Childhood Stress and Trauma in Calling Dr. Laura

Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole Georges is a visually stimulating graphic memoir that presents conflicted emotions in a friendly, open narrative style. Georges addresses the audience like a trusted confidant and conversationally opens up about her private life. The most compelling part of Calling Dr. Laura is how Georges candidly re-tells the story of her traumatic childhood and subsequent stress-related Encopresis, using very simple black and white drawings in order to give herself distance from things that still seem to cause her pain. This style also leaves space open for the reader to connect with and understand her childhood on a deeper level.

Nicole communicates her less than ideal childhood to the reader through a series of narratives. One of these narratives surrounds her mother’s husband, Ed. On page 86, Nicole shows what living with Ed was like for her. The third frame shows Nicole standing in the very center watching Ed choking her mother while she helplessly holds her teddy bear. In the fifth frame, Nicole is sitting on the phone with 911 while Ed screams at her to open the door. Nicole narrates this scene, using the words, “obvious terror.”  Nicole seems to use her childhood toys to further represent the helpless feeling that these events caused. In frame two Nicole is almost non-existent while her bear, Edmundo, covers his ears to the shouting of her parents. The last frame shows one of Nicole’s other stuffed animals sitting on a chair that is propped in front of the closed door along with a stack of books, presumably to keep her step-father out. Nicole’s toys appear to be stand-ins for her in a way that suggests that the memories still cause her terror. Her narration calmly communicates the fear and the helplessness she felt watching her mother’s abuse at Ed’s hands, but the images betray this sense of calm with their severity.

imageThe most visually striking image showing Nicole’s stress caused childhood trauma only has one small picture of her in it. On page 58, Georges speaks directly to the reader, “I didn’t tell you this part about the stomach pains…” She very conversationally draws the reader in so that she can hit them with a wordy textbook definition of Encopresis – a condition that explains the stomach issues that plagued her, yet went undiagnosed during her childhood. She draws very basic, almost icon-like diagrams of a large intestine and a pair of soiled underwear next to the definitions in order to add emphasis. This page has a quote from an article that was written in 2008, so this suggests that it is research that Nicole has done on her own as an adult in an attempt to understand why she couldn’t control her bowels. Most importantly, there is a hand holding the ripped out page with the definition, which gives the reader the feeling that Nicole handed them this page. It is one more way that Georges puts her humiliation directly in the reader’s grip and leaves them to draw their own conclusions.

imagePage 58 is also striking because of the images that float around the hand holding the page. Nicole shows herself as a child sitting on her knees with wisps of memories floating out of her. There is a drawing of her mother with Faisal (who had not yet been introduced), as well as one of Ed hitting her mother and her mother yelling at her while holding her face. Nicole doesn’t actually give any of these memories dialogue, but the page speaks volumes with a small, ripped piece of paper below the images that says, “Emotional stress may also trigger Encopresis.” Nicole is showing how her mother’s relationships have caused her emotional stress that she believes directly caused her medical condition. This page draws most of its raw power from how much is left unsaid.

These ripped scraps of paper describing her condition follow her attempts to show the embarrassment her condition caused her throughout her childhood. On page 60, another of the scraps says:

“Encopredic children who have experienced trauma can greatly benefit from family therapy. They will need a caring, tolerant professional who can address the emotional issues underlying the disorder” – Huxley, 2008 (60)

In the first panel, Nicole walks past two boys her age after having an accident, and it is hard to tell whether or not they have smelled her, but her mother clearly has as she wrinkles her nose and asks her, “Do you need to go freshen up?” The second panel is a strange juxtaposition of scowling Nicole closing the shower curtain, a bucket of soaking underwear sitting in a bathtub, and Nicole pulling up fresh panties. Passage of time is not linear, but is used to show Nicole hiding her secret behind the shower curtain. This hiding of secrets is a re-occurring theme throughout Calling Dr. Laura, but in this case, it is a literal hiding instead of a figurative one.

imageThe last three panels of page 60 seem to re-iterate just how alone Georges’ condition made her feel. The bottom left panel shows her mother holding the soiled underwear bucket and sighing while Nicole follows behind her with an embarrassed expression. The next panel shows Nicole’s mother throwing her underwear in the wash and saying, “What are you going to do when you want to start dating, Nick? When you want to be intimate with a man?” This panel cuts Nicole out of the scene completely, though her dialogue manages to cut through, “blech.” Georges mother is shown as an unsympathetic figure – she is cleaning her daughter’s underwear, but her dialogue suggests that she is more concerned with future implications than with her daughter’s feelings. Nicole cuts herself out of the scene to further show how her mother doesn’t consider anyone but herself in this situation. The last panel is addressed directly to the audience:

No Encopresis diagnosis or subsequent therapy would come my way. Instead, we managed. We scrubbed and hid and kept this as a shameful secret, biding our time between painful episodes and doctor’s visits. (60)

This re-iterates the trauma that Nicole endured during this time in her life, and her use of the word “We” in this panel is interesting, since it contradicts the way she portrays these events and her mother in the previous panels. Nicole’s conflicted emotions about this part of her life seem to show through in her choices for this page as well as the rest of the graphic novel.

After reading George’s story, it seems like it would be impossible for her to tell her story as clearly using anything other than the graphic memoir genre. Her simple, yet clear and telling illustrations give life and depth to the trauma of her childhood and drag the reader in so there is no room for them to be passive bystanders. Somehow Georges manages to portray a lonely, sad childhood without making the reader feel lonely. The deep level of connection Georges creates between reader and subject, and also the power of what is left unsaid is what makes this graphic novel so compelling.

Works Cited

Georges, Nicole. Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co., 2013. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. Print.

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