This May, Fantagraphics will publish CHARTWELL MANOR, cartoonist Glenn Head’s harrowing graphic memoir that details his two years at the now-defunct Mendham, NJ, boarding school run by a serial sexual and physical abuser of young boys.
As a young child very little of the world made sense to me,” said Head. “Finding myself in Chartwell in the early ‘70s was like entering a real-world horror comic—depraved, criminal, and corrupting to so many who attended it. No one walked away unsullied.
Telling his story with a raw honesty unparalleled in autobiographical comics today, Head never asks the reader to like him as he stares down the demons—substance abuse, sex addiction—born of his boarding school days. Struggling to make sense of his experience, he discovers in art the power to reshape the past, finding, finally, a ray of hope and perhaps even a sliver of forgiveness.
Glenn Head’s graphic memoir CHARTWELL MANOR, detailing his two years at a now-defunct boarding school run by a serial sexual and physical abuser of young boys, will be published in May by Fantagraphics.
Comics and the Trauma of Boarding School
by Glenn Head
March 9, 2021
In the fall of 1971, when I was thirteen years old, I got sent to a boarding school in Mendham, New Jersey, that specialized in “British Discipline.” It was called Chartwell Manor.
Built around the idea of setting kids straight, it was a place for which I was a prime candidate. Though not a tough kid, I was hyper, brash, impulsive, saying whatever I felt like in the moment. This of course led to various run-ins with the headmaster, Terrence Michael Lynch, who went by the name of “Sir,” a harsh disciplinarian–and, it turns out, a serial pedophile.
Being at Chartwell was like stepping into another world. Its spooky gothic atmosphere felt like something out of a horror movie. The strange food, the territorial battles with other boys, and their burgeoning sexuality made for a very threatening, unsettling experience. I’d been in bad schools before, but I’d never been isolated in a separate place, away from family, in what felt like a haunted castle, with something like an ogre at the throne–the children, all of us, ages 5 to 15, his minions.
At some point during my two-year stay at Chartwell Manor, I had the curious experience of finding Zap Comix. Another kid I knew showed them to me. I was known as the school artist, and like any 14-year-old, I was looking for what was new and exciting.
What I saw shocked me. Not just the subject matter, the sex and violence (and incest–this was Zap #4), but the gleeful abandon with which it was portrayed. Here on every page was rampant sexuality, assault, all manner of perversity–taken to the limit.
The truth of it is, at that age, I wasn’t any more ready to handle those comics than I was the boarding school experience of Chartwell Manor. In fact, my time at Chartwell ran parallel to my discovery of underground comix. They both smashed the boundaries of what was socially acceptable, violently, and let the id run wild. And Terrence Michael Lynch was truly an id monster equal to any I might find in any comic.
What I did find in comics was a vocabulary for this horror, a way to show what couldn’t be shown. And the control required to draw comics, to contain these images, was in fact a world apart from life in Chartwell Manor, where brutality was inflicted at random, sometimes by Lynch, sometimes by the children themselves. Comics offered a “safe space,” if you will. Whether drawing or reading them, you knew you weren’t about to get clobbered.
It took a very long time to face this material and even attempt to put it on paper. I spent two years as a child with this pedophile. Did I really want to relive this horror as an adult, make myself vulnerable yet again? Any survivor of abuse will tell you that the abuse itself is just the beginning. Family may not believe you. Friends may mock you. The fear that you will not be viewed sympathetically is well-founded, and so the practice of keeping it hidden begins.
And then to really tackle the material–to turn it into a cinematic graphic novel–is to push the limits of your own consciousness, to force yourself to see this experience, visually, viscerally, as it occurred. Because it’s one thing to write down everything that happened to you–to draw it, all of it, another thing entirely.
Ironically, it was drawing Lynch that was one of the most freeing aspects of making this book. The dangerous, towering criminal was now simply a cartoon character, depicted as I remember him–and as, I assure you, he was: loud, conniving, charismatic, florid, absurd, sexually predatory, oddly comic–funny in a way he never realized. And always hustling, lying to find a way to keep his “boarding school” afloat. To continue his crimes.
To draw all of this was to escape the horror, to take control, of forces that were beyond my control as a child. To escape the cage that Lynch built around me and every other child at Chartwell Manor. We were locked in, told that we were “on our honor” not to betray his confidence about life under his roof. And the fact is that many of the children that attended Chartwell emerged broken by the experience, trapped in their despair, their lives shattered by their time under Lynch’s perverse rule.
It has been almost fifty years since I attended Chartwell, more than ten since Lynch’s death. I think, though, that it is only with this book that I have finally put him to rest. Every rectangle I draw around his figure contains him, boxes him in as he once had me.
A kind of justice, perhaps.
About the Author
Glenn Head was born in 1958 in Morristown, New Jersey, and began drawing comics when he was fourteen. In the early 1990s Head co-created (with cartoonist Kaz) and edited Snake Eyes, the Harvey-Award nominated cutting edge comix anthology series and he was a frequent contributor to the Fantagraphics’ comix anthology quarterly Zero Zero. From 2005 to 2010 Glenn edited and contributed to the Harvey and Eisner-nominated anthology HOTWIRE Comics and recently created his graphic epic, Chicago (2015). He lives in New York City.
Cartoonist Glenn Head’s Memoir CHARTWELL MANOR is Both a Harrowing Portrayal of Adolescent Abuse and a Testimony to the Transcendent Power of Art
On Sale from Fantagraphics This May.
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All art -Fantagraphics