Mar­tini broth­ers share fam­ily’s men­tal health strug­gles

Graphic mem­oir de­picts fam­ily’s strug­gle with men­tal ill­ness, health sys­tem


She wanted to stay in­volved, but ul­ti­mately, we had to say ‘You can’t any­more. You’re not pro­vid­ing help. You’re need­ing help.

Many peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness rely on a fam­ily mem­ber to re­mind them to take their medicine, to take them to the doc­tor, and keep them safe and on track.

But when that fam­ily care­giver is no longer able to pro­vide sup­port, what hap­pens?

That’s where Cal­gary’s Mar­tini fam­ily found them­selves a few years ago.

For al­most four decades, their mother, Cather­ine, had been tak­ing care of her son Olivier, who has schizophre­nia.

But then she de­vel­oped de­men­tia, and ev­ery­thing changed. “Sud­denly ev­ery­thing we’d been do­ing for 36 years fell into dis­ar­ray,” Clem Mar­tini says.

“It was messy. It was fright­en­ing, and it was dan­ger­ous.”

To cope with the changes, Clem (a renowned play­wright, nov­el­ist and Univer­sity of Cal­gary pro­fes­sor) and his artist brother Olivier Mar­tini de­cided to cre­ate a book about their ex­pe­ri­ences.

The new graphic mem­oir, The Un­rav­el­ling, has been pub­lished this fall by Free­hand Books. Writ­ten by Clem and il­lus­trated by Olivier, it ad­dresses the strug­gles they went through and the way their lives had to change.

While the book is a very per­sonal look at what the broth­ers faced, it’s also some­thing many peo­ple can re­late to: ag­ing par­ents, men­tal ill­ness, de­men­tia and deal­ing with as­sisted liv­ing and the long-term­care sys­tem.

For the Mar­ti­nis, Irene Cather­ine Mar­tini had been the rock of the fam­ily for decades. The proud mother of four boys, she moved to Canada from Ber­lin in 1952, set­tling in what was then the small town of Bow­ness. She was soon elected as a trustee to the Bow­ness Pub­lic School Board, and then, af­ter the City of Cal­gary an­nexed Bow­ness, con­tin­ued as a trustee un­til 1980. She was a strong sup­porter of English as a se­cond lan­guage pro­grams and French im­mer­sion, as well as kinder­garten, at a time when few schools of­fered early-child­hood ed­u­ca­tion. “She was a very strong per­son, a per­son with a mis­sion,” who spoke sev­eral lan­guages and who fiercely sup­ported her chil­dren, Clem says.

De­men­tia was par­tic­u­larly tough be­cause for so long, she knew her role as the glue that kept ev­ery­one to­gether. “She wanted to stay in­volved, but ul­ti­mately, we had to say ‘ You can’t any­more. You’re not pro­vid­ing help. You’re need­ing help,’ ” Clem says.

“That’s a hard con­ver­sa­tion … There were lots of con­flicts in those last years.”

Cather­ine died on Dec. 31, 2016, at the age of 91.

Be­fore she died, Clem and Olivier had told their mother they were work­ing to­gether on a new project, but Clem says he isn’t sure if she un­der­stood ev­ery­thing they talked about. “Her de­men­tia was pretty ad­vanced at that point,” he says. “It’s hard to say what she re­mem­bered or how long she re­mem­bered it.”

Work­ing on the book be­came a cathar­tic ex­pe­ri­ence for the broth- ers, a way to deal with their feel­ings and fears about the fu­ture.

Not even a year af­ter her death, Clem says, they are do­ing OK, each deal­ing with their grief the best they can. Olivier now lives on his own in the apart­ment he shared for so many years with their mother. The broth­ers talk ev­ery day, and they see each other a few times a week, vis­its that of­ten in­clude their el­dest brother, Nic, a soft­ware ex­pert in Cal­gary.

Be­cause schizophre­nia never goes away, pro­fes­sional care­givers come by to help fill Cather­ine’s shoes, en­sur­ing Olivier is tak­ing his medicine morn­ing and night.

“It’s al­ways a bit of a chal­lenge,” Clem says. “But I think we’re do­ing all right.”

In ad­di­tion to the launch of The Un­rav­el­ling, Clem and Olivier are both work­ing on new cre­ative projects. Olivier is a men­tal-health ad­vo­cate and artist who sells and shows his work around town. Clem has a new novel to be pub­lished with Univer­sity of Cal­gary Press in Fe­bru­ary 2018, and he’s writ­ing an opera — his se­cond — which will be pre­sented by Cal­gary Opera in 2019.

The Un­rav­el­ling is the third book the broth­ers have worked on to­gether. Their first graphic novel, Bit­ter Medicine, was re­leased in 2010 and told the story of their brother Ben’s sui­cide. It won the W.O. Mitchell Book Prize and the at­ten­tion it gath­ered “was un­like any­thing I’d ever ex­pe­ri­enced,” Clem says.

“Peo­ple would come up and say, ‘This book is so im­por­tant be­cause your story is my story.’”

Like their first book did seven years ago, Clem says they’re hop­ing that their new book will help oth­ers who find them­selves in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions.

“It has been a use­ful mech­a­nism for us,” he says. “And ul­ti­mately, hope­fully, it will be a use­ful book for oth­ers, to let them know they are not alone.”


Clem Mar­tini told their mother he and his brother were work­ing on a new project, but “it’s hard to say what she re­mem­bered,” he says.


Olivier Mar­tini pro­vided the il­lus­tra­tions for the book he cre­ated with Clem. It was a cathar­tic ex­pe­ri­ence for the broth­ers.

The Un­rav­el­ling

Clem Mar­tini, il­lus­tra­tions by Olivier Mar­tini Free­hand Books

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