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In the Realms of the Unreal

Sometimes, authors and artists fantasize about being hermits. It’s a romantic notion: cast off worldly things like cell phones, the internet, acquaintances and jobs, and run away where there is no one to bother you, and you’re blessedly detached from the looming, ugly world that threatens to come between you and your creativity.

I still get nostalgic for that strange place of creative bliss that I’ve only found a few times in my own mind, yet, I’d never really thought about the flipside of this coin until I heard the unusual story of Henry Darger.

I’ve just finished watching “The Realms of the Unreal” documentary about the life of Henry Darger. Since his death in the 1970s, there has been a degree of fascination with this creative genius of a man who still remains a mystery to everyone who lived on the fringes of his world. Born in the late 1800s, his mother died after giving birth to his little sister, and the baby was given up for adoption, leaving a very young Henry to live with his father. From the time he started attending school, Henry never felt like he belonged, and by the age of seventeen he was living on his own, internalizing the pain of his childhood, including being sent to a hospital for mentally disabled children, even though there was nothing wrong with him.

Henry spent the rest of his life avoiding people and cloistering himself away in his room. For many decades he was a lowly janitor who kept to himself and didn’t engage in conversations. It wasn’t until a few weeks before his death, his neighbors and landlords found that he’d spent years of his after-work hours typing an immense novel illustrated with full-color drawings, huge paintings, and even a detailed memoir of his life. In his novel and his drawings, he created a world where little girls could fight back against their attackers, where children’s innocence was valued; something he knew from personal experience was not appreciated in the world around him.

He always wished he could protect children from the evil world, as news of crimes against children would assault him from his daily newspapers. The story of his truly magnum opus is much too detailed and multi-faceted to do much justice right now, which is why I highly recommend this incredible documentary.

It really made me think about the whole idea of cutting yourself off from the world to do art. It seems like Darger didn’t completely choose his lifestyle: he was, in a way, creating to survive. Darger went through so much in his life. Though he no doubt enjoyed creating his world, many times in his documentary, he confessed to his journal in so many words that he was lonely. In our world he was a poor, hopeless janitor keeping people at arm’s length, but in his world, his characters were his friends and he was the hero: the lord of his own realm.

His landlady said that the world he created was his life, and as soon as he left his room when his health began to fade, his life was severed, and he had no reason to live anymore.

This topic is so fascinating. If I weren’t so exhausted, I know I would write more.

Darger has left an incredible legacy of unusual, whimsical art and the mystery of his strange, compelling life. Anyone who has felt the burning passion to create, and a fury of injustice at the world can understand the power and the pain he poured into his work. Yet, I still wonder: is being a tortured soul worth it for the art’s sake, if there is no one to share it with in the end?


  • Rosanne E.

    If you die you should leave a will telling people where to go to find your work, and say that your last dying wish is for it to be shared. If all else fails that is and you cease making human contact after a few years in hermitage.

  • Christina A. Nelson

    Ah! Good point! And if you send Christmas cards updating people on your status, I'm sure they won't hold the solitude against you!