The Orphan’s Strength

For a period of just under five years my estranged husband Benjamin Ishmael Vesper was committed to a psychiatric hospital in the state of Connecticut.  It is my hope that in contributing this brief history of his family, I might be able to give voice to the ghosts he alone was able to see and hear.

Diagnosed with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder during his junior year in college, my husband later attributed the onset of his psychosis to several stressors, including the consecutive deaths of his father and grandfather (both of whom had grown closer to him as their health declined) as well as his discovery of the family’s history of mental illness.  Though these events occurred years ago, it was only within the past decade that their impact on him became increasingly – and alarmingly – apparent.  Fortunately, the hospital served as a safe space in which he could explore his connection to his ancestors and to the traumatic experiences he felt he had in common with them.

The primary individual to whom my husband seemed to feel the greatest connection was a woman he called “Aunty Maria,” along with a patriarchal figure he referred to only as “Abram.”  While his fascination with their lives may have contributed to the delusions he developed about himself and his significance (or lack thereof), this obsession also sparked in him the kind of ambition and exuberance he had not been able to muster and sustain since his college days.

From the confines of a psychiatric ward, my husband reached out to a local artist whom he commissioned to transform the written and oral history of the Vesper family into a series of mixed-media artworks.  As his conservator, I was legally obligated to protect my ward--my husband – from exploitation.  But I saw something else here, an opportunity for my husband to be heard – for once – on his terms. 

With only a little hesitation, I dutifully acted on his frequent requests to Fed-Ex numerous individual pages of yellowed letters and journal entries, as well as entire boxes of his predecessors' belongings. The epic proportion of the resulting creations reflects not only the skill of the artist but also the whole-hearted fixation my husband had on the boxes of documents passed down to him as (to my knowledge) the last living Vesper—documents detailing the Vesper family’s rise to fortune and their tragic decline.

I have always felt a certain kinship to the Vespers who came before him, simply because he spent so much time talking about them, confiding the details to me as though they he was both ashamed and proud of these hundred-year-old secrets.

George Orwell said that “the whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid.”  In the last act of the drama that was my husband's life, he struggled alone to make sense of historic evils that (he believed) had spawned the darkness in his heart and mind, the same darkness that had shadowed his 19th century ancestors.

And in the end, my husband’s story is that of a man who, since childhood, had felt orphaned not only by his family but also by his faith.  Whether it was the contribution his fractured family made to his troubled childhood, or the pain of being mentally ill in a sick world, my husband lost faith in himself, faith in any Higher Power to which his parents subscribed. 

As his former wife, now his widow, but still his best friend, and as a woman of mixed African and European origin, it is my honor to make this small contribution to the works displayed here — art that tells Benjamin Ishmael Vesper’s story (and thus his ancestors’ stories) on as grand a scale as the history that existed in his own mind. I am grateful to the artist, Titus Kaphar, for inviting my participation.