University of Calgary

Bitter Medicine

UToday HomeAugust 2, 2012

By Casey Blais

Clem, left, and Olivier Martini put their words and artwork on paper to create a personal book on their experience with mental illness. Photo by Riley BrandtClem, left, and Olivier Martini put their words and artwork on paper to create a personal book on their experience with mental illness. Photo by Riley BrandtDiagnosed with schizophrenia in 1986, Olivier Martini is aware of how things could have been very different had he not had the support of his family.

“A lot of the mental health consumers are alienated from their families,” says Martini. “I know one person where nobody wants to take on his case. His family doesn’t know what to do with him. They found him an apartment to keep him off the street, but I don’t know what he will do once his parents pass.”

The importance of support for those living with mental illness is one of many issues and themes students will learn about in Clem and Olivier Martini’s ‘Bitter Medicine: A Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness,’ the University of Calgary’s 2012 Common Reading Program book selection.

Through the Common Reading Program, every first-year university student will receive a copy of ‘Bitter Medicine.’ They will be able to participate in online and group discussions, enter contests and participate in various programs over the rest of the summer and during Fall Orientation.

Chosen by a committee comprised of students, staff and faculty, ‘Bitter Medicine’ is a beautifully illustrated graphic memoir detailing the lives of the Martini family as they struggle to comprehend and cope with the sometimes devastating effects mental illness has on their family.

As Clem writes in the introduction, the story is an attempt “to truly understand the experience (of mental illness) from within and across a family.”

The book, which won the City of Calgary W.O Mitchell Book Prize and was a finalist for the 2011 Alberta Reader’s Choice Award, the Wilfred Eggleston Award for Non-Fiction, and the 2011 Alberta Trade Non-Fiction Book of the Year, recounts more than 30 years of experiences with mental illness. At its core, ‘Bitter Medicine’ asks its audience to consider how society views and treats those who suffer from mental illness, while shedding light on a widely misunderstood disease.

“I feel a sense of pride that the University of Calgary is taking this on,” says author Clem Martini. “Issues related to mental health are often seen as something to be ignored … and that time has passed.”

Unlike last year’s Common Reading Program selection (‘Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal’), this year’s selection and its authors are uniquely local –Clem and Olivier grew up in Bowness, and both still reside in Calgary.

Clem is a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, and current chair of the department of drama at the University of Calgary. Olivier is a Calgary-based artist whose work has been displayed at the Marion McGrath Gallery, published in Alberta Views magazine, and was included in the Canadian Mental Health’s Copernicus Project.

The creative process for Bitter Medicine utilized each brother’s unique skills as artist and writer. This ties in well with the one of the aims of the Common Reading Program – to provide new students with a way to begin exploring the idea of leadership. People, in their own unique ways, have the ability to participate in change.

“My brother is trained as an artist,” says Clem. “The ability to deliver his own experience through visual material is one way he can participate in activism and leadership.”

The University of Calgary’s Common Reading Program is the first of its kind among universities in Western Canada. The program is designed to give every new student a common and shared academic experience. For Clem and Olivier Martini, it is also an opportunity to continue the dialogue on mental health that began in ‘Bitter Medicine.’

“This kind of program offers an opportunity to change minds, change perceptions, to engage in a real dialogue with incoming students,” says Clem. “That’s terrific. That’s exactly the intention of this book.”