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