Marc H Miller & Bettie Ringma
Vietnam War, First Sexual Experience, Suicide Attempt
Felipe Gonzalez, a Vietnam veteran with an interest in art, sparked the first project that Bettie Ringma and I undertook upon returning from Holland. A few months earlier the Nieuwe Revu had published an article featuring the drawings of genitalia that I had collected and exhibited in the early 1970s along with Bettie's analyses of the drawings based on her training in art therapy. This inspired us to seek other ways to bring "projective drawings" into the context of popular journalism. Felipe’s drawings of his experiences in Vietnam marked the start of "Unforgettable Moments," a collection of drawings of psychologically-charged, real-life events drawn by the people who had experienced them. War drawings and first-person accounts by Felipe and other veterans were featured in a 1981 Nieuwe Revu article designed to strip bare the horrors of war.
In 1982, at the newly opened art space ABC No Rio, Bettie Ringma and I exhibited "Unforgettable Moments Drawn by Real Life People," the war drawings we collected from Vietnam veterans along with drawings of personal recollections of other traumatic experiences like rapes, muggings, drug addiction and the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas. At a time when expressionism, political art and outsider art were all popular new currents in the art world, the exhibit attracted much attention. The socially-committed art critic Lucy Lippard found the show "hideously moving" but questioned whether it promoted "justice for the oppressed" or merely reflected "esthetic tourism or simple sensationalism." In a way, Lippard was echoing Bettie's own feelings about the moral ambiguity of the project and her growing concern that I was too interested in "effect only without consideration of the nature or content of the effect." "Unforgettable Moments" would be the last of our collaborative projects together.
It was October, 1968. My commanding officer said, "Yell and if the Viet Cong don't come out... shoot." Nobody answered so I pulled the curtain from the door. I had my M16 automatic gun cocked and pulled. In one motion I sprayed the hull. I it the whole family. There was the old gray grandmother. she got hit first. then there was her daughter. She got impaled on the inside of the hut. and there was a teenage boy. He got hit the worst. He was in the middle. Next was the papa. He got hit twice in the face. And there was a little boy. He was four years old. That one hurt me the most because I really love kids. It really upset me. I vomited. I dropped my M16 and I just stood there shaking. The medic had to give a tranquilizer. They said, "Don't worry... you'll get used to it... one less gook to worry about." I get nightmares about this. I see the bodies lying there and I see the blood.
I lived in this place with my Vietnamese girlfriend. I lived with her a little over a year. It had a tile floor... to the right is the entrance door... this is the kitchen. When I would come in this is the way she would greet me. She would treat me like a man. She acted like a woman. She'd make supper and when the meal was done she would do the dishes. She made a real home. We had a baby but it only lived three weeks. Died in the crib. That really hurt. I tried to take my girlfriend back to the States but all the government did was give me a big runaround. Her parents would have to sign and they were against it from the beginning. It died right there. I loved that girl. I really did. I wish it would have worked out. Today I think a lot about my dead kid. That really hurt.
I wound up in Bellevue after a phony suicide attempt. All I can remember is that it was Thanksgiving and I took the valium and I drank. My wife had left me and I was depressed. I figured that a phony suicide attempt was a theatrical way of maybe getting her back. But it didn’t work. I stayed in Bellevue for a week. They made me stay because it was the law. It was miserable there. Really boring. All I would do is sit in the community room smoking cigarettes and watching a television that didn’t work. I smoked four cartons of cigarettes in a week and all the time a black guard kept watching me.
This is my escape from Albania. It was an illegal border crossing in the trunk of an Italian car. For weeks Peter and I had been getting ripped off by people in Belgrade who said they could get us across to the west but just took our money. Finally I met this guy who agreed to take us across for 100 dollars. Peter went first and then the guy came back for me. At first I was in the front. It was scary because I couldn’t communicate with the guy and I didn’t trust him. When he pulled off on a dirt road I thought I was going to get it. But he just wanted me to climb in the trunk. It was dark in the trunk and you couldn’t tell when you were crossing the border. Now I love Peter very much but there is one thing I’ll never forgive him for. He didn’t knock before he opened that trunk. All of a sudden the trunk opened and I thought the border guards had caught me. I was so scared. But it was Peter and I was in Italy.
My mother and father had separated and I was living with my grandmother. But she was too old to take care of me and the only alternative was to put me in St. Agatha’s home. I was eleven when one summer night four of us guys snuck out of the cottages. We were just roaming around but there was a moon in the sky and it was very pretty and soon we started sexually acting out in the field. The other two guys didn’t want to undress because they were too scared. But this Spanish boy and me were running in our socks and underwear. It was my first experience. It felt so natural but all of a sudden this nun called out our names. She had realizes we were not in the cottages and had come looking for us. So I was confronted by this nun and by this counselor. They kept telling me how disgusting it was and I kept thinking to myself, “What’s wrong with liking other guys?” They told us god doesn’t approve of those things and the Superior started laying a religious guilt trip on us. I couldn’t understand why they were making such a stink about it. They blew it way out of proportion. It was a very painful experience.
I was five years old. I was with my sister and my girlfriends playing in the meadows. I was picking my daily bunch of flowers and had drifted away from the group. Then all of a sudden there were these guys. They may have been 11 or 14. They lured me into this hay barn. I was curious and trusting. I don't remember much specifically about the rape. I have repressed it for a long time. But I do remember it was very terrifying. I just lay there helpless, my panties were pulled down and they were all around me. There was no way out. I was trapped. The strongest I remember is the moment when the farmer, who must have seen us go into the hay barn from his faraway farm house, knocked with his wooden shoes on the wooden wall of the barn. He jumped up and stared over the wall to check us out. He yelled. The loud sounds shocked me as though I woke up from a coma. That was sort of my recovery. The worst was afterwards when I was in the farm with the farmers, and my parents, sisters and friends were there too and everybody was staring at me, as though I had done something wrong. And all the questioning, like in a trial. It all did not solve anything, but it sure taught me something!
One incident that has always stuck in my head was when I robbed this family who had a store. They weren't particularly well off. They were just trying to make a living. I got very little money... maybe $300. They were very scared. I was basically a courteous robber. I would say thank you and ask for their forgiveness. I had a gun but I don't think I would have used it. I like to think I was stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. That's why I have angel wings on my back. But I felt guilty about this robbery.
This is when I lost my love for him. I came back home from going out with my girlfriends. He disapproved of me having my own friends and if they came over he would make them feel bad. So, I began seeing them at their place instead. I was taking away the power he asserted over me. And this made him uncontrollably angry. So I came back home, he first began insulting me, then he broke a chair, and whatever I said made him angrier, and he began beating me with what seemed a never ending thunder of beats on the shoulders and chest. I had always trusted him. I did not dare fight back because I knew he could kill me, and I was afraid he would. I let his fists go over me. Just waiting till he was through. And then when he stopped I said, “This was the first time you beat me. I am telling you, this is also the last time.” Even though he regretted it he had damaged my love for him forever. And soon after I loved out. I had never loved and trusted anyone like him.
We were on the nineteenth floor. We woke up thinking there was smoke and we saw black smoke coming through the doorway. We opened up the door and we realized the hallways were filled with smoke and we could not get out. After awhile the whole room was totally filled with black smoke... you couldn't see the bed anymore. You couldn't breathe. We went into the bathroom and started to fill the tub up with water. Then we took towels and put them into the bathtub and then we wrapped them all around the door but the smoke still kept coming through. Finally Bill picked up a table and threw it at the window. If you couldn't break the window you weren't going to make it.
There were helicopters flying all around. I saw that all of these people were standing on the roof. All the fire engines had ladders going up and the firemen were running back and forth. There was a man standing there with a megaphone who kept saying "stay calm... stay away from he windows... don't jump." But I saw a couple holding hands who jumped from the 26th floor. Some people thought they might make it by tying one sheet to another sheet. Some tried to jump from one terrace to another terrace. Everybody was screaming.