WRITING MY LECTURE — LOOSE ASSOCIATIONS
In the autumn, I was invited to deliver the Studies in Art Education lecture at the annual National Art Education Association conference. It is more an award than a typical conference presentation, a recognition of my research contributions in the fields of art education and disability studies. I should feel proud, honored, appreciated. However, ever since I received the invitation, I have wondered why they selected me. Drenched in my own insecurity, I question if there were just not a lot of good choices among this year's eligible researchers. At my department's holiday party, I stood grasping my plastic cup of red wine feeling the warm sense of daring provided by alcohol on an empty stomach. As another faculty member and I discussed the lecture, a colleague interrupted. It is the most important lecture of her career. For the remainder of the evening, this statement, most likely intended as a compliment, collided with my own sense of self-doubt. I felt paralyzed in fear like a child who is about to disappoint her parents.
I am writing my lecture about artists, many of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia, who lived in German asylums in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Brush strokes and pencils scratching the surface of scraps of paper speak to me, a secret written in the margins. Separated by time, we understand each other and I search for the right questions and arguments to challenge their ongoing confinement in history. Artists with schizophrenia are often dismissed or idealized and in either case most assume that they cannot make informed decisions. Trapped in asylums, their work continues to bump against the walls of beliefs about mental disability that distort others'vision.
There was a knock at the door, a trespass, an invasion. Terror spread constricting my throat as I moved out of sight. I no longer knew the curiosity of a knock or the sound of mother's voice. Oh now, who could that be? This knock knew no innocence or desire for connection with another. It delivered no package. It didn't ask for the possibility of invitation or repeat the cliché of asking for a cup of sugar. No, this knock had come for me. It knew who I was, what I knew, and was the beginning of my termination. It was a siren of danger, two large hands that could lift my struggling body beneath my armpits and take me away in the darkness making me only a memory.
September 1, 1939
On my desk is an image of Frantz Kleber's book. The pages are a soft yellow which could break beneath breath, nearly a hundred years lost forever. Somewhere in a German asylum, with no access to scissors or glue, his throbbing fingers tore letter by letter from discarded newspapers pasting each one carefully to form words using a glue he created from bread and water. My eyes trace the paths of curious fingers and small worm holes from insects that ingest history unaware of the consequence. Words blur illegibly and I don't know that I will ever read what was so important for him to say. I am left instead with the shadow of Kleber's persistence, his cracked hands tearing paper, and his desire to be heard in the echoing vacuum of asylum life. He could have written what he wanted to say with a pencil, but he chose to create a book, an object with meaning, where muted voices can articulate sounds audible to others, to have a voice when everywhere else the madman was perceived as only making the noise of a wild beast.
The First National Socialist Extermination Crime
MAIKE ROTZOLL, PAUL RICHTER, PETRA FUCHS,
International Journal of Mental Health, 2007
[A] witness described the process of killing in Hadamar…: Did I ever watch a gassing? Dear God, unfortunately, yes… Downstairs on the left was a short pathway, and there I looked through the window… In the chamber there were patients, naked people, some semi-collapsed, others with their mouths terribly wide open, their chests heaving. I saw that, I never have seen anything more gruesome… I could not imagine that this was completely without pain… A few were lying on the ground. The spines of all the naked people protruded. Some sat at the bench with their mouths wide open, their eyes wide open, and breathing with difficulty. [10, p. 97]
Based on each selection decision, transportation lists with the names of the selected patients were compiled and delivered by the regional supervising institutional office to the institutions concerned. The transportation instruction took the form of an order from the Commissioner of National Defense. A few days later, the notorious gray buses drove up to the front of the institutions and transported the patients to one of six extermination centers… Some of the doomed patients had a premonition of their fate and resisted, in which case they were given sedative injections… When they arrived at the extermination center, they were received by the nursing staff, told to remove their clothing, and were presented one by one to the killing doctors. The doctors confirmed the identity of the victims and invented a plausible cause of death for the death certificate… Then they were led in group formation into the hermetically sealed gas chamber (disguised as a shower room). The doctor opened the valve on the gas container, the carbon monoxide seeped into the chamber and caused death by asphyxiation… (pp. 20-21)
A network of pipes weave from unknown origins burrowing beneath the grass, through the basement of this facility, and emerge in this one showerhead. A snarling, metallic head drips saliva to the drain. The smell of days of sweat fills my nostrils and more than anything I want to feel the warm syncopation of water against my back and for soapy steam to waft through my sinus cavity. Hair laden in grease hides beneath a colorful tichel to keep the realization of my uncleanliness to myself. The showerhead scorches my consciousness; I see the reflection of history on its shiny surface, and I walk away.
Every day Wilhelm Müller stared outside the window as leaves turned to auburn hues and fell to the ground, as snow cascaded and coated branches, as buds formed and bloomed. Inside the asylum, there was no change. Time warped and distorted through endless, repeating days. When he stared out the window he could again find the rhythms of nature that everyone experiences. He saw the same sky that his family viewed that day. He drew the landscape in the distance for forty-eight days on toilet paper.
The force of the knock still reverberated in the silence. My eyes scanned my surroundings, mapping our home, searching in desperation for safety. I grabbed my phone and crouched in the narrow space of my closet. I could not call the police. They were too involved in the program. I only trusted my husband, my daughter, and my doctor. Shaking fingers searched for Dr. Levitt's number.
DL: Hello, this is Dr. Levitt.
Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm Herzensschatzi komm
The one thought that swelled in Emma Hauck's mind, spreading to trembling hands, found its only release through the letter she wrote. Over and over, she gashed the flesh of the paper. Sweetheart come Sweetheart come Sweetheart come. Her tears punctuated each sentence as the torrential flow of her words marked the moment of her betrayal. Her ears could still hear the sound of her husband's footsteps on the wood floor as he walked away leaving her alone in the asylum. If only this solid block of graphite, with words barely legible, could suture the wound that now separated them. Her letters, deemed insane, were put in her medical file never to be sent. At some point, she stopped writing letters; her pleas received no reply, and she died alone. In 1922, art historian and psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn describes Hauck's letters as only scribbles in Artistry of the Mentally Ill.
There is a sensation when my mind begins to change, a hum, a subtle shift in perception as the movement of shadows and light on the wall captivate my attention. Hidden meaning exudes from every branch blowing in the wind, the lights from the planes in the night sky, the abutment of news reports and my research. Somewhere a particular curiosity leads to fear as I see a pattern in history and a permeable barrier between past and present.
A few months ago, I wrote in my notebook: Ideology+Method+Secrecy+ Deception+Personnel –This is what it takes to enact the T4 Program. Nearly 200,000 people were murdered, many of whom were patients in psychiatric hospitals, as part of Hitler's plan and beneath it was this deadly formula. An ideology that the lives of those with disabilities were not worth living led to the selection of patients to be murdered under the direction of doctors. Aktion T4 did not end with the discontinuation of the gas chambers in hospitals, but saturated the minds of doctors who continued to starve patients thought to be useless and a burden. I find no comfort in the years that separate 1939 and 2017. The terrifying thing about formulas is their ability to be applied in new ways. There is no fear greater than patterns in our thinking that glide beneath the surface and reemerge to support new renditions of equally problematic behavior, new catastrophes built on the same long-standing ideologies. There is a formula and everywhere I can see the variables.
The entry of every psychiatric hospital is marked with a set of heavy, locked, metal doors painted in muted colors, grays and beige; they do not even try to conceal their weight and ominous presence. I wonder about where these doors are made and in what other structures they are installed. Prisons–I think that is one place you would need a door like this. A sign is taped on the outside of the door warning those that enter of an elopement risk. How many times I have studied those doors, the swift swipe of a key card that controls the mechanism, the time it takes for the door to swing back closed, and wondered how I could escape in my socks like a whisper. There is a certain look on the faces of patients who enter that door for the first time. It is the expression on a face the moment you learn that someone has died, that moment of shock and fear with a trickle of regret that only later gives way to sobbing. Their eyes don't cry, but scan the room, every piece of worn out furniture, every person shuffling along, every empty Styrofoam cup sitting on an end table, and they map it all, take it in, and try to make some sense of a nonsensical experience. Each set of doors has an undersized window covered in safety glass, too small to provide any meaningful view to the outside, but large enough to reveal that someone is standing there. More times than I can remember, I have stood staring at that small window watching the blur of figures in the distance and waiting for a sliver of my husband and daughter's faces to appear. When they enter, my face devoid of any emotion for a moment remembers what it means to live, and I smile.
Winter this year has been out of sorts. The optimistic daffodils have started to bloom outside my window. I am doubting the groundhog who in seeing his shadow predicted six more weeks of winter. It was a cloudy day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and the entire process seems scientifically unreliable. Everything could change and delicate leaves will peek through a few inches of falling snow.
I stand in front of the desk in my room. My eyes scan a grid of colorful post-it notes as I contemplate where to begin today's work. It is a collage of philosophical concepts sorted by key words, a reminder to brush my teeth, and the names of people in my everyday life that I don't want to forget. My memory is sand falling through a sieve. I never know what information I will retain and what will simply fall into an inaccessible void. On the desk, my books organized by size lean against the wall. My fingertips file through the stack, pausing at each spine. I pull a copy of Jacques Rancière's Disagreement from the desk and sit on the bed. My lecture, a map of weeks of work written on notebook paper, sits next to me. Brushing the surface of the paper, I feel the indentations of my pen. Amidst patterns in history that I fear are repeating, showers that recall moments of betrayal, I find refuge in my writing and research. I represent these artists' history, but unearth pieces of myself. Asylums and hospitals are where we become forgotten and I write a murmur; I read invisible ink.
There is a knock on the door. My gaze turns from the book returning to the pace of my own breath, to the minutes that slowly mark my time.
"he doctor will see you now."
I stand at the podium on an expansive stage in the ballroom to deliver my lecture. In the room, with sweeping arches and ornate carpeting, chairs extend like the lines of a notebook, each cluster of bodies forming a word. I want to read them and understand what they are thinking. As I shift my weight from leg to leg, trembling travels from my knees to throat. With each word, I feel that the quiver in my voice may overwhelm me and I will return to a vacant silence. The letters on the pages in front of me distort and swirl as I trace my finger across each line trying to bring them back to order. Discharged from the hospital a week earlier, the shadows of the program still pace along the distant back wall of the ballroom. The bright blue capsules I swallow twice a day do little to stave off its enormity and power. Even as I grapple with these uncertainties, I give this lecture, each theoretical argument intertwined with the history of art, just as I had planned it. At the end, the audience will ask me questions, their words will hover above me and I will almost reach them, but then they brush past my grasp and I won't be able to remember what they said. Conversation will still elude me, threatening to reveal my underlying confusion and I will politely reply that I will have to give their question further consideration in the future.
I ask in my lecture what it might mean to consider these artists' work, not as a distant, foreign object or as examples of innate unencumbered creativity, but as a form of politics. This politics begins with the presupposition of equality, of a bringing together of two heterogeneous worlds, one in which we are deemed to be without speech and one in which we assert ourselves as speaking subjects. The politics of these artists work is found in their response to the asylum itself, drawing on the surface of toilet paper, writing a book from discarded newspapers, speaking in a world where everywhere it is assumed this is not your capacity. There is a politics in me raising this question, writing a lecture about artists confined to asylums while I followed the cadence of my own hospital's pulse. The question of the equality and political potentiality of artists confined in asylums is one that I raise not only for these artists, but for myself.
My medical ID bracelet dangles on my wrist as my hands rest on the podium. Engraved on the metal is my name, diagnosis, and the phone number of my husband. I hope that if I was ever found confused or mute that this bracelet would be able to save me. In those moments when the confusion that precedes psychosis overwhelms me, I run my fingers across that engraved text, willing those letters with the power to prevent me from being pinned to a hospital bed and injected with medications, from wandering the streets, from ending up in police custody.
Once while walking in downtown Columbus with my husband a man walked by. With his long, tattered beard and unkempt clothes, I could tell that he was homeless. A few moments after he passed by I realized I knew him. We sat in the dining area of an inpatient ward and ate our lunch together. I dangle on the threads of my income, medical insurance, and supportive caregiver. If ever those threads would break, I don't know that anything could rescue me. Beneath the moments of success in my life is always the realization that it all teeters precariously on certain circumstances.
Hitler, A. (1939, September 1). Euthanasia Decree [Letter to Reichsleiter Bouhler and Dr. Brandt]. Berlin, Germany.
Rotzoll, M., Richter, P., Fuchs, P., Hinz-Wessels, A., Topp, S. & Hohendorf, G. (2006). The first national socialist extermination crime: The T4 program and its victims. International Journal of Mental Health, 35(3), 17-29.