Nina Burrowes talks about “The Courage To Be Me”, a comic book for the survivors of sexual abuse
We all love comics, right? I mean, I’m sure most of us have grown up with the likes of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and all the other larger-than-life heroes whose exploits have typified the genre for the best part of the last century.
But I think it’s safe to say that there’s undoubtedly a lot more to comics than just ‘capes and cowls’. Visual storytelling has a lot of unique advantages compared to other mediums, and perhaps as a result of these factors, Doctor Nina Burrowes has opted to use the format for her latest project, a comic designed for the survivors of sexual abuse.
Her book, “The Courage to be Me”, is aimed at the largest group of survivors of abuse out there – those people who are not currently accessing any support services because of a sense of fear or shame. And in the interests of helping raise visibility for this extremely worthwhile endeavour, we sat down with Dr Burrowes and had a chat about the project and the reasons behind it.
Big Comic Page: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Nina. First off, would you like to tell us a little about yourself and your background?
Nina Burrowes: I’m a psychologist and researcher specialising in the psychology of rape and sexual abuse. My work is used to inform government policy, to train practitioners and to contribute to our academic understanding of the area. Recently I’ve started to create work that is aimed at the public – and I’ve been using cartoons to do this.
BCP: How did the idea for this project come about?
NB: This project was, and still is, a leap of faith. It happened thanks to a combination of lots of different things. I had already decided that I wanted to start producing material that would help the person on the street have a better understanding about the realities of rape and sexual abuse. I had made that decision when I was working on a project about public attitudes to rape and the impact of those attitudes on how juries reach decisions in rape trials. So the desire to ‘talk to the public’ was already there.
My next research project was in my hometown of Portsmouth. The project was interviewing women who had just completed their first piece of group therapy with other people who’d also experienced rape or sexual abuse. I found these interviews very moving and was determined to do what I could to help other people hear the amazing human stories that were captured in the interviews. The final catalyst was that I’d also recently started learning how to draw and was playing with the idea of ‘cartooning psychology’. The book happened when all of those three things came together. But I guess another key ingredient was that I was willing to take the personal, professional and financial risk of producing the book. I’m still waiting to see how that risk turns out, but I’m very happy to have taken the leap.
BCP: What prompted your decision to use the medium of comics to help tackle such a sensitive subject matter? And what do you feel the advantages of the comic book style are over, say, a ‘regular’ book?
NB: Sexual abuse is a frightening topic area. The psychology surrounding it is also very complex. Comics are the perfect medium for covering something that is both frightening and confusing. I love how an illustration can distil very complicated content onto one page. And it does so in a way that is very human and compassionate. If you’re drawing you’re not trying to mystify your reader with academic jargon and you’re not setting yourself up as an expert. It’s a great way of using your own humanity to touch the humanity in your reader. One of the greatest assets of the book is that the reader is able to emotionally connect with the characters – this means that they can emphasise with them and actually benefit from some of the aspects of ‘group therapy’ that are covered in the book. As a psychologist, comics help me ‘do’ psychology in my books. That’s much more powerful than simply giving people information ‘about’ psychology.
BCP: You’ve chosen to make your book available online, completely free of charge. Was providing that level of accessibility important to you?
NB: That was very important to me and it’s the reason why I’ve needed to self-publish the book. I’ve tried to create something for the hardest to reach people out there – the millions of people who possibly haven’t told anyone about their experience. These people are not in therapy or phoning helplines. They are living with their experience in isolation. The book is free for the 14 year old who can’t afford to buy it; for the woman who is still living in an abusive relationship and is too frightened to have a book about abuse in the home; and for the man who’s not yet ready to walk into a shop and buy a book on sexual abuse. It was an easy decision to make. I also hope that anyone who is simply curious about sexual abuse and wants to educate themselves about it will read the book. Making it free of charge means more people are likely to do this. I’m sure some people will buy the book. But it’s okay with me if they don’t – I just want as many people as possible to read it.
BCP: Let’s talk about the artwork. The book features four seperate artists, each with a very distinctive style. Was it important for you to have a unique look for each of the chapters in your book, and how did you go about ‘matching up’ the artists to the individual chapters?
NB: I had over 40 applications from people who wanted to be involved in the project. My process of choosing artists to work with was simply a case of letting myself fall in love with the work people had sent in with their applications. I love that the styles are so different and that the characters look so different in each of the chapters. We all perceive people and situations differently; the psychologist in me loves that the book illustrates that point so beautifully. I was very hands-on with the content of the chapters; but consciously very hands-off with the look and style of each chapter. I wanted everyone to give me their very best work. They did.
Matching the artists to the chapters was also a pretty simple choice. The narrative of each chapter had a specific tone. It was just a case of matching that tone to the style of each of the artists. The hardest person to work with as an illustrator was me. I am still very new at learning to draw and I knew that I didn’t have the skills to convey emotion in the same way as the other illustrators. So my pragmatic choice was to give myself the ‘information’ aspects of the book and leave the more emotionally complex material to the others.
BCP: What kind of feedback have you received so far from readers of the book?
NB: The feedback has been amazing. This isn’t the first book on sexual abuse to be written but it’s the first one that combines science, storytelling and illustration to tell a hugely emotional story in a very accessible and engaging way. The reviews on Amazon are wonderful and I’ve been getting some very moving emails. People have told me that the book has helped them give a voice to how they are feeling for the first time; that the book makes them feel less alone; that they have phoned up to get counselling after reading the book; and that they’ve been able to use the book to explain how they feel to the people who love them. I hoped that the book would help people. It is. I’m excited about how many more people it could help.
BCP: And finally, if you could give one piece of advice to anyone reading this who may have experienced any of the issues raised in your book, what would it be?
NB: Please read the book. It’s written for you. The book is my way of sending a message of hope to everyone out there who is living with the impact of rape or sexual abuse.
BCP: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about this, and we can only hope this book reaches as many eyes as it possibly can.
You can find out more details about The Courage To Be Me, as well as read the book itself, at www.ninaburrowes.com.
You can also follow the author on Twitter at @NinaBurrowes
The writer of this piece was: Craig Neilson (aka Ceej)
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