Tuesday, 4 October 2016

parity of esteem

Since first hearing about the small village outside of Antwerp over the summer on NPR’s Invisibilia, I’ve really been intrigued about the story of Geel and its approach to addressing mental illness and appreciated Hyperallergic’s giving the community and its mission further exposure. After becoming a pilgrimage destination for the mentally ill in the late twelfth century, the villagers have hosted displaced and alienated souls, bringing them into their homes and providing a course of treatment and therapy that doesn’t try to make their guests conform.
This unusual patronage is traced back to the daughter of a pagan Irish chieftain and a Christian mother, called Dymphna (Little Fawn) who herself converted to Christianity against her father’s will. Dymphna’s mother passed away when she was a teenager and her father became absolutely inconsolable, quickly descending into depression. His courtiers pleaded with him to re-marry, and reluctantly, the chieftain agreed, provided he could find one as beautiful and charming as his lost wife. The chieftain’s overtures turned towards the teenaged Dymphna, and fearing what would come next, she fled to Belgium with her confessor and, oddly, the Court Jester. Dymphna and her crew problem would have never been found, but at Geel, where they settled she founded a hospital for the poor and suffering and her charity eventually made its way back to Ireland. Her father went to Geel to retrieve Dymphna but she refused at which point her father beheaded her. Though perhaps not the imbalanced party and unsuccessful at that particular juncture, many of the demon-plagued who visited the place of her veneration were pronounced cured of their condition, maybe not advancing the understanding of mental disorders in the broader public awareness but at least reducing the social stigma on a local level. The lives of the boarders are chronicled in a series of photographs that blurs the distinction between guest and host and is in stark contrast with the usual methods of reintegration through institution.