Clouds of memories (“I once learned to play ‘Mull of Kintyre’ on the guitar … It was 1977 … a strange musical era”) drift over trees veining like capillaries. A girl, black bangs framing her face, holds onto an empty word balloon or slings it over her back as she trudges up a rounded hill. “Unfortunately, if you don’t tell … no one notices.”
Becoming Unbecoming is a feminist memoir of Una’s childhood in ’70s Yorkshire, when and where a man was serially attacking and murdering women. In her teens, flattered by older males and treated as if so mature, Una’s violated and manipulated. This anti-fairy-tale, melancholy and drifting, is fuelled by a fiercely political retrospective tone. There are gossamer wings and wolves in fields; women are tagged with guilt or innocence in a victim-blaming and -shaming culture; “slut” stalks Una at school and “whore” is splashed across articles about the “Yorkshire Ripper.” Socio-historical context, swirling contemporary questions, self-reflective cultural analyses and details of the stumbling, sexism-blinkered police investigation are braided into the narrative. (“But I still didn’t tell.”)
Young Una’s psychology and troubled coming-of-age (schoolmates treat her brutally) are offered up in pencil drawings, ink-washes, Rorschach-like blots, cutouts of women’s outfits (playing with gender roles and expectations), even imaginings of victims’ lives regained. All of this—some like sketches drawn from the subconscious—unfurls amid each page’s white space (like finely wrought poetry, this art seems ever-aware of the blank waiting at the brink of each line). The girl Una’s fragmentation, dissociation and fading in-and-out of feeling are suggested by the artist Una’s playing with one- and two-dimensional images, visual and textual juxtapositions, sudden flourishes of colour, and flattened or deepened perspective.
“We have to listen to them … otherwise we are united only by silence.” Here’s a work—correcting and countering blindnesses of the past—that could offer some of the comfort, compassion and context for victims of gender-violence that young Una never knew. In its tender and troubling look at women’s visibility and invisibility, voices and voicelessness, becoming and unbecoming in a violent man’s world—violent for far too long already—Una’s piercing memoir writes back and speaks up.
Myriad, 207 pp, $28.95