Spotlight on Research: Art professor explores trauma through objects and art

From the beginning, we are attached to sentimental objects. We all have belongings that we hold on to. Some have no intrinsic value, like that worn baby blanket you slept with until you were eight years old, or that perfect seashell you found on your vacation. We treasure other objects for their value and beauty, like the family heirlooms passed down through generations or the works of art we enshrine in museums. These objects provide a concrete, tactile way for us to access associated memory and emotion.

For Professor of Art Carol Ockman, Sarah Bernhardt’s handkerchief has become one of those objects.

When I went to talk to Ockman for the Record’s Spotlight on Research column, I didn’t know quite what to expect. When I contacted her to set up the interview, she told me she was working on a”trauma narrative” – a creative nonfiction. In other words, not a typical research subject. Nevertheless, hearing about her work was both fascinating and deeply touching.

Sarah Bernhardt, a French stage and early film actress active during the Belle Époque, has been called the greatest actress the world has ever known. In 2005, Ockman co-curated a multimedia exhibit on Bernhardt at the Jewish Museum in New York City that featured film, photography, costume, sculpture and other memorabilia.

“Somehow, over the course of curating, we found out that Sarah Bernhardt had a handkerchief that she had given to a great actress of the American stage, and that it passed from hand to hand,” Ockman said. And the hands that it passed through were some of the greatest luminaries of 20th century theater : Helen Hayes, Julie Harris, Susan Strasberg.

Ockman and her co-curator, Kenneth Silver, found out that the handkerchief was currently in the possession of Cherry Jones, who was starring in the Broadway production of Doubt, for which she would win her second Tony award. Jones graciously agreed to lend it to the exhibition, and Ockman became “completely taken with it.”

“What appealed to me was the talismanic quality of this handkerchief,” Ockman said. “If you received it from another great actor, it was this amulet for your career. All of a sudden, you were an immortal. You were in the company of Sarah Bernhardt and Helen Hayes and all these great performers who preceded you. I was also interested in the fact that it was a woman’s story, because while it could have been given to a man, it never had been. It’s been 105 years now that it’s been passed on.”

The 2005 exhibit culminated with a performance based on Sarah Bernhardt*s work. Greats like Jones, Ellen Lauren, Lynn Cohen, Deborah Winger and Ockman herself performed monologues and arias from Bernhardt*s repertory, from Phaedra to Camille to Tosca.

Anne Bogart, founder and director of SITI Company, which put on the performance, said during one rehearsal that the performance was Carol’s dream.

After the performance, Ockman began working on a book about the handkerchief.

“It started to become my talisman, too,” Ockman said. “I wrote about the performance, and the word &I kept entering into my narrative. I realized it wasn’t a regular art history book. It has a personal component, and how could it not?”

After the exhibition and the performance were over, Ockman entered “a black hole.” It wasn’t just the sadness that one feels after a wonderful event is over. There was another object that Ockman needed to confront.

“I finally realized that I was having what people call a return of trauma,” Ockman said. “20 years after the fact, I was feeling the pain and horror of my father’s suicide. It was a wound ripped open, as I hadn’t felt it since the time it actually occurred in 1986. There was something about the way the handkerchief brought me back to trauma. This narrative that had already become personal became obviously even more personal. I needed to talk about another object, which was the gun with which my father took his life.”

Ockman said that the return of trauma started with the performance, working with people “for whom tragedy and feeling is their daily work, much as it was Bernhardt’s.”

“In the manuscript, I show the handkerchief and the gun as if they’re a diptych, attached by a piece of frame that sutures them,” Ockman said. “The book became the story of a beautiful object that embodies a story of continuity, celebrity and a life-changing evening for me and the story of a horrific object, a story of rupture, of incommensurable loss. This ordinary man, my dad, who, in a shocking way, removed himself from this world and from our lives. There is nothing that embodies silence more than suicide.”

In the book, Ockman also talks about the few objects she has from her father. Five jars of polished semi-precious stones that he made with a rock polisher, a coin with the head of Liberty on it and photographs of him.

“When Anne Bogart called the performance &Carol’s dream, I didn’t know what she meant,” Ockman said. “It took me years to figure out what she was talking about. Carol’s dream was about being given those emotions, as hard as they are, in a way that is also transcendent.”

Ockman is in the process of publishing her book, but it has also become a performance 〝 in keeping with Bernhardt’s tradition.

“I did a reading of the book here at Williams, in the directing studio at the ’62 Center,§ Ockman said. “I invited mostly people who had been on my journey, who knew that I was writing about suicide. At the end of the evening, every person in the audience said that it has to be a performance. So now I also have a one-woman show, which is also about trauma.”

Ockman has been invited to perform the show at Stanford. I asked her if she would perform the show at the College.

“I always issue a warning when I do a reading, that this is difficult subject matter. But I would do it for interested students. I’m a performer, and I would be happy to do it.”

  • For more insight into the ways in which we navigate through our lives by imbuing otherwise ordinary things with deep meaning, check out the documentary film, Objects and Memory (www.objectsandmemory.org).