At the very beginning of her graphic memoir, Portrait of a Body, Julie Delporte writes, “Time hasn’t healed all my wounds and yet here I am, still very much alive,” launching us directly into her exploration of her tumultuous journey of self-discovery. Delporte, like many queer people before her, didn’t know she was a lesbian for a long time. She came out later in life, after a series of sometimes unsatisfying, sometimes self-sabotaging relationships with men and a long, arduous personal inquiry into some of the most harrowing moments of her life. At 35, Delporte’s acceptance of her sexuality serves as a catalyst that helps her understand her relationships, her interests, her experiences with boys and young men as a young woman, and, especially, her body.
Told nonlinearly through short bursts of handwritten text, Delporte takes us through some of the earliest days and earliest experiences of her trying to come to terms with her sexuality. The book begins with a recounting of her first sexual experience with another woman. Although the description of that night is sparse, this is one of the few times in the book where the watercolor-like images are directly related to the text. Here, she illustrates herself and “Anna” sharing moments of intimacy in soft shades of gray. She writes, “I was a little shocked by how normal it all felt. ‘Abnormal’ was everything that had come before.”
From there, Delporte takes us into what the “before” looked like for her for a little while. With friends, she tried desperately to figure out who she was and why she was feeling the way she felt. Her (straight) friends are a little confused by her cryptic revelations and her attempts to talk about the possibility of being queer without actually talking about it. She recalls encountering works by the filmmaker Chantel Ackerman, the poet Adrienne Rich, and the painter Georgia O’Keefe and feeling some familiarity she couldn’t describe and didn’t know how to fully process. More painfully, her striving for some kind of clarity about what is going on with both her emotions and her body forces her to reexamine all of the intimate and sexual relationships that led to this exploration in the first place. She begins to discover just how many times she told men “yes” to sex when she truly didn’t want it, how many times she disassociated completely from the act as a result, and she probes her memory to uncover the fact that she was assaulted by a male cousin as a young child and then, later, by a male partner as an adult.
As she looks for ways to heal the trauma that was bubbling just beneath the surface of her skin for so long, Delporte looks for ways to signal to herself the rest of the world that she is becoming who she’s really wanted to be all along. She changes the clothes she wears, she cuts her hair, and she stops feeling as if she needs to present herself in a way that is pleasing to the people around her. In these moments, Delporte calls attention to a subtler, quieter, often-overlooked aspect of liberating one’s self from the confines of “compulsory heterosexuality”: the ability to show up in the world exactly as you want to. The more Delporte blossoms into her authentic self, the more she’s able to work through the sexual trauma she’s experienced and allow herself to become more fully connected to the people and the world around her.
But then this brings up new anxieties, too. She might have found some new freedom in her acceptance and recognition of herself, but she also finds she’s terrified of the possibility of other queer people thinking she’s inauthentic. She becomes concerned that she has to “perform” her sexuality in a particular way in order to be fully seen, and she fears what might happen if people don’t perceive her as genuine. Those fears slowly begin to slip away as she keeps encountering all of the fears that made coming out so difficult for her in the first place. She eventually throws them to the wayside completely, writing, “I wanted to be Tove Jansson, Courtney Barnett, Chantal Akerman…I wanted to be a lesbian even before I was sexually attracted to women. And before I’d fallen in love with one. There you have it: That’s my story.” She realizes her queerness had been part of her all along, even if she couldn’t fully see or express it.
As the concise, cursive text brings her narrative forward, Delporte incorporates images of agate slices, provocatively shaped flowers, sea creatures, desert and garden landscapes, and a few portraits of others and herself. At first, the pastel-hued colored pencil drawings and watercolor paintings feel juxtaposed to the difficult and heart wrenching confessions contained within the text. But as you get further and further into Delporte’s story, the contrast helps bring a level of emotional tranquility that helps illuminate the urgency of her story and Delporte’s belief in the possibility of healing from the trauma inflicted on us by others and ourselves. The unfinished nature of many of the images in the book further elucidate Delporte’s commitment to this process. Much like these unfinished works, Delporte reminds us that she is forever a work in progress, bound to change shape, grow, and evolve as time passes and she learns more and more about herself.
While it might be easy to cast this memoir off as a story of survival from sexual trauma and from the denial of herself and her body for so long, it feels like much more than that by the end of the book. Delporte writes, “All those years, I had tried so desperately to be beautiful when I already was” and brings her story into full view. Like many other people with experiences similar to Delporte’s, her life isn’t defined by the acts that wounded her in the first place and it isn’t defined by how hard she’s worked to heal them. Her life is continually being defined and redefined on her terms, by her belief in the beauty of the world around us, and by her hope that others can experience the same feelings of freedom as she has. In that way, Portrait of a Body is a memoir of arrival, of the power we gain by growing into ourselves.