Art of Healing
Contributed Essay from "She Who Was Lost is Remembered: Healing from Incest Through Creativity"
© 1991 By Linda Ness
My childhood was ruled by a drunken dictator who sexually abused me and my four sisters until each of us left home. Violent punishments were freely given for the smallest mistakes. In order to cope mom would go to the doctor to receive shock treatments and pills. For over ten years Dad’s mistress lived in the same house, the so-called “live-in baby sitter.
There was no escape as a child. . . only fear and quickly learned survival skills. Crayons became my secret joy. I inhaled their waxy fragrance and brilliant colors. I dreamt that I’d find a brand new box of crayons under my pillow when I woke up. I didn’t dare tell anyone, afraid that my only love would be taken away or used against me. With these crayons, I created happy clowns and nice, neat, little houses with flowers and birds. There was no pain in thc colorful worlds of blue skies and smiling suns.
I ran away from home at sixteen. After several months of living by my wits, I was placed in a foster home and allowed to finish high school in another city. Again, art class was my source of pleasure and satisfaction. Images began escaping from my mind and finding expression. The resulting pictures usually were done so quickly that many art rules were forgotten, which gave an unusual and primitive look. I would laugh at the “weird” pictures. Part of me knew that there were many other things to “see” in these works if I would take the time to look.
After three months at a junior college, I ran away again. I hitchhiked to San Francisco and spent six months in the hippie drug scene. When that didn’t work, I decided to get straight and get married to a man sixteen years older. The next three years were spent learning about positive thinking and attending intensive 12-step alcohol and drug meetings. However, my self-help therapy resulted in a suicide attempt followed by several weeks in a mental facility. The more I learned, the more lost I felt. I decided that maybe having a baby would make me happy and solve all my problems. But the baby died at birth from the complications of Downs Syndrome. I spent the next six months examining my motives for having a child and being married. I began to recognize that although my husband was a nice man, he was old enough to be my father. So, at twenty-four years old, I asked for a divorce and decided never to have children.
Alone again, I became incredibly anxious as I noticed that there was no one around to blame for the way I felt. I became deeply snarled in a love triangle, playing the role of the mistress. It took nearly three years before I asked myself what I was doing. Was I repeating the dysfunction of my parents’ lives? My life was an emotional roller coaster. I was either flying high or in the deepest depression. I was always angry and critical of everyone and anyone who got too close. Searching for anything to mask, numb or escape the intense inner emotional pain, I tried drugs and alcohol along with meaningless sexual affairs with men from work, bars or even self-help groups.
I was able to hide within my escapes for several years before I crashed. Spending several weeks under the blanket of my bed, I reviewed my life. My only memory of joy was of creating art. With reviewed hope I ventured to the library for some art books. I loved the colorful photos of the Impressionists’ paintings. The idea that light was color was very exciting. The little money I had was spent buying paints and canvases. The subject for the first painting was the corner window in the kitchen, where light streamed across a table to fill the room. Two weeks were spent trying to capture the light. But with the light constantly changing, I began to understand the challenge of the Impressionist painters. With new insights, I explored the play of light and the subtle balance of colors and tones. I was thrilled with the result. There was real life here. There was excitement. It didn’t hurt. I could now paint the world the way that I saw it. I had given life to a simple kitchen window.
The painting was done, but I couldn’t stop. I wanted more. I needed to paint. That night I started another painting. For weeks I painted, gaining more confidence with each day. I was in love with this new world of painting and the wonder of capturing light. I could see the total picture in my mind. I created more realistic-style paintings, and little by little I was able to leave my house and face the world again.
Later that year, I returned to my parents’ home for the first time in nine years and discovered that Dad was still sexually molesting my youngest sisters. Although I lived over 2,000 miles away, I offered them a place to escape to if they ever wanted to run away. They were on my doorstep within two weeks. But as the guardian of two teenagers, I was harsh and unrealistic, with lots of rules for their behavior. Was it any wonder that they compared me to Dad and his cruelty? They stayed just long enough to save money from their part-time jobs and graduate from high school. Then they moved into their own apartment. Soon after that, my inner pressures began to take their toll when I was hospitalized with acute colitis. The doctors did all the tests and declared that I was creating the toxic poisons that were eating away at my body. Their solution was for me to see a psychiatrist. But instead, I decided to quit my job and to be my own boss. I would reduce stress by making my own decisions and choices. I started my own graphic-art business. I made a commitment to take care of myself by eating healthier, exercising and learning to relax. I took a yoga class and learned to meditate and breathe. A ballet conditioning class helped me to appreciate and get in touch with my body. It took a while but for the first time positive changes were taking place in my life. I began to gain confidence in myself. While out dancing I even met an unusual man who showed me respect, love and how to have fun. Was I just imagining it or was life beginning to FEEL good? I was making positive choices in my life and it was beginning to show. My more figurative paintings were now beginning to reflect the softness of human curves.
We were married and within months I was pregnant. Because of the death of the first baby, a genetic test was needed to check the health of the child I now carried. Five paintings were completed during the three weeks I waited for the test results. The intensity of energy overflowed onto a canvas showing a huge pregnant belly and two enormous, filled breasts rising like a range of mountains to be climbed. With the birth of our beautiful, healthy daughter, there was so little extra time. I started simplifying the paintings to basic symbolic images.
That year brought not only the birth of my daughter, but the suicide of my only brother. Haunting images found their way onto two canvases. I remember that one of my sisters told me that I should burn both paintings. Was everyone going to deny his death as well as our abuse? If not his life, then his death could have some meaning by serving as a lesson. His intense energy had always found self-destructive or blocked channels. Trapped in his mind, lifelong nightmares became mixed with his daily life, resulting in bizarre actions. I began to understand that unless I waited the same result in my life I would have to find a positive focus for my compulsive energy. It became apparent that the process of creating paintings was allowing my excess energy to be safely released onto the canvas.
The next crisis occurred when my daughter was a little over three years old. A friend was staying with us over the holidays. I found him lying with my daughter on her bed. My first reaction was to turn and ignore what I had seen. The next instant I had her in my arms and was carrying her to the other room. We talked about our ‘friend.” Later, I told him to get out, that he was no longer welcome in our home. Although I was not able to put into words what I felt or feared, the man left without any need for explanation. I was grateful, but totally shaken. I was exploding with rage inside and desperately needing to find a sense of balance. The next day I went to the office, sat down at the typewriter and poured out my pain through my fingers, to the keys and onto paper. This continued for the next eighteen months. I wrote down every detail that I could remember about my childhood and all the years of coping after I left home. For the first time, I was able to find and read books about incest. It was clear that for years I had been acting out old patterns from my parents and childhood. This explained why I had been so angry and bitter at the world, why I had spent so many years trying to escape. But even as I found answers, I found more questions. How could this happen? Why did the entire family keep this secret? Why had God allowed Dad to live and let my brother die?
With all these new ideas incubating in my mind, I received a large supply of acrylic paints from an artist who preferred oils. Then with some extra money from a large commercial art project, I got the materials together to make several large canvases. In between jobs, I started putting the images that had accumulated in my mind onto the canvas. The rules were gone. The paintings became a channel for the release of anger, fear, anxiety and pain. I was forced to see and take responsibility for my thoughts as I saw them reflected back to me on the canvas. The resulting paintings were quite intense, with sharp angles, electric colors and naked primitive beings. More images screamed to be released. Somehow I found the courage to let the images out onto a dozen more canvasses. Each painting seemed to demand attention and become more powerful. But when anyone would ask about my art, I would make some sort of joke and just say that they were weird. I really didn’t know how to explain them or how to tell people that they were a result of childhood incest and its healing process.
In 1985 one of my paintings was selected for a local art exhibit. With the support of my husband and friends, I was encouraged to put together a public exhibit of my paintings. Invitations were sent and public notices for the opening night preview party were published.
I’ve always had a difficult time reading the reactions of viewers to my art. The first comment is that they love the colors and then there is a silence as the viewer begins to look a little closer. I often think that many people sense the meanings, but just like in real life, there is always a denial of the pain. The only viewers who have consistently been willing to talk are others who have come from abusive families. Sometimes, there is a sadness when no one is willing to acknowledge what they see or when no one is willing to look deeper than the surface colors. I wonder if I am being too subtle or too personal.
That year I completed twenty-eight paintings, had three more public showings and participated in two juried exhibits. The only problem was that I was so intent on the creation of the paintings that I was furious and frustrated when clients called for me to do a commercial art job. By September, my daughter entered first grade and I decided that I could no longer juggle everything. I dissolved the commercial business and moved my studio back into our home. This allowed me to paint full-time and to devote more attention to my family. Within the next two years, my fine art career continued with the sale of a few paintings and many public exhibits at alternative gallery spaces, as well as juried exhibits at two art museums, summer art festivals and the local arts commission gallery program.
Without the pressure of the business, I allowed myself to put more and more of the strange and haunting images of my mind on the canvas. However, the paintings were becoming quite disturbing, and I found that I was actually afraid to paint. I tried to intellectualize and logically understand, but I was afraid that the images would become even more painful. I stopped painting. I was panicked and had reached another point of crisis. Knowing that the basis of my fears lay in the childhood abuse, I called a sexual abuse hotline and joined a group for women survivors. For the first time, I felt I had a safe place to talk, be sad, scream, rage, cry, whatever. These women understood me and I understood them. With the support of the group, I began to face some of my fears and to let the little girl in me have a chance to cry and be angry. After months, I was able to finally finish the paintings and have a private showing. Other survivors attended and we discussed the symbolic meanings and the messages of truth so clear for us to see. It has taken me a long time to understand that many people are uncomfortable viewing my art because it shows the pain of truth. The fact that sexual abuse actually takes place within our society is hard for many to accept. Only recently have people been willing to even talk about it.
With the help of the group and the acceptance of my art, I have continued to learn and grow stronger. After reading The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, everything fell into place. I understood that I was not to blame and I knew who was. The next time I talked with my parents on the phone, it was not the normal chitchat. The confrontation was long overdue. But my dad didn’t want to hear it and hung up. I wrote a letter to all my sisters explaining that I no longer was going to live the lie that we had a normal or happy childhood. I also wrote in exact detail a confrontational letter to Dad and sent it registered mail. He returned a letter saying that he had been physically and sexually abused as a child and that he felt God had forgiven him. I must admit that I was surprised by his response. But four months later, during our next phone conversation, he commented that he thought Satan was behind all the lies that I was making up. I was stunned and screamed in return, “I don’t believe this, are you trying to tell me that you didn’t rape all five of your daughters?” Once again he calmly said that I was making it all up. I told him that he was as much a liar and hypocrite now as he was when I was a child. He hung up. Since that time, I’ve realized that he is not worth any more energy, and as far as I’m concerned he is dead and gone to hell. I refuse to continue to be abused by him and I refuse to abuse myself.
It is clear to me that creating art has become a substitute for violence and self-destruction in my life. It is teaching me to see the truth about my life. I’ve discovered that I must release the images or they will continue to haunt me and block my mind from other thoughts. Now when I have nightmares or a crisis in my life, I put the images on paper and later on canvas. I can stand back and “see” what has been bothering me. The paintings have been a witness to a lifelong process of healing. They are a gift that has saved my life. The energy has flowed through me reflecting a message of hope. We all have the power to change, to grow and to heal. I feel a responsibility to share my works with the public. I want the paintings to stop the eye and haunt the mind until there is a spark of understanding.
© 2009 By Linda Ness
As mentioned in the Art of Healing essay, it is clear to me that creating art has become a substitute for violence and self-destruction in my life. The paintings have served as a witness to a lifelong process of healing. They have been a gift that saved my life.
Since writing this article, many things have changed in my life. The lessons learned have made me a stronger and wiser person. Divorce and the need for a full time job has limited my time for painting. Instead, I found myself exploring varieties of dance as a creative outlet. It started with drum dancing as a way to release the negative energy from the divorce. However, that path has led me to bellydance and the discovery of life within my body.
Learning to live in and appreciate my body after the trama of sexual abuse has been a challenge. One surprise was the warm circle of supportive women I discovered at the bellydance classes. I also discovered a channel to a deeper and more spiritual side within me. Each day I am grateful for the opportunity to learn more about the good things that life has to offer.