How does one find truth in unspoken family abuse? Is it possible to break the silence of buried family secrets and develop something powerful out of these traumatic experiences? These are the questions I began to ask myself when I stumbled upon my mother’s watercolors, ones she had made at the age of eighteen during a psychotic episode. It was then that I finally understood the origins of her psychosis.
My father had collected all these watercolors in a portfolio. I held them in my hands on Christmas, laid them out together with my son to take a closer look. What lies behind her struggle? I asked myself. So I began an investigation into my mother’s childhood and the abuse she had experienced.
I started by reinterpreting her watercolors in photography, staged in a studio with real people. I felt I needed to make a statement, to establish a new confidence for these psychotic events. This process is at the heart of my new book, Seeing Her Ghosts, a collection of essays, poems, and artworks by over 50 artists and writers who seek truth in psychic crises — truths that are often caused by dysfunctional families, and the resulting trauma, truths that are hidden out of shame and helplessness.
Seeing Her Ghosts illustrates the emotional load and fear that is produced by a mental-health diagnosis. It gives an impression of the feelings that lie behind each individual drama and outlines a conversation between mother and daughter in photographs, watercolors, and diary extracts. The journey of making this book was therapeutic for my mother and helped in her recovery; I hope it helps others understand their family backgrounds and confront their own emotional struggles, to accept and truly see that all these effects of sadness, anger, rage, distress, and despair originate from a deeper conflict.
Seeing Her Ghosts is a rambling conversation about our deepest hollows at eye level. It is a book to take out of your stash again and again, to share with friends, to prompt you to trade your own buried stories. The cloth binding shows a line drawing made by my mother during a psychotic period. (It reminds me of Les Fleur du Mal by Baudelaire and its beautiful Matisse drawings.) It shows two ghosts floating — like mother and daughter.
Here, ten artists share their artworks from the book and the personal stories behind them.
Faye Moorhouse, illustrator
I have anxiety. More specifically social anxiety. I was born shy, and I hated going to school — in fact, I hardly ever went. I hated going out with friends; I would cry and my mum would make up excuses so I didn’t have to go. Now I have to make up my own excuses to avoid going out. And I’m running out of excuses. I’d rather tear off my own fingernails than go to the pub, or a wedding, or a party. Sometimes I have to go out: birthdays, special occasions, etc. I beat myself up so much for not wanting to go, not being normal. The price I pay for it is painful.
I spend days, weeks beforehand worrying, catastrophizing, running through all the possible awkward scenarios. I become hyperaware and paranoid and struggle to think of things to talk about, and then afterward I spend days overthinking, analyzing, and worrying about it. Medication and talking therapies have helped somewhat, but I still struggle. It doesn’t get better with age or the more I expose myself to social situations. And it is a really difficult one for other people to understand. I have a dog. When I’m with him, I don’t have anxiety. If I walk down the street or go to the pub with Bear, I feel calm and free. If I don’t have him with me, I go back to being anxious. The problem is, Bear hates busy, social things, too: he barks, pulls on his lead, and won’t sit still. I like to think he’s just excited, but maybe he’s anxious too. Did I make him anxious? Can dogs even have social anxiety? There we go again, worrying.
Sophia Weisstub, interdisciplinary artist
Both my parents are psychiatrists and analysts, so I grew up relating to and aware of feelings, thoughts. The existence of the unconscious was real and present. I myself experienced psychic pain; I suffered from OCD from a young age and later, in adolescence, depression. The depths and the experience itself remain painful and frightening. They will always be a part of me.
Marine Fisch, mixed-media artist
When I was five, my mother had cancer. Breast cancer. I remember the exact day when she told me about life, about death, about this big black cloud that we try to forget every day, and I can feel those feelings again. Little Me standing in my mother’s studio. Playing with an impossible puzzle. Heartbroken, crying in silence. “What the point of everything, Mama?”
Maybe I was too young, maybe it was already in the making … But since then, I’ve always had to deal with this melancholia, with my hypersensibility — more or less, violently. In my teenage years, I had eating disorders. I tried to fill my body. Then I tried to be a bird. I also used to draw on my body, hypnotized by the blood. Above all, I was ashamed. I tried to hide who I was.
I don’t know how or why, but when I was most deeply lost in the darkest spot of my mind, I began to speak. For the very first time, I expressed myself. And step by step, I accepted my being. I know it’s clichéd, but I believe that art — my art — saved me. Obviously, periodically [my struggle] comes up to the surface, but today I manage. And I try every day to use this sensibility to feel the world. In his very entire poetry.
Angela Deane, artist
When I was ten years old, my dad slit his wrists. Just a few hours later, a priest was in my living room asking me if I would feel better if he had died another way. The beauty of being a child is the ability to bounce back through being loved, and so the pendulum swung — much of my recovery from that moment was through biking with friends, laughing, and making weird inventions. But his death left a mark, and the grief surfaced a decade or two later. It wormed its way into my romantic relationships.
I learned about the finality of life early. I learned about the realness of mental illness and depression early. I respect it, I recognize it, I send my love its way.
Jessica Scheurer, graphic designer and illustrator
I’m anxious. About almost everything, every single day. Today is no exception: it’s here and now, writing these few lines. Tomorrow, it will be playing piano in front of a tiny audience. The next day, it will be facing my colleagues at work, feeling like a fraud, or on a date, feeling useless. It’s as if my entire life is happening on a stage. I have to perform day in and day out. It’s a premiere every day, and I always want to be at my best. And all the time, I don’t want to be there, in the spotlight.
My mind repeats the most vile things about myself as I go about performing, and I’m often unsure about the script. I’m sweating until I’m soaked and cold. I’d often like to shut myself off, but I can never seem to find the switch. Sleep gives me some respite after my worst appearances. I’d be so exhausted anyway after an entire day’s worth of acting my own part, that I’d let sleep overcome me like my savior. A friendly, welcoming fog, all my thoughts are still there, but out of sight and sound until dawn. Curtain drops, at last.
Recently, I’ve come to find a strategy that helps me a little with my reckless thoughts: I listen to a lot of podcasts. It gives me a break from listening to my own mind driving me into dead ends. It also means I get to be inspired by others and learn new positive-thought patterns and tricks. Because I do know what it feels like to be relaxed, to feel like my mind and body are connected and in sync with the universe, my goal will always be to figure out how to reach — or, better yet, stay in — that mental space, leaving all my nerves at bay. In the meantime, I’m training my brain, like any other muscle, a little at a time, one day at a time.
Holger Becken, artist
In my early youth, there was a phase in which I suffered from a lack of self-confidence and shyness. As a result, I began to train myself to become more brave and confident by exposing myself to anxiety-filled situations. By coping with these situations, I learned to lose many fears as well as to deal with them. All in all, this experience helps me with respect to face the emotional illness of my wife.
Julia Navarro, artist
Participating in this project has been a very sweet and personal experience for me since I live a similar family situation to Kirsten’s. Drawing the dinner was a real challenge but also very enriching. I chose it because I visualized the scene immediately; I found it very fulfilling trying to feel for the story of Kirsten’s mother and capturing “The Dinner.”
When you live near mental illness, you’re surrounded by very surreal scenes: It is hard, but it is also wonderful. You learn to appreciate the little details. You value each gesture and each expression of love more. You share every moment with twice the depth. The pain and happiness that these experiences evoke have inspired me to express myself and explore my creativity many times over.
Martin Fengel, professor of photography
Psychic crises happen — sometimes they are self-inflicted; sometimes they happen to you because of others. Sometimes you have the strength to recognize it; sometimes you cannot find the reason for it. One can now hold very high political offices and at the same time lose all his marbles. I once knew a man who claimed he would always do everything right. I do not believe that the brain can ever comprehend the brain; for me, there is something very soothing in this thought.
Marta Claret, artist
In my experience, one of the most difficult aspects of depression is to try to explain to others what is happening to me. This is one of the aspects of my illness that I find most difficult: the isolation that you feel because you just can’t put into words what is happening to you. Something similar happens to Kirsten’s mother when she says: “I still have a great pain in me. I don’t know what it is …” Those words accompany one of her drawings [from which this sculpture is based] because they best express her pain and her anger. I’ve found a strong connection in that: our shared inability to put words to our pain.
Roger Ballen, photographer
It is hard to explain or understand the complexity of the mind. I use photography as a tool to locate my core mind, my inner world. It is a very mysterious, enigmatic place that defies words and cannot be defined exactly. I now understand that I will never understand reality.
It has always been important for me to probe below the surface, to come into contact with the deeper elements of human consciousness.
There is never only one answer or one moment. Understanding the unconscious part of the mind is a very essential process in better understanding oneself. My photographs are psychological in nature, and the goal is to penetrate the viewer’s conscious mind and lodge itself in the subconscious. Hopefully, the end result will be greater self-awareness.
Kirsten Becken, (born 1982) lives and works in Munich and the Lower Rhine Area. In 2007, she received her degree from Folkwang University of the Arts Essen. Her work has appeared in et al., AD Magazine, Vogue Deutschland, and Iloveyou Magazine, and she’s participated in group exhibitions such as A Process (2014) at Neue Galerie at Höhmannhaus Augsburg and Guest Room (2015) at Galerie f5,6 München. In 2016, her first solo exhibition, Ophelia, was on view in Berlin.