howtheduck (howtheduck) wrote in binky_betsy,

The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston Part V – Quit While You’re Ahead: A-Headed for Divorce

In this section we are going to talk about the events leading up to Lynn’s divorce from Dr. Rod Johnston, its unusual connection to her business and to her health. We will discuss after the cut.

First we start off with Lynn’s health. In my last segment Lynn talked about how she had become forgetful and how Rod was telling everyone she was becoming senile. Somehow this leads to Lynn talking about her dystonia.


Around 2001, Lynn discovered she had spasmodic torticollis, a form of the movement disorder known as dystonia. In her case, her head twists and turns uncontrollably to the left when she lies down. The disorder is made worse by anxiety.


If by “around 2001” she means 1996, then that’s correct. After talking about forgetfulness, the next topic is dystonia, which would lead you to think the two are related, but in their best Lynnglish, neither Katie nor Lynn actually say it is related (so they aren’t lying now are they?). Lynn did an interview with Rob Colapinto back in March, 1997 for La Chatelaine talking about her dystonia and the demonstration she gave him was not a simple head movement. According to Colapinto, she was flinging her body all over the floor with great relish. Quoting the best part from that interview (my favorite):

With that, the author of the acclaimed comic strip For Better or for Worse is flat on her back on her kitchen floor, doing a quick check that her black skirt and matching jacket are not hiked or rumpled. “Now, if I turn my head just so and relax,”

Johnston explains, “I kinda…kinda…”

She suddenly erupts in a blur of flailing arms and legs, her head thrashing from side to side, her spine pretzeling. Then, she jerks up into a sitting position and the spasms stop as quickly as they began. The artist’s wavy shoulder-length brown hair is tousled, her face is flushed and everything has gone all inappropriate, but she seems none the worse for wear. “How ’bout that?” she exults over her shoulder as she makes off to find her pills.

Last fall, Johnston, 49, was diagnosed with torsion dystonia, a classification of neurological disorders characterized by involuntary shock-like muscular spasms. “My dystonia is called spasmodic cervical torticollis,” she explains. “At first I thought I had a brain tumor, and it took forever to get the right diagnosis. So spell it right, please: I want anyone with a similar problem not to go through the terror I felt.”

Lynn has done a lot of interviews talking about the subject of her dystonia over the years and she has delivered a wide range of descriptions of her symptoms that often do not match each other from interview to interview or even within the same interview. Sometimes she forgets the dystonia and instead says she has poor vision due to cataracts and essential tremor in her hands. This puts a snarker like me on treacherous ground. What do you say when you think someone is lying about having a disease? You don’t want to be indifferent to their suffering; but the inconsistencies in Lynn’s story were maddening and there was no way to reconcile them.

As for the forgetfulness, it would be fruitless to blame this on dystonia, because that is not something dystonia does. According to the Wikipedia on dystonia, the only part of dystonia that relates to memory loss is Clonazepam, an anti-seizure medicine which has memory loss as a side effect.

Moreover, Lynn’s dystonia claims occurred too early for these to be connected to the business issues Lynn discussed having 10 years later. Amazingly, she is about to tell us that more than one doctor did not agree this is what she had, which only increases my suspicions.


My muscles twisted with the strength it takes to wring out a wet towel. I was told by my local doctor that my symptoms were psychosomatic. If this was the case then why was I miserable all night long? I wasn’t looking for attention. My bed became my enemy. I couldn’t sleep lying down, so I began to sleep sitting up in a chair.

When I was properly diagnosed by a neurologist, I contacted a dystonia hotline and discovered how prevalent and incapacitating these kinds of disorders are. I helped to fundraise for dystonia awareness and in doing so, I heard stories much like my own. I have taken medication, tried Botox and massage, but relief was not to be had. With work and other stresses weighing me down, the pain became unbearable.


Finally Lynn finds a doctor who properly diagnoses her problem. You can infer from her writing that she visited at least 3 doctors before she found one that did not tell her it was all in her head. I sympathize with the situation. My wife has had similar issues with doctors. This past spring she had a fractured leg that was initially diagnosed as a muscle sprain, until the treatment for the muscle sprain was not working and the doctor was forced to take another look. The difference between my wife and Lynn Johnston is that my wife’s doctor never told her that her issues were anxiety or psychosomatic. That is effectively saying, “We’re not saying you don’t have a problem, but…”

Imagine if you will, any doctor getting a presentation of Lynn’s symptoms like she did for Rob Colapinto, with her body flailing about on the floor. What doctor would call those symptoms anxiety or psychosomatic? A decent doctor would call for a full-up battery of tests to be run. According to the Mayo Clinic, standard tests for determining dystonia are:

Blood or urine tests. These tests may reveal the presence of toxins.
Computerized tomography (CT scan). A CT scan uses a series of X-rays to create a detailed, 3-D view of your brain.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses powerful radio waves and magnets to create a detailed view of your brain. This test may be conducted to identify tumors, lesions or evidence of a stroke.
Electromyography (EMG). This test measures the electrical activity within muscles.

Now imagine if you will the same doctor gets those tests run and they show nothing is wrong, and the patient’s description of her symptoms keeps changing every time she visits. What do you tell the world famous cartoonist and one of North Bay’s leading citizens, Lynn Johnston? Do you call her a liar? My guess is you say, “anxiety” or “psychosomatic.”

In recent interviews and in her old Coffee Talk, Lynn has claimed that medication has calmed down the symptoms so they are no longer noticeable, so it is surprising she claims differently here. Lynn specifically says she was not doing it to get attention, but you don’t say something like that unless that is what people have accused you of doing. Regardless, I have the feeling a conversation with Lynn, in which she decided to put her dystonia on display Colapinto-style or complain about the pain it was causing her, would be very difficult to maintain. After all, if she is willing to fling herself all over the floor for a reporter like Rob Colapinto, then what’s to stop her from doing the same thing in front of other people?


Things seemed to go from bad to worse. A kind of sickness invaded the studio. Aside from Lynn’s personal issues, the staff detected an inexplicable tension within the “management” team.


Katie takes the narrative back to work with no connection to the dystonia. We have more quotes around “management” throwing shade at them. I notice here that “the staff” are the people who have uncovered the “inexplicable tension”, i.e. the affair. Lynn has never said it was the staff who made the discovery of the affair before. In prior stories, Rod simply confessed it to Lynn.


Rod and the company’s executive director had convinced my staff that I was senile, unstable, and not interested in knowing what was going on within the business. Because of the tension, people picked at each other and treated me as though I would explode at any time. With deadlines continually nagging at me, all I could do was put my head down and get the strip done. Eventually, we discovered the source of the unease: my husband had been having an affair with the executive director, the woman he hired to run my business. It was a shock. When it was out, the affair was over. So was the marriage.


Now Lynn says Rod hired the executive director, but on page 132, Lynn says she hired her. Lynn always has continuity issues and it would have been nice if Katie had cleaned this sort of thing up. Bad Katie. Also a major divergence is the line “we discovered”, which implies the staff was the “we.” In the many prior versions of this story Lynn had told to newspapers and magazines, Rod broke the news to Lynn that he had been having a long time affair. Here is the version from the 2008 Peterborough Examiner story:

If Lynn can't remember the details of the day she'll never forget, she knows this much is true: around eight o'clock in the evening her husband of 30 years walked into the kitchen and broke her heart.

I'm leaving you, he told her.
I've been seeing another woman for some time. You know her.

It may not have come out in precisely those words or in that exact order, but the message was clear. He was going and that was that; he would make no amends for his betrayal.

Anonymous writers to my Howard Bunt Blog agree with Lynn’s assessment that Rod’s relationship with executive director Nancy Vincent was over shortly after he announced it to Lynn. My sources say Nancy filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination against Lynn, which implies to me that she played the “He’s lying. We never had an affair” card. Nancy was also married and it is not unreasonable to expect she was trying to preserve her marriage. I don’t know how it ended with Nancy or the lawsuit. What I do know is Lynn and Rod’s marriage was over and once again Entercom had one boss.

As for not knowing her business, this suddenly makes Lynn’s comments about having to learn her business in her 2008 Peterborough Examiner interview make more sense. When I originally read it, I thought she meant she was having to learn the skills of the staff members she was firing, but it seems like this also includes her fear of how the people on her staff were making moves without her knowledge. From the Peterborough Examiner:

"If I was not astute as a businessperson before, I suddenly had this overwhelming education within a month in which I had to learn how to do everything. It's empowering actually because you suddenly realize there's all this stuff you should have been doing all along."

She learned a similar lesson about running her business. The combination of the winding down of her series and splitting assets in the wake of her separation meant she had to downsize her company dramatically. Having purposefully positioned herself for so many years as just one of the staff, an artist who didn't want to manage anything, it came as a shock when she had to be the boss.

"It was a new me. Everybody was unhappy with it. We had a couple of tense days when my employees were saying, 'Why are you asking me all these questions, don't you trust me?'''

Of course she trusted them, Lynn says, but downsizing meant lay-offs, and she had to learn how to do the jobs of those who were leaving.

"I didn't know," she says in amazement. "How can you not know your own business?"


The discovery caused a huge rift in Lynn’s business. The staff divided along lines of loyalty: those who were faithful to Rod as their boss and those who were faithful to Lynn. Lynn’s personal life was in shambles, and now her business was, too. On a personal level, she found it too painful to draw John because John, in many ways was Rod – at least from Lynn’s perspective. It was terribly difficult to think of John as the loving, supportive spouse he had evolved into from his early days as a bumbling, socially awkward chauvinist. This didn’t get unnoticed to her detail-catching fans.


Oh, now it’s OK that her fans catch details. You can't have it both ways.

“faithful”. “loyalty”. It’s an interesting choice of words and it is meaningless. None of these people had any say in this matter that counted. They are caught between a rock and hard place no matter which way they go. If you go with Lynn’s idea of the company, then she will retire and Entercom will not be able to support your job, and you are without work. If you go with Rod’s idea of the company, then theoretically you could keep your job, but only if Rod convinces Lynn to go along with his investment and real estate scheme, which isn’t going to happen, and so you are once again without work. Only the webmaster and the bookkeeper are safe, because they are needed whichever way the company goes.

To summarize, Lynn and Rod get into a fight over how to spend the money she has made / is making with her syndicate contract once she retires. Unless one of them backs down, a divorce is coming. We know from her long history of fights with Rod she has recounted to us over the years that Lynn is not going to back down. If anyone is going to back down, it has to be Rod. For reasons unknown to us, this time he didn’t back down and decided to have an affair to boot, which tells us just how awful this fight was. Lynn wins the battle, but loses her husband. Instead of continuing on with her plans for an advertising company without Rod to oppose her, Lynn decides she needs to fire all the people she felt were not “faithful” to her. It’s not surprising the “faithful” end up being the people she needs -- webmaster Stephanie van Doleweerd, bookkeeper Liuba Liamzina and of course, daughter Katie.

The “no John” strips. When Lynn first talked about this, this detail-catching fan got very confused. Lynn first announced her divorce to Editor and Publisher in September, 2007, and in that interview, her story was that Rod had asked for a divorce in April, 2007. Naturally, I looked at the comic strips after April, 2007, and before September, 2007, and I could find no evidence of Lynn’s claim. John was there in every month. When I went back in time from April, I found the spot but it only works if you realize that Lynn has different deadlines for her Sunday strips and her dailies, so you can’t count their publication order as being the same period of time they were developed. The dailies go dead on John Patterson about mid-September, 2006 until about mid-November. 2006. This would imply that contrary to what she told Editor and Publisher, April, 2007 was not really the time when Lynn and Rod split.

What the detail-catching fans (and that includes me) did notice in May, 2007 was that Nancy Vincent disappeared off the website without any notice and Kate Johnston joined the staff. The part of the Entercom business that promoted the other businesses on the website went away and there was no longer a link to Rod’s Riding Railkits business. After September, 2007, when Lynn announced the divorce, she began a year-long series of interviews with newspapers and magazines like the Chicago Tribune and Maclean’s Magazine and anyone who would listen, denouncing Rod for cheating on her. At this point, the detail-catching fans figured out the change in May, 2007, was due to the affair and knew the person with whom Rod had his affair was the disappeared Nancy. My anonymous posters to the Howard Bunt Blog are unanimous in their opinion that all those interviews were in very poor taste and point out that neither Rod Johnston nor the members of Lynn’s staff ever publically rebutted Lynn’s statements, in spite of the fact that they did not have nondisclosure agreements with Lynn.

In retrospect, it makes more sense that the separation occurred before April because it would take more than a month to make all those legal business changes. Also the “missing John from the comic strips” period was earlier. And in particular there was a sequence in the comic strip where Elizabeth found out Constable Paul Wright was cheating which sounded just like Lynn would have reacted when she found Rod was cheating with a staff member: “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” The only problem was those comic strips were published in January, 2007. Things appearing both in Lynn’s life and in the comic strip are almost never a coincidence and this matched too closely (except for the creepy blinking eyes):

The other piece of the puzzle that did not fit in April, 2007 was the dental career of Dr. Rod Johnston. Why would he retire from part-time work in 2006 only to immediate take a full-time dental job 2 days later? If everything happened in 2006, then it would all make sense, including the announcement of the divorce in September, 2007, when the year the Ontario law requires for divorce had passed.

Anonymous posters to my Howard Bunt Blog would tell me that there was not a mass firing because Lynn still needed her art staff to help her finish the modern strip. After that, Lynn would ink herself and would use no grayscaling. Executive associate Allison Zadoronzy went away early in 2008. Inker Laura Piché was given an end date after she completed the inking for the modern strip. Colourist Jackie Levesque did the colouring for all the strips to the end of the modern era. Lynn still needed a colourist to recolour her Sunday strips for the reprints coming after the modern strips were finished. According to the anonymous posters, Jackie had been promised that job, but Lynn reneged on that promise and hired Kevin Strang, the colourist who had replace Jackie back in 2005 when she was on maternity leave. Everyone left had to work from home and not the studio, except Liuba Liamzini, for reasons unknown to me.

This whole description is completely fascinating because for the first time Lynn has tied together her marriage difficulties completely with her business difficulties. The divorce with Rod seems less like a wife betrayed by a cheating husband and more like a husband and wife at odds with each other over the direction of her business and their retirement money. Lynn has never tied these two together like this before. It explains my Anonymous commenters’ complaints about how the stories they were seeing Lynn spread in her interviews seemed very different from reality. Thanks to this book, it makes more sense and kudos to Lynn for deciding to step away from her “He done me wrong” story.

Edited to add:

I found another indication of proof of the 2006 theory. While hunting down Lynn's 2008 Chicago Tribune interview, I found her February 20, 2007 Chicago Tribune interview where she talked about how she was not going to retire in 2007 as she planned but she was going to start the hybrid strip. My thought after finding it was a realization that if all this divorce stuff happened in 2006, then a natural consequence would be Lynn's plans to continue and not conclude her strip. If she and Rod did not separate until April, 2007, 2 months later; then the decision to do the hybrid in February would have been a big slap in the face to Rod and his plans to retire and travel with Lynn.

Edited to add:

I found a new one, actually an old one, but in it she does mention her medication. One of them is the Clonazepam, I talked about above which does cause forgetfulness. However, she also mentions Effexor for depression, which is one of my guesses for the disease that would cause Lynn Johnston to need constant oversight. I do like the part where she realizes that she had been an arrogant bitch.

That said, she does get serious for a moment to discuss the neurological disease she has had for a number of years. It's a condition called dystonia, a movement disorder that causes her head to turn left when she lies down. The effect, she says, is like "the wringing of a heavy beach towel."

Why is she telling me about this? "Because a lot of people have it, and many doctors don't diagnose it. No one could tell me what it was, and two doctors didn't believe me when I told them my symptoms. One said I was neurotic, the other implied I was wasting his time."

According to Johnston, the disease, which can also manifest itself in eye blinking, mouth movement or difficulty swallowing, never goes into remission but is not degenerative after five years.

"But if you have infantile onset, you could be in a wheelchair by the time you're 20." She adds philosophically, "If I had to get this illness, it was the easiest type to get." Today she controls symptoms with Clonazepam, an anticonvulsant, and Effexor, for depression. Her advice: "Don't let anyone tell you you're making it up if you feel a movement disorder."

Johnston says her meteoric rise as a result of her comic strip taught her many life lessons. "You have to be nice to people. I was such an arrogant bitch. But I learned, because I married someone who brings me down to Earth," she says. "If it [celebrity] changes you, you can't do the work you were meant to do. I look at people like Michael Jackson and see how it can rot your mind."


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  • Wednesday, 27 October 2021

    John appeals to Elly's fear of dying alone and unwanted to pry her away from her life of busywork. Synopsis: John's in the mood for a nice evening…

  • Tuesday, 26 October 2021

    The one where Mike reminds us that he'll never really grow up. Synopsis: Mike reacts to being caught pilfering Elly's baking by engaging in…

  • Monday, 25 October 2021

    The one where Elly reminds John that she lives and dies by what other people think of her. Synopsis: When John has the temerity to question Elly's…