This is a review in which controversial things are said. We put that up front. No, let’s not hide behind the royal we. I put that up front, There you go. I, me, Peter Wild, put that warning up front. You may not agree with everything that is said and that is okay because you can disagree. It is allowed. In a moment I am going to review a graphic novel called Becoming Unbecoming by an artist called Una published by Myriad Editions. I first read the book about three weeks ago and I thought things. I didn’t write what I immediately felt. I let the stew simmer, as it were. I read the book again. I interrogated what I thought. I talked about what I thought with others. I interrogated my thoughts further. I read Becoming Unbecoming again.
Is criticism misogyny? That’s the question currently sweltering in my brain. Is it possible for me, a man (in the loosest definition of the word) to read a book and not be blinkered by my mannishness? Am I open to experience, regardless of gender? Is it possible to be regardless of gender? Good questions all and small red flags to pin to the map before we dive proper into the review of Una’s Becoming Unbecoming. I think there will be readers of this review who think me misogynist (and worse). This makes me understandably nervous. I’ve read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I know what can happen. At the same time, however, there are things that make me nervous about Becoming Unbecoming – things that I see reflected in the larger world, things I don’t think anyone reasonable appears to be saying. Above all else, I think I am reasonable. (That in itself may be subject to criticism – I’m being reasonable about things that people may feel you cannot be reasonable about. Let’s see.)
Okay. Becoming Unbecoming is a graphic novel, as I’ve said, that begins by exploring the experience of a young woman growing up in Leeds at the same time as the Yorkshire Ripper was committing barbarous murders. At the same time as Peter Sutcliffe was murdering women, the West Yorkshire police force was doing a terrible job of tracking him down. Becoming Unbecoming quickly does a few important things that felt new to me: for instance, I thought he mostly killed prostitutes; it turns out he didn’t. Una also follows a similar thread to Jill Leovy in Ghettoside, in that she addresses why it should possibly matter whether a murder victim is a sex worker or not. As in Ghettoside so here: a minority is left without a voice and people don’t take crime seriously. Una does a great job of marrying recollections of her upbringing with background on the crime and the time. At this point, Una’s book is not dissimilar to Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, where Mary Talbot explored her own upbringing set against the upbringing James Joyce’s daughter Lucia had (I say not dissimilar to: it is of course distinct in its own right, the similarity is the sharing of a narrative device).
Becoming Unbecoming is not just a book about a woman who grew up during the Ripper attacks in Leeds, however; it is also the story of a woman who was herself the victim of exploitation, a young woman who was vulnerable, who had issues and was taken to a psychiatrist, who was troubled and took time to find her voice and talk about what had happened to her. It is the story of a woman who was attacked, a woman who had bad experiences and a woman whose life was shaped in some ways by what has happened to her. Gradually, the book starts to interrogate the society in which she found herself (in which football fans chant, ‘there’s only one Yorkshire Ripper’, for example), exploring the ways in which difference is identified and what effect that can have, the ways in which she ‘became an unreliable witness and a perfect victim’.
Then. Then. There comes a point where Una writes, ‘It’s not easy to discuss any of this openly’. We start to explore male violence. Particularly ways in which men are violent to women. The statistics are indisputable. Una raises the grisly spectre of the anonymous acts of misogyny on the internet but balances it by talking about the ways in which the internet provide groups of women can ‘find each other and give support’.
“Sharing experiences on the web means we can organise against the silence, the shame, the dismissal… So the digital revolution is a solution as well as a problem.”
That’s quite even-handed I remember thinking. Gradually the book starts to become a rant. Perhaps it should be a rant, you might say. If you were looking for a subject to get angry about this is it, surely? This is possibly where the review becomes misogyny. It certainly isn’t intended that way. I feel that a work of art is a work of art – just as a political pamphlet is a political pamphlet, and the two things are for me distinct. When the premise of the book is put to one side, in favour of shouty statistics and scattershot narrative (taking in a coalition of women’s groups in Eastern Congo, Artemisia Gentileschi, a well-known Italian baroque painter and stand-up comedians), it loses its hold on the reader. In some ways it’s that old chestnut about whether art should show or tell. Becoming Unbecoming is a book that tells. It lashes out and takes in, for example, men who have the temerity to write about the Ripper case and have a different opinion about it to Una (the point there, being, that some of the men who have written books about the Ripper seem to find him inexplicable, a horrific one-off, a monster, whereas Una would argue he was actually much more typical than you’d credit; a line that reminded me of Gordon Burns’ defence for writing about the Wests in his book, Happy Like Murderers). By the time the narrative circles back to focus both on the Sutcliffe’s capture and, in short order, the rest of Una’s life to date, the structure of the book is hobbled.
Now. Now. That is the extent of my criticism of the book. In an earlier draft, I talked about how beautiful the art is. It is a beautiful book but drawing attention to it here feels like the equivalent of me patting a writer on the head. (Although, again, in my defence, that is how I tend to talk about graphic art and you can see it across dozens and dozens of graphic works on this site). I wanted to circle back at the end here to talk about all of the things there are to like about the book. Becoming Unbecoming is a strong book. A book that I can imagine being very important to a lot of readers, particularly anyone who has had similar experiences to Una, whether that is simply cruelty from schoolmates or actual sexual abuse. I can see the book being important to teenagers whose own views of feminism are nascent and becoming/unbecoming. I think it could have been a much better book if Una had found ways to show rather than tell – because at times she tells and her telling is accompanied by the waggiest of fingers. No-one likes to feel told off, especially when all the reader has done is read the book (I don’t want to say that maybe Una wants certain of her readers, the male readers, to feel as if they should be told off, and then some – but that’s certainly how it feels at times). There are moments when the book itself feels like a contradictory act of vengeance – because Una doesn’t condone violence but admits that she had thoughts of violence and can understand how women can be driven to acts of violence. It felt to this reader like Una didn’t have the detachment that, say, Marjane Satrapi achieved with a work like Persepolis, and if she had managed to achieve that detachment in order to construct a book, it would have been a much better book. (But I say this in the full and slightly shameful knowledge that I have never experienced what Una has experienced and I genuinely don’t know if it is possible to detach oneself from that). After my third re-read I was reminded of a Louis CK routine about American foreign policy in which the US is seen to justify any and all acts of atrocity by saying, ‘Yeah, but 9/11!’ The calm rational Louis CK says, yeah, but what about Guantanamo, what about this, what about that – and the teenage voice declaims, ‘9/11!‘. By the end Becoming Unbecoming is all a bit 9/11!
One last point that I think has to be made and it’s perhaps the most controversial point of all: a book is a book and a person is a person and the experience of a person does not preclude criticism of a book. Criticising the book is not demeaning the experience or attacking the person afresh. Nobody would seek to do either of those things. But a book is an artefact placed into the world and the artefact, distinct from its creator, is there to be read, critiqued, discussed, interrogated etc. Becoming Unbecoming starts well, derails itself and doesn’t quite get back on track. At one point, when Una is exploring the difference between victims and survivors, and dismissing misery memoirs, saying this isn’t that, she has an opportunity to say what it actually is: but she can’t do that because what it is is all over the place.
Any Cop?: An important book but a book that struggles to be even-handed (an opinion we voice in the full knowledge that possibly this is not a subject to be even-handed about).