The Outsiders

••• John MacGregor Unlocks Henry Darger's Unreal Realms

None of these cases, though, is as vast, as saturated with wonder—and as prone to public hostility—as the life and work of Henry Darger. "I have been so fortunate to study him in peace and quiet," the media-averse MacGregor tells me, "away from the frenzy that is now developing around him—actually sitting in his room getting to know this man who no one ever knew."

The path to that room began in Montreal, where MacGregor was, born. His father worked for the railroads as a welder; his mother was a secretary for the United Church of Canada. An only child, the young MacGregor developed an intense interest in painting, setting up his own studio at 13, and still has that muscle memory when he looks at what's on the canvases at the museum, a sense of how the brush must have moved.

He entered analysis at 18, abandoning painting around the same time; later, he completed a training analysis and did research stints at such venerable psychiatric institutions as Topeka's Menninger Foundation and the Hampstead Clinic in London, where he knew Anna Freud. (He recently began his third tour through all of her father's collected works—an activity, he jokes, that he performs every 20 years.) After studying art history at McGill, MacGregor went on to Princeton, where he initially kept under wraps his curiosity about the juncture of psychiatry and art. But his adviser—the legendary Chinese-art scholar Wen C. Fong—convinced him otherwise. Though he finished his dissertation, The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, in 1978, over a decade passed before it was published. Despite the lapse, it was hailed as a landmark when it appeared—the first scholarly study of both notorious "mad" artists (like the parricidal Bedlamite Richard Dadd) and public attitudes toward insanity and creativity.

John MacGregor has been on every page of Henry Darger's novel. There are 15,145 of them.
photo: John MacGregor
John MacGregor has been on every page of Henry Darger's novel. There are 15,145 of them.

By the time Discovery appeared, MacGregor had already entered the Realms of the Unreal, as Darger called his fictional world. In 1986, a museum curator flew him to Chicago to introduce him to Nathan and Kiyoko and their singular trove. Enraptured, he wrote Nathan a letter eight days later, expressing his desire to undertake long-term research with an eye to writing the first book on Darger. "Nathan had looked for years for somebody to cover Darger—psychiatrists, critics—but nobody was prepared to commit the kind of time that was needed," says MacGregor. "I was the first person to come along who was really willing to put in some time."

Henry Darger: "It’s too late now."
David Berglund

Gaining their trust wasn't easy. Kiyoko Lerner recalls that at first, "Nathan felt John was very academic," and perhaps not the best person to capture "the conflict between God and Henry." But MacGregor's persistence paid off; he says that after assuring Nathan that he had no intention of tracking down any possible Darger relations—which might have meant contesting the rights to the artwork—there were no more obstacles to his access. MacGregor grew close to the couple. An interview with Nathan forms Henry Darger's foreword, and MacGregor was visibly moved last month when he heard, moments before his talk began, that he was in fact about to deliver the American Folk Art Museum's inaugural Nathan Lerner Annual Lecture. (One of the first slides he projected, as chance would have it, was a snapshot of him and Lerner.)

Maintaining his home base in San Francisco, MacGregor would take the train to Chicago once or twice a year, for a month or two each time, house-sitting whenever the Lerners went on a trip. He would come armed with a specific research goal: "I'd go to the room, copy out what I needed, and then go home."

This enforced distance helped him stay afloat in the sea of Darger's writings, which, he argues, are written with skill, imagination, and even occasional humor. (MacGregor's book includes numerous excerpts of Henry's writing, which bear this statement out; most startling is the character/creator interplay—pure Don Quixote—as when an Angelinian colonel discovers the writings of one Henry Darger.) No discussion of the paintings can afford to ignore this narrative, or Henry's own complex psychological makeup, which infuses every part of the story—from the gruesome, protracted warfare to the dragonlike creatures known as Blengins. Aside from the reams of the Realms—13 immense volumes, densely typed—MacGregor had to contend with Darger's 5084-page autobiography (History of My Life), a 10-year daily weather journal, assorted diaries, and a second work of fiction, provisionally entitled Crazy House, of over 10,000 handwritten pages. (Written after the Realms, it takes that epic's major characters—the seven Vivian sisters and their companion/secret brother, Penrod—and places them in Chicago, with the action unfolding during the same years as that of the earlier book.) MacGregor estimates that he's read two-thirds of the Realms, scrutinizing certain sections in their entirety, and methodically scanning the rest for any significant plot or tonal surprises. "I've been on every page," he says, and notes that a thorough reading would have required a full year per volume.

For psychiatric purposes, the material is of an unusually pure grade. MacGregor points out that Darger generated far more sheer wordage than one would find in the verbatim transcript of 10 years of psychoanalysis. Indeed, the Realms' basic conflict—between the monstrously evil Glandelinians, who enslave and torture children, and the Angelinians, whose Christian goodness is epitomized by the seven brave Vivian sisters—practically demands this treatment. In his fictional world, Darger was able to achieve an astonishing psychic split, so that the demands of the glands were in epic struggle with codes of angelic morality. Has there been a better model of the constant conflict between id, ego, and superego?

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