Myopia Road: Reflections on Painting and Therapy

Growing up on a road named Myopia always seemed fitting for my family since a myopic vision involves being able to see objects when things are close by, but having difficulty in seeing when objects are far away. My family has always had a special gift for selectively paying attention to emotional events and ignoring their larger significances. The Myopia Road I speak of winds through the hills in a leafy New England town, with secluded, traditional colonial houses located far away from the road. It appeals to those seeking privacy and distance from neighbors; and for many people, it is a location that represents the very image of success and family life. But from my perspective, having so many bushes and trees in between houses meant that relief was far away when things went wrong, as they so often did.

Our family’s first attempt at therapy came when I was just four years old. My older brother’s hyperactivity was the ostensible reason for our meeting with the friendly child psychiatrist, Dr. Brand, but it quickly became apparent that this was just the tip of the iceberg. True, my parents’ marriage was strained by having their first son set fires in the backyard and rip up the sofa in the living room. It wasn’t what they had been hoping for, and neither could they control it. But nothing would prepare them for learning that my maternal grandfather was a child molester, and had already gotten to me during one of our Saturday evenings together. When Dr. Brand showed my mother the drawing of an adult man and where I indicated on it that my grandfather had made me touch him, she replied, ”It’s ok; that’s just family.” I knew that her response was a bit off, and I much preferred spending time within the warmth of Dr. Brand.

My mom grew up into a dysfunctional Catholic family, sleeping in the same bed as her father until she reached college. Her trauma, therefore, became our trauma. Her myopia became ours. She was well-meaning in many ways. Ironically, she helped many children through her work as a pediatrician. But her continual battle with multiple sclerosis left her with precious, little energy to deal with the world, and she could not handle confronting her own past.

Because my mother did not want to face what her father had been doing, and the fact that my own father did not want to divorce her and prosecute her father for risk of breaking up the family any further, the result was an uncomfortable truce: one that involved my brother being sent off to boarding school and my dad sticking with the “marriage” though declaring it over. The only thing saving me was my nanny, a 60-year old woman whom we will call “Margaret,” who became both my mother and grandmother after this point. Margaret was a lifesaver for me and was much more upset about what had happened with my grandfather than my mother ever seemed.

Margaret noticed immediately after the night I spent with him that I was acting strangely, especially when I started throwing rocks at her on the way home from school and after I smashed a toy piano she had given me into pieces. Margaret even took the initiative to speak with my mother’s sister about what had happened, learning that my mother had slept in the same bed as her father up until college.

But why didn’t my mother do anything to prevent it? How could a pediatrician let this happen?

We would never find answers to these questions because of my mother’s unwillingness to disclose any more family history. But in the meantime, Margaret and I went on adventures all around Boston. Often she would take me fishing, which was my favorite activity. We found turtles, including a large black snapping turtle which I tried to kiss, provoking it to bite my lip. I didn’t really know how to fish, so I put a paperclip on the end of a fishing line and tried to get the sunfish to eat bread. It was a great time and a breath of fresh air just to get out of my stifling home environment. She allowed me to be whimsical and to actually have a childhood. She even took us swimming in the ocean and risked her own safety, wading out far in the water with us, sinking perilously deep in the sand before my brother had to save her.

But one thing that always puzzled Margaret was how I would always ask her, “Are you bored, Margaret?” It was the kind of thing that a sensitive therapist might notice, and in many ways, Margaret was a latent child psychologist. For her, spending time with me was a pleasure and a way to connect with children in a way she couldn’t anymore since her own children were grown. She had a gift for connecting with all kinds of children, and they were drawn to her almost magically. But for me, I couldn’t understand how an adult would want to spend time with me and not be bored, since my mother was too preoccupied and depressed with her multiple sclerosis to play with me.

Remarkably, Margaret was also there for us during all of our family crises too. She came to the house the day a fire erupted in the basement and my mother was stranded in the upstairs bedroom while the house was burning to the ground. She called the fire department herself and told them to rescue my mother who was banging on the glass windows and couldn’t get out. Margaret was also there the day my mother decided to swallow her wedding ring in a drug-induced delirium, and my father made my brother sift through her feces to try to find it.

Margaret helped me realize that in my family, we grew to be wealthy in terms of financial resources but we were stricken with an emotional poverty that made it all seem empty and superficial. “Money doesn’t make a family, you know that,” she would tell me. “You can have all the money in the world, and you can still be miserable.” Margaret never had much money at all, but she seemed so much more alive than anyone in my own family.

And in many ways, the experience of having someone like her, a complete stranger who was being paid next to nothing, be a part of my life and make such a huge difference was what allowed me to be open in seeking the help of a therapist. By the time I sought out therapy for the first time on my own I was sixteen, and I really needed it. My father had just announced that he was divorcing my mother, and she was forced to live in an assisted-living facility due to her worsening condition from the multiple sclerosis.

The therapist recommended to me was named Dr. Arman, a gentle man who always came to the office with big brown boots. The first thing I announced when we met was, “I know you think I want to meet to talk about my mom, but that’s not it.” It was a bold statement coming from a teenager who was clearly in pain but didn’t really want to talk about it. It was difficult to talk about anything during those sessions, so he came up with the creative and brilliant idea to spend some minutes at the beginning simply looking out the window together. It was this simple act of looking together at something, without words, and enjoying the pleasure of someone else’s company that set the stage for my delving deeply into art. Two people looking at something together, without words, felt powerful.

Furthermore, I recognized through this experience of communal and consensual vision that sometimes the inner world of feelings and memories was too overwhelming to direct into language, and this was okay. Those reflective and quiet moments with Dr. Arman, looking silently at the way the glass on the windows shook when there was gust of wind or the patterns of shapes on the roofs across the street drifted into invisibility as the sun set, suggested to me that there was a safety and comfort in being together with another individual in those moments of seemingly inescapable angst that mysteriously lifted the emotional burden. I didn’t quite understand it, but it seemed like Dr. Arman possessed this subtle healing power that could lead me out of a foggy myopia, simply by being present as new directions out of pain were discovered and the possibility of hope emerged.

We even had sessions with my father where we would together look at things. Dr. Arman had Japanese prints in his office, and the three of us would spend the beginnings of the sessions looking together at them. Things would soon emerge from this. My dad had his own share of trauma, growing up in a poor family in Florida without a father and with an alcoholic mother who killed herself when he was eighteen. He often lacked the words for his memories too; his trauma became our trauma. But when he could break free from this traumatic myopia and speak about art, he revealed a deep understanding of the complexity and frailty of human lives, combined with an astonishing level of historical contextualization that I never would have realized he possessed. Not surprisingly for him, just as for me, it was much easier to talk about emotions and difficult experiences when they were attached to an object located outside of oneself. It was safer.

These shared looking experiences with Dr. Arman were short lived, unfortunately, as I got my first hard lesson in how the realities of life can intrude on the sanctity of therapy.

After only one year together, Dr. Arman took off on a family vacation to Florida and never returned. The car he was driving collided with a drunk driver in Fort Lauderdale. He was killed instantly. I was crushed and really had no idea what to do. I left a note under his door the day I would usually see him, telling him that I would never forget the time we spent together. What else could I say?

I stayed away from therapy for a few years, traveled to Nepal to find myself, came out as gay to all my friends and family once I graduated from an all-boys’ school. I enrolled at Harvard, where I got to meet Al Gore’s son, Natalie Portman, Mark Zuckerburg, and some of the brightest students in the world. It was hard to stand out there, and I felt the most pressure I have ever felt in my life to distinguish myself. I felt like I was so different from the other students. I couldn’t relate to them, and they couldn’t relate to the things I had been through either.

The weight of carrying so many painful memories around was too much. I slowly became so anxious that I could barely stay in school, which landed me in my second serious therapy relationship.

Dr. Morton was a traditional Freudian analyst and didn’t say much during the sessions. He had huge eyebrows, and we sat in a dark room. He had a Picasso print of a bull’s horns on the wall. It took him four years to tell me that the woman in the office next door that kept slamming the door in my face in the waiting room was his wife. He did little to reveal information about himself or his personal beliefs, but left the sessions open to exploring my own fantasies and ideas.

With Dr Morton’s help, I recognized that I was having a tough time moving away from home and being in school, but that there was one area of myself which was ready to take off: visual art. While I had no intention of studying art in college, a larger-than-life teacher of painting had captured my inspiration.

I discovered Sue Mitches at a show of paintings of landscapes she had made while living in Ipswich, Massachusetts, a beautiful coastal town north of Boston. It was a place where Mark and I used to go fishing and spend the night together (my secret boyfriend in middle and high school, but more on this later), and where I would drive to when my familial burden became too much and I needed to get away from it all. Looking at her paintings, I was mesmerized by how she could mimic the natural beauty and fleeting desperation of that location I knew so well, and with just her own hands. I didn’t even have to look at the title of the paintings to know where she had painted them; I knew right away. I was frozen.

I recognized in this moment that Sue had a gift for self-expression that I longed for. Upon seeing her work, I realized I would do anything to learn this. I sought her out and, as I got to know her, I came to appreciate that she was the perfect combination of a strong female presence like Margaret and the caring mother figure I never had. Her guidance, along with the encouragement of Dr. Morton, pushed me deeper into my creative psyche than I had ever imagined. What opened up for me was the exploration of how my artistic development as a painter could mirror my psychological stages and growth periods. I became engaged with understanding how the process of doing therapy is reflected in making visual art. One of the discoveries that I was beginning to make, through building up my art practice with Sue and digging through unconscious material with Dr. Morton, was that the two processes are so intimately connected and related to each other. In many ways, they both need each other to thrive.

For example, I learned firsthand how as new memories and defensive screens are released through the process of therapy, new material becomes available for play in painting. During the last of four years spent working with Sue, I knew that I was building towards some kind of creative breakthrough. I couldn’t predict what it was going to be, but I could sense something wanting to be released. My search took me to museums all around the world, to many libraries, and to artists that I needed to discover. From the tortured landscapes of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to the twisted portraits of Max Beckman and the nightmares of Francisco Goya, I was discovering all of this for the first time, and it was invigorating. These artists knew great pain and suffering too! And each of them shared a passion for looking. The result of all of this was an attraction to a little known, small oil painting by of a house in Cape Cod, an austere and serious work that also captured the tone of the relationship I was building with Dr. Morton. Yet, there was something about this painting that haunted me, and so I decided with Sue that I wanted to make a huge version of it. But twist it a little bit. Hopper’s painting was a small one, so I felt compelled to make it as big as I could: 7 feet by 9 feet. I couldn’t make it any bigger or it wouldn’t fit through any doors. I was making a love letter to Edward Hopper with this painting.

But after recreating this work on a much larger scale, I knew it wasn’t done. Sitting with it late one night, I took a plunge and just started to throw big globs of paint on it. The result of this final step was the creation of little people, children perhaps, who were standing or jumping off the house and into the bushes. I didn’t know who they were or why they were there. Were they flying? Were they killing themselves?

This breakthrough in my tableau showed me how painting, in so many ways, requires a myopic vision. It involves fine details such as lines, color, placement, and attention to small details. And even though it allows the creator to step back periodically to see all the details in their entirety, it is very difficult to fully step back in the moment of creation and understand a painting’s meaning in its symbolic and psychological fullness. Sometimes this realization can only come years later, or only with the help of an analyst. In my case, it took me a full two years after making this painting to realize why I had made it and what it meant to me.

Driving back home to Myopia Road one afternoon, I took a turn down the street where my grandfather lived and suddenly it hit me: I chose to paint the Edward Hopper Edward Hopper house because it resembled, almost exactly, the house where my grandfather molested me. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. The view of the house I painted was how I saw it, as a child, when I left him that night to say goodbye and go home with my own parents. And the children jumping off the building were memories of the other children who he had been abused. Of course, I didn’t realize this at the time I was painting it, but it became apparent to me years later, to my own shock and amazement at the process. How hadn’t I known that?

The second breakthrough painting I produced in this way occurred about five years later, when I moved to California to do an MFA program at the California Institute of the Arts. It is not really known to be a strong painting school, but I chose to go there because I was finally ready to get away from home. And it just seemed like so much fun. I had to say goodbye to Dr. Morton, which was difficult.

My first paintings at CalArts were a tentative mix of California-infused psychedelia mixed with a gentle undercurrent of homoerotica. But the paintings were still repressed, and I knew it.

My big breakthrough occurred when a classmate suggested I investigate the Tom of Finland library, the actual home where the iconic artist of the gay leather community lived. Knowing my interest in erotic images, he thought I might find it inspiring. Boy was he ever right!

The house where Tom of Finland resided and worked in Los Angeles now houses an erotic art collection where artists from around the world send their works to be preserved and shared. There are many S&M scenes, including drawings by an artist called The Hun, which push every conceivable distinction between pleasure and pain. There are thousands of photographs of androgynous men, whose facial features and wardrobes scintillated my imagination. This is a place where men of all kinds are celebrated and liberated to express themselves in all their potential. As firemen, as cowboys, as bears, as rockers; everything.

Looking at these artworks brought me back to the memory of being four years old and having the child psychiatrist, Dr. Brand, show me a schematic drawing of a naked adult man and asking me where my grandfather had touched me, but this time around, I was the one with the drawings and doing – or hoping – for the touching. I was in control now. At least, in most of my fantasies I was.

I spent as much time as possible in the Tom of Finland library, but my enormous excitement over this discovery was shadowed by a sense of frustration. Why had it taken me so long to find this place? Was I just not ready before, or had I simply not found it?

Dr. Morton and I rarely talked about sex. Instead, his gifts to me were to teach me to see beyond my myopia, encouraging me as an artist to eventually make the necessary separation from my family which would allow me to grow further into my full self.

Yet there were so many things that we never talked about. I never talked about my first boyfriend, Mark, and the seven years we spent together, from middle to high school, in the backseats of cars, fishing together, dodging parents in our rooms. Or making love to my travel buddy, Dan, in a monastery in Nepal, and beginning my first open relationship upon returning home

In the Tom of Finland library I found traces of my own life reflected in these artists from around the world. It opened up a whole new world of material to play with as a sexual person and as an artist, and it left with me fascinated with this powerful individual, Tom of Finland, who, in a sense, was also my therapist.

In my family, the stifling inability to discuss traumatic events and emotional myopia led to a troubling sense of things being hidden and out of sight – unavailable to being talked about or put into artistic play.

Over my lifetime, both art and therapy have given me the vocabulary to express the truth about my experience, who I am and how I can become as a person. The level of self-disclosure in each continually impacts the other, endlessly expanding my vision of my work and myself.