“Today my son would be forty years old. By the miracle that literature always works, he lives eternally in these pages with his recently turned twenty-eight years old.“, writes Piedad Bonnett in the prologue of the new edition of What has no name.
Daniel, his son, died in 2011, in New York. He committed suicide. He was an artist. He was pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia University. Painting and drawing were his passion. Demanding, he doubted his own talent. He was sensitive, a perfectionist. He liked music. He had schizophrenia. Thousands of readers met him when, in 2013, Bonnett published this book that has already become iconic. With a language that united pain with beauty, What has no name brought to the table such stigmatized and misunderstood topics as mental illness and suicide. “Great literature turns personal history into a collective human experience,” the Spanish poet Luis García Montero wrote about this work. Now, ten years after its publication, it reaches bookstores in a special edition.
“When the publisher told me that they wanted to include drawings by Daniel, I thought it was extraordinary. “It was like finishing a duty with him,” says Bonnett. I did not write this book so that you would know him. It was not my intention. I wrote it to talk about a universal tragedy, which is a struggle to achieve survival and defeat. Other things happened along the way, all very beautiful, and the people adored Daniel as a human being, because he was a wonderful boy.”
Along the way it also became an essential book for thousands of people. Why do you think it reached that dimension?
I have asked myself many times. The first thing I discovered is the terrifying silence, in a country like this, due to prejudice about suicide and mental illness. I realized that as soon as the book came out. At the launch there were five hundred people, something unheard of because at most eighty would go to my events. Dozens of people approached me, not looking for the signature but to give them the doctor’s phone number, to tell me that their son, that his father, his brother had committed suicide. There I understood why there were so many people. Experience told me that doctors speak to parents and patients in a very secretive way. Literature speaks from another place, that of emotions. Furthermore, the passion for true stories is enormous. Especially if it meets the requirements of having a somewhat heroic protagonist, I say, a suffering mother and tremendous love. Later reviews revealed things to me that I never saw, like my own love. When I wrote it I wasn’t thinking about my love. But there it was.
This book reached everywhere, to schools, universities, offices…
To all. Also to the faculties of psychiatry. They started calling me from medical conferences. I remember that I went, for example, to the Pablo Tobón Uribe Hospital, in Medellín. There were four hundred doctors sitting. Some were crying. A doctor approached me and said: my brother has tried to commit suicide seven times, what do I do? Because they ask me as if I could answer. At a psychiatry congress in Cartagena, a psychiatrist in his 70s was crying because a patient had just been killed. I saw things of that nature, whereas when I went to a doctor’s office I only found distance. In this society, mental health is greatly abused. You take a boy to a clinic and the next day they don’t let you visit him because, like in the Middle Ages, he is confined.
And the stigma persists. Mental illness is hidden. Daniel lived it…
Because mental illness is scary. Everything that is different scares us. Daniel realized that he was going to be stigmatized when he went to a friend, who was his bosom friend, and he said something that was not consistent and she didn’t look at him again. That meant a loss. The doctors never told him: what you have is this. Psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have a difficulty in naming mental illness, because it is very different in each person. One day Daniel asked me: “Mom, what do I have?” Imagine having a child ask you that question. I told the truth. You have schizophrenia. It is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do in my life: to say that word, with all the implications. I’m sure he, as intellectually curious as he was, had to go find out what that meant.
The pressure to be successful, to meet the standards imposed by society, also fell on him…
Daniel had, first, to have the gift of drawing and painting, which I took it upon myself to cultivate because I am a frustrated painter. She was prepared for him since he was a child. We sent him to workshops so that he could develop his skills, without pressuring him to study art. At school, he was the draftsman, he was the painter. So he introjected it and decided to study that. But when he arrived at the university they told him: painting is dead. He lived in a time when not even drawing was valued. He began to have a life crisis. Many times I told him: Daniel, you don’t have to do what everyone else does, you don’t have to go to a university, you don’t have to graduate, but he felt pressure because he was very afraid of not being able to make a living from painting.
Did this book change you?
The book or the tragedy? Because they are two different things.
Let’s start with the tragedy…
The first thing was to say: this is happening to me, I have a son with a mental illness. This came like a bolt of lightning to change my life. It is a terrifying feeling and many people must have had it; I have seen so many parents devastated by their children’s mental illness. The second thing was that it made me prioritize. First my son. I was a writer who was doing a lot of work and such, but if Daniel was bad, everything of mine stopped. Disclaimers, to be attentive. The third thing was that, in some way, I became stronger. Tragedy is part of life and this tragedy touched me. A poet, a person who writes, has to understand that immediately. A serenity came over me. That’s why when Daniel died I didn’t go crazy. First, because I agreed with him a little. He understood that this was a door. I told myself very harsh things like that it is preferable for him to be dead and not stuck in a room without knowing what to do. Neither him, nor us. They are things that transform you completely. Then with the book came additional wisdom.
¿What has no name Was it the first thing you wrote after Daniel’s suicide?
That had its process. Daniel died on May 14, 2011. We returned from New York on the 20th, with a suitcase full of some of his things — I brought the oldest things, which identified him to me; I have it there. Then we went to Italy. We were looking for a beautiful place, with lots of light. It was very sad because in Italy painting is the splendor. He passed by places where there were thousands of oil paintings and thought about the brushes that he would have brought to Daniel, the books that he would have bought for him. It was hard, but I was reflecting. I took Al Alvarez’s book, The Wild God, which is the story of suicide, and I started writing in my notebooks. Then it was revealed to me that I had to write that book. First I thought about a novel, but no: how could I have the nerve to make a novel out of that. I was enlightened about Héctor Abad. I said: Héctor his father did that, I’m going to do my thing on my son. I thought poems were going to start coming out of my ears, and no. I wrote a poem or two, no more. I felt the vital urge to sit down and narrate.
From the first edition of the book to today, have steps been taken to end the stigma of mental illness?
Very much. He would highlight two things. One, journalism, which is talking about these issues. And the pandemic, which changed people’s mentality about everything. What has not evolved is the medical service in favor of mental health. Neither here nor anywhere. We are Cinderella. I received hundreds of testimonies about it and I experienced it. I went once for the prepaid one—paying a lot; What will it be like for those who don’t—and they made me wait I don’t know how long for twenty-minute appointments. Another important thing is that the book began to be read with high school students in a world full of Catholic taboos.
The taboo of suicide and religion, which have been very connected…
I am a victim. I was educated with nuns. I remember that I was in a school when a girl committed suicide and no one said anything because it was like a mortal sin. Killing oneself was something against God. At the school where Daniel worked, the principal told them that he had died and did not say that it was a suicide. In 2011. I worked thirty-two years at the university. There two boys committed suicide per semester and no one knew about it. The university didn’t say anything, they never trained us to see mental illness. People need to be educated. Tell the kids: there is a thing called depression, there is a thing called bipolarity; If you see a very sad, distant classmate, please say so.
The new edition of the book includes drawings by Daniel. How do you describe his work?
It is a very expressive work of his own illness. He made the self-portraits when he was 18 years old. There is a deep sadness in them. There he was already shouting that something was happening and I hadn’t realized it. He never showed them to us. I discovered them later. He felt enormous pleasure drawing. His work is an exploration, far from trends. He was influenced by Roda, Bacon, Freud, everything that has to do with the body, its degradation. In his drawings of dogs, I think that the muzzle is the secret and the dog is the threat and the repression. One day I told him: Dani, I like that you are painting your own drama. “No, mom,” he replied. He was in denial.
You have said that some come up to you to talk to you about the comfort that believing in God, in an afterlife, could give you. How do you receive this?
Yes, they tell me: your son is in heaven, he is a little angel. I respect him, but he irritates me. Although I do believe in other things. Magical thinking is there. For example, just after Daniel died, a little bird stood at my window and looked at me. Maybe it’s Daniel, I said. Or I felt a touch without anyone being around. Things like that happened to me. Sometimes I let that enter me, from the mystery. Magical thinking is triggered by death because it is so incomprehensible. Or better yet, so difficult to accept. What is incomprehensible is what comes after. Energy? Even when? Or that thing that nobody talks about. There are too many things around a suicide that you never understand. Your child dies of illness and he is within the law, but the fact that he made the decision is the most tragic thing. Daniel loved life. He loved the sun, the music, the food. That a man who loves life so much has to choose suicide is a very horrible thing. Make you realize that you are not going to be able to cope with life. As simple as that.