The sick good children

The sick good children
Saturday January 24, 2009

Dear Ms. Miller,

Firstly let me say how strange it feels to be able to write to someone I have read so often and have such a great respect for – it’s a bit like being able to write to Charlotte Bronte! How I will enjoy this….

I am an artist, and since I am not famous I decided to become an art therapist so that I could earn money but stay with the arts. I am one of four sisters whose mother was declared a danger to us when she repeatedly beat my baby sister (I was 3 at the time). She was put into psychiatric care for two months. I have no visual recollection of this period whatsoever, apart from being in the place one time visiting her. My memries came through paintings and therapy which brought on several episodes of what I would call disintegration where all feeling disappeard from my arms and legs and I found myself in the deepest, darkest nothingness for 10 terrifying minutes . Her wish to kill us has never ceased in my opinion (my 3 sisters dare not draw such conclusions and their lives of eating disorders, depression etc., are testament to their fear/guilt-induced impotence) and I have no contact with my parents now. My father is a sadist who has almost never uttered a word against my mother in all the many years they have been together – his sadism was reserved for us, and his grovelling to her, (she meanwhile always filled us in on his sexual defficiencies and general faults – even as very young children). I have been in therapy for 5 years and am lucky enough to have made wonderful progress with a really good analyst.

My mother has used her many many different illnesses to keep everybody in check over the years. She is the kindest mother in the world when we are ill or when difficult things are happening to us, but she cannot withstand behaviour that does not mirror her own wretched world (in other words people who feel positive). She is obssessed with food, cooks all day, does not eat it herself but brings mountains of it to my sisters who are all overweight, when she visits. After forcing them to eat it she says “pig!” to them …only a joke of course.

One of her favourite activities when we were teenagers was to go through the washing basket and show our father our soiled underwear to prove that we’d had dirty thoughts about the absolutely forbidden – sex (she herself has had affairs and is the most embarrassing flirt on every possible occasion, even in her seventies).

Art was my saviour. From the age of four I was drawing very often (my father and grandfather were thwarted artists), and now in my mid forties I specialise in adult and paediatric oncology. What I see with adults is that what they often focus on, even in end-stage, is not the disease or dying, but deep emotional injury caused by cold and brutal parenting. In the children’s hospital I have become rather crazed about the lavishing of teddy bears onto kids – I organised a symposium last year, and my lecture centred on the meaning of the teddy bear in the cancer ward. It is my firm belief now that the meaning of a teddy in a cancer ward cannot be compared to a teddy given to a healthy child. Laden with complicated emotions, the patient seems to be required to be happy about the teddy and to be grateful, but children feel what the teddy means. It comes with a silent message and the child is forced to accept all the parents’ guilt and sorrow about the illness,(not to mention the fear of the child’s death) resulting in overwhelming responsibility to protect their suffering parents. There is no place for the child whatsover who is suffocated under the weight of the parents’s issues.

I understand that these parents are helpless, but that is nothing compared to the child’s suffering. If the people who gave gifts (not the German ‘Gift’ – though that is also absolutely appropriate!) gave words instead of a symbol, (in this case the teddy) there would be an opportunity for everyone to allow themselves to feel. It would be very painful but it would allow the child the freedom to be afraid and the freedom to die at the time that is right for him. The trouble is that we’re not used to being allowed to feel and to be allowed to be afraid, and to question the most (seemingly) innocent gestures from the people who are supposed to love and protect.

I see that despite my many years of protestations about my horrendous parents (always on deaf ears until my therapy and reading your books) I still managed to end up with a ‘career in illness’ – my mother’s dream; to work in cancer hospitals, with death and suffering, (I recall intimate details of what cancer patients suffered as my mother was walking my baby sister in the pram). Nevertheless, my goal is to be myself in this environment, bringing art to children AND their parents, talking about life, telling the truth, and never to compromise.

I can imagine how many moments you’ve had cause, just for a moment to doubt yourself when all around you disagree, but the hallmark of a hero is precisely a person who goes on in his own way regardless, guided by the deepest conviction of truth.


AM: Thank you very much for your letter. I am glad that you succeeded in seeing and understanding more and more. It is heartbeaking to see that the biggest concern of children with cancer is the suffering of their parents and not their own. Not many adults who care for them have the courage to realise this tragedy. But you found it out thank to the way how they try to become “happy” with their situation. Only the parents have the right to feel and to express their suffering. I hope that in the painting of these children you can read their truth. How do the parents react to your foundings ?