A clarion call to recognise that parenting isn’t the be-all and end-all of family life, Paula Knight’s extraordinarily powerful graphic memoir is a beautifully drawn, funny and sometimes painful exploration of what it takes to be a woman, and a mother – or not.
In 1970s Northeast England, best friends Polly and April are sitting up a tree, whispering about periods and swapping their hazy knowledge of the facts of life. They both expect to have families one day – it’s the normal script to follow, isn’t it? But, as they grow up, education and career become important, too, and they believe that they can have it all.
When, some years later, Polly settles with Jack, her career has taken off and she feels torn over whether or not to try for a baby. Has she left it too late? Did she have any control over that choice? They go ahead, but after repeated miscarriage and chronic illness take their toll, Polly must confront what family means in a society where ‘family’ usually means ‘children’.
Watch a trailer for The Facts of Life by Paula Knight below.
It captures the reality of growing up in a society where pregnancy is natural, expected and supposed to happen quickly and in our own timing. The graphics were so engaging and made this book unique and easy to read. Recommend it to everyone facing infertility.
Being illustrated throughout gave it a whole new dimension. Not only was I taking in the words but the images expressed exactly how Paula remembered the scene. The stages of her story did not need to be imagined but came to life in front of my eyes. Her story was not fiction, it was fact, and the images expressed and reinforced the script.
‘This is such a good book… so original…very accessible. The drawings have an immediate impact but are also full of subtlety that you can go back again and again and find new things to look at. The book beautifully captures the arc of experience that we all have as women. I wanted to recommend it to everyone while I was reading it’.
This funny, affecting and poignant graphic memoir…tells the semi-autobiographical story of Polly, and her journey of acceptance that her long-nurtured expectations of becoming a mother are never to be fulfilled.
Caroline Sanderson, Mslexia
With humor, penetrating intelligence, and an eye for human details, Knight… explores a difficult subject with compassion.
I’ve just finished reading (The Facts of Life), and it was truly amazing. It captures the reality of growing up in a society where pregnancy is natural, expected and supposed to happen quickly and in our own timing. The graphics were so engaging and made this book unique and easy to read. Recommend it to everyone facing infertility. It showed the challenges of friendships, work colleagues and personal struggle of making a decision to stop.
Stephanie Phillips, World Childless Week Founder
23 September 2018
When I received Paula’s book TheFactsOfLife I was not sure how I felt. Could I get to grips with a life story in the form of a comic book, because that was how I first perceived it? Could the story line be as engrossing as a fully scripted book?
The simple answer is yes, and being illustrated throughout gave it a whole new dimension. Not only was I taking in the words but the images expressed exactly how Paula remembered the scene. The stages of her story did not need to be imagined but came to life in front of my eyes. Her story was not fiction, it was fact, and the images expressed and reinforced the script.
I could recognize and relate to numerous situations; the clumsy comments, emotional tides and unsaid words. I sat up and paid attention when Paula reflected on women and how they have been perceived and treated over time. That was thought provoking. I loved how the book started with the planting of the saplings but held onto their meaning until later in the book.
The complete text by Francesca Howell was published in the summer 2017 edition of the British Infertility Counselling Association Journal and is viewable at the source below. The review is on page 23-24.
With humor, penetrating intelligence, and an eye for human details, Knight chronicles her life of being prepared for motherhood and her eventual efforts to get pregnant. Paula, growing up in Britain in the 1970s, starts learning about sex from adult comments, awkward playground conversations, and exploring Barbie’s anatomy with her best friend, April. As an adult, Paula puts the thought of kids on hold to focus on her art career and deal with a chronic illness. Then April gets pregnant, and Paula wonders whether she’s ready to take the plunge—or whether a 30-something single woman is starting too late. She struggles with miscarriages, fertility treatments, misplaced sympathy from friends, and growing uncertainty about whether all the heartbreak is for something she really wants. Knight, a children’s book illustrator, fills her pages with loose but precisely drawn figures and elegant swathes of nature. Prying near-universal questions about female identity from her singular experience, she explores a difficult subject with compassion.
A very good, well put together, honest book… I read it in one sitting, which I think is a testament to what it's like. It made me think a lot about my own upbringing and experiences and those of my friends and our expectations. I think it's really good and refreshing that Paula talked about it and has been able to share some of her story.
Andy Oliver, Broken Frontier
27 April 2017
This is graphic memoir that doesn’t just communicate the issues involved and question the assumptions So much of this week’s Myriad Week coverage has revolved around entrants to their First Graphic Novel Competition and that’s entirely appropriate given that, to date, Myriad have published not just the two winners but also three of the shortlisted runners-up. Paula Knight was one of those finalists in the competition’s first incarnation in 2012 with her debut book The Facts of Life published earlier this year.
A couple of years back I reviewed some of Knight’s self-published minicomics at Broken Frontier here including Spooky Womb and X Utero: A Cluster of Comics which dealt with issues surrounding childlessness, our definitions of “family”, fertility and miscarriage. I said then that if there was one thing the reader took away from those comics it was Knight’s “ability to constantly play with the form both in terms of presentation and tone, with a notable aptitude for evocative symbolism on show throughout her work.”
The Facts of Life expands Knight’s exploration of the same themes and there are stylistic echoes of those earlier publications throughout its pages. The book takes the unusual but understandable step for a self-proclaimed graphic memoir of giving its cast of characters pseudonymous on-page identities (with the exception of the recurring presence of Neddy, a rocking horse without a rider that represents its central characters’ situation throughout).
As a child, Polly and her friend April make the same curious journey into the arcane realities of the adult world that generations have made before them – discovering the world of sexual relationships in often baffling increments via the media, illicit reading material, her parents and the odd overheard conversation.
Years later Polly and her partner Jack decide to try for a family of their own. But after many miscarriages, and with Polly’s health complicated by chronic illness, they are forced to question whether their aspirations of family life are realistic and just why we define the concept of “family” in the way that we do.
Knight’s narrative preamble examining her younger incarnation’s childhood life is a vital part of this graphic enquiry. It’s a reminder of how from a very early age women are indoctrinated into the idea that their identity is defined by having babies; a message that is constantly re-enforced in their impressionable childhood minds as a societal norm.
Where the book’s first section looks to the origins of the familial conventions that we are conditioned to accept, the second and middle segment is very much Polly and Jack’s heartrending story. This is a poignant account of hopes raised and dashed, of loss and grief, and of a gradual coming to terms with an inevitable decision.
Knight’s use of visual metaphor to communicate emotional states through this period is quite astonishing in its efficacy. Sometimes the form that takes is quite literal – her observations of a pair of inexperienced nesting swans on the bank of a local river for example – whereas on other occasions it manipulates and subverts the very structure of the comics page itself.
A resonant song that Polly associates with her tribulations, for example, weaving through panels and immersing her in its grip, poignant character fadeouts on the receipt of bad news, or sudden real world photographic artefacts emerging on the page and taking us from a representation of reality one step removed into the actuality of the situation itself. The Facts of Life is a gentle masterclass in all the storytelling tricks of which comics, and comics alone, are capable.
It’s when we get to the book’s final section that Knight starts breaking down and questioning why we define family in the way that we do and how the legacy of the past informs that thinking. Seemingly small things like family anecdotes that will never now be passed on take on an extra pathos not just because of the sadness of circumstances but also because it’s ingrained on us by our social environment that childlessness somehow equals failure.
There’s an understated emotional eloquence to The Facts of Life that is all the more potent for its quiet dignity. This is graphic memoir that doesn’t just communicate the issues involved and question the assumptions surrounding them, but crucially also acts as an accessible repository of shared experience for those in a similar position. Paula Knight’s long-awaited debut proves to be one of 2017’s finest uses of the medium so far.
Elisabeth El Refaie, author of Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures
26 April 2017
What makes this graphic memoir extraordinary is that it deals not only with the author’s own experience of infertility but also with the wider social and cultural reasons for why women are still made to feel that motherhood is their destiny. The other major strength of the book, from my point of view as a comics scholar, is that it combines accomplished visual storytelling with the use of highly creative and engaging visual metaphors, which, in combination, enable readers to really understand and empathize with the author’s thoughts and feelings.
Josh Franks, Ink Magazine
For generations, women have been conditioned from an early age to believe that the greatest thing they can aspire to is motherhood. It’s what their grandmothers were made for, it’s what their mothers were made for - it’s what they’re made for.
And if it’s not their family and friends bludgeoning them with this matriarchal imperative, it’s society. Our governments, the media, and the advertising industry have consistently tried to define what the role of women should be. While no longer having to stay at home with the children, there is still a social expectation for women to want a baby regardless of how that might negatively affect her health, lifestyle or career development.
Paula Knight’s graphic memoir The Facts of Life is her journey from childhood to the present day, during which she is surrounded by influences that attempt to force this child-bearing narrative upon her. As she grows older, advances through her career, endures and overcomes health problems, she must confront the ever-looming decision of whether or not to have children. And, more importantly, whether her decision will reflect badly on other areas of her life.
The “facts of life”, which can be read as both sex education and the dismal truth about the world, are taught to us as we grow up by the parents and teachers that are most influential people in our lives. In using this phase as the title of her book, Knight challenges the social paradigm that presents them as one and the same. It is still a common belief that a sad fact of life is that a woman’s life is not complete without children. In nodding to this, the creator asks us to consider that women shouldn’t have to have children if they don’t want to, nor should they be judged from a moral standpoint on that decision.
Knight makes a further argument that not having children doesn’t invalidate a person’s nurturing instincts. During the prologue we see her and her partner planting trees. Beforehand, when they’re in the car, there’s a curious panel showing her face bathed in sunlight with a Mothercare van visible in the windscreen, the ‘M’ of its logo just out of shot. This “Othercare” tableau shows that the desire to bring something into the world and care for it is universal and pure, irrespective of children. For Knight the pleasure of nurturing is found in working on her art and giving back to nature; both are acts of creativity and legacy, equally as legitimate as having children.
As a man, it’s hard to ever imagine the amount of pressure - both environmental and biological - women are under every day. It’s maddening to see how quickly young women are pushed into defining themselves and others through motherhood or the prospect of it. But Knight depicts the struggle of being a woman, and having to face those decisions with such humanity that it’s hard not to empathise. Instead of accepting the binary label of being “childless” or “child-free”, she asserts that she is “neither, just me”. We are all more than the labels we are given by other people.
Her delicate, highly-realised style brings an unsettling edge to the story and the imagery, catching you off-guard at times. Her comic pages carry that same sense of careful decision-making. Each page is an object lesson in how to tell a difficult and complicated story concisely.