The Escape

This is the story of the birth of a painting, but it is much more.  It is the story of life events that nearly destroyed me.  I was not destroyed, but these events followed me.  I moved from place to place, but they were never far behind.  I tried therapy, but they returned in the night.  I grew strong and confident, but they lingered in the corners of my world waiting for a weak moment to pounce.  I built a life for myself, but they built a wall around that life, keeping my fears in and real intimacy out.  This is the story of domestic abuse, abuse from an intimate partner. One of the most insidious and terrifying forms of violence, it is one of the most common.  And it is a story of a painting that has been my way of breaking down my walls, the real and the imagined.  
Two years ago, almost to the day, I awoke with my pillow soaked with tears.  I was still weeping as I awoke and recalled the dream.  I was at a party, a farewell party for a young man at work.  He was loved by everyone there, so when he announced he was leaving we begged him to stay.  He insisted on leaving, so we decided to throw a farewell party as big as our love for him.
At the party we drank and sang, and danced to live music under the stars.  Each person had a dance with the young man, and I was the last.  When I danced with him I held him so tightly, and I wept a river of tears.  I felt like I would not be able to let go.  Finally he held me back at arms length, so he could look into my face and tell me that it was all OK; he loved me and I had to let him go.
When I woke up I knew the young man was my son, who had died in my womb 22 years earlier, after I was beaten with the handle of a hobby horse.  I was beaten with repeated blows to the back, until the heavy wooden pole actually shattered into several pieces.  During the beating I twisted and turned, exposing my back in an attempt to protect my 6 month pregnant abdomen and the baby inside.  A month later I delivered a fetus that had been dead for over three weeks due to causes not completely known, but assumed to be strangulation by the umbilical cord.  This has always been my dark night of the soul.  And I am bringing it into the light.

I would like to say this was an isolated event, but it wasn’t.  I was 22 years old, in the final month of a relationship that had lasted 2 years.  I was soon to run away and find safety in a women’s shelter. Slowly I began to put myself back together in a life of my own, but at that time I was the shell of a person.  A person who had become a captive in a prison with no concrete walls, but rather walls of fear and manipulation. To this day, I cannot understand or even fathom the undeniable strength of those walls, made of blocks that were harder to shatter than concrete itself.  
Some people may believe that when an abused women leaves the abusive relationship the torment is over.  Yes, the worst of it is.  My own experience of leaving this relationship was in many ways a second chance at life.  I had escaped the brutal world I was trapped in.  I had a one year old baby girl who kept me going.  I had camaraderie in the women’s shelter, where I was given the love and attention I had so missed in the years of isolation and abuse.  I eventually reconnected with my parents and my two brothers, and, with the support of my family, I began the long road of recovery at the age of 22.  But one reason so many women stay in abusive circumstances is because they believe the threats.  Most threats end with a promise: if they leave the brutality will be even worse.  It is not words that make the threats real, it is bloody noses, black eyes, and worse.  It is the monstrous way a sadistic person can weave lies through the brain of his victim.  I believed I would be hunted down, and possibly killed.  I believed this for so long, that even when my rational mind had worked through the unlikelihood of such an outcome, every cell in my body seemed to still believe it.  It didn’t help that in the many years since I left, my abuser has continued to try to connect with me, sometimes with a twisted gesture of friendship and sometimes with condemnation and demands, but always uninvited, unanswered and unwanted. 

I awoke from the dream two years ago, almost 24 years after the day I entered the women’s shelter.  I awoke weeping.  I had said goodbye to my son. Still in my pajamas, I walked downstairs and picked up a painting I had begun a few days before; it was one that had baffled me.  I put the painting down on the kitchen table and picked up a paintbrush.  I knew exactly what I needed to do. 

This is what the painting looked like it when I started painting that morning in my pajamas

When I paint a large painting I usually go through a stage of confusion, when I’m baffled or bewildered by the marks I have put down. This is not unusual.  What, if anything, was unusual about this painting was how angry I had felt while working on it.  At best I am usually challenged and inspired by this stage, at worst I am irritated.  I recognize the feeling and I know it’s temporary.  This painting actually made me mad.  But that morning all the anger was washed away and I was mourning.  Suddenly I felt like I understood something very profound about the events of my life, and it was all symbolically taking form in this painting.  

I started “The Escape” as I do many of my paintings on boards, with collaged images.  I glued a print of mine with a dog and bird in ambiguous conflict, pages from the New York Times and pages from Tolstoy.  I thought I was painting about ideas, as I often do.  But the images that kept appearing were too personal for me to connect to the social and political content of the collaged scraps.  A figure appeared, looking suspiciously like my abusive partner from 24 years earlier.  He reached out long fingers that shot right through the head of the upside-down  dog.  A mask that looked like a demon from a dream looked over it all and a Thunderbird appeared that seemed to be flying off the page.  I say “appear” because at this stage in the painting I am not painting with any premeditated brushstrokes, I paint without forethought.  I am as surprised by what comes off the brush as any bystander would be, often more so. 

A close up of what happened that morning

I painted all morning and well into the day, without eating or getting dressed or even cleaning up.  There was a force driving me that surpassed any other needs, and it was the force of healing.  When I painted this piece I truly understood the transcendental healing power of art.  Pi is a transcendental number.  It is real, but not algebraic.  It does not have rational roots. If you try too hard to make rational sense of it all, it disappears, like the memory of a dream.  When I painted the section that most pained me, the one where my abuser stuck his fingers into my head, comforting images appeared to soothe me.  My daughter and my son were soon part of a vortex of circular movement that emanated from the source of my pain.  I saw the good with the bad, healing as an outgrowth of suffering.  One cannot exist without the other.  If you let go, it will be OK, as my son told me in my dream.

On one side, the dead infant leaves the thoughts of the abuser as a mere outline, almost a caricature.  He is in the bottom left corner of the painting, where the pain and deception of the past events weave imprisoning webs that eventually grow into a brick wall.   But the spirit of the baby boy emerges on the other side of my abuser like a rock formation, his leg turning into a wing that becomes one of the wings of my living child. My daughter is the one who was my only reason for living when, lost in the darkness of abuse, I considered suicide.  The left side and especially the bottom left corner of the painting are the beginning of the story, they are real events, but they are the past.  I will never forget the past, but I have to fly away.  
At this point I find myself in the painting.  I am flying away.  I am as far away as possible from the painful events, but my flight has also taken me away from those I love, it has taken me away from the center of the painting where my story is told.  In my desire for freedom from the fear and the pain, in my usual enthusiasm, I have gone too far.

When I realized where I was in the painting, I also realized I was connected to a pair of legs on the other side of the Thunderbird.  And holding onto the foot was a figure seated on a horse.  He has white hair.  I realized who he was and I was a little annoyed.  I can laugh now, but I was really irritated by this.  It was very difficult to let a man into my inner world, although I had attempted to have relationships in the last two decades.  I had either chosen unrealistic, unattainable partners, or I had pushed or pulled at the the men in my life, until the relationship fell apart.  No one had made it into a painting like this.  But the work I was doing at this point was exhilarating, and the white haired man on the horse was a person who gave me a lot of space, and was someone I considered trusting, something I had previously found impossible.  So eventually I was able to accept the goofy turn of events in this image.  After all, there was someone holding me back from completely flying away.  A good thing.

One thing I love about this process is that it can be so serious, intense, even frightening; yet it can be lighthearted, playful and irreverent all at the same time.  I have learned to accept all aspects.  I have learned to let go.  There was a moment, somewhere around two in the morning, more that 18 hours after I got up and started painting in my pajamas that I found myself leaning over the painting and screaming through tears, “You had no right.  You had no right to do the things you did!”  I was lucid enough to realize if anyone walked through the door at that moment they might be concerned for my sanity, but believe me, it was one of the sanest moments of my life.  It was the moment I released the rage inside of me for over two decades and with the rage went the fear, went the walls, went the prison I had been living in.  My catharsis was the result of 24 years of hard work, practice, patience, and all the stuff of life, but it came down like a crashing wall, and it took form in a work of art.

By the time I fell asleep, 20 hours after I started working that day, the painting was nearly complete.

I went to sleep that night as the sun was rising.  I had ended the day laughing through the tears, a day that began crying into my pillow.  There were finishing touches to be done.  There were parts of the painting I still did not understand.  There are still many walls around my heart to be torn down.  I could not know, that night two years ago, the profound effect that day’s work would have on my life.  The therapeutic value in art for me is the potential for understanding, control, and release, all through the language of painting.  

Two years later I am revisiting this work.   I am actually making a printed canvas to save it in this stage, and I am taking it back to the easel, realizing now that I am armed with the truth and the absence of fear and shame.  With these tools I can see areas of the painting that are clearly unfinished, and I now feel ready to complete.

Releasing the past through creative work has proven to have a key role in my ongoing growth, most importantly releasing my fears.  What I dealt with in these past 26 years has been the stalking and attempts at communication from my abuser.  I had a very difficult time shaking the fear and damage that resulted from extreme abuse, and the inconsistent, incomprehensible nature of his attempts to insinuate himself into my life have never ended.  But years went by, and I am stronger.  I have armed myself with protection, material and emotional. My paintings, which over the years have become a diary of healing, help me feel less controlled by the past, and therefore, less threatened.  I can honestly say I am no longer afraid, but I am still not free from the unwanted attention from a past I have let go of – a man who has relinquished all rights to be in my world through his own actions 26 years ago.  I have realized that nothing I do or say would define this boundary more than the truth.  The most empowering aspect of my artistic process in this piece has been the courage to tell my story.  The truth, it is said, will set you free.  And now that I no longer feel the need to run away, I am claiming the right to be free.