The painter and the thief: rescuing sanity through art

The invitation to write in this column came through the Portuguese poet José Paulo Pego. We participated together in a poetry recital at the Printemps Literáiremeeting at the University of Sorbonne. José Paulo was interested in the work I read at the time, the book of poems Suite 136, inspired by my work in psychiatric wards in London. I have been reconciling medical activity with literary activity for over twenty years, and ended up doing a master’s degree in Medical Humanities, an interdisciplinary field of medicine that includes humanities, social science and the arts. In this pandemic era, when we are all fragile and vulnerable, we need the humanitarian dimension of medicine more than ever.

This humanistic synchrony coincides with a growing interest in conventional medicine on some topics such as early traumatic experiences and their repercussions. How these adversities can have chronic consequences on the mental and physical health of individuals, and how we can identify them early, approach them with more compassion, and prevent them, as far as possible.

“Adverse childhood experiences” refer to traumatic events that occur before the age of eighteen, and include all types of abuse and neglect, as well as mental disorders in parents, substance abuse, divorce, incarceration and domestic violence.

These events are common in the general population. Half the British population has experienced at least one. However, the greater the number and intensity of exposure to these experiences, the greater the future impact. For example, the risk of suicide is over a thousand times higher in individuals who have had more than four experiences of adversity, the risk of mood disorder, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress is about five hundred times greater.

A curious fact is why some people are more resilient to these experiences than others, and are able to lead a more functional life. In general, there was the support of someone who cared for the child, an emotional compensation that strengthened him in some way, among other variables.

I recently discussed this subject in a psychoeducational activity with the patients in the ward where I work. Then I watched a discussion during a film club for mental health professionals, and the theme was Benjamin Lee’s interesting documentary The Painter and The Thief, which was launched in 2020, a few months ago.

Czech-German painter Barbora Kysilova had just moved from Berlin to Norway in 2015, and had exhibited her work in an Oslo gallery, when she had two of her works stolen in broad daylight. The thieves were identified through cameras and arrested, but the works were not located. Shocked by the theft, Barbora, who told the English newspaper The Guardian that she was no Picasso, approaches one of the thieves in court and proposes a meeting. She would like to paint your portrait. He accepts. Coincidentally, Benjamin Lee is fascinated by the prospective and proposes a documentary to Barbora.

The two stolen works, Chloe & Emma and Swan Song, are immense photorealistic paintings. Kart-Bertil and the other thief managed to quickly remove the canvases, leaving the frames intact, a work of experts. A friend of Benjamin was at the opening of the exhibition and took a footage (where we can see these original works before the theft), which he used to open the film.

The documentary is about the emotional connection that develops between Barbora and the thief. Karl-Bertil Norland is a guy covered in tattoos and marked by a tough, street masculinity. Interestingly, he is extremely honest about his difficulties, and there is a weakness hidden in his countenance, behind his persona. Karl-Bertil does not remember very well what happened that day or the whereabouts of the works. Someone requested the service, and he had been intoxicated for days. Substance abuse and time spent in jail are recurrent in his life.

Barbora is a curious, sensitive but also objective woman. She looks very authentic, and a little distressed. She is different, has no interest in feminism, is reserved and obsessed with her work. Karl-Bertil notices the tattoo on her back – a sequence of circles inside each other, which he says makes her unique. He is sensitive, likes art, collects illustrations and accepts this passive, feminine role, even allowing himself to be painted by a woman. In the arts there have always been infinitely more female muses than male muses.

One of the most moving scenes in the film, which marks the beginning of bonding between Barbora and Karl-Bertil is the first time that Barbora shows him his portrait, based on photographs of a casual conversation in which he talks about himself, unarmed, with a glass of red wine between hands. The painting is called “The pussy in you”. Karl-Bertil cries like a child when he sees that image, moved. Barbora triggers a process of reflection in him, his lack disguised as affection, the abandonment by his mother in childhood. It is like a reunion with your anima. The addition and Karl-Bertil hides a deep pain. Among his tattoos are cobwebs and roses, so symbolic of his need for attachment.

In Barbora’s paintings there is also a lot of depth, pain, self-destruction. She is fascinated by death, had her experiences of adversity in childhood, and bears the scars of a deeply abusive relationship. Barbora mistreated herself. As Karl-Bertil notes, she has learned hard to earn her self-respect. And he respects her a lot for this.

After this remarkable meeting, difficult events unfold in the lives of both, which the director has had the tenacity to follow. Painter and muse remain connected through this bond in the midst of their storms, and encouraging compassion for each other. In this non-linear narrative of life, art with its force of access to the unconscious has a surprising and healing effect on its inner processes.

As the artist Louise Bourgeois (who spent her life exploring her childhood traumas through her work) said: “art is a guarantee of sanity”. We need a more creative and compassionate understanding of mental disorders, of individual stories. And cinema is a very educational and powerful tool too.

Virna Teixeira

This text was originally published in Portuguese in January 2021, for the online newspaper LUSO EU

Anxiety and COVID-19


One of the most striking things I see in this pandemic is anxiety. COVID-19 broke out abruptly, changing our lives, and bringing uncertainty. We have lost control over many things, individually and collectively, and we have to adjust to a new reality. Anxiety is the body’s response to this stress, a feeling of fear or apprehension about what is going to happen. We expect the worst, and how can we not, with so much bad news in the media, with so many political and economic issues going on?

Being infected is also having no control over what will happen. How will your body react to the virus? The disease is very recent, tests are often not available and expensive, and there is no specific treatment. Many people are afraid of dying. Many people are concerned for those close to them, especially for the elderly and vulnerable.

I received many kind messages from friends and acquaintances when I revealed that I had become infected with covid-19. I realize that I am loved, and it is a comfort. My family wants to hear the news. Some colleagues want to help, but without realizing it, they make morbid comments, or send dramatic scientific articles, or ask me why I am not using hydroxychloroquine. Yesterday I told a doctor friend that I had woken up feeling better. Angry at the country’s political moment, and frightened by the current situation, she replied that a well-known doctor had improved like me, but days later he had been intubated.

That was the last straw. I was tired of talking to so many people, listening to so many recommendations, worrying about the evolution of my symptoms. Fear of the unknown spread. I suddenly realized that my dyspnea had worsened. That my hands were cold, that I had tachycardia. I recognized my anxiety, and realized that I was on the verge of a panic attack. After all, I had no fever and my cough had improved. It wasn’t my lungs. I tried to calm down. I closed my eyes, started doing breathing exercises. I put on some relaxing music, did a little mindfulness practice. The malaise was improving.

I reflected that I have no control over what I am going through now, and that anxiety only makes the symptoms worse. What can I do if I clinically worsen, except seek help? What is the use of anticipating misfortune? I empathize with my colleagues, but many of them are more anxious than I am. I would even say that they are desperate, afflicted with their impotence in the face of this pandemic, afraid of becoming infected. I need to be calm. I get off the internet for a few hours, get distracted by other things, laugh at some silly jokes. I slept a lot, a whole lot. Rest is a holy remedy.

I woke up feeling better. I’ve had no fever for 36 hours. My mood is improving. I put on my red kimono, put on some makeup and quickly got into a virtual morning party called ‘Morning Glory’. There were five hundred people online dancing in their homes, people of all ages, wearing colorful and festive clothes. Vibrant energy. I love a party. I felt so much better.

In the midst of this pandemic we need to take care of our mental health. We have no control over the virus, but we can take precautions, help flatten the curve, and find creative ways to be at home. Despite the alarming number of deaths, the symptoms of COVID-19, although more unpleasant for some than for others, subside after a few days. Self-isolation is not the end of the world, and when we self-isolate, we are protecting those close to us. Reducing anxiety is essential. It even makes the immune system more combative!

Virna Teixeira

Translated by Chris Daniels

Nocturnal sweats

I woke up at 3 am with night sweats, chills, 100-degree fever, a slight shortness of breath and a dry cough. A slow restlessness, fidgeting in bed, unable to get up to go to the bathroom to wash my face. I remembered a film I saw many years ago in high school, recommended in literature class: Inocência, an adaptation by Walter Lima Jr from the novel by the Franco-Brazilian Visconde de Taunay. Young Inocência with malaria, behind a curtain, disheveled, feverish, in a room on the ranch.

I spent a few hours like that, scattered in thought, isolated in the room without TV while the paracetamol took effect and the viremia subsided. I chatted with a friend on Twitter, and saw the day dawn through the half-open curtain, a pink-orange spring sky. So I screwed up my courage, got out of bed, plugged my laptop into a projector, and started watching Inocência on Youtube.

A very interesting film, a very strong record of patriarchy and colonialism in the 19th century in the Brazilian interior. The eccentric figure of the German butterfly hunter, fascinated by Brazil and local customs. The slaves. The adventurous doctor Cirino, wandering the roads on his horse, looking for sick people to pay his gambling debts. Cirino treats and seduces the young patient, promised by her austere father to another man. There are gripping scenes, like that of a poor leper who wants to consult, but the doctor keeps his distance and refuses. He asks: do you have treatment? No. Can I pass it on to others? Yes.

Virna Teixeira

Translated by Chris Daniels

Screen Shot 2019-12-19 at 21.59.37.png

(Cindy Sherman. Untitled #153)


no sotão descobriu a outra
dor fantasma no frasco de vidro

o hematoma media 60 mm
lobo temporal

uncus, jamais vu
e cortes finos de parafina

lâmina de astrócitos    edema

no microscópio
trombos, um feixe de luz

iluminava a sombra


in the loft was discovered another
ghost pain in a jar of glass

a hematoma measured 60 mm
the temporal lobe

uncus, jamais vu
and fine paraffin cuts

astrocyte blade             edema

under the microscope

a clot of blood, a beam of light
illuminated a shadow

Virna Teixeira

Translated by Shelly Bhoil

The poem appeared in poetry magazine Zarf #13 earlier this year. It’s a poem I wrote some years ago, while still working as neurologist in Brazil, although inspired by my gradual transition to psychiatry and Jung’s concept of the ‘shadow’, here illustrated by Cindy Sherman’s provocative still.

Between walls | William Carlos Williams

Screen Shot 2019-12-16 at 18.15.13.png

Between walls


the back wings

of the


hospital where



will grow lie



in which shine

the broken


pieces of a green




Entre paredes


as alas no fundo



hospital onde



ira crescer jazem



nas quais brilham

os cacos


de uma garrafa



William Carlos Williams


Tradução: Virna Teixeira

Brilliant visions – drawing under the influence of mescaline

In 1936 the Maudsley psychiatrists Guttman and Macklay began to study spontaneous drawings (doodles), looking for clues to personality types and forms of mental illness, and compared them with drawing made by their patients. They realised that few of their patients with psychotic disorders had the capacity and drive to depict their hallucinations while they were experiencing them.

During the 1920s mescaline was used by psychologists to study hallucinations. Heinrich Kluver’s influential study showed that the dazzling visual patterns its subjects experienced could be reduced to a series of geometric ‘form-constants’.

Guttman and Mackay began to collaborate with artists who could draw or paint the hallucinations they were experiencing . They decided to recruit professional artists and stimulate hallucinations by giving them mescaline. They approached subjects from the British Surrealist movement, who were interested in the productions of unconscious mind.

Two of the artists left written accounts of their experience: Julian Trevelyan describe them in his memoir ‘Indigo Days’. Basil Beaumont left a written report nightmarish experience which ended with him being confined overnight in a ward at the Maudsley Hospital.

The theme was the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of the Mind, in Bethlem Hospital in London, where I was working as a locus doctor some months ago (I took those pictures while visiting the museum in my lunch break). The exhibition was co-curated by Mike Jay, author of ‘Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic’ and Kate Tiernan, and provides an insight into the first era of research into psychedelics and mental states.

It is interesting to note that there is current research going on about the use of psychedelic drugs to treat mental health conditions, and the FDA has approved clinical trials of MDMA assisted psychotherapy sessions for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.

Virna Teixeira

Poetry from the wards


Suite 136 is a prose-poetry documentary book that it was published last year by Carnaval Press. This book is the result of my experiences working as a locum doctor (and as a foreigner doctor) in psychiatric hospitals in London. ‘136 suite is a place of safety for those who have been detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act by the police following concerns that they are suffering from a mental disorder’. It is a short term section to warrant medical assessment, and the suite is seen as safer place for that purpose, instead of a police station. The poems in this book are untitled and therefore 136 Suite works as metaphoric title.

My intention was to listen and to register, anonymously, and in different ways, the patients’ perception of their detainment in hospital under the Mental Health Act and their own experiences with a mental health condition. Confidentiality is preserved and narratives are slightly blurred with fiction.

This work has also been a result of my parallel activities as a doctor and a poet for many years, and of a degree I obtained in Medical Humanities at King’s College London, which allowed me to work more consciously in that direction – although medical marks can be traced along even my early writings. I presented this project in a Medical Humanities Conference in Ulm, Germany in December 2018.

The book is bilingual (English/ Portuguese), and can be ordered with Carnaval Press by




If you told me you were an angel, I wouldn’t judge you. An angel is a sort of innocent.

I’m an individual, I’m not a typical person so the dose of medication shouldn’t be typical.

It is affecting my angel’s rights. My naivety is being abused. In reality I was diagnosed with demoralisation and uselessness. The illness is no longer there. 

Unlike this induced state, I am blissful.

Thinking has helped my mental state, and I believe that talking is the way to solve things.


Se você me dissesse que você era um anjo, eu não julgaria você. Um anjo é uma espécie de inocente.  

 Eu sou um indivíduo, eu não sou uma pessoa típica, então a dose da medicação não devia ser típica.  

Está afetando meus direitos de anjo. Minha inocência está sendo abusada. Na realidade eu fui diagnosticado com desmoralização e inutilidade. A doença já era. 

Diferentemente deste estado induzido, eu sou uma pessoa bem-aventurada.

 Pensar tem ajudado o meu estado mental, e eu acredito que falar é a forma de resolver as coisas.  




I am afraid of world war syndrome. I am afraid of vampires. I am afraid of death. I can hear the vampires. They talk like people. Their faces frighten me. I can hear angels, demons, vampires and wolves. They are talking about me. They came to save me. The windows are closed, and angels can’t come in. She thinks I am vampire, and she follows me with a stake in her hand.


Tenho medo de síndrome da guerra mundial. Tenho medo de vampiros. Tenho medo da morte. Eu posso ouvir os vampiros. Eles falam como gente. As faces deles me assustam. Eu posso ouvir anjos, demônios, vampiros e lobos. Eles estão falando sobre mim. Eles vieram me salvar. As janelas estão fechadas, e os anjos não podem entrar. Ela pensa que sou um vampiro, e me persegue com uma estaca na mão.




My mind is mathematical
My body is electronic

Your body language tells me
you’re from SãoPaulo

Doctor you look like a patient

I’ve never been to Brazil
I’ve been to Suriname
My father was from Burma
My mother was Anglo-Indian

I fell in love only once in 1984
He is on the phone directory
He thought I was going out
with a ginger haired man

Now you can interview me

I can pretend I am Brazilian
I can be Gisele Bunchen
I failed as a model once

I can’t remember running naked
It was the first time that
policemen were nasty to me
That never happened before

How come I am so tall
and you’re so small

I am elated I told you
I am allergic to lithium


Minha mente é matemática
Meu corpo é eletrônico

Sua linguagem corporal me diz
que você é de SãoPaulo

Doutora você parece uma paciente

Eu nunca fui ao Brasil
Eu fui ao Suriname
Meu pai era de Burma
Minha mãe era anglo-indiana

Só me apaixonei uma vez em 1984
Ele está na lista telefônica
Ele pensou que eu estava saindo
com o homem de cabelo gengibre

Agora você pode me entrevistar
Eu posso fingir que sou brasileira
Eu posso ser Gisele Bunchen
Eu fracassei como modelo uma vez

Não me lembro de correr pelada
Foi a primeira vez que
os policiais foram malvados comigo
Isso nunca aconteceu antes

Por quê eu sou tão alta
e você é tão baixa

Eu estou exaltada eu avisei
que era alérgica a lítio

Virna Teixeira

Launch of Alba Londres 8 – Brazilian Contemporary Feminisms


(Photo: Taraneh Mosadegh)

Alba Londres is launching an issue of its magazine dedicated to explore contemporary Brazilian feminist poetics, in association with Carnaval Press. Brazilian poets Adelaide Ivánova, Adriana Zapparoli, Carla Diacov, Érica Zingano, Flávia Rocha, Jussara Salazar and Virna Teixeira are published in translation in the habitual bilingual amazing edition of the magazine co-edited by Jèssica Pujol and Virna Teixeira. We also invited two Brazilian writers, Cristina Judar and Assionara Souza, who contributed with short stories for this issue.

Latin America has a very high prevalence of gender violence, with Brazil occupying recently the fifth position in the world ranking of female murders. This special edition aims to reflect on this alarming violence against women in Brazil, and on how Brazilian women poets reflect about the theme in their writing.

Alba Londres is a magazine that publishes experimental Spanish, Portuguese and British poetry in translation since 2011 and this is its eight issue. Carnaval Press was created in London in 2015, and is the first small press dedicated to publish and present Brazilian contemporary poetry and lusophone poetry in translation to the British readers.

We would like to invite you to the launch, which will take place at the Brazilian Embassy on the 9th of March 2017, with readers:

Adelaide Ivánova and Virna Teixeira

…and their translators: Annie McDermott, Lotto Thiessen, Jèssica Pujol and Francisco Vilhena

RSVP essential  (

Brazilian Embassy – Gallery 32. 14-16 Cockspur Street, London, SW1Y 5BL. Phone: 020 77474500