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Leanne Grabel’s ‘Brontosaurus Illustrated’ tackles trauma with humor and honesty

The graphic memoir about the Portland writer's rape as a teenager is a pseudo-sequel to "Brontosauraus: Memoir of a Sex Life."

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Leanne Grabel’s Brontosaurus Illustrated begins with a bang: “The brontosaurus was the size of five elephants. There is a brontosaurus in this book. It is rape.”

Brontosaurus Illustrated (The Opiate Books) is a graphic memoir pseudo-sequel to Grabel’s 2011 memoir, Brontosaurus: Memoir of a Sex Life (Quiet Lion Press), this time told through the eyes of Nina Gold, who survives a rape and kidnapping at the age of 19. Based on true events, Grabel incorporates humor, honesty, metaphor, and place to depict the attack that changed her life. The book is anything but subtle, tackling trauma and survival through a unique medium and sparking discussion about how one can not only live with past anguish, but also utilize and overcome it.

As a graphic novelist, memoirist, poet, and co-founder of the infamous Portland literary hub Café Lena, Grabel is no stranger to putting herself out there. Her ultimate goal, she says over email, is to do stand-up comedy. She tells me she has always been funny, likely choosing humor as a defense mechanism in high school, having always been drawn to the classic combination of comedy and tragedy.

Grabel never studied visual art, she said, referring to herself as a cartoonist rather than a visual artist. “I choose what I draw by knowing what I am able to draw,” she said. “And I like drawing random details with odd croppings and a kind of warped perspective. I have been inspired by people like Roz Chast and Maira Kalman, as far as the illustrations go.”

A fresh take on a deeply transformative event, Brontosaurus Illustrated arrives at the tail end of a series of Grabel’s published recollections. She wrote the first piece during the late 1970s, about five years after the traumatic attack. The essay was published in the Clinton Street Quarterly, a Portland-based magazine in print from 1979 to 1989 with offices at the Clinton Street Theater. 

“I remember riding my bike over to the offices,” Grabel said. “David Milholland, Lenny Dee, and Joe Uris were all part of the editorial staff. I didn’t talk to anyone, I just slipped the article into the mail slot and rode back home. I believe it was the next day when David Milholland contacted me and said they wanted to run the article. The layout was amazing and beautifully illustrated. Of course, I read that early article now and cringe. It was really overwritten.”

Roughly 50 years later, Grabel has honed her craft as both writer and editor. Writing in a casual tone with sincerity that elevates the story without demanding empathy, Grabel has delivered a unique and daring memoir fit for the times. As the saying goes, you’ll laugh… you’ll cry… and you’ll find yourself enthralled.

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"Turning this horrible event into art was a way for me to remove myself from it and heal from it," says Leanne Grabel of the attack that has inspired her to write two books.
“Turning this horrible event into art was a way for me to remove myself from it and heal from it,” says Leanne Grabel of the attack that has inspired two books.

Earlier this week, Grabel gave me an in-depth look at the creation process behind Brontosaurus Illustrated. Her comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

When did you decide you wanted to make not one book, but multiple, about what happened?

Grabel: There was never a conscious decision to write about the traumatic experience recounted in Brontosaurus Illustrated. It was more an autonomic response. I somehow instinctively knew that it was necessary for me to write about that rape and its aftereffects as a way of understanding it and getting it out. I was shaking it off.

How did the illustrated version come about?

About five years ago, I read Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir Marbles. It explores her diagnosis of bipolar disorder and is a mix of not only personal narrative, but also scientific/psychological information about mental health. I loved the combination. Since I was starting to illustrate short pieces of memoir as my new genre of choice, I thought the Brontosaurus story would make a great graphic memoir. I read every memoir about rape I could find and I also read a lot of books on trauma.

I also had an instinctual feeling that illustrating the story would help me detach even more. I truly believe that turning this horrible event into art was a way for me to remove myself from it and heal from it. I was thereby focusing on the craft of storytelling instead of the destructive effects of the story.

What was your process of putting Brontosaurus Illustrated together after having published the Brontosaurus: Memoir of a Sex Life?

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I removed parts that I thought were too mean in the earlier book. There were some descriptions of people that were way more snarky than they needed to be. I changed everyone’s names and changed some details to make certain people more unrecognizable. And just generally cleaned it up and made it kinder. I feel that Brontosaurus Illustrated is now a prose poem, almost. I probably cut out half the text.

I then spent one summer drawing the illustrations. I think I did about 300 drawings. I had also recently discovered The Opiate magazine one day at Powell’s. I was looking for big, beautiful journals that were publishing illustrated writing. I sent The Opiate a couple of short pieces when I got home that day, and by the time I woke up the next morning, I had an email from Genna Rivieccio, the editor/publisher, saying she loved the work and wanted to publish it. Over the next year, Genna accepted more work. I asked her if she wanted to serialize the illustrated version of Bronto and she said yes. So over the next two years, this new incarnation of Brontosaurus was published in The Opiate. This brings us to 2019.

I ran into an old friend, Robin Chilstrom, I hadn’t seen in years. She said she was designing and publishing books. I asked her if she would consider designing Brontosaurus Illustrated. She agreed and we worked together through the summer. I sent the new version to a handful of contests, to no avail, but The Opiate was wanting to get into book publishingand voila.

What were your biggest reservations about creating Brontosaurus Illustrated, if any?

Numerous times I have had people tell me I was revealing too much about Steve, my husband. This was especially true with the earlier version of Brontosaurus: Memoir of a Sex Life. In a way, this was irritating. I mean, it is my book, and he has read every version of the book before publication — as he reads most everything I write. 

So my only concern was that I might actually reveal too much about other people in the book. But I checked in with everyone and got their OKs. My two friends I was with when I got raped said they would never read the book but they were fine with my publishing it. And Steve said fine.

What do you hope others will get from the vulnerability of this book?

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I don’t think people should swallow trauma. I don’t think we should hold that shit in our bodies. Secrets are bad. In my opinion, secrets turn into disease. At least for me, the telling was the healing. I immediately started telling people what happened. As I said above, it wasn’t a conscious decision. It just poured out. Of course, no one knew what to say or how to respond, but the telling dissipated the horror.

Humor always seems to play a large role in your work, especially in some of the graphics of the new book. Can you tell me more about the funny moments that occur and whether you had a favorite panel to illustrate?

I particularly enjoyed drawing my father’s old Cadillacs, or an old jar of Ovaltine. I like drawing clothes and shoes. I liked researching details from the period I was writing about and illustrating them. But the thing to remember is my drawing ability was probably the main driver of what I drew. I would not choose to draw a family dinner with multiple people — faces and hands and so on. Too hard. I would instead draw a bowl of peas or a rump roast or whatever. Because I could draw those things.

Do you have plans for another illustrated book?

My Husband’s Eyebrows, a book of illustrated prose poems about marriage and Steve, was just published by The Poetry Box. There is a lot of humor in that book. I am working on putting music to pieces from Brontosaurus Illustrated and My Husband’s Eyebrows for the readings coming up Nov. 9 at Broadway Books and Nov. 20 at Powell’s. I got a new synthesizer/keyboard and am trying to figure it out, and then work in Steve’s backup.

I am just starting to meet with the dancer/choreographer Gregg Bielemeier and theater and visual artist Patricia Flynn to work on a comedy show about aging. Comedy is definitely what I want to focus on now. I was also just accepted into the Co/Lab Reimagine Jewish art/lab program — reimagining “Jewish” and somehow weaving “Jewish” into my art. I am not religious at all. I did go to Sunday school through 10th grade in Stockton, Calif., but I’m not sure I ever learned anything. It was more of a social thing. I am hoping to learn and understand Judaism a little, perchance to develop a new value or two… or something. I’m looking for some understanding of humanity’s insanity.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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