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Art Therapy

After a life-altering accident left her unable to speak or write, author and filmmaker Genevieve Bahrenburg, whose documentary Genevieve: Girl Before a Mirror comes out this spring, overcame her physical wounds through the healing power of art.

Genevieve Bahrenburg, seen here in 2015, underwent 13 brain and skull surgeries over a year and a half.

During my coma, I dreamt a double dream. It looked like a split screen. On one half of the screen, I was on the furious ocean manning my father’s boat, the Desperado. I rode to the top of a wave and then crashed down, again and again and again. On the other half of the screen, I was working on a documentary about that very same dream, composing music for it and casting myself as the lead actress.

After dinner on New Year’s Eve 2013, my friend and I went back to my apartment to toast the new year. The elevator wasn’t working, so we had to access the building via the basement. The last thing I remember is my friend going downstairs as I stood against the glass door on street level. My friend heard a loud thud and saw me at the bottom of the stairs, unconscious and turning blue. I never made a sound, and we’re still unclear as to what happened. He called the medics and applied CPR.

When I woke up from my coma after 22 days in the Bellevue ICU, I couldn’t speak or breathe on my own—I was breathing through a machine following a tracheotomy—and my body wouldn’t respond to my commands. My mode of purest expression, my writing hand, was paralyzed. I was frustrated, confused and in horrific pain. I had suffered two massive epidural hematomas and over a year and a half underwent 13 brain and skull surgeries. To handle this trauma, I thought about art and the soothing energy of the ocean.

I realized I still had my vision, and I focused on articulating it. To help with my post-surgery aphasia [a language disorder caused by damage to the brain], I would go to the Met, the Guggenheim, MoMA and the Whitney and fill a notebook from Smythson with the names of my favorite artists like Man Ray, René Magritte, Robert Motherwell and James Turrell. 

Some images that kept me going were Françoise Gilot’s “Portrait of Genevieve in White,” the beautiful photographs from Richard Avedon’s book Woman in the Mirror and a photo of me in Nantucket taken before my accident by my friend Claiborne Swanson Frank, which is featured in her book American Beauty (which I wrote and co-produced).

Through art, I focused on the idea of reflection. Magritte’s “The False Mirror” and Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” helped me realize that how we view ourselves is not always to be trusted. In the latter artwork, the right side of the painting represents the subject’s delusional self-image. That’s how I felt during my surgeries. I finally switched to the left side, the subject’s real reflection, when I had my third and last skull surgery in April 2015. 

As a writer suffering from aphasia, I used art to reconstruct myself. These artworks inspired me to create self-portraits and other photographs; short films; and a documentary, Genevieve: Girl Before a Mirror, about the double dream I had in my coma. One of the artworks that helped me make sense of my dream was Henri Matisse’s “Swimming Pool” cutout. For my documentary, director Jill Goldman and executive producer Amy Ziering filmed me asleep and swimming in the pool at my home in Orient, Long Island, personifying, respectively, my coma and my profound change. They also filmed me on my dad’s boat on the ocean, the same boat I rode on in the thrashing waves in my dream, as an allegory for my recovery, which has seen its share of crests and crashes. The element of water is a symbol of therapeutic rebirth.

My accident was not the first time I’d had brain surgery. When I was 8 years old, I fell into a metal sprinkler while playing a game of tag in Central Park. After the resulting brain surgery, I had to learn to speak and write again. To help me do so, I wrote down quotes from Alice in Wonderland. During my second trauma, I felt as though I’d fallen down the rabbit hole— not once but twice. By refocusing on Alice in Wonderland, I pretended my experience was a never-ending fantasyland. I realize that my first brain surgery is one of the experiences that gave me the strength to overcome my consequent operations. In chapter two of the book, Alice hits her head on the ceiling and her tears flood the hallway, but she uses them to swim away. I rarely cry, but that chapter reminds me of my dream of being in the thrashing ocean, and how I’ve healed myself by turning to art.

In 1988, Chuck Close, my favorite artist and one of my dearest friends, suffered a rupture of his spinal artery that left him partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. Chuck faced his trauma through painting and photography. I first met Chuck during the summer of 2013, six months before my accident, when he and I were neighbors on Bond Street in Manhattan. That fall, he photographed me with his 20x24 Polaroid camera and created a watercolor print based on one of the portraits. It was a busy time. In addition to working on Claiborne’s photography tome Young Hollywood, I began assisting Chuck with his photographs of stars like George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey for Vanity Fair, and I started writing a book about Chuck called Close to Close. After my accident, he and I became much closer because of our respective traumas.

Endurance artist and magician David Blaine, whom I’ve known for years, taught me how to master my endurance by forcing myself to a higher mental awareness while undergoing horrific physical pain. When I woke up after each surgery, I’d force myself to smile and take a photo in an effort to associate positivity with my healing. David gifted me a beautiful book by Taschen called Magic that features posters of magician Harry Kellar levitating women. As I was preparing for my 13th surgery, which would place a plate over a missing part of my skull, I envisioned myself safe and whole after the surgery. I kept focusing on the levitating women as I drifted off under anesthesia.

Another friend who helped me on this journey is Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis, whose charity, Artists for Peace and Justice, I’ve been involved with. Paul’s brilliant films like Crash and Going Clear, a Scientology documentary he’s featured in, inspired me to work on becoming a filmmaker instead of a writer. Paul told me, “In your dream you were trying to direct your own reality. As you’re healing, you are trying to direct your own life.”

In my coma, I dreamt about being on the ocean in my father’s boat while simultaneously dreaming about working on making a movie about navigating a terrifying storm. True to my dream, I’ve steered myself in the direction of making a documentary about my experience a reality. The creative process has helped me handle intense trauma, and I want to help others heal by encouraging people to find their own courage. I’ve forced myself through the looking glass, and I’ve come out on the other side with a clearer understanding of the multiple meanings in art and in life.