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Home In the Media In the Media Offering a “Comic” take On Herpes

Offering a “Comic” take On Herpes

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An Interview with Ken Dahl, author of Monsters

In his semi-autobiographic comic novel Monsters, author Ken Dahl relates his personal tale of coping with a herpes diagnosis and his subsequent struggles to adjust to his status and navigate the world of dating and romantic relationships. Through both vivid illustrations and an engaging narrative, Dahl tells a story that is both entertaining and educational. He offers straightforward facts about HSV while presenting an open and honest portrayal of the emotional issues surrounding herpes.

Since its release, Monsters has garnered not only critical acclaim, but several awards as well. In 2009, Monsters by Ken Dahlit was rated the 5th best comic of the year according to all compiled reviews and ratings on the Best Comics of 2009 Meta-List. In 2010, Monsters won an Ignatz Award, a prize in recognition of outstanding achievement in comics and cartooning, for “Outstanding Story” and was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work.

Monsters recently made the rounds in the offices of ASHA and sparked some interesting discussions. We contacted Dahl to ask him more about his personal experiences and the creation of Monsters and offer his perspective on managing herpes. We’re pleased to be able to share his comments with our readers and encourage you to check out Monsters as well.

It seems that both you and your partner struggled with a lot of questions and misconceptions after your initial diagnosis. Can you tell us a bit more about your diagnosis-did you receive any information and counseling with your test results? It seems as if you were both left with little support from that end.
Yeah, the clinicians we both saw didn't really spend that much time explaining the situation to us -- their overall attitude seemed to be flippant bordering on apathy. We got the feeling that they either didn't think herpes was a legitimate health problem, or were just so desensitized by the number of cases they see that they were just tired of talking about it. Or maybe they were just trying to make us feel better by playing it down, I dunno -- but I don't remember there being a lot of information thrown at us at the time we learned about it; it was mostly just: "Yep, you got herpes. Seeya."

So we were left to learn about it on our own, while trying to deal with the expected emotional minefield waiting for a couple discovering at least one of them has herpes. So there was a lot of shame, distrust, anger, suspicion, defensiveness, self-pity and confusion that got in the way of us dealing with the disease. And we didn't have anyone else to talk about it to, either-- it's a really awkward, humiliating subject to bring up with friends or family.

Why do you think you struggled so long to come to terms with your diagnosis?
Just sheer embarrassment, really. It's hard to get past the initial flood of shame about it, that period where you just want to ignore it and wish it away, where you're convinced that no one's ever going to want to touch you again. And then, when you realize you HAVE to learn more about it, it all seems like bad news, and there's so much conflicting information to sift through. Trying to educate yourself about herpes from scratch is actually really hard. There's no guide to tell you which websites or books or people to believe -- or at least there didn't seem to be back in 2003.

And in my experience, even some clinicians don't give very accurate or useful information. In fact, I remember trying to schedule an appointment with a new doctor in Mesa, Arizona about my cold sores -- when I told the receptionist that I had herpes, she actually told me that the doctor didn't accept patients with herpes!

So, drawing Monsters was as much to help me sort out the information myself as it was to help other normal, lay-people going through the same thing.

We appreciate the fact that you not only tell a compelling and entertaining story, but offer a good dose of herpes education in Monsters as well (and are also glad you consulted and cited some excellent sources, Terri Warren and Peter Leone among them). Did you do much research on HSV before writing the book?
Yeah, tons. Probably too much. If you're not a doctor or a scientist, and all you have is the internet, you end up reading all sorts of junk -- it's hard to tell which websites are giving the best, most current, most accurate information about herpes. And if you're reading scientific papers, there's a lot of specialized, idiomatic language to decipher. And frequently, an answer to one of your questions will bring up even more questions. So I ended up spending a few weekends in some college science libraries as well.

And that was just to educate myself about my own disease. Drawing the book was way harder, because I was so afraid of giving OTHER people bad information! Actually, Terri Warren's excellent book The Good News About the Bad News came out just a few weeks before my book was due to my publishers, and it had so much great new information that I had to go back and change a lot of the facts in my own book, which were now out of date! I was probably the only person in the world who was disappointed to find out that herpes rates in the US had dropped in the past five years, just because it made parts of my book less shocking...

Dr. Peter Leone was a HUGE help for me too, since he was kind enough to talk to me on the phone, which gave me a much more real-life, human perspective on what the scientific community's current theories about herpes were; he was also able to answer a lot of my more vague, puzzling, un-Googleable questions. He was also a walking encyclopedia of herpes knowledge, and actually gave me enough information for two or three more books on herpes. I really hope that my book makes all his and Terri Warren's help seem worth the effort.


Get Managing Herpes on Kindle today! ASHA's award winning book Managing Herpes: Living & Loving with HSV, by Charles Ebel and Anna Wald, M.D., M.P.H., is an essential resource for anyone looking for more information on herpes.

Only $7.95 for the Kindle edition.