By Esme Douglas
October 23, 2018 at 09:30 AM EDT
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Credit: Penguin Random House

The day after Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about an alleged sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh, Liana Finck posted a pen drawing on Instagram depicting a woman’s harrowing encounter with a strange man. The woman tries defending herself against a creepy comment, only for him to follow and physically threaten her. Finck captioned the sketch: “Whether or not we are willing to be vigilantes… this kind of humiliating, terrifying thing happens to a lot of us every day. And the secret is — whether you just take it, or run after the men screaming, or sit before a government committee and all of America, the idea of you having any power is still a joke.”

A cartoonist and author, Finck often uses her social media platform to document these types of encounters, and it’s therapeutic for her followers. “People really relate to those,” Finck tells EW. “I find that as I get older, I get more and more wary and paranoid about people being scary on the street… and then being scared almost makes it worse” — worse on the receiving end, and also in how her aggressors respond. Dissecting these kinds of everyday, under-discussed interactions in cartoon form has turned Finck’s Instagram into a cult sensation. And she brings that same brand of confessional feminist intimacy to her new graphic memoir, Passing for Human.

Passing for Human features literal false starts, with multiple title pages throughout indicating Finck’s thwarted attempts at starting the book. She first finds her footing with the story of her mother: her abusive first marriage, subsequent architecture career (which included designing their family’s crescent-shaped house), and eventual love story with Finck’s father. The through-line here is Finck’s mother’s relationship to her own shadow, drawn by the author as its own human figure. Finck initially toyed with the idea of making each chapter a different idea about what the shadow is, and though the metaphor is open to interpretation, the core of it speaks to self-determination.

With Passing for Human, Finck draws those familiar and unfamiliar into an arrestingly unique visual journey, in the vein of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. The memoir shows a new side of the artist, who says she uses Instagram, conversely, “mostly to work out things that really bother me in life.” In addition to street harassment, her Instagram cartoons also explore the general anxieties of living, often in chart form. (One timeline-style graph titled “Terror of Being” chronicles her specific worries, such as being “unemployable” or “weird,” over time.) Having an outlet to express the minutiae of her inner fears helps Finck work through them. “I had a ton of debilitating circular thinking for while there,” she says. “Instagram is a visual way of explaining how I get past various terrors.”

Credit: Penguin Random House

The book is deeper and more personal, but also a natural extension of that process. Consider, for instance, its subtle gender commentary: Only Finck and her mother have shadows appear in Passing for Human, whereas her father notably does not. “The shadow is this strong being that reads your mind and tells you who you are and what you want, and pushes you toward what you want,” Finck explains. “And I don’t think a man needs that extra support. I don’t think society is pushing him not to be who he is.”

Finck also takes on trauma here, as she does on Instagram, with innovative melancholy. Her mother’s storyline in the book was influenced by her belief in “epigenetics”: the idea that we genetically inherit not just our ancestor’s traits, but also their lived experiences. When Finck depicts her character’s disappointing relationship with distant cartoonist “Mr. Neutral,” he ghosts her after they have sex — a stark contrast to her parents’ idyllic relationship, if also a reflection of her mother’s emotionally bumpy past.

Credit: Random House

Finck is a natural nonlinear thinker, in part because of her synesthesia: a neurological condition that causes an overlap of the senses. It’s why she renders many elements — sounds, smells, letters — visually. Finck’s deft approach to memoir, her ability to so singularly trace a young woman’s path toward self-determination, reflects what she calls a “pretty unexplored format” in books. Instead of simply relaying the events of her life in prose, she uses illustrations; instead of maintaining typical narrative structure, she uses imagery to tell the more abstract story of her soul’s journey.

Though the shadow metaphor in Passing for Human inevitably represents how growing up often requires distance from one’s true self, it also suggests that, however one finds meaning in life, it’s possible to reconnect with the truest part of oneself. Throughout, the author intersperses reimagined biblical tales in which God is female, less punishing, and more playful. There’s something irresistibly lovely about them. Finck originally wrote these stories for a man she was in love with; how fitting that, in a book filled one woman’s blazing artistry, the fall of man suddenly doesn’t seem so dire.

Passing for Human is available for purchase now.

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