ABILITY caught up with Hans Looijen, who heads up Het Dolhuys, the museum of the mind in Haarlem, Netherlands, when he was attending an Integrated Art Exhibition in Wuhan, China. His museum explores the boundaries between what they consider to be normal, abnormal, as well as deviant behavior. Looijen is also chairman of the International Madness & Arts Foundation.
Chet Cooper: How’d you get started at Het Dolhuys?
Hans Looijen: I met with the board of the museum, when it was called the National Museum of Psychiatry. I’d spent 12 years as an independent contractor developing museums and exhibitions throughout the Netherlands. The museum had been in existence for two and a half years and needed a director. I talked to the chairman, who was a psychiatrist, and he asked, “What’s your personal affinity with psychiatry?” I talked about a friend who was on a crisis-intervention team, and another friend who was a psychiatrist, and so he said, “Oh, okay. Let’s set up another meeting, and I’ll introduce you to the other board members…”
I came home, and my wife asked, “How did the interview go?” I said, “Great, they asked about my affinity with psychiatry.” And she said, “You didn’t tell them about your mother?” I said, “No, I did not.” My mother was bipolar, and that was a big secret in our family. We couldn’t talk about it.
Cooper: Do you think the memory was suppressed, or did you not mention it because it was just your life, and it didn’t occur to you?
Looijen: That’s a good point. For a long time I hesitated in sharing it. I didn’t want people to think I’m here for only that reason. I tend to think of myself as someone who likes to get involved socially. This is a social cause. I think it’s important to strive towards inclusive societies, whether it’s in terms of mental health, ability/disability, human rights or gender issues.
Cooper: Did you go back and say anything? Did you get the job?
Looijen: I didn’t say anything, and I got the job. But when the chairman introduced me to his Rotary Club, he said, “Please address the crowd and tell something about the museum and your plans.” Afterwards he said, “I think it’s very strange for you to be the director of the museum and not mention your mother.” He had found out about my mother through a mutual friend, and I said, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s one thing to go and not mention my mother’s history, which is of course a private thing, but it’s another not to show I’m acquainted with this subject… and know first hand how hard it can be to break the stigma.”
So I said, “You’re right. I will correct this.” Then someone whose mother was bipolar approached us.
Cooper: Same mother?
Looijen: No! (laughs) It could have been. He’s a caterer whose mother had this idea she would marry the former king of Belgium. He would come for her, and they would live in a castle. She started painting huge pieces to decorate the castle. This fantasy progressed or worsened, it depends on which perspective you choose. Ultimately she broke off contact with her family, and after weeks of not answering the door or telephone, the son climbed the walls to knock on the windows. When she didn’t answer, he broke in. His mother had died.
She had bought this huge dining table, had food catered, and decked it as if it were a state banquet. Her paintings were all around, and she died in one of the chairs, waiting for her prince to come. He showed her paintings at parties, but felt there was something more to it.
Cooper: Sounds like it.
Looijen: So I said, “Okay, we’ll do this project about the family and surroundings of people with mental illness to show what it means to have a loved one who’s affected.” We’ll call it The Bride of Leopold, because Leopold was a prince and his mother was a bride—at least in her own mind. We showed her paintings and her dolls and her world. I invited a group of children with a parent with mental illness, or addiction. It translates to Children with a Parent in Psychiatry. Some of them were 12 and 13 and still sleeping with their mothers because they were anxious or a hoarder who used the bedroom to store the treasures brought home.
I spoke out openly about my mother and where I am now in my life. That’s how I corrected that wrong. From then on everybody knew. But I’m still a little bit anxious people will draw me on their side. “This is the barricade. Stand with me on the barricade, and we can all fight this thing together.” But that’s not why I’m doing this job.
Cooper: More for awareness building.
Looijen: Absolutely. And also, I think it’s important not to make the same mistake I did, to be quiet about it because my mother said so. I think it’s important to share it in the open. And I compare it with cancer: in the ‘50s, you couldn’t even say the word. And now of course you can. It’s not your fault, unless you smoke maybe, but then it’s maybe also bad luck. I don’t know. Anyway, of course, lifestyle has to do with it in the case of cancer. But people talk about it. They inform each other, they support each other, even develop a whole language around cancer. You see an obituary for someone and it says, “He or she fought and didn’t win the battle,” all this language that shows bravery is not the case with mental illness. It’s like: “Come out of that. Pull yourself together. Go to your job. Chin up.” It’s degrading.
Our mother tried hard to get up in the morning and prepare us something to eat and do the chores around the house. She was a very intellectual woman as well, so that was hard for her. But she gave it everything she could to support us, and I think while we were small that certainly helped. But later on, she didn’t change her attitude when we entered puberty or became grownups. Our relationship was always, “I’m the mother, and you’re the child.” You would be under her thumb, and she would let you know that she wasn’t agreeing with you.
Cooper: When she was in a manic state, what was she doing?
Looijen: She didn’t go about spending all our father’s money or our education money. She did spend more than we could afford, but we didn’t end up in huge debt, or my father worked a bit harder and would scold her, and she would cry. But she wouldn’t return the clothes she bought. (laughs) And then she came up with ways of budgeting. Food was on ration. Everything was on ration. We could pick out shoes but not above a certain price. Over time, the debts would melt away.
When she was manic, she would organize things for poor people who didn’t have anybody. She would put on huge Christmas parties and invite everybody. Later on she went on to arrange with the church a hall to show, because our house was too small to accommodate all these people. So there was a huge hall, and there was the Christmas Inn, it was called. It was the ‘70s. It was very hip, for people who were alone. My mother was doing good. She’d talk one-on-one with this homeless guy who reeked while we were playing at the table and asking: “Can we go home?” She’d say, “No!” She was really living the moment. Most of all, she was doing good when she was manic.
Cooper: The other mother, her paintings were good?
Looijen: Not exceptional. It was mostly floral decorations, bright colors, and big formats… And she collected these ancient dolls with porcelain hats. She dressed them, and then she would lay them together in the scenery and paint them and say, “These are my children.”
Looijen: Her depression was more impactful for us as children, and later on, my mother wouldn’t come down for dinner, wouldn’t get out of bed, and didn’t answer you if you spoke to her. Whatever you did, you couldn’t make the whole world whole again through her. Until you understand that it has nothing to do with you; it’s to do with her and her illness.
Cooper: When you go to work, as it were, do you think more about your mother now because of the different artists that might be bipolar?
Looijen: Yes. She died three years ago, and I think a lot about her. I asked my wife, “Was it really that bad?” Of course memory tends to heal things, as well. I’m working on a book. I know someone who’s a literary agent, and he turned out to be a quite important guy in publishing, and he read some of what I’d written and said, “We should publish this.” What I care about is that a boy my age, eight to 10, or even a bit older, might read it, and think, “Okay, maybe some of it applies to my situation.” He could avoid the mistakes I made and make his own mistakes.
Cooper: So you’re writing it as a children’s book?
Looijen: Right now I’m doing research. Some of it is quite funny. We were quite ashamed when my mother was in the supermarket in France trying to explain in sign language that she wanted eggs. She was like a queen, and people started bringing her things. She’d be like, “No, no, no.” Frozen chicken, fried chicken, whatever, until she started pretending to lay an egg, and then everybody understood what she meant. But we were like, “Oh, no, not again like this!” I write down these memories, these funny stories, and then I write about what I now understand: she thought all these French people were not speaking French properly enough to understand.
So then I write what it could have been then, and what my insight is now, and what might have been different if we’d spoken about it. Like the night my mother went to a psychiatric ward in the early ‘70s. This was psychiatry at its worst. People were acting out in the institution, throwing around their food, screaming, and the personnel were not interfering because it was all part of the illness. You don’t see that any more. It’s also a cultural thing. During the first week, the psychiatrist told me I had to bow when I opened the door otherwise a plate of food would hit me in the face. I said to the nurse, “What’s going on?” She said people couldn’t help it because they are ill. And then I said, “Every plate that breaks costs you a quarter.” Besides, we all need rules. We need some way to interact with each other, and it’s not by throwing your food around and smashing plates.
Cooper: They needed consequences.
Looijen: Yes. And I think by laying certain boundaries, it raised the bar. I went to a homeless center once as part of my introduction to work. Institutions support us. We are an NGO (non-governmental organization), and basically we don’t get any allowance from the government. Twenty-one hospitals and care organizations support it. There were six when I started out, and I built it to 21. I wanted to get to know the institutions that supported us.
So I recently went to this homeless shelter in the south of the Netherlands. I thought it was strange, because here I am, pretty well fed, walking around with my blazer on and seeing all these people coming in for shelter. They pay one Euro and get food and whatever. They were waiting, and there was this very idealistic, 60ish guy with a long beard walking around in his knitted vest. I said, “What’s the hardest part of your job?” And I thought he would talk about how they were cutting budgets. He said, “The biggest challenge for me is to make these people understand that this is not their life. Some of them think they’re really successful because they’ve got a place for the night, they’ve got food, and they’ve got a little cart they push around with their belongings in it. And they’re successful at being homeless. This is not enough. They can and should do more. The hardest part of my job is to get between the ears of each and every one of them that they can do better.”
Cooper: That’s powerful.
Looijen: That resonated very strongly with me, and it could have applied to my mother’s situation. She was kind of stuck in a house, a life with my father, and four children, in a suburb. She could have done more, but the illness got in the way.
She needed more support. Setting goals and getting support from the people around you are important… That’s also something I take on here. I had not thought of integration at that level.
Cooper: Integration opens up the doors to a lot, and then just bringing in your life experience, you think, “Oh, that’s right. My mother had that problem.” Most people are affected by disability in their lives in some way, but we don’t think of it.
Looijen: No. In the Netherlands, one in five persons is affected by a mental health condition in his or her lifetime. It can be just a phase, or it can be for your entire life, if you have psychosis maybe, or depression. But if I say that in the museum to an audience or outside the museum, people will say, “One in five?” But it used to be one in four, so we’re improving.
Cooper: Or the definition sometimes changes.
Looijen: Yes. And people criticize this. There are a lot of other countries in the European Union as well where you find the same number.
Cooper: In the US, they say one out of five people has a disability. Which is not right, because when you start breaking it down, they start talking about people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and that loss of hearing sky rockets as people get older. So the numbers are skewed. And World Health Organization (WHO) numbers are pretty low, which makes no sense, because developing countries have a lot of people with disabilities who are not being identified.
Looijen: People run away if you say, “Look at the skills of people who have a disability.” They’re like, “Why should I look at them?” I think at least what I’ve tried to convey with the museum is the message that inclusion is: Look at this kid down at the mental-health station, doesn’t he deserve the best? He’s a human being.
Cooper: It’s a fine line. Do you know the term “super-crip”? “Crip” is from the word “cripple,” which is not used any more, but there’s a phrase which is used… like “Oh, my gosh, you’re blind, and you did that? How wonderful is that?” It’s making a superhero out of somebody. We’re trying not to go there. But it also brings people in to read when something interesting happens. So it’s a delicate balance.
I’ve always said our magazine shouldn’t exist. But we’re living in a place and time where it’s still needed. I was watching other people stare at individuals simply using wheelchairs. There’s a lot of awareness that has yet to be developed.
Looijen: Yesterday a man without arms stepped on the bus, and a boy next to us gaped. In a lot of cultures, people with disabilities have been kept indoors. In the Netherlands we have a great public transport system, but it’s not easily accessible for people who use chairs.
Cooper: I would have thought the Netherlands would’ve been ahead of the game on that.
Looijen: They say that it’s too costly. It’s always about money. It’s horrible.
Cooper: Japan is the best. They have a fast aging population, so they had to do something.
Looijen: The Netherlands is one of the few countries that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
Cooper: I didn’t know that.