Since May is Mental Health Month, I thought I would feature an interview with award-winning filmmaker Kathy Leichter. Kathy’s mother, Nina Leichter, who suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide in 1995. Last year, Leichter completed filming for “Here One Day” (click to view trailer), a haunting, intimate documentary that explores the effect of her mother’s mental illness and suicide on her family. Shot by Kirsten Johnson, winner of the 2010 Excellence in Cinematography Award at The Sundance Film Festival, the on-screen power of this film is extraordinary. There is a fund-raising campaign now through the morning of June 1st on Kickstarter.com, to raise enough money to complete the film in time for a premier screening with the American Psychiatric Association. Click here to view the trailer, and here to make a donation.
1. You are very courageous to film this documentary about your mother’s suicide and the ramifications that has on a family. What do you hope to achieve with it?
Kathy: Making “Here One Day” has not only been a therapeutic tool for me to change my relationship to my mother and her death (to separate from it and her and find liberation and joy, amidst the pain and missing), but the film has already helped to break some of the silence and shatter taboos around suicide and mental illness for those of us living through these all too common experiences.
These issues beg for increased public discourse and personal connection. It’s so easy to feel isolated. I want this film to contradict that and help people to feel that they are not alone. It is part of my mission with this film to foster further understanding and improve current policies surrounding mental health awareness and care and suicide prevention. We hope this film will bring more attention to these issues and more funding for support and research.
“Here One Day” will reach thousands. It will be broadcast nationally and internationally on television and have an innovative community-based screening initiative that will train individuals who have bipolar disorder or who have had a suicide in their family to screen the film and facilitate discussions. Through this initiative, “Here One Day” will be screened, in partnership with a range of mental health organizations, in community centers, mental health clinics, educational institutions, and the halls of policy and will include a comprehensive website with links to accurate mental health reportage, resources, and opportunities for users to form their own virtual communities of support.
2. What do you find to be most difficult as a child of a mother who took her own life?
Kathy: This is a great question but I think my answer is first about what it was like to be the daughter of someone who was very emotionally needy throughout most of my childhood. I used to be very angry at my mother for needing me so much, but I like to think back across generations and having made this film, I am now much less judgmental of my mother and have a much greater understanding of what she was up against as a Jewish woman and a mother in the 1970’s whose parents emigrated to this country when they were young with parents who had been persecuted for being Jews in Russia. These happenings and this genocide trickles down across generations. So, my mother’s emotional neediness came from somewhere. It came from somewhere in her past and the way she was raised.
She didn’t just make it up and I don’t see it so much anymore as her fault. That said, it was difficult for me as a daughter not to have a mother who could consistently be there emotionally. And “consistent” is a key word because my mother was there and present at times and then at others not. I ended up doing a lot of caretaking of her in order to maintain an emotional connection and that was not healthy. I am still doing a lot of my own emotional work to learn how to stop taking care of people in order to be close to them and also to express my own needs. These are the emotional family heirlooms that I have inherited and I am trying to make headway with them so as to not pass as much down to my kids, though I certainly have passed some of this down already. It’s inescapable to some extent and out of our control. In direct your question, losing my mother to suicide when I was twenty-eight was earth shattering because now there was no literal way for me to take care of her in order to be close with her.
All avenues for connection had been broken and I felt helpless. This caused a great deal of distress and panic, pain and rage within me. And a giant, core of missing her. The film in part documents my journey nine years after her death to accept that I don’t need to take care of my mother anymore to be close to her, that I am now close to her, (even though she is dead) yet also more healthily separate from her.
3. Your young children play a key role in the documentary. Are you doing anything differently as a mother because of your mother’s suicide? When do you think you will tell them the real story about your mom’s death?
Kathy: As with the above, my mother’s suicide definitely plays a role in how I parent my children, but more so, it is the relationship that I had with my mother over time as someone with mental illness, who was v. emotionally needy that plays the biggest role. Figuring out the boundaries of taking care of them and not being swallowed up by my children’s needs as I was by my mother’s is a big challenge. I am doing pretty well with that now, but it’s taken a while.
The suicide itself was and is a major issue because I now live in the apartment where I grew up and from whose dining room window my mother jumped. I didn’t tell my sons for a long time that my mother had committed suicide. I don’t think I was ready—it was too painful and scary and I didn’t know what they would feel about the information and I couldn’t handle supporting them in it. At the time, I wasn’t so aware of what was going on. I just avoided it and told them things if they asked where Grandma Nina was like, “She was sick” without saying with what, or I said, “she had a sickness in her brain,” but I also then had to explain to my five year old that it was different from cancer and when he asked how and things got tricky. In addition, there I was making a film about this and it was all over my documentation, proposals for the film, website, etc. It was in the air in my home many ways.
So, when they had just turned nine and six (I wanted to tell both of them and not just leave the older one with a secret from his brother) I told them that my mother had killed herself because I didn’t want my nine year old reading about it on my website and not finding out from me. It was a great conversation and they asked some questions but not too many. They did not ask where it happened and I did not tell them. I will tell them that next and soon, before they see the film. I think I am ready and will be able to do it directly and clearly and will be able to let them ask questions about it and sit with whatever it brings up in them. I am, of course, afraid to tell them that they eat dinner every night by that window, but I do not want to hold too many secrets, any if possible, and esp. around this. The biggest thing I felt when I told them was huge relief. I don’t think I realized how much I was holding in and what a heavy a weight I felt by not telling them. I think they may have even picked up on the suicide or the fact that there was a secret I was carrying in the amazing ways only children can and so I think there was some relief on their part too that the word was out in the open. It’s freeing to talk about these things—or it can be…when you are ready.