A devastating personal account of gender violence told in graphic-novel form, set against the backdrop of the 1970s Yorkshire Ripper man-hunt.
It’s 1977 and Una is twelve. A serial murderer is at large in West Yorkshire and the police are struggling to solve the case – despite spending more than two million man-hours hunting the killer and interviewing the man himself no less than nine times.
As this national news story unfolds around her, Una finds herself on the receiving end of a series of violent acts for which she feels she is to blame.
Through image and text Becoming Unbecoming explores what it means to grow up in a culture where male violence goes unpunished and unquestioned. With the benefit of hindsight Una explores her experience, wonders if anything has really changed and challenges a global culture that demands that the victims of violence pay its cost.
Sarah Hildebrand, Public Books17 May 2017
2016 should’ve been a great year for me. In my second year living in New York, I was finally feeling settled in my apartment, social network, and PhD program. By summer, I felt confident in the path of my research and had regained my sense of adventure. I took a part-business, part-pleasure trip to Scotland, presenting at a conference that resulted in negligible damage to my self-esteem—a rarity in academia. Then I spent five days backpacking the Highlands, wild-camping in sheep fields and remembering what it’s like to be alone without being lonely. By the end of the trip, I knew I could thrive at the border of my physical and mental limits. I was ready to get home and get to work.
But whatever reserves of joy I built abroad would soon be depleted. Two weeks after my return to the States, I was raped and would spend the remaining months of 2016 wracked and wrecked by guilt and PTSD.
I still can’t tell the story. How do you describe something you’re trying so hard to un-imagine? And because I can’t talk about it, I am always carrying its weight inside me. My timeline split in half the moment my body tore open—the crack a chasm between past and present, between the outside world and me.
When I first read Becoming Unbecoming
, a graphic memoir by a woman under the pseudonym of Una, I was hooked by the very first image. A girl carries a sack-like empty speech bubble up the side of a dark mountain, her torso bending beneath its burden. We cannot see her face, but her hunched position and the downward tilt of her head let us know she suffers under the weight of what’s unsaid. This is an image repeated throughout the narrative, which blends the author’s own experiences of sexual assault with the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, breaking down rape culture in a way that is both personal and political.
As a literature student, I’d wanted words to fix me. But it was images that pieced me back together. For months I’d been stumbling under the weight of my own silence. Sometimes it buried me. An alternating lack or intensity of emotion isolated me from everything but my own trauma.
offered me a model to live by, a way to feel less alone without speaking and without turning rape into spectacle. Una’s images of dark forests and of her own body—lying supine, sometimes literally rooted to the earth—captured my own feelings of being both trapped and vulnerable.
Throughout the narrative, she breaks down rape culture, the way trauma can wound the body and mind, and the danger of idealizing the “strong survivor.” Although written within the cultural context of the United Kingdom, this last bit appears equally dangerous in the context of the United States, where Americans are expected to bootstrap their way to the top regardless of circumstance. The term “resiliency” has become ubiquitous; but what about those who need help bouncing back? What about those who cannot? When everyone is expected to be resilient, trauma survivors who aren’t become viewed as the cause of their own unhappiness. But any trauma is an interruption in one’s life, and that rupture remains, even if patched over by therapy, medication, or sheer willpower.
In Becoming Unbecoming
, Una describes the difficulty of telling her own story; how it often amounts to isolating one’s self further, as even the closest of friends and family become uncomfortable around the subject and unsure of how to respond. Struggling to find the “right” emotion that will make her acceptable to others, she draws herself with her head down, hugging her knees—much as I found myself just hours after my own assault—head down, hugging my knees in my apartment, back against the sliver of wall between the radiator and the open deck door. I remember this scene as if I were standing outside myself, bearing witness from across the room.
bore witness to me. Una’s discretion in regards to her own experiences—and even her identity—made me realize that my story is not for someone else’s entertainment, and that even in silence I can find solidarity. She dedicates her book “to all the others.” It’s the first book I ever read that was dedicated to me.
Yet, this is not to say the memoir is without hope. Una’s facsimile never collapses under the weight of silence, but continues to carry it with her and remain mindful of others who have also lost their voices. So maybe, if I wander long enough within my own landscape, I can make a map. Maybe I will pass another traveler.
The roots of Redwood trees interlock with those around them. With the strength of their combined root system, they grow to dwarf the rest of the forest. If the survivors of sexual assault could connect, maybe we could also find a way to thrive. To provide shelter for each other, or perhaps to cast a shadow so long and dark it could no longer be ignored.
The Best Memoirs of 2016 – OPRAH.COM9 December 2016
No words appear on the opening page of this graphic memoir. Instead, we see the silhouette of a woman climbing a hill that echoes the curve of the earth, toward a single tree at the top. Slung over the woman's shoulder is the outline of an object that could be an oversize duffle—suggestive of heavy emotional baggage. But here's the thing: That oval could also be a thought balloon waiting to be filled. On the following page, the first line of dialogue is written on a cloud: ‘I am Una.’ That simple declaration begins a searing indictment of sexual violence. Growing up in northern England in the '70s, Una saw the police spend years bungling the investigation of a serial killer who preyed mostly on prostitutes. Meanwhile, young Una learned to avert her gaze. ‘Girls had to be sexy, but not too sexy. ... They had to be careful not to let their breasts and thighs alarm people. ... Slut was the worst thing a girl could be.’ As a preteen, she suffered not only sexual abuse but also blistering shame, which made her believe she was damaged. But Una survived, and her book is a roar on behalf of women all over the world. Weaving her story together with headlines about the killer, crime statistics, images of disembodied paper doll clothes and stunningly beautiful drawings of nature, she fills our own thought balloons with more than words can express.View source
New York Times: The Season’s Best New Graphic Novels2 December 2016
BECOMING UNBECOMING, by a cartoonist who identifies herself only as Una, begins by circling around traumatic childhood moments and a menacing time and place: the mid-1970s in Northern England, when Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was murdering women, and the author was repeatedly sexually assaulted beginning when she was 10 years old. But Una’s personal experience is less the center of this story than the springboard for an extended examination of what she calls “the four horsemen of gender violence — shame, isolation, disbelief, ridicule.” Sexist assumptions about “loose morals,” she notes, led police to ignore evidence that might have stopped Sutcliffe sooner. In one bravura sequence, she renders 72 police portraits of West Yorkshire women’s attackers from that era in her own hand. In aggregate, they’re unmistakably depictions of Sutcliffe: “just another violent male, staring them in the face.”
Una’s artwork (mostly black and white, with occasional jolts of flat color) rarely bothers with literal representation for more than a few panels at a time. Instead, she underscores her arguments with symbolic imagery: paper dolls, delicate sketches of imaginary insect-women, distorted and half-concealed contours of rapists’ faces. The book concludes with a heartbreaking series of portraits of Sutcliffe’s victims as they might look today if they had survived — all of them more naturalistic than Una’s self-portraits as a blank female form in a plain white frock. “I’m glad to be alive,” she writes, “but I wonder who I would have been, had I not been interrupted so rudely?”
Broken Frontier23 November 2015
This is sequential art that is inventive and dexterous in construction and intent… There’s a representational quality to the art and figure work here that strips characters and situations back to their emotional core, allowing readers to connect to and react with them on an intimate level... But the true visual triumph of Becoming Unbecoming is in the metaphorical artistic devices that Una utilises… One of those old standbys of the reviewer’s lexicon is the statement that work will stay with you long after you put it down. But in the case of Becoming Unbecoming’s final section that can be said without even the tiniest hint of hyperbolic posturing; a pensive coda that has an emotional impact no reader will quickly forget… Delicate in construction yet uncompromising in message, Becoming Unbecoming is an astonishing testament to the potency of visual metaphor.View source
Broken Frontier: Comic of the Week30 September 2015
Combining autobiography and social commentary, Una’s Becoming Unbecoming is the latest graphic novel release from Myriad Editions, the Brighton-based publisher whose ever thought-provoking and challenging output continues to underline the unique possibilities of comics as a narrative form. Make no mistake, this is one of the most important comics works of 2015.View source
Emerald Street29 September 2015
Becoming Unbecoming is honest, matter-of-fact and absolutely gut-wrenching… [and] shows what patriarchal violence does, on a nationwide and on a personal level… But this graphic novel also shows what happens when women refuse to be silent. When our voices are heard. When we start to shout back. Read this. Get angry. Start shouting.
Julie Bindel5 June 2015
This is a beautiful, haunting, take on Peter Sutcliffe's reign of terror, and the women and communities he destroyed. The bare fact is, as Una beautifully explores, that females are living under a reign of patriarchal power that requires us to take the rough with the rough. Except we don't. Una illustrates – through prose and graphics – how this fightback is taking place. Consume this book, and be prepared to join the revolution.
The Beautiful and the Damned
An incredibly powerful read about one woman's experience of gender violence set against the backdrop of the 1970s Yorkshire Ripper man-hunt. The illustrations are strong and simple but every page is inspiring. You will be thrusting a copy at everybody you know for months after reading it. As Stan Lee would say, EXCELSIOR!
For Books’ Sake
For a book formed out of a difficult, raw honesty, it is honed into beautiful pages which are surprisingly readable despite the darkness of the situation. It is straightforward, analytical and educational in its exploration of ingrained misogyny… A graphic memoir combined with an unflinching essay on gender violence, Becoming Unbecoming is an astonishing debut which shows Una’s talent for subverting the comics medium to powerful effect.
The Contemporary Small Press
Una breaks through the silence often encompassing this topic where too few speak out… This intertwining of both the intimate experience of one, and the social experience of too many, is utterly heart-breaking. Its unshakeable honesty in both image and text makes you feel like you need to speak, to find a voice and not be afraid to use it even when society tries to shout back louder... Una exemplifies the strength of women in a misogynistic climate.View source
It is beautiful to handle, with inky images you want to touch and narrative that falls into prose. It is also a harrowing and politically sharp book… The anger is subtle and the images speak as loudly as the words. Its subject may be in the past, but its feminist ire is entirely present – relevant now as it was then… Una nails it. The memories come flooding back… This book is compelling, not simply for its haunting illustrations and narrative, but for its unflinching reflection of the world I grew up in.View source
Una somehow manages to render everything beautifully with a high concept visual style that is seemingly barely contained by the pages across which it unfolds.View source
The art is varied, and brilliantly used. It’s quite an unrefined style, but so effective, blending comic panels, text, illustration, newspaper clippings, letters, and incredibly powerful abstract shapes... in the same way that you can’t assess a film by pausing on a single frame, the cumulative impact of these pages is astonishing. It’s not like we don’t know all of this already (with the exception of her personal story), but the way it is structured and paced is devastating. The final sequence is utterly heartbreaking - it functions in the same way that the final scene of Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir does, emotionally bringing home the realisation of what happened. Tears are likely... This is an example of using the comics medium to weave a personal narrative into gender politics and produce something that is so much more than the sum of its constituent parts.
There is a serious determination to be clear. It works well in partnership with dreamy surreal wordless pages that perfectly convey the mixed emotions of Una's childhood, rape and recovery… I was deeply deeply moved by it, start to finish… It's extraordinarily courageous to write a book like this, and to speak so openly about the experience of abuse. The ending was so powerful, so painful, that I cried hard for longer than a little while.View source
Gareth Brookes, Forbidden Planet: Best of the Year 2015
A brilliantly controlled and compelling book that fearlessly uproots the causes of male violence. It joins the dots between the personal and political with breathtaking ease and manages to rewrite the rules of visual storytelling in the process. A profoundly important book that everyone, particularly men, should read immediately.View source
Packed with sobering statistics and personal anecdotes, Becoming Unbecoming is not an easy read, but it’s a relevant and important one... moves between Una’s personal struggles to the broader battles of women everywhere... adult readers interested in gender studies or confessional memoir will connect with Una’s assessment of the problem and her call to action.View source
As a piece of graphic journalism it [is] compelling and technically well constructed… What makes this work so emotionally compelling, though – and heartbreaking, actually – is her older self’s attempts to understand and explain what her younger self was going through, both emotionally internally, and externally at the hands, physically as well as metaphorically, of her contemporaries. Then the long hard road as an adult gradually coming to terms with what had happened to her, not attempting to forget or bury it, but trying to deal with it and move past it.
Both a reflection on transformation and being and an analysis of how a person, the author herself, comes to defy a parochial sense of morality and aesthetics… The art is evocative and expressive, while the writing has a reflective, inquiring quality that gives the ideas clarity and gravity; it is simple but not simplistic. One of the arguments for the graphic memoir being a genre of trauma is that images can compensate for what is fundamentally unsayable. But that’s definitely not the case here. Una has no difficulty writing what happened to her: her voice is a powerful element here.
A sensitively rendered yet powerful exploration of the blame and shame culture that surrounds sexual violence… Much is left to the imagination rather than depicted on the page and the story telling is all the more powerful for it… Becoming Unbecoming should be read by everyone, so that you can challenge the status quo surrounding sexual violence from a place of strength and understanding… Every female is a human being deserving of love and understanding, not violence and shame, and nothing makes that clearer than the last few heartbreakingly tender pages of this graphic novel.View source
Becoming Unbecoming is among the most powerful books published on misogyny, sexual assault and survival in recent years. It’s a graphic novel that often doesn’t read like one, alternating between personal and historical narratives and fact-filled reflections and analyses. It combines the strengths of these various forms to offer a powerful critique of the personal and social violence committed by men against women, and the ways in which these forms of violence are still supported and encouraged by a deeply misogynistic society.
It’s a harrowing tale, told with a clear and deeply honest sense of self-awareness. The simple graphical portrayal of the characters contrasts meaningfully with the complexity of the social narratives in which they are imbricated: the backdrops are often dark and shaded, against which the characters appear with the simplicity of the everyday.View source