If you have seen the acclaimed documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, than you know she was somewhat of an enigma. For those who have not seen it, it’s the story of a mysterious nanny who spent much of her life taking pictures, but never showed them to anyone. Only when a young historian and collector, John Maloof, acquired the majority of her life work, including some 125,000 negatives, more than 30,000 prints, and all sorts of video and tape recordings, has she made her way into the public light.
The movie follows John’s obsession to uncover who Vivian was, and why she led such a reclusive life when her photographic talents likely would have made her famous.
She died alone in a nursing home in 2009, just days before John began searching her out on the internet and found her obituary. It’s hard not to believe fate played a role in bringing the two together.
While her images are amazing and deserving of attention, I believe Vivian would have wanted the more thorny and painful story of her life known as well. Delivered in bits and pieces in the movie, here is my attempt to address her behaviors in a more cohesive light.
Origins of Pain
Evidence points to Vivian being sexually molested as a young girl, likely by her father or another close family member. The abuse probably motivated her mother, who was French, to take her to live in France on multiple occasions growing up. The genealogist interviewed in the film said the family was unusually disconnected, further indicative of families coping with abuse and shame.
Learning to Survive
Vivian was a resilient survivor in part because she constructed an internal world where no one was allowed to get close to her and hurt her again. Much has been said about her boyish dress, short hair, and manly gait, but all of these gestures put space between her and other men, furthering her defenses in the world.
Her employers were all required to furnish her a separate locked room while she worked as a nanny, and no one was ever allowed inside. Often she went by different versions of her real name, and at other times, blatantly used fake names concealing her true identity. She even went so far as to talk with a French accent even though she was American. While these behaviors in the movie cast Vivian as an eccentric, collectively they point to a woman with a fragmented psyche who was doing her best to stay safe and survive.
Being a Nanny
Many question why she chose the profession of nanny, but given her trauma history, working with children made all the sense in the world. Trauma impedes emotional developmental beyond the age at which the trauma occurs.
As a result, Vivian’s emotional developmental age was likely similar to the children she cared for, again, allowing her to feel safe with them. As an adult, there is evidence that she longed for intimate connections, but developmentally she did not have the capacities to make it happen. So she spent most of her life alone or with children.
For Vivian, stuff became surrogate relationships for people. She collected stacks and stacks of newspapers, most containing horrific headlines of rape, murder, and “the folly of humanity.” They represented an important space in her internal world, and part of her psychological attempt to make sense of her early trauma. When one of her employers gave a stack of papers to a neighbor who needed to tape off an area for painting, Vivian went ballistic, which is understandable when you realize what they represented to her.
Although she also hoarded many trinkets and collectibles, her relationship with her photographic images were the most important. They represented a window into her soul, one that she vehemently protected. While a part of her knew she was a masterful artist and wanted to share her work, another more powerful part feared what might happen if she did so, and compulsively had her lock her images away for no one to see.
All photographs copyrighted by Vivian Maier / Maloof Collection
Her photographs represent mirrors of herself, so it’s no surprise that many are of the darker side of life. Many show faces of emotional pain, sorrow, and loneliness, expressions that had meaning in her life. Because trauma is so painful, many survivors turn to addiction as a way to help manage unresolved emotional distress.
While some may reject the idea that photography became Vivian’s addiction, I believe it makes perfect sense. Picture taking became her way of escaping emotional pain, and while initially a positive habit, became something she compulsively did.
Those in the film commented that she was never seen without her Rolleiflex around her neck, and that often crafting images usurped her duties as a nanny. She often would take children to seedy places to shoot, likely compulsively because these parts of town unconsciously activated her trauma in ways that made her feel alive.
I can imagine when she was behind the camera, she felt a sense of power and control.
The Dark Side
When those interviewed in the film began discussing Vivian’s dark side – her rages, rants, and cruel outbursts – I initially felt anxious. Perhaps it was my anticipation about what I was about to hear. It’s also cinematically what makes the film gripping. But it wasn’t long before my anxiety was replaced by sadness. Her dark side was really a collection of behaviors commonly seen in victims of trauma. When her tightly wound stress-response system was pushed to the edge, her reaction was one of fight, flight or freeze. Such responses make complete sense in the context of her life. But for those around her with little understanding of the nature of trauma, Vivian was a loose canon whose mental health was in decline.
When someone in the film talks about Vivian pushing food down a child’s throat so forcefully the kid chokes, she is made out to be a perpetrator. But we must remember that Vivian had the developmental age of a child, so her behavior was likely motivated by her fear to keep the child alive. In another situation when a man makes a move in public that threatens her, she hauls off and smacks him so hard he gets a concussion and ends up in the hospital. In both cases, her reaction is the fight response to trauma, not the behavior of some evil witch.
Vivian was many things, but a mystery – not so much. Her life was typical of those who experience trauma and shame and never receive treatment. She desperately wanted to connect with others, but this is not so easy when you are a scared child trapped in the body of an adult. Sadly, her photos are perhaps the closest she allowed others to reach her soul.
I would have liked to have known her, as I believe there would have been opportunities to help her make sense of her life. She was bright, articulate, opinionated, and on many levels very engaged in life and her surroundings. She was a fighter, but in the end died alone with a broken heart.
While I know Vivian would be proud of John for sharing her images with the world, I also believe she would have wanted her life to speak to the journey of being a trauma survivor. She would want us all to understand how her life and her images represent the struggle we all endure to be seen, heard, protected, and loved.
To me, Vivian Maier’s story shines light on the idea that one should not judge someone too quickly and should try to understand people regardless of their actions or how they appear. Knowing her story has made me believe that she handled what happened to her with more grace than I ever could. Her use of talents such as photography almost seems like a form of sublimation and a means protection or to decrease fear of closeness with other people (or as the author puts it, “I can imagine when she was behind the camera, she felt a sense of power and control.”). Her hoarding of trinkets and collectibles seems like displacement of her desire for closeness onto objects of less threat.
John Fitzgerald says
Well said! Often we are too quick to judge others. Vivian’s ability to channel her unresolved trauma into profound creative energy is inspiring. Thanks for the feedback!
Lisa Childs says
Really thoughtful analysis! You should also see the great BBC film about Vivian Maier. I found it really insightful. http://www.vivianmaiermysterymovie.com
John Fitzgerald says
Thanks, will check it out!
You’ve got to be kidding me?
A retrospective, second hand diagnosis of an individual who was obviously extremely clandestine? A diagnosis based on aspects of a life chosen by filmmakers who never knew their subject. Pardon me, but where does one draw the line between wild speculation and reason?
John Fitzgerald says
Nope, no kidding here. The point of the post was to take disconnected pieces of Vivian’s clandestine life, and provide some framework for understanding in a more humanistic light. My conclusions fall somewhere between wild speculation and reason, but where to draw the line, I think it’s different for everyone. Clearly for you the line is closer to conjecture, for others – myself included – the line is closer to understanding Vivian within the framework of what we know about trauma. And while I tried to make sense of her life, never did I give her a formal diagnosis (the word does not appear in the post). I also don’t agree with you that the filmmakers knew nothing about her, if that were the case, there wouldn’t have been a movie.
In response to Tom’s post, I think I would have thought the same only a year ago. Now, after taking several classes and coming across several incidents like this, I can see that this problem is perfectly real and happens all around us. I think making a movie like this can be beneficial in raising awareness of the problem and also in helping the people get help if they are struggling. Also, this movie isn’t only make with the film-makers diagnosis, but also from the pieces coming from the witnesses (such as the kids she was a nanny for).
Amazing story! I think that her collection of photographs might be a way for her to live her life through the pictures she takes. The fact that Vivian was able to take this traumatic experience and overcome all the obstacles and turn it into a positive proactive experience is just strengthening and unbelievable.
John Fitzgerald says
I am not so sure she overcome all obstacles. She died lonely and alone, and never was able to really tell her story in a way that allowed her to heal while she was alive. But the fact that she took a lot of pain and did something constructive with it is quite inspiring.
John Fitzgerald says
Karina, well said! Thank you.
Jennifer E. says
Vivian’s story is complex, and definitely sheds some light on personality disorders. I am curious, it seems that autobiographical traumatic memory systems are not stored as memory, instead somehow the individual re-lives the trauma as it were happening in the present. In terms of psychobiology, how does one explain this?
John Fitzgerald says
The essence of trauma is fragmentation or disintegration, which leads to trauma getting coded in both the body and psyche. It’s the disconnect between the way trauma gets coded in these systems that contributes to many of the symptoms we see in those who suffer later in life. At the same time, the human tendency is towards integration. When a healthy framework to reconnect the parts is not available, we often see people reenact trauma in all sorts of ways in attempts to reintegrate. But sadly, such efforts only deepen the traumatic wounds. For a more complete understanding of how all this works I encourage you to read Peter Levine’s latest book, In an Unspoken Voice, and Bessel van der Kolk’s upcoming book, The Body Keeps the Score.
leave her alone . all is speculation.just watched the documentaries. like the best song that was ever sung it was was never heard. solo journey is life and she lived as she saw fit. dont take away that power , its hers.!
John Fitzgerald says
Her solo journey became public when her photos were discovered and the films were made, and you watched them. My post is not meant to disrespect her private life, but to add context that hopefully helps some understand that she was not a crazy person, but instead driven by forces that can be understood as natural to anyone who endures her fate (whatever her early life events may have been). While I can appreciate your zen comment, I do believe she wanted her images seen, its the nature of being a photographer.
coping and ritual go hand in hand . a life that has been measured is reassuring ,it is not the life we are left with but the output of the journey .i understand your motivation for context. attaching speculative conditions to the journey damages and changes the measurements. let it be and the work can speak clearly.it is a gift to have access to such great work and it should be respected as it is . . . giving and taking are two different things. thankyou for you thoughts they made me think and clarified my own desire for speculation. thank you V M for being you , not many people have that courage.
John Fitzgerald says
Well said, appreciate the thoughtful discourse, gets me thinking as well…
But you did Mr. Fitzergerald,
It is all seculations on your part. You did not conduct an in person interview with her. Like all professional doctors, they conduct interviews with the person involved. You are only making speculations which to me are offensive.
Lisa Adams says
Before reading this article I had never heard of Vivian Maier however, after hearing her story I could sense her disconnect from the world around her. She, like many other victims of sexual abuse, went through life still as a hurt child. She never grew up and she never received the help she needed to cope with her abuse. I personally feel that Vivian used photography as a way to engage with the world without worrying about being hurt. She could see the emotion, and the life within the photos but they were still, the could not hurt her. It was if it was a way for her to silent the world around her, to freeze a thought, a feeling or a place. I felt the way she went about this was in a way very beautiful, some how wise. It made sense to me, that Vivian, worked with children, as she was still one herself. The flight of flight response was really the only way she knew how to handle situations. By knowing her background it is easier to see that she was not trying to hurt the children she cared for or anyone else for that matter. Just because someone looks happy, healthy, mentally stable, does not mean that they are. We should never judge a book by it’s cover and we should never assume we know peoples intentions.
John Fitzgerald says
Why is it offensive, just curious?
A good question.
And by the way, John, after seeing the movie, finding and reading your “diagnosis” was a satisfying experience for me.
I see myselves in Vivian
Halfway the documentary, and far before the words sexual abuse came out, it was for me already crystal clear that this looks like a classical case of schizophrenic personality disorder (SPD) caused by childhood trauma, most likely of sexual nature. Estimations are that up to 1% of the western world population may suffer of this mental illness. Taking into account that in Europe 15% of woman and 7% of men are confronted with any form of sexual violence, of which half of them before the age of 15 years old. The 1% of people with remaining mental damage seems a remarkeable low score. SPD is most confusion for the surroundings. The subject itself may function professionally and socially more or less well enough to be accepted as ‘odd’ or a ‘loner’, as one tends to have great difficulties in forming relationships with other people. It is therefore very difficult to diagnose without proper knowledge. Offering remediation or supportive help to affected persons is difficult, as building up trust as a partner is virtually impossible. Leaving people in their own world is probably a good solution, as letting go of someone is an expression of showing love and respect.
And for Tobe and many others reading this, just enjoy life!