The Harm of Labels: A Story About Jack

Jack in happier days. He was one of the most intelligent men I have ever met. I still miss the meaningful conversations we had.
Jack in happier days. He was one of the most intelligent men I have ever met.

A woman’s butterfly and flower drawings fanned out from my feet over the gallery floor near my desk. The door burst open with a thump. A man in his forties paced swiftly past my desk to the far end of the gallery, completely ignoring my presence in such a way that I had to notice his. As if pulled by invisible strings, my eyes involuntarily followed his hasty and slightly jerky march to see what he would do next. I inwardly heaved a sigh of relief when he began to calmly study the paintings on the back wall.

I returned my attention to the beautiful butterfly and flower illustrations and told the woman they would make wonderful book illustrations. It was the kindest thing I could think of to say, for they were not works I would exhibit in the gallery. After she had gathered her artwork and left, I was startled to find the man close behind me, gesticulating with his arms as if about to take off in flight, his voice loudly protesting, “Why do women always paint fucking butterflies and flowers?”

His words almost took my breath away. I think I gasped before pointing to my sun-rising-in-the-ocean painting and saying, “They don’t.” If I remember correctly, his jaw dropped and he asked me what the painting meant. I told him that if one is prepared to go into the darkness of their pain and suffering and cry the tears one couldn’t cry as a child, it would finally force a crack to appear where the sun could shine through.

“Pain…? What sort of pain?” he said, “You don’t look like you’ve had any pain in your life!” He genuinely looked confused and puzzled. He said he’d come in because yesterday when he walked past and looked through the window, he saw me laughing.

His name is Jack. Jacques to be more precise, but he prefers ‘Jack’ because ‘Jacques’ is his father’s name. He told me he paints. But I was somewhat alarmed when he divulged that this was his second day out of the crisis unit of a mental hospital, where he had been for the past three months.

Over the next few days I learned that by day Jack works as an orderly in an old people’s nursing home; at night and weekends he paints, describing his paintings as “reductionist” in style. I had never heard this term before, but he explained that he reduces everything to its simplest form to create a feeling. However, what I found most interesting about him was that his teachers thought he was the student who had the most promising future. He went off to medical school to become a doctor, but a fellow student stabbed him in the leg during a card game and his mother insisted that he return home immediately. Wondering what to do with his life, he enrolled at another college to study art, got into drugs, became an alcoholic, and ended up in a series of mental hospitals. During one of his internments, his father destroyed all the paintings he had stored in a warehouse. I can tell that his anger over this is still raw, and festers like an open wound.

Jack is a quietly spoken, pleasant-looking man. What makes me recoil from him is the way his mouth froths at the corners when he speaks because of the high dose of lithium he takes for manic depression. But his obvious intelligence and wider vocabulary than I command has aroused my curiosity. So much so, that I accepted his invitation to dinner on Saturday night, and to see his paintings afterwards at his apartment. It is a curious thing indeed, but within him I can see the spark of genius. He is perhaps the most intelligent man I have ever met.


Wow! Walking into Jack’s apartment was like walking into a magic fairyland of unusual images and colourful shapes. His paintings stood out boldly as if to say, “Please notice me.” Neat stacks of canvases lined the walls, each painting carefully separated by two or three cotton balls. Jack set a jazz record on the turntable to play. I sipped a glass of water while he selected various paintings from the stacks to show me. His face became animated with enthusiasm and his eyes showed a hint of sparkle when he stepped back to view each painting also, and to tell me a little about it. Then he waited for my comment. I quickly gained the impression that he took what I had to say very seriously – even though I do not consider myself to be any sort of art critic…or even a connoisseur of art for that matter.

However a painting with a thin, colourful band of triangles set horizontally between two flat areas of blue and green, aroused my curiosity. I asked him if this is what he meant by “reduction.” When he said it was, I said that it displayed another reduction: him. He gave me a puzzled look and I explained that it looked like a self-portrait: he was the line of triangles the blue and green planes had reduced to a colourful strip. I suggested that the planes represented his parents, or all the things that repressed him and stopped him from developing his talents.

Without a word, Jack went into another room and returned with a large painting of a bird soaring in the heavens. It was the first realistic painting he had shown me. He said he was inspired to paint it after reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The book was sitting nearby on a lamp table and he reached over and handed it to me. I knew the story well, but opened it at random and read the first words my gaze met: “Fletcher Lynd Seagull, do you want to fly?” I looked at Jack. “Do you want to fly?’ I asked quietly.

“Of course,” he also snapped at me.

“But do you believe you can fly?”

There was a moment of silence before Jack spoke, his voice tinged with resignation. “I have too many limitations – my mental illness for one. You don’t know what it’s like to suddenly go the way I did and end up in hospital. How can I possibly learn to fly when I have such a crippled wing?”

“From what I have learned about you so far it seems to me that a crippled wing is not your problem. You are carrying around so much dead weight in negative emotional garbage that you can’t even think about trying for a take-off because you’re too heavy to leave the ground.”

“Well then, at least I can’t fall…or crash,” he said.

“But it seems to me that you’re lost on the ground, going around and around in circles and getting nowhere. When you do that you can fall over your tired feet and crash face first onto hard ground.”

A startled look appeared in Jack’s eyes. A shadow of fear crept over his face. “You’re right, I did crash. Alcoholism, drugs…now this illness. I feel terrible…terrible. I need pills to make me sleep, pills to stop the depressive attacks… Sometimes I despair of ever making it.”

“Perhaps self-pity makes you cling to the label of ‘manic depressive’ so you don’t have to take responsibility to change your life for the better.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve tried. I’ve been to ten psychiatrists over the years and none of them were able to help me much except to prescribe stronger drugs to calm me down.”

“Drugs are only a band-aid for the temporary relief of symptoms; they do nothing to heal the underlying causes of problems. You know that. Perhaps the day you walked through the gallery door to investigate the new woman sitting at the desk, your inner voice was guiding you there to hear words that might just help you learn to fly.”

“I don’t really know what I was looking for. I liked your face… I thought perhaps that we could talk…and we did. You’ve given me a lot to think about. So much that I can’t sleep at night. Some of it I just don’t understand; some of it I can’t agree with. Stuff comes out of your mouth like you’re a walking textbook. I guess I just want some respite from all the pain…some light discussion on art for awhile.”

Jack fidgeted distractedly with his glass of Coke, turning it around and around in his hands until the ice clinked against the sides. He put it down and fumbled in his pocket for cigarettes, lit one, and sucked on it deeply, a vexed expression puckering the skin between his brows. After a few moments of silence he said, “I have another painting to show you, but it is too big to bring in here; it’s in my bedroom.

My instinct told me I was safe, so I followed him into the bedroom where he motioned for me to sit on the bed to view a painting that almost stretched across an entire wall. He left me alone for a long time it seems, staring at the heavy, red impasto drips that covered the canvas. A background of dark colours made the drips stand out in such a way they began to encircle me like bars in a prison until I felt enmeshed within a tightly woven net of pain, the ends invisibly woven into it to prevent it unravelling. My body shuddered involuntarily. I shut my eyes. Tears leaked out and ran down my cheeks. I hurriedly wiped them away.


Yesterday I asked Jack what happened just before his last internment in mental hospital. He said police found him screaming at traffic on a busy interstate and took him off to the crisis unit. He was pumped full of drugs and put in a straight jacket, and then into solitary confinement to calm him down. He had just finished a sculpture when rage came out of nowhere, he said. Now he wants to show me the sculpture because I might understand it. I asked what happened before he did the sculpture and he said that his mother told him not to go to his friend’s mother’s funeral, and he was furious at her. He said he didn’t know what her reasons were, only that he wanted to be at the funeral to support his friend. This made me retort, “But you’re forty-seven. It’s none of your mother’s business what you do.” He told me his mother is afraid he will become ill again and frequently calls to make sure he takes his lithium.


Today Jack showed me the sculpture. It is a two-foot square container that represents a bath, painted red inside. Loosely woven across the top were a few ribbons of different pastel colours. On the bottom of the bath a broken cup cradles a doll’s head. The broken handle lies near it with a ribbon dipping down from the top threaded through it. When I asked Jack to tell me the story behind it, he said his mother was washing him in the bath while engaging in an angry tirade about his father’s infidelities. She shouted at him that his father was a womanizer. He did not understand what that meant. He was only five. He said he was frightened because she was so angry, and because it seemed like she was angry at him, only he didn’t know what he had done wrong. She had scissors in her hand. Then the bath water turned red. He couldn’t remember how it happened, he said.

I told Jack that doing the sculpture probably connected him to his anger over his mother apparently traumatising him in the bath. I also told him that it made perfect sense to me that the person screaming at cars on the edge of the highway was really the five-year-old Jack within him letting out all the anger, rage and bitterness his mother had filled him with to overflowing.

Jack closed his eyes, presumably to shut out this unexpected insight. When he opened them again, searing pain had replaced the dull look in his large brown eyes. “No one has ever been able to illuminate my problems. And now…”

I learned then that no one had ever asked questions that might expose an underlying cause for his out-of-control rages. I was shocked, for it was quite apparent to me that his mother had emotionally castrated him. As for the scissors, I had my suspicions about what she tried to do with them. The doll’s head in the cup was the clue that Jack lived in his head, cut off from his feelings of rage because, as a child, his mother forbade him to express the anger he felt over being a receptacle for her toxic hatred of his father. He said that his feelings leaked out occasionally only when he painted. Finally it is now clear what he meant when he said that to understand the “castration thing” with his mother would make his aesthetic activity no longer necessary.


Over the past couple of weeks Jack has been coming to the gallery every other day to talk. Sometimes he is still there at closing time and wants to walk me home to continue our discussion. Occasionally he stops to pluck a red hibiscus flower from the hedge that borders my apartment and places it behind my ear. “A token flower of my affection,” he sometimes says, to which I reply, “I offer you nothing more than friendship.” He looks hurt when I say this. But still fresh in my mind is his unexpected presence at my doorstep at six-thirty the morning after I put a new ribbon in his typewriter. I checked to make sure it worked by typing “Installing…” To my surprise he asked me to stop. After walking me home he stayed up all night to write a poem. He couldn’t wait to give it to me, he said, handing me an envelope simply addressed, “Lady.” I opened it and began reading: “Installing – So new and already – Installed in my mind and heart. You.”

When we arrive at my apartment Jack still wants to talk, so I invite him inside and begin to prepare dinner. Invariably I cook a meal for two. However tonight I was shocked to discover that my refrigerator was almost empty. Salmon from a can and some salad was all I had to offer. But something about the near-empty refrigerator worried me to the point that I had to write down what happened over dinner as soon as Jack left.

He was so hungry he forgot to say grace. I too had begun eating before I realized, and reminded him. Jack rested his fork on the edge of the plate and bowed his head in silence for a moment before rapidly mumbling something. I only caught the words, “Thank you God for this friend…” Giving me a wistful look, Jack resumed eating, shovelling food into his mouth as if he hadn’t eaten for days. “Sorry for the clicking of my dentures. I haven’t bought any glue for them yet.” He looked up briefly, apologetically, as if he was ashamed of the state he was in. He had mentioned some time ago that years of alcoholism drinking rum and Coke had rotted his teeth.

The clicking noise continued, punctuated by deep sucking breaths between mouthfuls. Occasionally a piece of lettuce dropped from his mouth as he gulped down the food. The lithium had formed yellow crusts in the corners of his mouth. I began to feel tense. His hunger for food, his hunger for physical closeness and love, his greed and neediness had become voracious, consuming and overwhelming. It threatened to swallow me whole. Fidgeting uneasily with my food, it fell off my fork before I could get it into my mouth. I looked at it blankly before sliding my fork underneath it again, then concentrated to eat with more refinement.

Sensing that I can’t fill Jack up no matter what I do or say has given me a frustrating sense of failure. The image of the almost bare refrigerator kept flashing into my mind as if trying to deliver a message I needed to recognise and act upon. Finally I looked at Jack in desperation, my fork poised in mid air. “I can’t do it! I simply can’t do it!” I said.

“Do what?” Jack said, fighting to swallow his mouthful as he spoke, and looking at me with startled surprise.

“I can’t fill you up. You’re a bottomless pit of needs, needs and more needs. The fact is no one can ever fill your needs; you have to do it yourself.”

Jack stopped eating and stared at me, his face suddenly looking old and terribly tired. With raised eyebrows his dull eyes slowly formed a quizzical expression. “And how do I do that, oh mystic muse?”

I ignored the sardonic tone in his voice. “You learn to love yourself. Your soul is crying out for love, Jack, only you don’t think that you’re worth loving because you hate what you’ve become. Your self-hate and all your fears have stopped you from learning to love the beautiful man within you, and you’ve created your own hell by shutting out God’s love as well.

“Take a journey inside to find out who you really are underneath all the lies your parents taught you to believe. Perhaps it might even surprise you to find that there really is a beautiful person in there; a person you can love. Love is always there if you can do that. The trouble with you is that despite going to Mass every Sunday you don’t really know if God exists. You can’t feel God’s love inside you. That’s the real reason you feel so empty all the time.”

Jack put down his fork and wrung his hands together under the table, rocking slightly backwards and forwards while staring blankly at the remains of his dinner. A tear trickled from the corner of one eye and he hurriedly wiped it away.


I rang Jack’s father tonight as I have not heard from Jack in over a week. He said he was in the crisis centre at the South County hospital because he hadn’t taken his medication and was in a terrible depression. I learned that his mother had been so alarmed about it that she had rung an ambulance to take him away. I said that Jack was depressed because he wanted me to marry him and I had said “no.” I even had the temerity to say that he needed psychotherapy, not more drugs. His father rebuffed me by insisting that Jack was mentally ill and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It felt like I had collided with a brick wall of denial and ignorance. To my surprise, Jack himself rang me after ten, asking for my help. He felt he didn’t need to be in hospital.


Today I rang Jack’s social worker and got nowhere. He told me they treat patients according to their behaviour – not the underlying causes of it.


Tonight I was in the mental hospital. The door clanged shut behind me and keys jangled as the lock clicked into place. Men and women appeared to float before me, disembodied, pale, expressionless… I was in the land of the living dead! Jack looked relieved to see me as if I had come to rescue him from hell. He led me past the glassed-in bedrooms adjoining the main room to sit in a corner away from the others. His face looked grim and agitated. His parents were seeking legal guardianship of him. They wanted to put him in a home to ensure he took his medication. I assumed it would relieve them of the worry about him ‘falling into’ another depression. I told him he didn’t need medication because his depression was reactive and had an underlying cause, therefore it didn’t come out of nowhere to suddenly strike him down.

“Perhaps you’re right,” he said, “but there’s nothing I can do about it now. My parents have united against me and are determined to put me in a home. I have nothing left to fight them with.”

I knew then that Jack’s situation was beyond any help I could give. Looking into lifeless eyes resigned to accept his fate, I saw a reflection of what I could have become if I had given in to depression instead of fighting to retrieve my life. Numbness froze all my feelings after I heard myself say, “I could have been you if I hadn’t made the choice to live my life my way.”

A look of deep agony spread across Jack’s face and I wished I could retrieve the words I had just spoken. Tears began to trickle slowly down his cheeks. He let them drip dark spots onto his blue shirt.

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