Storm of the i, by Tina Collen
My first impression upon seeing this book was it’s beauty and its weight. It could be called a coffee table book, but it’s not like one of those expensive gargantuan picture books—it’s only 8.25 inches by 9 inches and costs a mere $29.95. Goodness, I’ve grudgingly paid thirty bucks for a lot less. It’s heavy because of the quality of the paper. It also has fold-outs, inserts, and plenty of art and pictures perfectly arranged. How did Art Review Press accomplish this?
The book is subtitled, An Artobigography, which gives one a hint of the content. Because Storm of the i is really a memoir. Ms. Collen’s story is the most important part of the book. The presentation of the art seduces you and helps hold things together, but it’s her well-written and compelling story that really seizes you. She calls it a “visual right of passage.” It’s a story of her relationship with a father—a conflicted man who was nasty to her and tried to alienate her from the rest of the family…for a lifetime. The burning question is why?
At age thirteen, Tina Collen won a “Mettle of Honor” for art, something she felt described her…her “avenue of expression” and a shelter, “a safe haven that offered recognition and appreciation.” But there is a darker childhood history. Her family was “normal”—healthy; good looking; they dressed nicely; with siblings she adored; a loving mother; a father that worked hard to support them; there was laughter; and they took family vacations together. But they generally kept to themselves. They were their own little private tribe. Tina knew the family dynamics well and wrote, “I was different.” She sounded like a foghorn, which didn’t change after the removal of her tonsils at age four; and she was fiercely independent, a matter which her father saw as an affront to his authority.
She recalls occasions when her father would become angry, blow up over some trivial matter. It didn’t necessarily have anything to do with her, but the toxic atmosphere permeated the whole family. He wouldn’t speak to anyone for days…and her mother said nothing about it. These outbursts, however, increasingly began targeting her. And over such silly things—an argument about what she learned at grade school could become an attack of her very personality. School thus became her sanctuary. In an autograph book, upon graduation from sixth grade, her father wrote, in French, “evil to he who thinks evil.” When she got it translated, she was devastated. She said, “He thinks I’m evil….” As a teenager, she had her hair cut; and he wouldn’t speak to her.
A revealing passage: “‘I know about you,’ my father once said to me when I was still quite young. ‘You have everyone else fooled, but I know the truth about you.’ I thought about it for years. I felt as though I had a horrible secret—but I had no idea what it was….
“By the time I was thirteen whatever was going on between my father and me had become well entrenched. Usually, after his anger flared, he would withdraw into an icy silence, refusing to talk to me, not looking at me or acknowledging me in any way. I would become essentially invisible.
“As much as possible, I banished my hurt and confusion from consciousness….
“I often wondered why we were all so afraid of my father. He didn’t hit us. What gave him all that power?….
“There was an unspoken expectation by my father that those around him suppress contrary opinions….” She explains this well.
She went off to college, a respite. But as an “emerging young adult” the “hurtful incidents continued…calcifying…[her] into a posture of defeat.” Then love found her “in the form of a powerhouse of energy and intellect”—Barry. They married, moved from the East to Los Angeles, so now the silences were long-distance. They had two boys, Andrew and Mark. Barry was a lawyer and she pursued graphic arts. There was love and harmony to behold. But she had to deal with the conflicting demands of a small business, raising a young family, and the requirements of an dynamic, sexual and overpowering husband.
They moved to Aspen, Colorado; and she writes of the “halcyon days” with the love of her life, Barry.
The book then moves to Part II; and she starts to explain the suffocating nature of her husband. She loves him immensely but she was losing herself; he was overwhelming her. After a time, she moves to a studio, and as distraction, delves into a new body of work—Pornage—erotic flower art, which can be viewed at www.fleurotica.com. She was praised in the art world for this; but she had no idea what her parents thought.
She writes of her successful kids; and the ongoing (excellent) relationship with Barry, though separated. However, there was need for closure and eventually the marriage ended. Her life in the art world was blossoming—a major trip to Paris— and Barry found a new wife. She moved to Boulder, Colorado and bought a house built in 1889 that needed considerable and expensive renovation. The family dynamics with parents and siblings remained the same—a kind of restrained tolerance, everyone walking on eggshells, until her 50th birthday party back east. Her father acted worse than usual and she couldn’t take it any more. When she got home she wrote “the letter,” a beautifully constructed and angry letter to her family where she basically says she’s had enough of his bitterness and hatred. It was a public acknowledgement of a lifetime of humiliation and deep pain. It was all out in the open. Later, her mother asked her not to call the house because it set him off and made life difficult for her.
She started a new business in her house— The Silk Garden—constructing life-like silk plants for sale. She successfully secured some business contracts. She joined Match.com and shares many of the e-mail exchanges. She ran, took dancing lessons, and singing lessons. She had back problems, trying everything to fix it. She went to a cultish workshop “to create the future you desire.” She explains all this with humor mixed with pathos as she learns more about herself and perhaps, even her father. The workshop taught her about forgiveness so she called her father to apologize. He hung up on her. She relates many conversations with family and there is much soul searching, but no easy answers.
Part III: She sees a trauma shrink offering fairly complete explanations and she shares more about her growing sons and their lives, how it all impacts her life. Her father turns ninety and there was no big party, something that disappointed him. There is a tale of zero coupon bonds, with a history that I haven’t shared in this review, but the point is, the torment of her soul continues. Back to therapy.
It is at this juncture, near the end of the book, that she is beginning to make sense of this lifelong mess—of the possibility of deep pain in both her father and her. Barry is divorced from his second wife and is still involved with Tina and the sons. Family connections all around are strong, except between the father and Tina.There is this recognition of the need to let go, and she tells it poignantly. There is no great moment here of happy repentance, of joyous reconciliation to make the reader feel good about it all. But you get the sense that this woman has been through a rough journey, and has dealt with it the best she could. I do not doubt that writing this book helped her greatly. Writing does have therapeutic powers.
From her beautifully written and presented book, I drew comparisons in my own life. My father had a temper and my mother is passive, a stoic (he died in 1998 and she is 97). Dad would occasionally blow up about something, but then it was over. He’d released his anger and he didn’t carry grudges or let things fester. He got his feelings out…and then he let it go. Ms. Collen’s father, for some inexplicable reasons, couldn’t do that…but he produced a remarkable woman who wrote a terrific book.
Note: This is the first post of Tina Collen’s book tour. The next post comes from Renee Fountain, the managing editor, at http://www.bookfetish.org.