Mentions of suicidal ideation and mental illness
Four years ago, in a hospital cafeteria, Ethan Sacks (BA ‘94) sat waiting for visiting hours to start in the pediatric psychiatric ward. As his mind turned over, he wrote down, “The fate of all life on Earth depends on a girl who doesn’t know if she wants to live,” which would later become the tagline for A Haunted Girl. The new independent comic series, co-authored by Ethan and his daughter Naomi Sacks (U1 Arts), chronicles the journey of 16-year-old Cleo as she navigates the challenges of returning to school after being hospitalized with severe depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. On top of the troubles of fitting back into her old life, she starts to see visions of ghosts, leading her to question what’s real and what’s a figment of her imagination. With the first issue published on Oct. 11, this four-part paranormal thriller expertly balances a page-turning supernatural adventure with the real experiences of teenagers facing major mental health crises. The Tribune spoke to Ethan and Naomi about the comic’s conception and creation, as well as their hopes for the role it can play in the lives of young people facing similar challenges.
A Haunted Girl has an intensely personal origin. In a letter included at the outset of the first issue, Ethan describes this scene in the hospital cafeteria, years ago, waiting for his daughter (and now co-author) Naomi, who was seeking treatment for depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations. Although the initial idea came from Ethan, Naomi’s involvement with the project grew through her recovery, culminating in her official co-authorship of the comic. She told The Tribune that there wasn’t necessarily a moment in which she became involved; rather, it was a gradual process.
Ethan wanted Naomi to see herself within the story—the characterization of Cleo needed to feel reflective of her own experiences. When describing the process of collaborative writing, the duo explained that Ethan tackled the supernatural and action-based scenes and Naomi handled everything to do with therapy, recovery, and navigating high school.
“It’s almost like internal demons and external demons,” Naomi jokes, pointing at herself and then her dad.
When asked what books they read or movies they watched in preparation for writing the comic, Ethan said that horror movies became critical texts for uniting his portion of the work with Naomi’s. He specifically highlighted The Exorcist, both for its obvious themes of connecting the supernatural to a medical context and for its creative usage of the parent role.
“For me [The Exorcist] was a touchstone […] Sure, there’s a demon and there’s all that imagery, but it’s also [about] a parent who can’t help their child,” Ethan said.
Ethan worked closely with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) to ensure that the comic wasn’t perpetuating any harmful tropes or stereotypes. He wanted to avoid potentially stigmatizing mental health issues and presenting language that could be triggering to a vulnerable audience. To help with this, A Haunted Girl received a sensitivity reading from the organization. Additionally, AFSP resources are listed in the back of each issue, providing techniques for coping with stressful situations and those in immediate distress. Ethan and Naomi hope that the comic can incite readers, particularly teenagers, to seek the help that they may need.
A Haunted Girl is a thoughtfully written and beautifully illustrated comic that demystifies an issue that is so rarely authentically portrayed—especially in the comic medium. It is unafraid to use the language of therapy and destigmatizes asking for and getting help. At the same time, the language isn’t clinical. This messaging, immediately juxtaposed with the creepy supernatural elements, creates a heartwarming yet enthralling read. The mission statement is clear: To inspire those whose struggles mirror Cleo’s as they go on their own hero’s journey.
‘A Haunted Girl’ is available in bookstores across the country. Issue #3 will be released on Dec. 13