Jessica Yu won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for Breathing Lessons: the Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, an intimate portrait of the writer who lived for four decades paralyzed by polio and confined to an iron lung. Yu's award-winning HBO documentary The Living Museum was about the art community at Creedmore Psychiatric Center in Queens, New York.
Yu's most recent documentary In the Realms of the Unreal is the subject of my interview with her. This film is about Henry Darger, a man whose childhood was spent in an asylum for feebleminded children and his adulthood working as a janitor. As an adult, Darger lived in two worlds: the real world with hardly any human contact and his vibrant imaginary world where he controlled the destiny of nations. He died in Chicago in 1973 and left behind an autobiography, 300 paintings, some over 10 feet long, and a 15,000-page illustrated novel titled The Realms of the Unreal, an epic story of the virtuous Vivian Girls who heroically lead a child slave revolt against the evil Glandelinians, a nation of child-abusers.
Voices: Tell us about Darger's childhood—how did people hurt him?
Jessica Yu: I took what I could from his 2,500-page autobiography. He was orphaned at an early age. His mother died giving birth to his sister who was put up for adoption. His mother died when he was three so he had no memory of her. His father was a tailor who had some sort of disability, so he really couldn't take care of him. Darger was put into a boys' home and seems not to have gotten along really well there, so he was put on a train and sent to an asylum for feebleminded children. He was there for about seven years and he tried to escape about three times. The third time he finally got away. He escaped into Chicago and became a janitor. In some ways that is where the active part of his life ended and where the themes of a lot of his work come from: kids longing to be reunited with their family; a theme of child slavery and oppression; and a theme of adventure.
Voices: How did people hurt him?
JY: He was not someone who really talked about abuse in his childhood. I know from researching, the year he escaped from the asylum, there was an investigation that determined there was a lot of abuse there. There was a child who died in care there, so it's not a huge stretch to think that Darger was running from abuse. He did write once about when he tried to escape, the staff caught him, tied him with a rope and dragged him back [to the asylum] from horseback. But he's not someone who talked specifically about abuse in a way that someone [might] talk about their childhood [abuse] today.
Voices: What kind of artist was Henry Darger?
JY: He was somebody who was very self-taught, very ambitious, very bold, extremely driven.
Voices: I hear him labeled as an "outsider artist."
JY: It's funny, on the one hand he is labeled outsider artist and on the other a lot of his work is now at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan right next to the new Museum of Modern Art. He was in a way an "insider" because he didn't let people into his intimate world. He wasn't interested in people and people weren't interested in him. I think that labels are convenient in terms of letting people know where this person's work might be found, but like all labels, they have their limitations.
Voices: Darger chose to isolate himself to an extreme degree. Why do you think he did that?
JY: It's pretty clear that his experiences in the "real world" in early childhood were traumatic even though he didn't dwell on them emotionally in his autobiography. The themes of abandonment, oppression, and desire for escape come up again and again in his work. I think that over time there was a deliberate turning away from the outside world and a choice to live in a world created out of his imagination, which is a pretty audacious thing to do when you think about it.
Voices: Do you think that Darger had a biological brain illness commonly known as mental illness?
JY: I was not that interested in what was clinically wrong with Darger. This is part of the long experience of working on a film about somebody…In Darger's case I wasn't sure whether he was really "mentally ill" or not. I am sure that there are a lot of mental health professionals who might disagree with that. In terms of the film, I wanted it to be more of an imaginative, emotional experience than a definitive analysis of him and his work. But my main problem with diagnosing Darger is that I didn't want to produce the artwork itself to symptoms of some sort of disorder. I thought that was a reductive approach. It's interesting—after every screening of the film, at least one person comes up to give me a diagnosis of Darger and I don't know that I've ever gotten the same one twice.
Voices: In his epic paintings and 15,000-page novel, Darger depicts a war between a nation of child-hating adults and a nation of child-loving adults where the children are the heroes. Please tell us about this.
JY: It's kind of convenient if you were to mix the elements of the Old Testament, the odd books and Uncle Tom's Cabin, you might get something approaching [Darger's novel]. While the themes can be very grim, there are also times when there is great humor in it. It's extremely varied and dense…For a hundred pages the Vivian Girls exchanged silly puns. People think of his work as very dark and grim and gruesome, but that's only part of it. That's something I hope the film also addresses: the breadth of the work.
Voices: Why was Darger so infatuated by little girls? Do you think he entertained pedophiliac fantasies?
JY: This is the thing that people are disturbed to various degrees about: the nakedness of the girls and the fact that they have penises. What I was trying to do with the film was to embrace the mystery of this part of it. In other words, we missed our chance to know more as far as what his thoughts actually meant.
Voices: Do you think he was so ignorant from his isolation that he actually thought girls had penises?
JY: This is where we speculate. I think that it is possible that, as a child, when a kid should get this information, maybe he didn't get it, being in boys' homes and asylums. By the time he came across evidence of the difference between the sexes, maybe things had already gotten a little confused in his mind…whether he could have been a pedophile or a child-murderer should be addressed because people have speculated on this. But in the film, I was trying to deal with Just the evidence of what was there and what I discovered. Certainly if I had found anything that would suggest Darger had ever done anything, I would have pursued it, but I didn't find that. Here was someone who would go to mass five times a day and confession. He would confess if he used a swear word. It is hard to imagine that if he really did do something to a kid that this wouldn't have been something he would have mentioned. The film is not trying to psychoanalyze Darger…It's something to help us understand the achievement of this person's imagination.
Voices: What role did religion play in his life?
JY: His relationship with God was the primary struggle of his life in my opinion. I think that not having parents early on, this relationship with God was really a source of strength as well as frustration for him. I think that his view of God was that God was Santa Clause. If he behaved himself and was obedient, good things should come to him, but God never came through in the way that Santa Clause should. I think it was really tough for him, but at the same time he couldn't abandon his faith or else he'd be adrift in the world.
Voices: Darger was obsessed with the weather and man's inability to fully predict it. Why?
JY: I think this is tied up to his relationship to God. He tracked the weather to show the arrogance of man through the faults of the weatherman. The weatherman was daring to predict the will of God. He had his frustrations with God and it was probably a comfort to know that other people also didn't have success in reading the mind of God.
Voices: There are two endings to his novel: one where the children are victorious and one where they lose. Why the double ending?
JY: There's a suggestion that there may have been even other endings. What I have found is one ending following another. Part of it was tied in again to his religion: is there God or is there no God? Is life fair or is it unfair? These are questions that he wrestled with and like a lot of people, he probably felt they were unanswered till the end of his life. The last entry in his journal was simply one line: 'What will it be?'
Voices: In old age as Darger was approaching death, he reached out to people in his surroundings for support. Having isolated himself for most of his life, why did he seek people out?
JY: I actually don't know that you can say he reached out to his neighbors. He was lucky in a lot of ways that the people who lived around him left him alone when he was working and when they saw that he had needs, they did help him. I wouldn't say that he knocked on their doors and begged for help. One of his neighbors, who helped him bathe and took him to the hospital, would probably not describe him as being grateful—it was necessity.
Voices: What is it that human beings should learn from the life and works of Henry Darger?
JY: I think that if you ask me this question in ten years, I'd really have a good answer…I think it's difficult to think of the film as a learning experience so much as an exploration…Can someone live in a world created out of their imagination? In some ways Darger was trying to test the John Dunn quote: "No man is an island." I think Darger was trying to see if he could do that in some ways and so I thought that this was both audacious and poignant—Just this attempt…I think what is true is that he had a life that equaled the richness of many people's lives and that is something admirable.
Voices: Darger did not watch his health and ate poorly, how do you think he managed to live 81 years?
JY: I think he was a very stubborn person. He didn't like being unoccupied or being lazy. I think he had a lot of purpose in his life, which probably made the last few years very tough because his eyesight started going. He collected a lot of broken eyeglasses probably looking for some that actually worked for his eyes. That must have been hard because as an artist if you can't see what you're doing, the connection between you and the work is broken. I think that was very tough for him.
Voices: To be unable to express himself through his art, his only pleasure, must have been hard for him.
JY: That's right and for him, unlike a lot of people, that was everything. It's not he could say, "Oh well, I'll spend time with my grandkids." That wasn't going to happen.
Voices: The last few years of his life were quite tragic.
JY: They were tragic, but again I think it is problematic to paint his whole life as a tragedy because his last few years were so hard for him. He did experience some highs as well as lows in life. The woman we interviewed in the film, Mary O'Donnell, she was someone who knew Darger when she was a child and he was in his fifties. She remembered him as being someone who seemed very happy in his life because he was able to do what he wanted. No one interfered with him. I think it was important to have that perspective that he was someone who at one time was at the height of his powers and fairly content with that.