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Art and Images in Psychiatry
November 2013

In the Realms of the Unreal: Henry Darger

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(11):1125-1126. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.2017

[C]hild slavery existed in Calverinian country. Hundreds of thousands of children, torn from their parents, were thrown into horrible factories, made to work for themselves to death without getting a cent, and horrors upon horrors almost equaled that of perdition [eternal damnation].

Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal1(p40)

Do you believe it, unlike most children, I hated to see the day come when I will be grown up. I never wanted to. I wished to be young always. I am a grown up now and an old lame man, darn it.

Henry Darger, The History of My Life1(p7)

In 1973, when 80-year-old Henry Darger, a retired Chicago janitor and dishwasher, was too frail to climb the stairs to his third floor apartment at 851 Webster Avenue in Lincoln Park, he asked his landlord Nathan Lerner for help in moving into an old age home. Darger had lived in his Chicago apartment for 40 years, and it was filled with his accumulated possessions. Lerner asked Darger what to do with everything in his apartment and was told, “It’s all yours.”1(p15) When Lerner examined Darger’s abandoned apartment, he found a treasure trove! The shy reclusive hospital janitor had lived a secret life as a visual artist and a writer of epics.2

Darger’s small, cluttered, 1.5-room apartment was filled with stacks of newspapers and magazines that rose to the ceiling, leaving only a narrow path to the oval table where he worked. One entire wall was covered with a collage titled The Battle of Calverhine (first epigraph) containing hundreds of images. Among the debris were found 7 huge handbound volumes of typed pages of narrative and a dozen more unbound bundles of typed and handwritten pages in a nearby trunk. Lerner had discovered Darger’s masterpiece, an illustrated book more than 15 000 typed pages long with approximately 300 images. Darger titled it 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 (hereafter referred to as The Realms of the Unreal). In addition, he found the 8500-page handwritten sequel, Adventures in Chicago, and Darger’s 5084-page autobiography.

The Realms of the Unreal is filled with colorful landscapes, fantastic creatures, and epic battle scenes between opposing forces of good and evil on an imaginary planet.1,2 After writing the text (completed in the 1930s), Darger illustrated it. The action takes place on an imaginary planet that is “1000 times as large as our own world and with our earth as its moon.”1 The Catholic Nations (Abbieannia, Angelinia, Abyssinkile, Protestentia, and Calverinia) and the protective Blengiglomenean Serpents are in a war against the Glandelinians, fallen Catholics who enslave and torture children. The war lasted 4 years and 7 months and follows a sequence of events similar to World War I and incorporated certain aspects of the American Civil War into the narrative. His heroines are the 7 Vivian princesses (Violet, Jenny, Joice, Catherine, Hettie, Daisy, Evangeline, and Gertrude Angeline, their adoptive sister) who lead the uprising against the slave holders.

The 7 brave Vivian girls, princesses of Abbiennia, are modeled after Joan of Arc; their mission is to free the child slaves. This involves them in many life-threatening episodes. Darger, a deeply religious man, wrote that “They fought…as if not only led by the spirit of the Maid of Orleans but by Christ.”1 Like Joan of Arc, the Vivian girls are innocent and saintly. Tragically, when their army of prepubescent fighting girl soldiers lose in battle, they are rounded up by the enemy and tortured. They are strangled, hanged at the gallows, or dismembered as they call out in pain and terror. In the battle scene depicted in the figure,3 the prepubescent band of girl warriors is in the midst of retreat during a violent storm. Some of girl soldiers are running away, while others, armed with rifles, stand to fight. Darger captures the emotions of some of the children during the battle scene: one child standing in the center is preoccupied, another in front is tearful, a dark-haired girls distracts herself by looking at a purple flower, another child looks out blankly or perhaps thoughtfully at the ongoing battle, and another girl looks warmly up toward one her companions. Just as Joan of Arc cut her hair and dressed as a man in battle,4 the girl warriors convey elements of both femaleness and maleness. The naked girls all have prepubescent male genitals.4

Henry Darger (1892-1973), American. Realms of the Unreal. “6 Episode 3 Place not mentioned. Escape during violent storm, still fighting though persed [sic] for long distance” (detail). Chicago, Illinois, 1950-1970. Watercolor, pencil, and carbon tracing on pieced paper, 61.0 × 189.9 cm (24 × 743/4 in). Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY. Gift of Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner. © Kiyoko Lerner, 1995.23la. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.

Darger’s long narrative focuses on the atrocity of child slavery, abuse, and murder. The Realms of the Unreal apparently is Darger’s creative way of working through aspects of his own traumatic early life experiences and his continuing concerns about wartime and other atrocities that occurred during his lifetime. Darger was a solitary, deeply religious, and inventive man who worked as a janitor by day and wrote and illustrated his writings at night. His neighbors (who saw him as reclusive and odd) often heard him carrying out imaginary dialogues with his characters.1 He had one close friend in his early years, Whilliam Schloeder, who joined with him in establishing the 2-man Gemini Society for the protection of children.

Writing and art making allowed Darger the means to express his views on issues that concerned him, including injustices against children, the importance of protecting childhood innocence, and his relationship with God. Darger’s question to God about why God allowed children to suffer remained unanswered.

Darger’s mother died giving birth to his sister shortly before his fourth birthday. His newborn sister was adopted. At 8 years of age, he was placed in the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy Boys Home when his father could no longer care for him. Although a good student, he was aggressive and was caught attacking a female student and a teacher. And he made strange noises that annoyed his teachers, who were nuns. At 12 years of age, he was sent to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. His admissions interview at the time revealed a history of self-abuse (masturbation) since the age of 6 years.5 Masturbation was considered a serious problem in an era when excessive masturbation was believed to lead to insanity and feeblemindedness.6,7 His masturbating was an important factor in his admission to the asylum in Lincoln. Darger spent the next 4 years at this institution. The institution served as a work farm; the children worked without pay and received severe punishments if they rebelled. Thus, he learned to be compliant and to avoid contact with people in authority. The conditions at the asylum led to scandal. A child was found ravaged by rats, and another was burned and, when left unattended, died. Darger escaped by hopping a train to Decatur, Illinois, and walking to Chicago. His godmother found him a job in a hospital, and he never returned to the asylum.

Henry worked as an employee for various Catholic institutions for the rest of his life. He composed the images for The Realms of the Unread by cutting out newspaper and magazine photographs of children for his collages and collecting storybooks and coloring books depicting children who became models for his characters. His draftsmanship was poor, so he traced images for his art. Major sources included Frank Baum’s Oz books, Little Annie Rooney, Shirley Temple films, Charles Dickens books, Catholic prayers books, pulp fiction, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its depiction of slavery. He seems to have maintained the mind-set of someone who has been institutionalized. Demonstrating a childlike simplicity (second epigraph), he sought not to be noticed and had limited social contacts with neighbors, despite living in the same rooming house for 40 years.

Darger hung a large painted collage of the Vivian princesses above the door of his large room. He wrote: “It has been a great comfort to me to sit and watch the Vivian Girl Princesses…. Their graceful ways, their unusual manners, their beauty and strangeness, have helped me to understand the mystery in little girls which all the books about them cannot make clear…. They did love me and I love them.”8(p87)

Norman Lerner preserved Darger’s legacy by facilitating museum exhibitions. He placed this epitaph on Henry’s tombstone: Henry Darger 1892-1973, Artist, Protector of Children. Darger's Realms of the Unreal is an exercise in active imagination seeking to find personal meaning in a world rife with injustice.

Section Editor: James C. Harris, MD.
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Article Information

Corresponding Author: James C. Harris, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1800 Orleans St, Baltimore, MD 21287 (jharri10@jhmi.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

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