Two months before she turned 39, Patsy Desmond got her first tattoo–the name of her cat, Cecil, in small capital letters just above her navel. She’d taken in Cecil, a stray, in 1988, when he was a kitten. To commemorate the event, Patsy decided to throw Cecil a Sweet 16 party at Gallery Augusta, the Humboldt Park space she’d opened a few months before. At her request, artists she knew and admired paid homage to Cecil in paint, steel, comics, photography, and even found fabrics. A guitarist and trumpeter played “What’s New Pussycat?”
The turnout was impressive. The crowd included people who’d had to travel to get there: siblings had come from Florida and Germany, and one of Patsy’s old high school friends had driven in from Indiana. Guests helped themselves to Kit Kats and birthday cake, though only a few wore the party hats Patsy had placed on the table next to the food.
Cecil himself had opted out after a brief appearance, preferring the sanctuary of Patsy’s apartment upstairs. But Patsy worked the room, draped in an orange sari that couldn’t quite mask the angles of her 85-pound frame. She carried a small black backpack containing a bag of nutritional liquid and a battery-powered pump. The pump sent the liquid directly into Patsy’s small intestine through a thin hose that entered her abdomen to the right of her tattoo. Every now and then she’d spit discreetly into a plastic cup.
Five years earlier Patsy had tried to kill herself by drinking drain cleaner. Instead she’d merely destroyed her stomach and esophagus. Doctors had attempted to construct a new conduit from her pharynx to her small intestine, hoping to restore her ability to eat, drink, and swallow, but they failed, leaving her with only a deep scar that runs the length of her torso.
“Patsy’s the one with the nine lives,” her sister Mary remarked.
Later in the evening, a man Patsy hardly knew approached her, concerned. Patsy turned away from him, visibly annoyed, and lit a cigarette. “He thinks because you tried to kill yourself, life must be terrible,” she said. “He’s like, ‘Are you having any fun?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, this is a show about a cat!'”
Patsy moved to Chicago in the summer of 1986 and enrolled at the School of the Art Institute the following spring. Like many art students at the time, she found her way to Wicker Park, where she got an apartment on Division Street. The neighborhood was gang-ridden and you could hear gunfire regularly. There were only a handful of places in the neighborhood for Art Institute kids to frequent, and the Rainbo Club, just south of Division on Damen, was one of them.
Patsy lived 256 steps from the Rainbo’s front door, and every time she pushed through it, which was four or five nights a week, she felt buoyed. She drank hard, laughed hard, made friends easily. “She had an energy that crackled with immediacy,” says Jim Dempsey, a friend from art school who now runs an art gallery in Wicker Park and manages the house at the Gene Siskel Film Center. “It was as if she was always about to burst–in a good way. You hung out with her and it was invigorating.”
The Rainbo crowd, and its staff, consisted mainly of artists and musicians. Doug McCombs, the bass player for Eleventh Dream Day, worked the door. He recognized Patsy from a Jesus Lizard show where she’d berated singer David Yow for what she considered his misogynist antics (grabbing his balls and spraying the crowd with beer) and she began keeping him company as he checked IDs. McCombs turned her on to new music. “He opened doors that led to other doors,” she says. “My appetite was voracious.” He also introduced her to his friends. “All the notable Chicago indie-rock people were close with Patsy in some regard,” says her friend Kathryn Frazier, a music publicist. To her art school friends, Patsy always seemed to be in the know: if you’d just discovered a great new band, you could be sure Patsy had already heard them.
Patsy was gregarious, hyperactive, game for anything, and at times obnoxious. She once kissed a stranger on the street because she thought he was a dead ringer for Isaac Hayes. She persuaded Ozzy Osbourne, Allen Ginsberg, and George Clinton to sign the back of her driver’s license as organ-donor witnesses, after meeting them at (respectively) a video shoot, a lecture, and a concert at Metro.
People didn’t always know what to make of her, but when she noticed them, they felt anointed. “She was a magical figure,” recalls Curt Conklin, now a well-connected art collector. “She would flutter into our circle, shower us with attention, and then flutter off to sit with a rock star.”
Patsy was pretty in a conventional way, with straight dirty-blond hair, blue eyes, and a petite, wiry build. She’d been on the homecoming court at her Indiana high school, but by the time she got to Chicago, there was nothing conventional about the way she put herself together. Of the four Desmond children, she was the nonconformist, the vegetarian, the one who grew dreadlocks and then buzzed them off, the one who got sent away from the table at Thanksgiving for refusing to remove her pillbox hat. Patsy’s oldest sister, Mary, affectionately referred to her as Bohemian Rhapsody Child, a nickname Patsy despised.
When she started showing up at the Rainbo, Patsy had cultivated a sexy tomboy look. She had a pixie cut, wore androgynous thrift store clothing, and biked everywhere, even in winter. It wasn’t long before she started dating one of the bartenders, future Tortoise drummer John Herndon, better known at the time as Johnny Machine. Her boundless enthusiasm appealed to him: “She was like, let’s climb a bridge, let’s go get drunk, let’s go to a rock show because this band is so great, you’ve got to see them, and man, have you heard this cassette tape, oh man, it’s the best thing ever–and, oh, let’s draw these little things.” Patsy got him to do things he never would have thought up himself–like painting the solar system on the side of a bathtub or, for Halloween, shaving a bald spot on his head and gluing snips of Patsy’s hair on top of it to create a fake comb-over.
Fabulous things just seemed to happen to Patsy, things that would make her friends shake their heads and wonder how on earth she’d gotten such a lucky break. But in reality, says her friend Janet Bean of Eleventh Dream Day and Freakwater, “it wasn’t a lucky break, it was something she’d put herself forward for.”
Patsy charmed prospective employers into hiring her on the spot. In six years she held at least seven jobs other scenesters would have killed for. She cooked at Bite, though she had no culinary training. She worked at H-Gun video, Facets, Thrill Jockey Records, the now defunct record distributor Cargo, the Empty Bottle, and Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.
Once you got to know Patsy, she could be less than charming. She sometimes expressed her opinions with a righteousness that forced her friends to play devil’s advocate. She could be mercilessly demeaning. Her mother had died when she was a toddler, and she says she used to believe everyone would eventually disappoint her. She had such high expectations that people often did: one friend took to calling her Patricia Perfecta.
In reality, her own life was a mess. She shoplifted and willfully neglected her bills. She always wanted to see what she could get away with, and sometimes her behavior caught up with her. “I could always get myself into a pickle,” she wrote in her journal recently, reflecting on those years. “Nothing huge but it’s the only way I knew how to live. Little things, like not being honest, fooling around with two guys at once, drinking too much, saying something inappropriate.”
“There wasn’t really one man for Patsy,” says John Herndon. He describes their relationship, which lasted a few years, as “super rocky,” but they were able to remain close after they broke up for good–partly because Patsy hit it off with Herndon’s new girlfriend, Kathryn Frazier, now his wife.
In early 1995, Patsy tagged along with Tortoise and the Sea and Cake on a European tour, selling T-shirts and CDs for the bands. Upon her return, she realized that she’d be turning 30 that year and she hadn’t let a week of her 20s pass without drinking or doing drugs. She decided to lay off both for a month, and at the end of the month she felt so good she decided to keep going. After nine months of sobriety, she threw herself a sake party for her birthday, ending the dry spell. Then to counteract the weight she thought she was gaining from drinking again, she began vomiting after meals, something she’d also done in college.
In the early 90s, Patsy never could have imagined the kind of trouble she was headed for. But she feared it nonetheless. When her father, John, was dying–he’d been paralyzed in a car accident and then diagnosed with cancer–she wrote in her journal, “I wonder sometimes if I don’t get my shit together . . . dump the baggage and get in gear–if my life will be as tragic as his. Will I end up like that?” She wrote that she sometimes felt as though she were caught in a “cycle of tragic heredity.”
The first tragedy in that cycle came a week before Patsy turned four, when her mother, Dorothy, died of cervical cancer. For the next couple years, John Desmond struggled to care for Patsy and her three siblings alone. When she was six, her father married a woman with three children of her own, and the population at Patsy’s house nearly doubled.
The Desmonds lived in Miller Beach, a middle-class enclave of Gary, Indiana, in a white stucco house with a red-tile roof. Patsy’s parents had bought it the year she was born, and John, an Irish immigrant who worked as a tool and die maker, made such artful improvements to it that it became an unofficial landmark. He landscaped it with tri-level terraces and built a small stone castle on the grounds, along with a stone wishing well, a fishpond, a basketball court, and a pet cemetery. “It was a totally magical place,” says Patsy.
It was less magical inside. John was an alcoholic. There was screaming and fighting, tension and chaos. John implemented strict rules for his children but didn’t bother explaining them. Just do it or else–that was the mantra. Patsy says the implications of or else inspired her to be crafty. She figured out how to do what she wanted to do and not get caught. She mastered the art of people pleasing: “She was very endearing,” says her sister Kathleen. “Everyone adored her.” She was the community’s most in-demand babysitter.
From her bedroom window Patsy could see Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. She’d sit on her bed and think about the vastness of the universe, how water had carried her father to the States, and how there must be something exciting beyond the borders of Miller Beach.
Patsy thought she’d like to be a photographer, an interest that was sparked by a black-and-white photo that her first love, a senior when she was a freshman, had submitted to their high school yearbook. She thought it was the coolest thing in the world: he was on the beach, shirt open, Jimi Hendrix faintly superimposed over him. When she graduated from high school, her sisters gave her a Pentax camera. “It was almost like we gave her a pot of gold,” says Kathleen.
After two years at Indiana University, Patsy transferred to the School of the Art Institute where, in addition to photography, she studied painting, drawing, printmaking, filmmaking, performance art, and ceramics. Yet, she says, she didn’t think of herself as an artist. She didn’t feel the part–didn’t everyone make art all the time?
Perhaps because she didn’t take herself seriously, Patsy was able to be playful with her art. She’d go somewhere like Circuit City, pop a blank tape into a video camera on display, then surreptitiously record an employee explaining its features to her. “She would sometimes change her persona,” Jim Dempsey recalls. “She would put a pillow in her shirt and pretend she was a pregnant suburban mom and then she’d come as some crazy lady, and we would watch these things and they were the most hilarious videos I’ve ever seen.” Something bizarre or surprising always happened in the background, he says. “During one shot I think they were bringing through a crew of disabled people in wheelchairs, and one of them had an electric wheelchair and you see the wheelchair fly by and then smash into a washer or dryer.”
Patsy’s friends at school and at the Rainbo admired her sensibility. They saw it in the way she dressed, in the way she put together her apartment, in the way she incorporated art into her everyday life. John Pearson, a friend from the Art Institute, remembers her pocketing found objects to use in her work: discarded packaging, the odd picture, shattered taillights from car accidents. For Herndon, being close to Patsy was “a real shot of confidence in my own thinking about how I wanted to live an artistic or creative life.”
But even after she began earning money from her art–shooting promotional photos for Drag City and Touch and Go and making cover art for records and CDs–Patsy had little confidence in her abilities.
“I think both of us shared that,” says Janet Bean, “that people were going to find out that you weren’t what you were, that you were just barely getting by.”
Patsy moved to New York in 1996 to live with an A and R man she’d only recently met. The relationship lasted just a few weeks.
She decided to stay. After calling about 30 artists she wanted to work for and asking if they needed help in their studios, she was hired as an assistant by photographer William Wegman. The job lasted a year, and then she went to work for a commercial photographer who shot movie posters and celebrity portraits. For the first time in her life, she was making good money.
A friend from art school, Aaron Skog, says that when he visited Patsy, she seemed unusually loquacious and had been fasting for three or four days, supposedly as part of a detoxifying diet. When Herndon and Frazier visited, she seemed to be the same old Patsy: full of energy, full of ideas. She designated one day “spa day” and then set about pampering them: scrubbing their faces, bodies, and feet and putting cucumbers on their eyes. They didn’t see her exuberance and spontaneity as signs that something might be awry.
But Patsy was unraveling. She was drinking a lot, snorting cocaine and heroin, neglecting sleep and hygiene, smoking in bed. She went on shopping sprees, buying things she had little use for, including a Cabriolet convertible. Her bulimia was getting worse.
Her boss, the celebrity photographer, eventually fired her, saying she was out of control and self-destructive. She never considered the possibility that he might be right.
One day in the summer of 1998, Patsy’s brother, John, who lived in Clearwater, Florida, got a call from one of Patsy’s friends urging him to come to New York.
When he arrived he found his sister sitting on the floor of her loft, papers scattered all around her, babbling about how people were waiting for her. John learned she hadn’t slept or eaten in days, and he managed to persuade her to come home with him the next morning.
In Florida, John took Patsy to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, otherwise known as manic-depression. Patsy might have recognized some of the symptoms–manic energy, spending sprees, difficulty focusing–but she was defensive and rejected every point her doctors made.
She went through the motions of going to therapy but it did her little good. She tuned out the information about her illness as if she were in a class she had no interest in. “Everything I was told about it went in one ear and out the other,” she says. “I didn’t know how to talk to a therapist and quickly and impatiently would decide they were just bad therapists.”
Patsy’s siblings agreed to support her while she got her life together, but only if she moved to Colorado Springs to live with Kathleen.
In Colorado she continued therapy, but with the same bad attitude. She thought the psychotropic drugs she’d been prescribed made her numb, fat, and dull. She augmented them with alcohol and smoked pot when she could get it. She began skipping doses of her medication, then eventually went off it altogether.
Patsy was bored in Colorado until she found a job that worked her at a familiar pace–as the personal assistant to a millionaire. At one point he flew her to California just to learn a recipe for veal piccata from his favorite chef. After that ended–she says they argued all the time–Patsy persuaded Kathleen that getting out of Colorado for a while would do her good. “She’s a bit of a con artist,” says Kathleen. “She went to New Orleans and just went wild.”
Patsy lived with a friend there and waited tables, but it lasted only a couple months. “I was into totally crazy stuff,” Patsy says. “Drinking and driving, wrecking the car, living in the ghetto.”
She took a vacation to Mexico, returned briefly to Chicago, then went to Providence to work as an art director on Slitch, a short film starring one of her old indie-rock pals, Will Oldham.
After a day or so on the job, she suffered a second breakdown. Her brother got a call much like the one he’d gotten the year before. When Oldham took Patsy to the airport, she reported him to the police, saying he was bothering her. On the airplane, she thought the flight was simulated.
Since the first breakdown, Patsy had believed she was the target of a government conspiracy. At various points, she thought her beloved cat Cecil was electronically recording information about her life. So were computers and telephones. A fly buzzing around her was really a microphone disguised as a fly. Her brother wasn’t her brother but a clone. John tried to point out the absurdity of her thinking: What could you possibly have to hide that the government would go to such great lengths to learn?
The next morning, Patsy went into the bathroom. She took a bottle of drain cleaner from a cabinet under the sink. She opened it and drank.
John heard her gagging and coughing. He wondered if she were still bulimic. Unsure if it’d be better to barge into the bathroom or talk with her about it later, he waited outside the door, worrying.
Patsy rolled slowly back and forth on the bathroom floor, trying to coat her insides. It wasn’t that she wanted to die, she says. She wanted to save her friends and family, and committing suicide seemed the only way to thwart the government’s plot to kill everyone she loved.
At some point–she can’t remember why–she cracked open the door and called out to her brother.
John found her on the floor, naked, holding the bottle. He told her they needed to get to the hospital.
“Hold on,” Patsy said. “I gotta tell you something. Listen to me. They’re going to kill both of us.”
“Why are they going to kill us?” he asked.
“Because we cheated on our taxes.”
In the emergency room, doctors determined that the drain cleaner, which contained lye, had burned through Patsy’s stomach and esophagus. The on-call surgeon, Tom Goodgame, had to remove the ravaged organs to save her life.
Patsy emerged from the surgery with a feeding tube in her jejunum (the middle part of the small intestine) and a bag attached to a hole in her neck to collect saliva. She was in intense pain and grappling with the psychological trauma of having her insides hollowed out. She also felt embarrassed and was now confused about the conspiracy, no longer certain she was supposed to die. Goodgame told Patsy that when she was strong enough, it might be possible to reconstruct her digestive system.
After the surgery, a psychiatrist was finally able to get through to Patsy. For the first time, she says, she recognized the symptoms of bipolar disorder as her own. But although she now understood her diagnosis, accepting it was a different proposition.
Patsy recovered in a nursing home paid for by Medicaid. She learned how to crush up her medications, mix them with water, and shoot them into the J-tube with a syringe. Friends sent her art supplies. One sent her a Polaroid camera and 20 boxes of film. “All these people were like, ‘Make something, Patsy,'” she says. “I was like, ‘You gotta be joking. Why do you think I can make anything?’ I never thought of myself as creative.”
A musician friend from her Rainbo days, Alan Jones, spent a month in Florida visiting. They’d hang out at the nursing home and talk or go to the beach or check out tourist places nearby. Jones thought Patsy should try to make herself as strong as possible for the reconstructive surgery. He encouraged her to do yoga with him, which she did, and to stop smoking, which she didn’t.
Herndon and Frazier made separate trips to see Patsy. “She went from this vibrant creator of art to this tiny girl with a hole in her neck living in a nursing home where everyone’s waiting to die,” says Frazier.
Patsy, though, made the best of it. She took her fellow residents on walks, played bingo with them, listened to a woman who talked incessantly, and participated in a nursing-home Olympics, making colorful signs for her team. She befriended a paraplegic and would sometimes feed him his meals, which had to be pureed. Patsy especially reached out to those who seemed to be alone in the world. Frazier was amazed. “I’m watching this girl whose life is falling apart, and all she did all day long is go around and cheer up and give love to these old people that had no one.”
In the summer of 2000, Goodgame removed a portion of Patsy’s colon in an attempt to create a makeshift esophagus. “It never worked well,” says the surgeon. “As a result of the injury to her stomach, she also had an injury to the blood supply to the central portion of her colon.” After a month or so, a stricture developed, making the makeshift esophagus useless.
Afterward, Goodgame became Patsy’s regular physician–a highly unusual arrangement. “Her problems were problems that nobody else had expertise in,” he says. But mostly, he says, he just liked Patsy. “She’s a very winsome person. You want to help her. She was as bright as a lightbulb when things were going well. She accepted little victories as true victories.”
After the failed operation, Patsy returned to the nursing home. She was high functioning compared to the elderly, and the staff eventually entrusted her to administer her own medicine. Patsy abused that trust. Bored and depressed, she hoarded Demerol and then took double and triple doses to get high.
In March 2001, Goodgame referred Patsy to colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital who had experience using a portion of the small intestine as a makeshift esophagus. In Boston, the doctors sliced her open from her pelvic bone to her neck and worked on her for 26 hours. It became clear toward the end of the surgery that their efforts, too, had failed. They had laid the new bypass, says Patsy, but then noticed that a portion of it had turned black. Patsy spent the next five days in a coma. “There was no guarantee she’d make it,” John says.
About three months after she came to, she moved back to Florida with John. She was hooked on pain pills–she wanted OxyContin all the time and argued with her brother when he wouldn’t give her more than the prescribed dose. She stole 20 pills one day before he went to work and overdosed after he left. A neighbor she had plans to kayak with that day found her blacked out. John rushed home, afraid that paramedics would treat her as if she had regular anatomy. As he carried her into the emergency room, he says, she was “lifeless and blue.”
The doctors took Patsy off OxyContin, and John sent her to another nursing home to live. She developed a compulsive sipping habit there. “I was bringing her a 12-pack of soda every day,” he says. Without an esophagus or stomach, Patsy had to spit out any liquid she took by mouth. If the liquid ran down her throat and into her lungs, she could develop pneumonia. Eventually John stopped bringing Patsy soda and told the nursing-home staff not to give her any drinks either. But Patsy, frail and charming, would explain that she was parched and just needed to wet her mouth, and the staff took pity on her. Even a psychiatrist who’d just been warned by Kathleen not to let Patsy sip once ended up running to get her water. That same day Kathleen had wrestled Patsy away from a spigot.
Patsy did end up aspirating fluid every now and then and came down with pneumonia several times. Every time she recovered, she returned to her bad habits–and developed new ones. She poured beer into her tube, smoked marijuana with a nursing assistant, traded beer to another resident for Percocet. She also began experimenting with food. She’d chew it to satisfy her sense of taste, and then, anticlimactically, have to spit it out. She developed cravings, but without a stomach she was insatiable. Unable to feel full, and horrified at the prospect of never eating again, she tasted obsessively, chewing until her jaw hurt.
In early 2002 Patsy underwent an operation to remove the saliva bag from her neck. The bag had been the cause of much discomfort, and it didn’t collect all of her saliva–she still had to spit into a cup. Losing the bag didn’t significantly increase the amount of spitting she needed to do, and it made her more comfortable.
But Patsy continued to be self-destructive. Staff at the nursing home discovered beer cans in her room and repeatedly found Patsy drunk. “They were telling me, ‘We can’t keep her,'” John says.
In the fall of 2002, John told Patsy he thought she would be better off with one of her sisters. Patsy had other plans. She packed her belongings and boarded a plane to Chicago. She wanted to have fun, like she used to. When Frazier and Herndon met Patsy at the airport, she was drunk.
In the seven years Patsy had been away, things had changed. Some of her friends had gone on to successful careers in art and music. Some were starting families. They didn’t party as much as they used to. They had responsibilities. Patsy, though, continued living recklessly. “I just wasn’t accepting what had happened to me,” she says. “I was getting wasted because my life was out of control. It didn’t matter if my head had been chopped off or my parents died or the world was destroyed, I was not happy. I could care less about myself. So I didn’t care if anything had happened to me.”
She lived briefly at Pilsen House, a residential facility for the mentally ill, but after she was kicked out for bringing beer onto the premises, Patsy moved in with Alan Jones. Though Jones says he noticed Patsy could “pour a six-pack into her tube in 20 minutes,” he didn’t challenge her to stop. He refused to be responsible for her. But other friends, like Frazier, made their disapproval known.
Frazier saw Patsy’s tasting as unhealthy, a sign that she hadn’t come to terms with her condition. Patsy would spend what little money she had on expensive organic food and then cook elaborate meals she couldn’t eat. Sometimes she would cough and hack to prevent herself from choking; this unnerved Frazier, particularly when it happened in public. Frazier also wanted Patsy to stop pouring alcohol down her tube. Patsy didn’t want to hear it.
“Everything came to a head at New Year’s,” says Frazier. Herndon and Frazier threw a party at their home. Patsy got plastered and helped herself to the buffet on the kitchen counter. “She ate all the food and was spitting it out in a cup,” Frazier says, “and everyone was so creeped out that nobody even went near the food. I was finally like, ‘What are you doing? Stop. I’ve been with you for years trying to get through this and at this point now you’re just pissing me off. You’re disrespecting me.'”
Patsy thought she’d done her tasting more discreetly than Frazier had said. The next day Jones didn’t remember Patsy ruining the spread either, but he did inform Patsy she’d been “dangerously drunk.” She’d stashed alcohol in the bathroom after people had tried to cut her off and had to be supported on the way to the car at the end of the night. Jones echoed the point Frazier had made: Patsy was treating her friends badly.
Patsy realized she needed help. “I’d hit rock bottom,” she says. “I knew if I blew it with him, I had no one else.” That day, she attended a 12-step meeting and decided to quit using alcohol. She went to another meeting the next day, and the day after that, until the meetings became a regular part of her life.
Around this time, Patsy began to feel more like an artist. She won a grant from the Chicago’s Community Arts Assistance Program (CAAP). “During the course of working on the application,” she says, “I realized I was writing the history of an artist.” She understood for the first time that her father’s influence on her had been great. Like him, she was always transforming her environment, always creating. And most of her jobs, she realized, had been in the arts. Not long after she stopped drinking, Will Oldham asked her to do the cover for his new CD.
Patsy decided to open a gallery, in part with money her siblings had sent her, in the empty storefront on the ground floor of her apartment building on the corner of California and Augusta. She called on her artist and musician friends to help her make it happen.
Jim Dempsey helped Patsy install lighting and contributed work for the first show. He’d talked to her on the phone once or twice since she’d swallowed the poison but was taken aback when he finally saw her. He remembered her as sexy and athletic, a little scrappy, someone who glowed. Now she looked gaunt and ghostlike and older than she was. She walked slightly hunched, with a limp. Her knees were giving out from avascular necrosis, a bone disease associated with excessive drinking, and she still needed to gain 25 pounds to be eligible for bilateral knee-replacement surgery. “Everything was a little more measured,” Dempsey says. “But other than that, she was the same old Patsy. You mentioned something you thought was fairly new and exciting, and she was already all over it.”
Her friend from art school Aaron Skog helped Patsy set up a computer network so she could have a wireless connection in the gallery. He says the timing of her needs sometimes frustrated him–she’d call him at 6:30 in the morning, asking him to price computer equipment for her or explain how to draw a perfectly shaped star in a graphics program–but he kept his frustration in check. She’d been through a lot and he didn’t want to let her down.
“Patsy’s good at asking people to help her,” says Curt Conklin. “It’s always been hard to say no to Patsy, but now the reasons may have changed.”
Patsy says she didn’t want people’s pity. She had come to think of her situation as a manageable medical condition. So she had to crush up her pills and inject them instead of swallow them like most people did. So she was on a feeding tube and had to stay away from alcohol. She was still Patsy, and she felt that if she set her mind to something she could accomplish it.
But whether she liked it or not, Patsy’s compromised physical state deeply affected those around her. Some people did pity her. Others felt angry or guilty that she or they or someone else hadn’t been able to save her from herself. Some people avoided inviting her to social functions that centered around food, and then felt horrible about it. Others overextended themselves. Her very presence raised existential questions.
“I think it makes you hyperaware of how tenuous it is for all of us,” says Janet Bean. “You can’t be sitting next to her and not be thinking, at least at one point in the night, how hard every day must be. How remarkable it is that it’s all worth it to her.”
Though Patsy’s friends certainly didn’t envy her, some recognized that she had gained some extraordinary insights. “She really has the opportunity to know just how much she wants to live,” says Bean, “because it’s something that she has to make an effort to do.”
Patsy opened Gallery Augusta in May 2004 with a group show called “Coming Clean.” She exhibited work by Dempsey, Sam Prekop, and Corey Gearhart, among others, and also some of her own photographs: self-portraits, portraits she’d taken of nursing-home residents, and a project called “Meditations”–six photos of architecturally similar structures–that she’d done with the help of the CAAP grant. Herndon and Bean and a couple other musical acts performed. Patsy held another show in July, featuring work by Chris Ware and Archer Prewitt, among others. Prekop, Bundy K. Brown, and a few others deejayed.
In September, Conklin hosted an art auction at his house to raise funds for the gallery. Internationally recognized artists Mary Brogger, Jeanne Dunning, and Kay Rosen contributed work.
At the Cecil show in November, Patsy and her brother saw each other for the first time in a year. They’d been talking every day and had made amends. “What she has now is what I’ve wanted for her all along,” he said afterward.
Yet he worries that she’s dangerously thin, and that she’s still finding ways to hurt herself. Patsy admits she isn’t as vigilant as she could be about gaining weight. She takes in only three and a half cans of nutritional liquid a day rather than the recommended five, because she sometimes wants to be free of the backpack, which gets heavy. She also takes herself off the food to pour coffee into her tube–three or four cups a day.
Patsy’s sisters worry too, but less than they used to. “A lot of people would have shrunk into a little hole and rode life out,” Mary says. “Once Patsy got it together, she went at life full throttle.”
On the morning of her 39th birthday, Patsy saw her therapist, dropped off some holiday photos Bobby Conn had asked her to take of his family, and waited for Mary to arrive from Germany. Patsy had never imagined she’d make it to 39–the age at which her mother had died–and she almost hadn’t.
She’d come to think that her survival had been a miracle, one she now felt grateful for, and over the last year she’d started praying and meditating. She’d finally quit smoking, and was working on an installation for her favorite old haunt, the Rainbo Club. She called the installation Padded Cell, because that’s how she’d come to think of the bar: as a safe place where she’d bounced off walls.
In the months ahead she would begin to recognize her obsessive tasting as a manifestation of her eating disorder. As she’d try to cure herself of the desire to taste, she’d remember the paraplegic on the puree diet. “I eat to live,” he’d said. “I don’t live to eat.”
But now, on her birthday, when Patsy thought about what she wanted in the future, she thought about gaining weight, getting new knees, and going to grad school. She also wanted to begin dating again and had a crush on someone new “every ten minutes.” Her crushes were different now, she said. She was more interested in “compatibility” than “appearances.” Being sober and having some kind of faith meant more to her now than a man’s standing in the rock world.
“I made a discovery recently,” she said. “All my life I wanted to be extraordinary. I always felt I had to be better than everyone. Now I’m so happy to be average.” Turning on her computer, doing her dishes, watering her plants, going to the bank, simply having a daily routine–these things elicited a sense of comfort she’d never derived from them before. “I feel like I’ve become a part of mankind,” she said.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.