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Marc Asnin

Fellowship Title:

The Dailiness of Life: One Man’s Struggle With Mental Illness

Marc Asnin
June 2, 2002

Fellowship Year

"As the sun was setting it was fucking eerie, very unnerving, nothing has changed. The neighborhood’s still the same."

Eighteen years ago, I began shooting a 20-year documentary about my Uncle Charlie and the rest of my Brooklyn family. This no-holds-barred photographic epic concerns a unique family, my own. It’s a story of two generations and how problems move down the line. We see how my uncle deals with his burden of mental illness, and how he passes that burden to his children.

Charlie never gives them the love they need. He doesn’t hug them, he doesn’t nurture them. He brings crackheads into the house. Everbody suffers from Charlie’s schizophrenia. Charlie and his children live with mental demons, with drugs, and with poverty. We watch these forces wreck Charlie and his family.

I’ve been documenting one family for almost two decades. How else can one trace the long-term effects? We’ve had plenty of prosperity in America, but also twenty years of poverty, schizophrenia, desertion, AIDS, drugs and death. Welfare expenses are at a 30-year low, but where is our level of pain? The elder must care for the younger. No generation has bootstraps big enough to pick itself up over its upbringing.

My interest in photographing my uncle grew out of the deep respect for family that my parents taught me. My mother, particularly, nurthered in me a feeling of special connection to her brother, Charlie, who also is my godfather. Instead of turning away from his mental illness, years later, when I became a photographer, I was inspired to confront and deal with it.

Charlie is a chronic schizophrenic. In 1980, he was diagnosed by Dr. Michael Daras, who described Charlie as “withdrawn…subject to delusional ideas…[subject to] persecutory thoughts …depressed.” He has never been treated for this underlying condition. He is one of the 2.2 million Americans suffering from this neurological brain disorder. He has been unable to hold a job since March 10, 1976.

Carol, Charlie’s wife, left him in 1986, leaving him with their five children. Charlie took on the huge task of raising them alone. We see Charlie and his kids struggling to remain a family. We see foster care, abandonment, hospitalization, departure, and reunion. Everyone suffers from Charlie’s schizophrenia.

Crack has been the most devasting problem for Charlie and his family. Charlie is surrounded by crackheads. Because of his own mental problems, he is attracted to drug addiction. The world of crack is a world where users and those around them suffer.

For many years, Charlie spent his family’s Social Security disability check on drugs for his girlfriend. Just as Charlie never received proper medical treatment, his girlfriend, Blanca, never was treated for her drug problem. Billions are spent on the federal drug war, yet resources for treating and preventing drug abuse are small. My pictures make that disproportionate social commitment visible.

Charlie and his kids are poor. With poverty comes poor education. Three of Charlie’s kids dropped out of high school. The cycle starts again.

Charlie’s story is important because we all have Uncle Charlies in our families, or in our neighborhoods, or in ourselves. The family, with its accomplishments and failings, is a microcosm of society. My from-the-inside documentation of one family can help guide others in charting our future journeys. These pictures can help us understand the American family that’s been left behind.

"He was a quiet drunk. Never owed anybody. Drank about ten shots on average a night. Held himself as a semi-wise guy, because he was somewhat connected, but never went anywhere because of the drink. Kept him from going places."
"As a kid you just blend in. No good memories. Not in that bar. I would think about everything in the world but being there. Four to five times a week I used to go there with my dad. That neighborhood environment has never changed. If you could buy, you were someone. I never was anyone. Never wanted to be like Dad. Wanted to get out. Read "The Good Earth" by Pearl Buck. I wanted something else, but it was always going to be tomorrow, since it could not be today. But tomorrow never came. I never
"Sitting at the bar, then, I didn’t have a fucking nickel. Nothing has changed, I still don’t have a nickel to my name."
"Physically it’s an improvement. Mentally it’s fucking devastating. It’s a nursing home at the very least. It’s an emotionally disturbed building. Doesn’t do much for my emotional well being. It’s one key short of prison. Only because I have the key. You know when I came to this building for the first time ‘This is where elephants know to go and die.’ And that’s where I know I am. It’s the ‘Village of the Dammed.’ That’s where I live."
"It’s just about a full circle. I’ve done not a thing, Absolutely fucking nothing. With intellectual genius. I did nothing with it. Nothing. That’s depressing. Never had a chance. Waiting for my children to come back is waiting for Godot. No wonder I tattooed it on my arm."
"It saddens me. It’s a basic thing everyone is supposed to have. It’s a biological thing. It’s inherent in the human mind for parental concern."
"The futility of what went on then and the futility of what goes on now. I know it’s a full circle. I’ve done nothing. Had children that I can’t even talk to now. I live check to check hoping that they don’t cut it off."
"I hated the bar as a kid. Twelve years old, and I had to go sit with my dad. And I could not be with my peers. Who knows what could have been. I always wonder. No one knows. My dad had his own problems. He never talked to me at the bar. I was like a parked car. I just sat there watching the clock tick until 4 AM. Then I go home, sleep a little, get ready for school. School was never a problem."
"The loneliest place is a crowd."
"No one listened then. And no one listens now. I have no family."
"Mary’s prophecy for me that I would be old and alone has come true. I have come to the realization there are no more missions to reach my children. I did it out of loneliness. It’s normal behavior. I must have been one motherfucker scumbag all those years I was with those kids."
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Marc Asnin