulate, you can represent in an image,” she says.
Alice recognised that power of imagery early on, when she was writing her thesis on comics and forms of queer autobiography at the University of Melbourne.
“Tava (Jessica’s nickname) has always drawn beautifully, and I’ve mainly written. So much gets said in between the words and the images.”
Jessica’s illustrations depict bewildered, faun-like versions of the people around her. At times of deep distress her naked, infantile character appears. As Jessica’s character resists the abyss with arms outstretched, simultaneously she steps toward it, into darkness.
At several points in the memoir a number of otherworldly, trustworthy protectors with fortifying antlers appear to cradle the weak, diminished Jessica. These beings are not God, she explains, though precisely what they represent is a mystery to her.
“They represent some sort of higher, more complex-than-humans-can-understand force that I can sometimes tap into and sometimes can’t.”
Alongside Jessica’s narrative, the story also follows Alice’s attempt to reconcile her queer identity with her sense of family and her Jewishness. She tackles “my sexuality and my interpersonal relationships and the question ‘what is the place of Judaism within my life?’ and ‘Can those things coexist with one another?’”
In the book, Alice’s character has to cover armpit hair to keep from offending conservative family members. She can’t let go of off-the-cuff comments about her newborn niece finding a boyfriend, though the rest of the family doesn’t see a problem with such jokes.
This tension, together with caring for Jessica, explodes with Alice’s first panic attack. At this point in the narrative the roles reverse. The carer is brought low and needs help from her friend.
Through Eyes Too Dry Alice and Jessica hope to expel the “fear and stigma that so often shrouds expressions of heaviness.”
Lifeline: Call 13 11 14 or see website here
Buy the book online here.
Listen to a podcast here of Alice Moldovan in conversation with the co-creators of Eyes Too Dry:
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