There are few things as painful as the loss of a child. In Rosalie Lightning, Eisner-nominated graphic novelist Tom Hart takes us inside the loss of his young daughter in a graphic memoir so deeply affecting it almost hurts to read it, yet by the end, most readers will be grateful for what they’ve experienced. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “a masterpiece—and a luminous tribute to a brief, beautiful life.” Another reviewer called the story “well-rounded and profoundly affecting,” and Entertainment Weekly declared it one of the books “you have to read.” Along with Fun Home and Blankets, this book now forms an essential trilogy of graphic memoirs that helps us become more fully human, to understand life and love in deeper, more complex ways. It’s not to be missed.
Tom and I recently talked by phone about the book and his journey of healing. Rosalie died unexpectedly in November of 2011 and he coped with the overwhelming loss by immersing himself in writing and drawing, capturing every detail of his waking and dreaming life in his notebook. “I wrote for 5 weeks pretty furiously. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking. When I wasn’t thinking, I was sleeping and dreaming.”
In fact, the book is full of dreams. “They felt like the only way I could be in touch with Rosalie sometimes, to dream about her,” he said. “I didn’t separate dreams from the other reality. They were just as valid as any other experience.” Whether in the form of dreams or spiritual experiences, the loss made him aware of how much more there is to experience and understand in this life. “I believe we exist in one realm, but we are rarely in touch with that larger realm.” Writing the book, he said, gave him greater awareness of the bigger picture of the grief he and his wife, Leela, were experiencing and “allowed us to walk through that pain.”
It took him three to three-and-a-half years to write the book. “It was a way of integrating it into my entire being,” he said. By the end, he had a honest, heartfelt story that depicted the emotional and spiritual journey he and Leela had gone through. “It was definitely cathartic, a way to heal from the whole thing,” he said. Writing the book was “a raw experience,” but ultimately, it “didn’t feel that personal. It just felt genuine.”
Along the way, people told them of their own stories of loss: the death of a sibling or a child, often in unexpected or unexplained ways. I asked if hearing these stories from others was helpful to him. “Absolutely it was helpful,” he said. “I had to feel like we were not alone in our experience. Realizing we all get through it.”
With any profound loss, though, it’s not always clear in the midst of it that there is a way out. A subtle but prominent theme in the book is the experience of being stuck. Cars get stuck in the snow or mud. Tom and Leela get stuck with a New York City apartment they can’t sell, siphoning off much needed income during their time of greatest need. These vignettes serve as metaphors for getting emotionally and even spiritually stuck. “Life kept throwing these easy-to-see signs, easy-to-read markers,” he said. “It wasn’t lost on me that it kept happening.” Ultimately, though, the book is about getting unstuck. “It wanted to make it about looking for that direction forward.”
He didn’t want the book to be just for those who had shared a similar experience, however. “I didn’t want it to be only for people who had suffered a great loss. I just wanted to tell the story.” He’s seen the power of story, both personally and professionally. “The reasons stories and myths work is that they help us integrate this existence. Stories tell us how to prepare the way to take ourselves into our new reality,” he said.
From the time he was young, Tom had been using sequential art to make sense of life. “Drawing has always been a main way that I deal with the world,” he said. He’s been drawing since he was in elementary school. “My big influence was Peanuts. I drew Peanuts-like characters from the time I was 6 or 7.” In Rosalie Lightning, some of the art is reminiscent of that cartoon style, while other pages and frames are more impressionistic or darker, in keeping with the storytelling. The shifting styles are intentionally disorienting, bringing the reader into the experience of emotional whiplash this story requires. By the final pages, though, the art is spare, quiet, and beautiful. It ends on one simple image and one hopeful word.
It’s too simplistic to think all the hurt and the anguish are behind him. Time has been healing, but the loss is still real. “There’s always going to be the fact of that loss and that deep, dark grief. There’s a sort of scar tissue that builds up and it’s less tender,” he explained. “Writing the book helped build that.”
What’s next for Tom? He continues to write and draw. “I’m always working on something and I took a lot of side notes that came as offshoots of the book,” he said. “It will definitely involve father-daughter relationships again.”
The book is—and will remain—a great legacy of the brief but bright life of Rosalie. “I wanted to draw her spirit back into existence,” he said. That way, “I would be able to keep her memory.” We talked about how so many more people can now know about his beautiful daughter. “I’m happy Rosalie’s spirit can bounce around a little bit more,” he said.
The book is available as an eBook, but I strongly encourage you to buy the hardback edition. This is one of those books you need to hold in your hands and keep on your nightstand. It’s a beautiful experience you need to share.