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Hayden Shares Her Breast Cancer Survival Tale in “The Story of My Tits”

by  in Comic News Comment
Hayden Shares Her Breast Cancer Survival Tale in “The Story of My Tits”

For the past decade, Jennifer Hayden has been working steadily in comics, both online and in print, but “The Story of My Tits” is easily her longest, most complex and most accomplished work to date.

The Top Shelf-published graphic novel tells the story of Hayden’s life, from childhood to adulthood, having children and being diagnosed with breast cancer. But while it’s a story of illness, it’s also a story about discovering one’s voice. As she recovered from cancer, Hayden discovered graphic novels, and found herself embarking on a new career.

“The Story of My Tits” is a book that people will relate to, and be horrified by, again and again. It’s a book Hayden describes to CBR News as her “life’s work,” though it’s hardly the last thing she has to say through the comics medium.

CBR News: You touch on this in the book, but I think it’s important for our readers to understand, where did the idea for “The Story of My Tits” start?

Jennifer Hayden: In the summer of 2004, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. Once I’d gotten through it, I knew I wanted to write about it for other women who’d been through it or were about to go through it. At first, I thought I would write about it, but as I was recovering from surgery, I got a stack of books to read, which included graphic novels — the first ones I’d ever read. Instantly, I knew that this was the way I was going to tell my story.

From the beginning, were you thinking about crafting a memoir through this lens?

No, at first I just wanted to do my breast cancer story. Then a couple of things happened. I began to read graphic novels and found that this was not an original idea. There have been several good cancer memoirs, including “Our Cancer Year” by Harvey Pekar and “Mom’s Cancer” by Brian Fies, and several breast cancer graphic memoirs, most notably “Cancer Vixen” by Marisa Marchetto.

I also realized that I didn’t just want to write about being a cancer patient. What I really wanted to do was to give the reader the experience I’d had, of seeing all the ripples of my life fan out from the moment of my diagnosis, through all the experiences that resonated with this, stretching into my past. This is the story of a woman — and because she is extremely lucky, one chapter of her life is breast cancer.

What did your husband and your children say when you told them, “I’m going to become a cartoonist and make a book about my life, which will occasionally make you cringe”?

Ah, now, I would have been a fool to tell them that. I said, “I’m drawing one of these graphic novel thingies. Look at these things. Come on, look! And it’s going to tell the story of what happened with my breast cancer. No, wait, my whole life. Yeah, that’s it! Okay — I’ll see you idiots when it’s finished.”

Why did you decide on that choice of words, “Tits?”

When I choose a title, I just start listing ideas as fast as I can till my hand stops. That’s usually the one. I chose this title the same way. This is where I stopped. The word “Tits” was lighter than the word “breasts,” without, as I saw it, being flippant — say, if I’d used “cans.” Tits are also already a little separate from who I am, which is my point. A source of humor and pleasure — in many ways a social construct — but when you have to choose between them and your health, how quickly you find out they are not your identity.

I was struck by how you depicted childhood, and while and there were so many scenes that jumped out at me, you have one line: “I wanted tits more than anything in the world. I thought they were the answer to all my problems.” They meant growing up, and as kids, almost all of us wanted to be older. 

I have met women who never wanted to grow breasts and hips because it represented female responsibility, and they took a look at their mothers and said, nope, not for me. I didn’t really think it through, I guess. I just wanted to have a little authority, a little clout. Nothing else I had on offer seemed to be earning me that. So in the end, I lose my breasts and gain my voice as an artist, the voice I had in childhood and never quite believed in. Lesson learned, eh?

As a guy, there are so many moments in the book that I could relate to, that I understood, that I’ve come to understand, but there were moments in the book where I cringed. I’m thinking in particular of “Funny, now that I had tits, I found out that boys liked personality.”

Did you cringe because I didn’t get that right? Ha! Well, I like boys. I think I relate to them better than I relate to women, a lot of the time. And boys can be quite wonderful about what constitutes the women they love — my husband, for instance.

I guess this quote cuts to the heart of the book, which is: what’s my identity as a breastless woman? I think I made it pretty clear that boys like both tits and personality. But sometimes, circumstances don’t allow you to have both. I know which I’d rather have.

While you were making this book, it seems as though we started going through a change about how we talk about breast cancer in the United States. To what degree do you think that’s true, and did that change how you were addressing and depicting your own experiences?

My experience is now eleven years old. I remember afterward, I was encouraging photographer friends to do portraits of women post-mastectomy, lightly draped, to show how beautiful they were. Gradually, books full of these kinds of portraits began to appear. We were all on the same wavelength. I recently watched a close friend go through what I went through — bilateral mastectomy — but she opted for no reconstruction. She doesn’t worry about making anyone uncomfortable. She’s a flat-chested, tight-shirted wonder, taking on the second half of her life with gusto! It’s a bummer that breast cancer is still so rampant, but more of us than ever live through it, and I think the survivors are getting more outspoken about how to move on.

In the book, you do push against some of the ways that people talk about cancer. Your therapist tells you, “You won’t be the same person. But you will go on.” But you go to this group where the person says that you brought cancer on yourself, that it’s an opportunity, all these things that can be really obnoxious.

We all need to find the philosophy that helps us heal. The holistic community was tremendously comforting and supportive for me when I discovered it post-breast cancer. But after a while, I did feel an undercurrent of blame and anger in this culture, and that did not feel healthy. So I kept seeking the things that did feel right, and that’s what I want to encourage every breast cancer survivor to do — to follow her instincts for giving her body and soul what they truly need. I’m sure I sound obnoxious, too. Well, screw it.

One reason I ask is, you have a line towards the end of the book: “The toxic puddles of fat on my chest were gone, and they couldn’t spread their poison to my body anymore.” That chilled me, but I felt what you meant. 

The odd thing is that while I miss having breasts — that good ol’ cleavage in a low-cut shirt — I would never want them back. I realize I am an amputee, to some extent. But I got rid of my boobs mentally as soon as I was diagnosed. They became alien to me as soon as they threatened my health. I no longer regarded them as part of my body. And I still view them on other women with apprehension, not envy.

Could you talk a little about what it was that made you abandon writing and take up drawing, go to art school as an adult, and become a cartoonist? Were you always drawing? What does it mean for you?

Drawing came to me like breathing. I was always writing poetry, too, and I never could choose which to pursue. I went to a liberal arts college with lousy studio art, so I majored in art history and minored by myself in English, reading every novel I could get my hands on. Writing was much harder (because I sucked at it), so that’s what I decided to do when I graduated. After I had kids, I returned to drawing, studied children’s book illustration and got into that. I’d forgotten that freedom, confidence, spontaneity. I could be funny, alive — it was great. But I chafed against the restrictions of working for a children’s audience. So, of course, in the end: comics.

In putting the book together, once you had the shape of it in your head, what was the process like? Was there a lot of rewriting and redrawing? How did the process compare with the shorter comics you made?

I make all my comics the same way: pell-mell. For the book, I did a timeline, then a short outline with a few sentences per chapter to remind me of the story arc. No script. I wanted to be surprised each day by what I chose to say and draw. The book was an add-a-pearl necklace, panel by panel, threaded on. No pencil. Only ink. I might finish a panel, decide I didn’t like it, throw it out. I was learning every day. With my shorter comix, I’d make a few notes about an experience, then think of a title and first line, and jump in. I wrote poetry when I was young, and when I make comix, I get that same unbelievable feeling of freedom.

I did want to talk a little about the art, because I’ve read other comics you’ve made, and the art here feels more polished and more confident, for lack of a better word. It feels like you’ve been building towards this book.

So few people talk about the art! I never know if that’s because they think it stinks, or it just doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story, which I would take as a compliment.

The thing is, this book starts with the first comix art I ever made. It ends after I’d been doing comix for eight years. This book contains my learning curve. Simultaneously I was doing stories for “Underwire” on Act-i-vate, then “S’Crapbook” — another webcomic on Act-i-vate — and for the last three years, my diary webcomic “Rushes.” I learned a great deal from those as well. But in many ways, I knew those projects were practice for the real thing. My book was the real thing. It wasn’t public — I showed it to no one once I signed with Top Shelf — not even them! There was a silence around this project, a sense of tremendous risk I was taking, so it challenged me like nothing else I was doing. The art just responded to the material.

It’s pretty great when reviewers feel everything you put into a story. I’ve been very lucky. They also seem to like the storytelling, so it’s been gratifying to realize that all the stuff I never seemed to be able to do in the novels I wrote in my twenties, I’ve been able to do here. The best thing is that no one has asked me about the art. Reviewers don’t even mention it. Maybe it isn’t a good thing, but I prefer to take it as a compliment. They seem to be focusing on the content, which must mean the vessel is fairly transparent. Which was my goal.

So you’ve made the book you wanted to make. I really hope that this doesn’t mean you’re going to abandon comics now. Are we going to keep seeing more from you in the coming years? Have you become a comics lifer?

Thank you for that. I love comix and its people. They have welcomed me in, even though I’m a middle-aged suburban Mom, which should have been the kiss of death. I’ll be grateful for that ’til I draw my last line, squiggling off the bottom of the paper as I keel over. I’m here for life. 

You’ll just have to bear with me as I do some more experimenting with style and subject matter. I can’t do the same book over again. “The Story of My Tits” is my life’s work, and I’m fine with that. I feel like I got my fanny very comfortable in the comix chair, and now I want to raise some hell. I’ve got a comix diary of over 1,000 pages I’ll be pitching to Top Shelf — explaining my process of finishing this book and putting it into production. As well as all the things that got in the way of my finishing it on a daily basis — losing a dog, going to Europe, getting kids into college, selling a property that had been in my husband’s family for 45 years, buying a new place, angst, idiocy, tedium. The art is rougher, but I see it getting more muscular.

I’d also like to collect “S’Crapbook” at some point — my tribute to the four-panel short-form comic. And then I have a shoebox of ideas for a graphic novel combining fiction, autobiography, and some of my ancestors. Don’t know what’ll happen there.

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