Fall/Winter 2015. Issue 10

Fall/Winter 2015. Issue 10


Living on a Dream: A Marriage Tale

Patt Blue

Interview by Melissa Shook

I dearly wish that I’d known Patt Blue when we were both living in New York. Certainly I needed encouragement from someone, especially a young woman, with her clear-headed drive and work ethic. It’s possible that we met once, but more probable that I know what she looked like from her self-portraits. I learned about her teaching through a student at the International Center for Photography who had taken two classes with Patt, who helped her toward such a secure, serious path of documenting families in a really poor section of Newark, New Jersey, that there was little she could gain from me.

Actually I ordered Patt’s book, Living on a Dream: A Marriage Tale, not that long after it was published, but put it aside. Publishing a book seemed so far from possibility that I must have been jealous. It was only recently, when a friend helping me tackle my general chaos found the unopened package, that I finally saw Patt’s remarkable book. The strength of the writing lies in the way she interwove tape-recorded interviews with her mother starting in June 1987 with stories she wrote about her childhood. The poignancy is punctuated by haunting photographs taken by Patt’s father of his wife and three children over the years, interspersed with images that Patt herself made when she was growing up, starting to become a photographer, and during those visits with her mother.

The vivid revelations that display her mother’s overpowering lack of self-worth, and Patt’s recollections of youthful exuberance dampened by family troubles while looking at her father’s images that betray his sense of entitlement give a startlingly clear image of a family mired in emotional turmoil. It is hardly a unique story, but it is so beautifully told that it will give those who simply can’t understand why a woman stays in a destructive relationship an important and touching sense of the underlying reasons.

: When I read the interviews that you made with your mother in Living on a Dream: A Marriage Tale, I thought of the hundreds of thousands of women, over many centuries, on different continents, those who have lived in similar bondage through the edicts of their cultures and religions, through lack of education and opportunities. I imagine that many were as lonely as your mother, but also that others fit into more cohesive societies in which women shared companionably in their rather confined lives.

Certainly we now know how many women don’t leave abusive situations, even though the rage, physical and sexual abuse, alcoholism or gambling addiction that their children are witnessing will affect them for the rest of their lives.

On one level, I’m actually envious that your mother told you such details, difficult as they must have been to listen to, of her life with your father. I’ve always had the sense that something difficult happened between my parents before my mother died, but I never learned any details to help me understand what tensions they had. 
On a different level, I was applauding you for the bravery of recording those interviews, but wanting to scream, “Get the hell out of there, now. Save yourself.”

PB: I was on a quest for truth. I wanted to know why a woman stays with the abuser. I hoped to transcend the personal darkness of the past by creating a book. As a photographer I was just doing what I loved to do. I was looking for my next project and was seeing with new eyes where I wanted to go by combining writing and photography. I saw my own family story as an important American tragic drama of universal proportions. I also thought emotional abuse was just as devastating and destructive as physical abuse but wasn’t talked about much so I wanted to bring awareness to it.

Knowing the sordid details changed me. Doing the work had emotional consequences that were certainly not anticipated. I had not considered that writing about my family trauma might not be the catalyst that everyone assumes it will be. The personal memoir is a Pandora’s box; it was for me. Suddenly I was faced with the hard cold unforgiving facts and not my made-up stories or fragmented memories. It had to come, but whether to make it public remains a question each memoirist has to reckon with.

MS: So, there I was, looking at remarkable photographs, reading painful details from your mother’s life that are paralleled with your memories of childhood, which also include rich details of the countryside, cool creeks, fireflies and frogs, along with a decent sprinkling of friends and some real sense that you are making at least a narrow shadow of a decent childhood, all on your own. How on earth, I wondered, did you survive?

PB: I survived because of my insatiable curiosity and drive to overcome injustice. This is not to say I was smart enough to know right away that I was wounded by the family trauma.  I did not know for many, many years.  Fortunately when I woke up I had the good sense to ask for help.

Some inner guide told me that to survive I needed three basic elements in place: love, faith and work.  At seventeen I went to live with a friend’s family until I graduated from high school. I made friends with girls from stable families and I had a steady boyfriend all through junior high and high school. In my teens I was a church-going girl who converted to Catholicism. By age 15, I had an after school-weekend job and in my senior year signed up for a business program that helped me learn secretarial skills and work half a day. I don’t remember thinking too much about it at the time. I was just blithely following instincts of raw survival.

MS: I think it’s important that other people read memoirs like yours, not only those of us who might still think that our own difficult childhoods made us terminally unique, but more importantly for those who grew up in less destructive family situations and don’t really understand why they often have such serious later effects on the children. Certainly your work in photography attests to your sympathy for and interest in those people who struggle against poverty, lack of education, sexual abuse. 

PB: Those who have been fortunate enough to grow up in healthy families don’t see the little wounded child when looking at a homeless woman or an alcoholic man, but I do. The jails are full of adults suffering from untreated childhood trauma.

They may not know the simple principles of child neurodevelopment. The rapidly developing young brain stores traumatic memories that will define the adult. Children will reflect in their adult lives the early adverse environment because their brain’s neural systems have been altered by traumatic stress. Children of trauma get stuck developmentally and do not grow healthfully as children do from families that provide nurturing and safety. These hurt children will have cognitive, sensory, and emotional problems that later in adulthood will become visible in myriad ways of interpersonal and societal dysfunction. Chronic childhood trauma may be our nation’s most important challenge to the health and future of our society.

MS: Hopefully you’d be willing to write a bit about the struggle to form what I’ll laughingly call a strong, solid sense of self (I do know how difficult it is to parent oneself in later life, to repair the lack of adequate parenting), about your general sense of how people struggle (and possibly fail) to lead emotionally healthier lives after turbulent childhoods. 

PB: Chekhov said, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them,” but you have asked and I will try to answer the unanswerable.

My growing up was bereft of family outings but there was always photography. Everywhere we lived there was a darkroom and a father that made photographs. Photography provided me with an identity, my raison d’être, a refuge. Art has been the way for many—Charlotte Salomon comes to mind. After experiencing trauma it takes work to form a solid sense of self. Boundaries have been trespassed. The developing self has been confused and cluttered. Adult children who have witnessed trauma act out in disguised ways. We hide, disassociate, feel shame, and use defense mechanisms that sabotage relationships and decision-making. The struggle to form some sense of an authentic self is daunting without help — a psychotherapist. The ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) 12-step group, can be helpful too, even if alcohol is not the specific problem. Parenting oneself after being orphaned is a life-long process. Admitting the problem and getting grounded in reality is key.

To learn about trauma and recovery I recommend the book of clinical psychiatrist Judith M. Herman, Trauma and Recovery.

MS: I assume that you are compelled to bear witness to the lives of struggling, perhaps fragile people. Certainly folks from wealthy homes often struggle with similar problems, but it’s more difficult to include their images or stories in these discussions. I know this is a loaded, more philosophical question, but is there any way of deciding the ways in which work around these issues is useful? And is it too easy to focus, as I always have, on the visible effects of poverty and lack of adequate access to good education?

PB: Eli Weisel, holocaust survivor, tells us to always remember. To forget, he says, is to repeat history. My work is about connecting with others and they connect what they experienced with more others. And on we go. For me this is something useful. At heart I’m a social worker and educator, so in my work I strive to bring awareness to what is hidden and what will enlarge our lives by knowing what is beneath the surfaces. In his work, playwright Anton Chekhov opens our minds to the value of cracking open the blithe happiness of a “universal hypnosis.” In some kind of twisted way what artists do brings wholeness to fragmentation.

I am very interested in the subject of the serious later effects on children from destructive abusive homes. My series “Torn Wing,” speaks about the underlying sources of childhood trauma. What are the ways that writing, film and photography can be useful? A very important question and one that weighs heavily on socially concerned artists. Everything we do is useful. Just keep doing it. Make the issues visible and do it in a way that is accessible.

MS: Of course, I was so interested in tapping your understanding of recovery from childhood difficulties, that I asked nothing about the process of making your book. I do understand that it took you ten years, but if you have other comments, please do make them. And are there memoirs that have been important to you and that you’d like to recommend?

PB: I love memoir so there are many I find interesting, but here are some that come to mind and they are all quite different stylistically from one another: Blue Nights by Joan Didion; Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy;  Color Is the Suffering of Light, by Melissa Green; Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore and maybe Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.


PATT BLUE (photo above as a teenager, taken by her father) is an artist and photographer of social concerns, a former rural anti-poverty outreach worker and a post 9/11 field counselor. She grew up in the U.S. South but spent most of her working life in New York as a photographic educator and editorial photographer. She was on the seminal staff and faculty of The International Center of Photography and retired from her position as Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Kean University of NJ. Her photo essays in Life magazine and documentary art photography have received recognition and support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Howard Chapnick and Robert F. Kennedy Foundation for Outstanding Coverage of the Disadvantaged. She has resided in South Texas since 2009.


  1. An eye-opener for sure! Your interview brought me to Patt Blue’s work. Her photographs are remarkable and news to me, the text disquieting; that is, the words of Blue’s mother. There are some things, Blue tells us, that cannot be fixed. I want, I must confess, for art to transform and redeem. Many of the photographs do just that, but the mother’s words resist alchemy.

  2. Linda Sbath says:

    Patt, you’ve been an inspiration from when I first walked into your class at ICP, through your friendship over the years, the strength of your work, the breadth of your sensitivity & empathy. Thank you for all that generosity of self.

  3. Because Patt was my instructor at The International Center of Photography for many years, I experienced her dance between the “Boot Camp” style of teaching and her humor and encouragement. How she insisted I photograph (close up) a Coney Island broken toilet which introduced me into a world of horrid smells. an initiation. Thanks to her pushing, I would photograph in harsh neighborhoods for the next 35 years.

    “Living on a Dream” certainly helped me understand Patt better — how she would stay at projects until they were perfect. Her memories are clear and painful and the photographs that her father had taken portray the inner complexities of that family. They show the trust and innocence of Patt and her brothers, their openness to the deep emotional scars they would receive growing up in an abusive household.
    In one image, Patt is posing like a good little girl holding her bible and looking so much like her mother. Her father “was obsessed with a need to be in charge.”

    Patt’s book is a must read for everyone–especially for readers interested in the way children are tarnished by harsh experiences. It is a classic.


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