Phil and Me’ – Amanda Tetrault
(Tetrault, Amanda, Phil and Me, Trolley Ltd, GB, 2004)
In a previous post I described my visit, at the end of January, to ‘Ways of Seeing’ an Exhibition at the Lightbox, Gallery and Museum in Woking. I ended by reflecting upon the use of photography as therapy and stating that I wanted to explore this further. A couple of weeks later I was reading the latest edition of Marie Claire magazine when I came upon an article about Amanda Tetrault who is a photographer in Montreal, Canada. It described her relationship with her father; the photographs she had taken of him and the book that had been published in 2004.
Amanda’s father, Philip Tetrault, suffers from schizophrenia. He didn’t take medication for many years and Amanda’s mother, Natalie, left him when Amanda was three because she couldn’t live with him anymore. Philip lived a life on the streets, they kept in touch and he visited occasionally. His behaviour was very frightening at times though, and when Amanda was 12 she and her mother moved away without giving him an address. His own mother continued to keep in touch though and when she died c2000, Natalie decided to keep on doing this in his mother’s memory so that he became a part of their lives again, although never coming into the house.
An internet search led me to Amanda’s website and also an August 2004 article, ‘Father dear father’, in The Guardian newspaper. Amanda writes that her father never really worked as such but has always written poetry. He lives a different world, and they meet together and walk around Montreal. She also refers to the shame of having a father with schizophrenia and that she didn’t tell anyone the truth about him until she was 19. One of the ways in which she dealt with her feelings about her father was to take photographs of him and this started around the time she was 19 as well. I wanted to see the photographs and bought the book.
The cover of the book is illustrated by a collage of small photos (some coloured) and the book itself is mainly photographs, in black and white, but with some extracts from letters, and poetry handwritten by Philip over the years. I felt sad when looking at the photographs, which document the passing of time and the obvious deterioration in Philip’s condition. Some photos are from early years and taken in booths, but others are taken by Amanda.
There is a letter from Amanda to Phil in the early pages (there are no page numbers), where she writes about the effect of his illness upon her, “When I was a girl and you became sick you were a monster to me. When I was a teenager and at my most self-conscious, you and schizophrenia were my biggest secrets”. Amanda apologises for running away from him, forgives him for being the way he was and, finally, thanks him, “..for trying hard anyway…for showing me the street, the squirrels and the crows and for making me see so many other sides.
In the Guardian article Amanda writes that the photographs were very much about getting rid of the shame that surrounds having a father with schizophrenia and about seeing the beauty as well. I was also pleased to read that his illness is not as bad and he’s taking his medication.
It seems to me that, at the age of 19, when Amanda began to tell people about her father and also take photographs of him she was both acknowledging that that was the way he was and, in some respects, becoming more able to distance herself from her fear of him as a child. I have worked as a counsellor in the past and one method of helping people was to ask them to describe an event as if they were watching it on a television screen. I would imagine that holding a photograph enabled Amanda to really look at her father in a safer emotional space.
I hadn’t thought of photography as therapy until I went to the Ways of seeing Exhibition and, having looked at Amanda Tetrault’s book, I’ve now done an Internet search. It seems that phototherapy techniques have begun to be more widely used in recent years. One US website distinguishes PhotoTherapy (an interrelated system of photo-based counseling techniques, from Therapeutic Photography (self-conducted activities) which is what I think Amanda Tetrault used for herself. I have also looked at a critical paper for a Masters Degree in the UK.
22nd February 2011
Postscript to “Phil and Me”
I still had Philip Tetrault in mind and, in an idle moment, did an internet search. There were quite a few links (a bit of a shock as well to see a link to my blog amongst them!). Anyway I was really interested to see that there had been a documentary film about him which won the 2006 C.B.C. Newsworld Award for Best Documentary in the Independent Film and Video Festival.
The film was called “The Beggars Description” and was made in 2005 by Pierre Tetrault (a playwright, actor and stage director) who is Philip’s brother. One of the reports said that the most stirring moments of the documentary featured “the three most influential women in Philip’s life” – his mother, the mother of his daughter and his daughter. Here’s a link to the film description
There is another site called “Heck of a Guy’ a blog by a someone who calls himself DrHGuy and is a fan of Leonard Cohen. It’s a well put together blog and interesting reading if you like Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen met Philip Tetrault years ago and has kept in touch with him. The site gives video links to two clips from the film. One is called, ‘Picnic in the Park’ and is Philip and Leonard sitting on a bench talking together. They reminisce about when they first met. Leonard Cohen couldn’t remember but Philip could. Leonard shows Philip how to thumb wrestle and also reads a poem from Philip’s privately published book of poetry The other clip is of Philip reciting his poems in Montreal in 2006.Having read Amanda’s story it was good for me to see another view of her father, Philip. I was also touched by something written by DrHGuy which I think is very apt and worth taking on board:-
“Finally, I cannot let this opportunity to dispute a still powerful myth pass. Phil Tetrault can write excellent poetry in spite of schizophrenia, not because of it, and Leonard Cohen was able to write novel, poems, and songs in spite of the depression that afflicted him for years, not because of it. The romantic notion that psychiatric disorders somehow put artists in touch with an inner world not otherwise available is fallacious and, from my perspective, an insult to the artists with those diagnoses.”
I have to confess that I too have accepted that ‘myth’ in the past. I’m not sure I entirely agree with the opposite view but it’s worth exploring.
27th February 2011
http://www.kimbromleytherapy.co.uk/ Critical paper for Masters degree specialising in therapeutic photography