A Love Story About a Son’s Struggle With His Father’s Demons

3352399582_7685f58998_bI received an email from Jay Sullivan about his website, www.jsullivanartist.com. It is an amazing website which documents and highlights the journey Jay has made to come to grips as well as to grow through his father’s addiction and mental health. I always think a story is best told first hand so I am including some excerpts from his site. My thanks to Jay for such an inspirational and beautiful video journal. His talent as a photographer is readily evident on his site.


I hated my father most of my life. When I was five years old my father had a bipolar breakdown and was sent to a psychiatric institution.  The post breakdown events that followed forever defined my relationship with my him: violent outbursts, endless days of him sleeping away the afternoon on the couch, picking him up and putting him to bed after many too many beers, late night calls when he needed a place to stay, bailing him out of jail.  I spent of my life angry, embarrassed and ashamed at whom and what he became. When he died in 1992, I put his ashes in my closet and put him behind me — or so I thought.

When I first started photographing “Glove” in early 2011, I wanted to reconnect with my father by imagining what it would be like if things had been different — if I had a more normal, adult relationship with my father. I began by imagining he lived with me. I photographed articles in my house that I remembered him owning: a wallet on my nightstand, razor on the bathroom sink, baseball glove in the closet. I photographed them large and direct, seeking to dissolve the movie I had in my head of a weak, failed man and replace it with images that were strong and masculine. One step led to another and the process became more and more integral to the images that were being created. I dug into his professional past, finding a man that was different than the one I knew, one that I could be proud of: pledge captain at his fraternity, top salesman at IBM and 3M, President of the NJ Jaycees, MBA at Seton Hall gained several years AFTER his breakdown. I photographed a college ring, a “How to Win Friends and Influence People” book, a briefcase.

The images filled a void I had about his work life. I started a journal that recorded the days of our imagined life together: at the beach, the coffee shop, the ball field. Our time together sparked memories and images: cooking Christmas pancakes, fishing on a tiny pond, trips to Yankee stadium. The more images I created the more I remembered and the more I wanted to be his son again. Painful memories still resurface, but my relationship with my father has been completely transformed.   Three years into this process and 20 years after his death, I have found the father I always wanted and in many ways always had.


When I first started this photographic process the only thing I remembered my father giving me was headaches and heartaches. When the movie reel ran in my mind, all I saw was excessive drinking, desperate late night phone calls, days slept away on the couch, trips to bail him out of jail and other tragedies. However, the process revealed, to my surprise, that there were other movie reels from my childhood stored off in the corner of my memory, neglected and covered with dust. Three objects related to my father that have remained with me from the day my mother and father divorced and my father moved to the YMCA some 50 miles away; my father’s movie camera, his film projector and our family’s 8mm home movies.

These three objects have stayed with me as I moved from apartment to apartment, house to house, bachelorhood to married life, and young adulthood into middle age. I really didn’t think much of this other than I am a photographer/filmmaker and old cameras, projectors and film are interesting to me. When it became clear that this project was taking a very personal and autobiographical turn, I dug out the home movies from the closet.  I wanted to look at them carefully, so I found a used 8mm film editor on eBay.  It was nearly 50 years after my father’s breakdown. I eagerly opened the tattered box that arrived from Indiana with an old Kalart film editor inside. It was just like the one my father edited with at the kitchen table as he sought to turn our home movies into polished productions suitable for Saturday night viewing.  
I strung up an old 8mm reel and the images came to life on the small viewing screen. The editor allows you to stop a single frame in the viewer and look closely at seemly insignificant images that usually fly by in an instant when show on the standard projector and screen. Stopped, as single, solitary images, they became very strong and revealing. One frame, from a 3 second clip showed my father at around 28 years old, full of promise and potential. The edit points were initially interesting mostly because the glue over the images produced some interesting visual effects.  Then I suddenly realized that these weren’t just random or clean up edits, they were edits that pieced together carefully thought out scenes. Five year old Jay runs across the screen. Cut. Pan across the house and stop on Jay in the driveway. Jay waves. Cut. Jay climbs up on the ladder and dives into the backyard pool. Cut. It was clear that my father was the Director and I was a willing and available actor.  

I have no memory of these experiences, but watching the films I can imagine my father saying “Jay, run from the top of the driveway and then right towards me.” or “Jay when I point to you, wave to the camera.” “Mmm, interesting. My father was an amateur filmmaker….”. Then it hit me, “My father was an amateur filmmaker. I am a photographer and filmmaker. Really…could it be?…no!…Holy shit!”

After 50 years of focusing on what I didn’t get from my father, I suddenly realized that my introduction in the world of photography, films and editing came from my father in our backyard, on the driveway and at a Kalart editor on the kitchen table. The movie making pretty much stopped for my father after he had his breakdown, but it continued on for me.   It has taken me to rural mountains of China, to the bush of West Africa, to the ghettos of San Paulo Brazil.  I’ve interviewed the President of the United States, a Secretary of State and hundreds of everyday people who’ve been generous in sharing their thoughts, beliefs and values with me and the camera.   Most of all, I’ve spent my working life doing something that feels like play. Thanks Dad.          

Photo credit.

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