A letter on the mad


Is this the destiny of man? Is he only happy before he has acquired his reason or after he has lost it?

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, Goethe-

Dr. Maillard was the proud precursor of an unseen psychiatric system. It occurred to him that if he reversed the identities of his patients, offering them a sense of normality unknown to them; they might believe that role even further than their own delusions. For a true change, though, he needed to take one more step: patients and doctors traded places. The insane became sane. The hospital kept its busy routine in this manner, only that now it was run by those which once had treated. Tea pots-man, exhibitionists, Swiss cheeses which asked to be sliced and tasted; all kind of psychotropic alter egos had been replaced as a memory of the dementia those patients had overcome, giving them a purpose they had been missing all along.

Edgar Allan Poe imagined this in his short tale The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. And in many ways, we can see this vision screened on the exposition known as The Passion of Joan of Arc (or 12 and a marionette) by Javier Téllez; which I have to say, blew my mind completely.

When you first enter the exposition, in the dark, the voices of twelve women guide you to your sit. Dazzled by the sudden light of their projections, you bend your gaze toward their unsettling faces and right away, all this streaming of experiences, thoughts and fears come to find you unaware to where you are. You look around then, to face two enormous screens, staring and talking to each other. In one there is the muted film la passion de Jeanne d’Arc from 1928, but there is something off with it that at first you can’t quite tell, and in the other the most intimate, unadulterated interviews of real patients at the mental hospital  Rozelle.

I bet Javier Téllez saw this concept in his mind one day: Joan of Arc, the martyr, the mad soldier of God which was taken for crazy and doomed for her beliefs and, on the other hand, the old movie by Carl Dreyer telling her story both with images and inter-titles, back in the days of silent cinema. Téllez would find the voice of that story, later on, in his conversations with the patients.

He had a project. He went to Rozelle hospital looking for women who suffered a mental illness to rewrite the old movie’s inter-titles with their own view; as in Poe’s tale, he gave them a purpose. And, in this way, the so called insane became to co-authors of a novel version of the film. They were, somehow, rewriting their own stories, uncovering their truths for us to see. To them, Joan of Arc was just a contemporary patient in their same hospital which had been committed because of her belief to actually be Joan of Arc. The doctors, impersonated in the real movie as priests, diagnosed that she was suffering from grandiose visions and hallucinations and took her to her destruction; as the priests took the “real” Joan of Arc to her end. All and all, it fitted to perfection with how Rozzelle’s patients viewed themselves inside the psychiatric system.

During the period Téllez was working with the patients on the re-script of the movie, he kept on interviewing them. And that’s what you witness in that first screen of the exposition which so utterly strikes you and captivates you with such raw honesty and brutal awareness. While you sit in that room, this absolute sense of intimacy overwhelms you and you keep on turning your sight from one screen to the other, unease, with this feeling that you won’t be the same after listening to those confessions:

I fought before. I fought an army of men but now I face a mountain. I must fight a mountain of men, law, church and state. I must fight the forces of History which wish to consume me, categorize me, challenge me, condemn me and bury me. They wish to burn my identity, leaving only a heart which cannot be burnt no matter how hot the fire.

As the haunting words of these, often misunderstood, anti-heroines unravel the mysteries of a limitless mind; one question soars above any preconceptions: who is Javier Téllez?

Being the son of two psychiatrists, Téllez grew up surrounded by the familiarity of the unknown. His home was, also, his father’s private practice and the family shared common spaces with the patients; soon normalizing the stigma of mental illness and humanizing, well, humans. At a yearly festival they organized, both patients and medical staff would exchange uniforms for a day (Poe called it first).

Téllez’s father owned a large collection of more than twenty five thousand books and so intellectuality went hand in hand with his upbringing. From his grandfather, owner of a movie theater, he inherited the fascination for cinema and its visual narrative. It isn’t strange, therefore, to find all these biographical little pieces in the pure, curious and nonjudgmental presentations of the patients at Rozelle hospital. He succeeded in reaching out to the wondering minds to bring back their perspective, their pains, moral dilemmas and illusions for us:

In Australia there is an imperative to be happy, at all cost. I grew up in Wollongong and I did not fit in their culture. Besides, in my family life, my father was mentally ill and we lived fearing for our lives on daily basis.  My mother slept with an axe under her pillow, in case he came to kill us in the middle of the night. We lived terrified. For some reason, I was expected to be happy.

When I was 15 I had an overdose of pills because I was desperate. When I went to the hospital the psychiatrist in charge had me committed to the adult psychiatric hall. He told my mother that he did because there was nothing wrong with me, at all; nor mentally or psychologically but that I should be punished for having taken an overdose. When the nurse came to my house to pick me in an ambulance to take me to the psychiatric, I can’t remember a thing she said other than “Do not cry because if you do, they’ll keep you here for even longer”.  

I decided with deep passion that I wanted my life to be about preventing other people experiencing what I can only categorize as cruelty. I have been absolutely devastated to find in the experiences that I had in the last year, that not much has changed, not much has changed… Not much has changed at all.

However, something did change, for all the voluntary women who contributed to Téllez’s exposition. Once the project arrived at its completion, the patients assured Téllez the project had been the best experience of their lives. Something we are perhaps too used to hear in meaningless flattering lines but which, in this case, comes out as such profound truth. The fight for survival was not in vain:

The emotional pain sometimes is a lot harder to understand and heal than psychical pain. Because it can become like a cancer, it can kill you, if you don’t take care of it.

We cannot fully comprehend the struggle these women went through every single time they woke up, every single time they tried to make something work out and couldn’t; but thanks to them sharing it with us, we grasp the view from a blurry soul which never stopped shinning:

Have I fallen into temptation? Or have I rejected it? My heart has been broken and remade but in whose image? I saw my soldiers, my King and my God crying for revenge. I felt it was all on me. I wasn’t thinking of Joan of Arc last year, I was thinking about other warriors that might rise with a righteous anger against what was happening. I was quite overwhelmed by the war last year. The authorities which continued war were attacking the fundamental basis of occidental culture: international law, justice, truth, human rights, freedom, believe, hope… I planned to save the world. I was aware of spy satellites, the general culture of surveillance and governments tracking mobile phone calls. I felt I had to be the 21st century James Bond working in secret to save what’s important in occidental culture.

A community nurse came around my house one day and asked me: “do you still have any delusional belief systems working around?” And I said: “please, don’t come in to my house and ask me about delusional belief systems. The world is full of delusional belief systems. America is a delusional belief system.”

When the considered insane sound more reasonable than the common people, we should stop and wonder: WHY. Delusional beliefs systems, she said? Nowadays everything resembles a delusional belief system. That nurse should just look up to the world; they are gleaming with neon lights. Simon and Garfunkel knew it, Edgar Allan Poe knew it; even Obama knows it. Where is Snowden now? Who runs away from freedom? Only someone who knows just too well freedom is just an illusion we teach our kids to believe. So it seems is justice. O all the doomed tragic saviors of consciousness, prisoners of a lie. In the end, they will all be called insane, they will all be denied and yet, only the selfless confessions of those who know the disguise can open the world’s eyes.

Underneath the surface of prejudices, while listening to such experiences, one can only feel empathy. For an hour, approximately the time the interviews last, we feel what they felt. There is no attempt to glamorize their lives in Téllez’s screens, just a sincere and compelling try to bring us all a bit closer. We might feel like crying, we might feel like fighting or yelling but they also remind us to smile:

I was in a pub the other day and a lad came up to me and said: Why don’t you give some money for the Paralympics? And I turned around and said: look mate, I am in the Mentalympics every day.

One of the most well known fragments of the clips, which everyone seems to emphasize in their reviews, is the one of a patient which curiously decided to appear on screen with a marionette. The puppet took the role of a doctor, asking all kind of questions of her life. To me, her interview lacked in honesty and had some dubious pretensions; yet this exchange in roles portrays, once again, the need to understand ourselves as outsiders. So it happened to Poe’s reinstated patients, that once they left their identities they became laughable for themselves and, let’s face it, we all need a laugh:

When I was sent here, when I was 21, it was for writing SOS in Morse code on my grandma’s wall with all the dots and dashes. The police thought it was a suicide note, because that’s how silly they were. I can’t help to know Morse code, it’s in my memories. I know people don’t believe in past lives, but it’s from a past life experience. All the women in my family have the gift they just haven’t told anybody because if they do, they would be sent to a nuts-house.

In 1948 Antonin Artaud, after a stay in a mental asylum and being subjected to electroshock treatments, recited – literally– the darkest of thoughts:

Insane asylums are deliberate and premeditated receptacles of black magic, and it is not only that doctors encourage magic with their untimely and hybrid therapies, it is that they practice it. If there had been no doctors there would never have been patients, no skeletons of the diseased dead to butcher and flay, for it is through doctors and not through patients that society began. Those who live, live off the dead. And it is likewise necessary that death live; and there is nothing like an insane asylum for calmly incubating death, and for keeping dead people in incubators.

There is in electro-shock a puddle state through which everyone traumatized passes, and which causes him, no longer at this moment to know, but to dreadfully and desperately misjudge what he was, when he was himself, his own self.

To thus create death artificially as present-day medicine attempts to do is to encourage a reflux of the nothingness which has never been to anyone’s benefit, but which certain predestined human profiteers have been fattening on for a long time.

Actually, since a certain point in time.

Which one?

That point when it was necessary to choose between renouncing being a man and becoming an obvious madman.

But what guarantee do the obvious madmen of this world have of being nursed by authentically living people?

In other words, in our anti-heroine words: misjudgement, prejudice and cruelty were always on the menu of the day. For one of the patients, as for Artaud, it went even further. She read a series of reflections from the time she was exposed to electro shock treatments. Are there still electro shock treatments? The most unbelievable of all, is that it actually helped her. She, being a clinical depressive, found the longing peace of mind after months of electrical mental treatment. But what are the side effects? And, do they matter to them? These obscure methods have been the plot of many fictional stories but they happen to real people, people who find the will to creep their way out of darkness, their way out of the undead.

But can someone who went through so much, psychically and mentally, ever come back to life as we all know it? I think it depends as much on us as it depends on them. An old lady with sad tired eyes and a broken voice claimed, in the interviews, she was human; one of us. Fragile and becalmed, she asked of society to give up on rejection and embrace difference, embrace her. She said:

One of the most heart breaking sentences that I have ever heard was in the film “The elephant man” and the poor man cried out loud “I am not an animal, I am a human being”

“I am not an animal, I am a human being”, she repeated over and over as her image died away.



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