Patsy Desmond, Survivor on Screen

Susan Gerhard July 12, 2006

Danielle Beverly, director of “Learning to Swallow,” says that everyone who lived in Chicago in the mid 1990s knew of a photographer/artist named Patsy Desmond. Every band’s best friend, Desmond was mischievous and charming, accomplished (within three weeks of moving to New York, artist/photographer Desmond had scored a job working with William Wegman), manic, and also depressive. Some 15 years after bonding with Desmond over a pair of checkerboard Vans, Beverly got a call from Desmond in Florida, where her friend had just tried to commit suicide by drinking drain cleaner. Beverly, an Emmy Award-winning producer for PBS, visited her friend in crisis twice, then asked her a delicate question by mail: would she be willing to have her recovery documented? Desmond agreed — and would spend four years in front of the camera trying to heal from having her stomach, esophagus, and, later, colon removed. In this week’s “Found,” Beverly offers some backstory on her filmmaking relationship with Patsy Desmond.

“The story that’s not in the film is that we had our last real meal together the night I took these photos. I now look back on it with extreme sadness. It was just a simple meal at a local Thai restaurant, but had I known that in just one week or so she would never eat again, well, I probably would have cherished it much more.

“It was a week before Patsy tried to kill herself. Unbeknownst to me, she had secretly gone off her meds and was starting to have paranoid delusions. I didn’t know it at the time that I took these photos — she told me much later. In fact, she had thought that even I was trying to ‘gather information’ on her during that evening.

“You don’t hear my voice except for two times in the film. I’m not a character in it, but it’s a very intimate film, because I did know this person, and her sisters gave me access to what they were going through as a family.”

“I call the impish, direct-gaze photo ‘I’ve Got a Secret,’ because it seems as if she is saying ‘Guess what? I’m off my meds.’ Which, of course, was what led to her manic psychotic breakdown and suicide attempt. Nineteen percent of unmedicated bipolar people will not just attempt suicide, but actually successfully commit suicide. It’s very, very dangerous to go off medication.

“When I realized I had taken photos during this period, I quickly developed them. And what I saw in the photos now took on a more sinister tone. That they are B/W, and shot without a flash, adds to this feeling.

“There’s a reason I haven’t shown anyone these photos. She appears to be ‘crazy’ in them. That’s not who she is. When you see her in the film, you see a much more lively and full portrait. That was my challenge, to show who she was before this happened.

“I did use one of this series of photos in the film to illustrate her story, the one where she’s looking directly at the camera (opening page). In the film, she recounts what happened: ‘The government was following me, people were out to get me.’ That one is in the film. The others are not. They felt a little too personal to me.”

“Here, we were both taking photos of each other. Hers are much better than mine. She’s a very good photographer. (There are over 400 self-portraits and other work that she took in the film.) For her, it was a chance to work with her camera again, to be free with it. For me, it was a chance to connect with her as well, in a different way. I’d been filming her with my camera, but here we were on equal footing. We were both using 35mm outside. It was a nice moment.

“I took this one just before her surgery to attempt to restore her digestive system. It’s one-and-a-half years into the filming of the documentary, and her fierceness is apparent. She’s ready to have this surgery and get on with her life. She’s gazing right at the camera, but with arms crossed — a little bit defiant. She’s now wearing her backpack that holds her liquid nutrition and has a plastic bag attached to her neck to collect the saliva that would go down her esophagus, if she had one. In the photo, she’d just gotten a haircut and color and was incredibly disappointed in the ‘geriatric’ look the Florida salon had given her. God did she hate that haircut!

“Patsy’s now in a nursing home in Colorado. She had already had her stomach and esophagus removed, and when they tried to bring a section of her colon up to replace her esophagus, not only did that surgery fail, it almost killed her. She has a deteriorating ability to absorb anything.

“Even now, she’s a spitfire. When the film screened the first time, she said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t think you were as tough on me at times as you should have been.’ At other times, during the filming, she’d be like ‘Turn that camera off!’ She’d be a terror, but in a great way. She’s incredibly inspiring.”