Review: Spinning

For me it was horses, not skates. My childhood is a blur of stables, saddles, and show ribbons. So, while more than a few decades separate Tillie Walden's formative years and mine, the beauty and the brutality of her coming of age/coming out memoir, Spinning is my story too. And my guess is that it's probably your story, as well. Maybe it was music lessons or Little League for you. Scouts or spelling bees. Doesn't matter. There was something that grounded you through the chaos of childhood. It was simultaneously comforting and constraining, affirming and anxiety inducing, and, like a great deal of childhood, it was probably spectacular in granular moments while at the same time utterly soul sucking.

So we've all been there, in some form or another, which makes this book immensely relatable. When young Tillie steps out onto the ice of a new rink after her family moves across the country, we know what it feels like to be evaluated as the new kid. When she goes along with her schoolmates' homophobia, we know what it's like to be scared into silence. When she finally faces the fact that her success at skating comes at the expense of her individuality, we know how confusing it can be to want to cling to the very things holding us back.

But what makes this memoir so particularly powerful isn't simply that the main character engenders empathy, instead it's the way in which it elicits that empathy from readers. Walden's voice is candid, her words crystalline in their clarity. Their matter-of-factness conveys coldness, but in the best possible way. From a less-skilled storyteller such a style might have seemed detached and distant, but in Spinning the sentences are like icy arctic air, a shock to the system that leave you breathless.

Extra exposition here would only have served to dull the narrative. Grueling practices, nerve-wracking competitions, school bullies, uninvolved parents, disapproving siblings, lost loves—Tillie's survival skill for it all is to keep everyone and everything at a distance and suppressing the avalanche of emotions that overwhelm her. She controls her life by letting as little of it out in public as possible, and Walden rightly tells the story in a similar fashion. When she does allow for some leeway, the results are heartbreaking. "It wasn't the thrill or freedom I felt that I remember," she reflects about falling in love with her best friend and miraculously having that love returned. "It was the fear." Like the edge of her skate blades, Walden's words work best when sharp and shining in their starkness.

Visually, she manages to use a minimum of lines to their maximum advantage. Unlike the intricately detailed work of graphic memoirists like Alison Bechdel and Nicole J. Georges, Walden instead draws deceptively simple scenes. Background objects are rendered amorphously, with shapes and lines trailing off like the end of a complex thought. Never mind that 20/20 business, for Walden hindsight is blurry at best. It's the emotions and movements that give her memories meaning, and she discards details as if keeping them would be a distraction.

The dark purple palette, disrupted only by occasional bursts of illuminating lemon yellow, provides necessary depth, and allows readers to concentrate on the facial features and body mannerisms through which so much of this tale is revealed. The nervous sideways glance of Tillie's eyes when she experiences self-doubt, the way her left shoulder slumps when circumstances force her to come out to her mother before she is ready, the hunch of her back muscles as she waits for the judges scores at a competition, the way her hands clutch her jacket after a sexual assault by her SAT tutor, they all evoke the kind of visceral reaction intrinsic to great art.

As Walden glides back and forth between different parts of her childhood, she uses chapter break illustrations of pure motion to set-up the story. Each is named for a different skating move, and is accompanied by a frame-by-frame illustration of the skill in question. By breaking down the whirling motion and frantic footsteps that go into each skill, she shows how their complexity mirrors her inner turmoil. Both on skates and off, she strives to make the impossible look easy.

If nothing else, these blueprints drive home the point that, on the ice, at least, there are steps to follow. All you have to do is hit your marks. In contrast, the choreography of growing up makes those Lutz jumps, camel spins, and twizzles seem like a cakewalk. As the grown-up Walden learns from looking back at young Tillie's journey, there are too many emotions, perceptions, and outside variables for any of us to ever claim that our version of the past is anything more than alternative facts. We're all in motion, spinning in our own little universes, and what we see as we're whizzing through space and time, what we glance at while the world rushes past us, is what makes us who we are.