Monday, 21 February 2011

Henry Darger and the Vivian Girls

Having endured a difficult childhood, Henry Darger spent his adult life determined to help children that had fallen on hard times and protect them from the perils he saw all around him.
Born in Chicago in 1892 Darger lost his mother, who died giving birth to his sister, when he was four years old and was taken away from his from his father, who was physically and financially unable to raise his children, when he was eight years old.
He was initially placed in a boy’s home but he exhibited a range of behaviours and disciplinary problems that proved to be beyond the ability of the home to cope with.
His actions, which included a compulsion to make strange noises, would seem to indicate the possibility of his suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome but this diagnosis was never made and instead he was institutionalised in an asylum in nearby Lincoln in 1905.
Darger hated life in the asylum, which mostly involved intensive work and harsh punishments for the smallest transgressions. After a series of attempted escapes he was eventually successful in 1908 and returned to Chicago where he found work in a hospital as a cleaner.
In this manner he managed to support himself until he retired in 1963.
Once Darger had secured employment and found himself a place to live he decided to dedicate his life to ensuring that other children never had to suffer the trials of the institutions he had been placed in.
His initial plan was to adopt a child but, despite his many attempts, the authorities were unwilling to trust a single man with a small income and a history of mental illness with the welfare of a child.
Darger also attempted, with the help of a friend called William Shloder, to establish an organisation called the ‘Children’s Protective Society’ which would be dedicated to helping abandoned and neglected children to find adoptive parents.
This plan also came to nothing.
Darger was obsessed with the welfare of the children of Chicago and amassed a huge archive of clippings from newspapers about children who he felt he could have helped.
He became particularly interested in the case of Elsie Paroubek, a five year old murder victim, whose picture Darger carried with him until it disappeared from his locker at work.
Darger was distraught by the loss of the picture and tried an elaborate series of prayers during his daily visits to Church to try and ensure its return. This didn’t work and his lack of knowledge of the particular edition of the paper he had clipped it from meant that a visit to the newspaper archive was also a waste of time.
At this point Darger determined that he would use the inspiration of the memory of Elsie Paroubek to create a personal memento that could never be taken away.
He had recently started work on a novel which was based on the idea of a holy war between Christian forces and a godless race known as the Glandelinians.
Darger knew that he wanted the Glandelinians to be the epitome of evil but was still unsure what their particular transgressions would be. The story of Elsie Paroubek helped him to decide.
The Glandelinians would be child murderers.
The novel would be the story of a war between the Glandelinians and the people of Abbieannie who are led by the Vivian Girls, the seven daughters of Robert Vivian and princesses of their nation. The war is sparked by the murder of Annie Aronburg, a child labour rebel, by the Glandelinians.
The Vivian Girls lead an army of children in a bloody war against their oppressors in the hope that their valiant deeds and holy purity will defeat the Glandelinians and bring freedom to Abbieannie.
Darger himself was unsure how the war would end. He wrote two different endings for the story, one where the Vivian Girls are triumphant and another where the Glandelinians manage to suppress the rebellion.
It seemed that Darger was determined that, even if he couldn’t help the children around him, he could create a world in which they at least had a fighting chance.
The full title of the novel was ‘The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.’
Darger worked on it for over forty years and also produced hundreds of drawings and watercolour paintings to illustrate the story.
By the time it was finished the entire manuscript was 15,145 pages long.
This work, along with Darger’s other projects which included a book called ‘A History of my Life’ which spends 206 pages covering his early life before transforming into a work of fiction about a tornado called ‘Sweetie Pie’ that goes on for another 4,672 pages and a sequel to ‘The Story of the Vivian Girls...’called ‘Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago’ and details the life of the Vivian Girls in contemporary Chicago and runs for over 10,000 pages, were discovered by the landlords of his apartment in 1973 and they ensured that it found its way into the world where it became celebrated.
Darger himself would never know of the fame his work would enjoy.
He died shortly after his work was discovered, in the same Catholic mission that his own father had died in sixty-eight years earlier.
Darger is buried in All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois.
His headstone is inscribed ‘Artist ‘ and ‘Protector of Children.’

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