One Artist’s Schizophrenia

A sister films how a mental illness transforms a deftly creative mind

John Cadigan is a large, bearded, often morose, sometimes not morose, sometimes far worse than morose, schizophrenic in his early 30s. Katie Cadigan, one of his two sisters, older than John but looking younger, is a lively, attractive, spirited woman who, like John, grew up in the Danbury, Connecticut, area, but as an adult has mostly lived, as does John, in Northern California.

Together they have made a film about John, his illness, his family — mother, father, two sisters, one brother — his occasional friends, and his life and work as an artist. It is an 83-minute documentary called “People Say I’m Crazy.” As Bette Davis (well, Margo Channing) once declared, “Buckle your seat belts.”

The first thing to be said about John Cadigan, on the evidence of his woodcuts and other art work in the film, is that he is a real artist whose striking iconography, whether or not intended, bears graphic, and other overtones, resemblance to the German and Austrian Expressionists and ancient Japanese masters. That with all of his emotional ups and ferocious downs Cadigan could still turn out this work says a great deal both about art and about him.

“John pretty much came out of the womb drawing,” said Katie Cadigan late one afternoon last week, in the glassed-in corner of a hotel lobby in Manhattan’s East 20s. She and her brother sat, talked and answered questions for an hour about the making of their film.

“Well,” said John Cadigan, who’d first been hit by whatever it was that hit him while an art student at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “in 1992 I went to live with Katie in California, and she was looking around for a film idea, and I suggested she do a film on me.”

As a sort of warm-up, she made the 27-minute “Out of My Mind” short, as a thesis film for her master’s degree in communications at Stanford University. “If I can brag a moment,” Katie Cadigan said, “it won the [1995] David Wolper [student] award of the Independent Documentary Association.”

John Cadigan’s left leg began to slightly, but visibly, tremble there in that glass box, as he said: “I was very ill,” and his sister said: “Six months into [the larger project], John was catatonic. What started out what we’d hoped would be a film about his getting better” — the “we” taking in the whole Cadigan family — “became a film about his descent.”

“But,” said John, “trust in the family opened the door.”

The people that you get to know rather well in the 83 short minutes of “People Say I’m Crazy” are Richard Cadigan, their father, a retired Episcopal minister; their divorced, unmarried mother, Sally Blanchard Cadigan, who works in day care; John; Katie; younger sister Anne, a writer; and brother Steve, a director of human resources for Cisco.

It is Steve who one day, in the film, at the wheel of a car, has a hard time keeping a straight face when John confesses to not having paid a landlady for seven years. It is dad, Richard Cardigan, the retired minister, who does not at all like it when John beats him in bowling (“hyper-competitive” is Katie’s word for their father — “a priest from a long line of priests”).

And it is their mother, Sally, who in her kitchen, in response to her son’s inquiry, says: “The hardest part? Oh, John, to single out one, I couldn’t do it. One hundred hard parts. Just to watch how much you struggled — what pain you were in — unbearable.”

The first three years of his illness, John Cadigan, in Katie’s words, “cycled every anti-psychotic anti-depressive on the market, and nothing worked.”

John: “They called me a ‘refractory patient,’ and said I was never going to get better.”

Katie: “Then in 1994 he got on Clozaril, the first new anti-psychotic medication in 25 years.”

John: “I think I was already on lithium.”

Katie: “Since 1994 the cocktail has changed, and he’s now on a cocktail of seven, I think it is, meds, the main one being Geodon.”

When Katie made her thesis film, she and John had struck an agreement that if, at the end of a day’s shooting, he didn’t like something, it would be chopped out. He did occasionally demand something be trimmed, once in the matter of getting his driving license and once “about a crush on a girl.”

Katie: “And the big thing was to cut out his art.”

John: “Looking back on it, a dumb idea.”

Certainly was. That dumb idea was mercifully scrapped in the making of “People Say I’m Crazy,” a film that in fact ends with John’s work being displayed in a group show.

With the thesis film completed and Katie teaching at Stanford, John felt a lack.

“I sort of missed filmmaking, so I suggested we start again. So then Katie taught me everything she taught her grad students and we started working together.”

One inspiration for John Cadigan, filmmaker, had been the films of Joseph Cornell, the homegrown artist whose small surreal boxes are a whole magical phenomenon in themselves. “D’you know how he started?” said Cadigan. “He had a brother who was disabled and in a wheelchair, and he started making those boxes to entertain his brother.”

“When we started working together,” Katie said, “John took to filmmaking better than any of my students. The stuff he bought back was incredible. So I said: ‘You take over. Your vision. Your story. I’m here for whatever help you need.’”

She also told him to go out and just keep shooting, as did Barbara Ballinger, John’s psychiatrist then and now, “who said: ‘If you want to do this film you have to film everything, including the dark spaces.’” Ms. Ballinger believed in her patient so much that she allowed the camera to come into the therapy room.

“We had one rule,” says Katie. “If and when John had the strength to shoot, he would not edit in the camera but would go with the flow.”

John: “You get some great things that way.”

Actually the whole Cadigan family participated in the shooting, wielding the camera from time to time. In one intense moment when John, in a dark space, is shouting at Katie: “Fuck you! And fuck the film!” the camera was being held by younger sister Anne in her house.

Also invaluable to the making of “People Say I’m Crazy” was producer Ira Wohl, who had won a 1980 Academy Award for “Best Boy,” his documentary about Philly, a retarded cousin being cared for by two aging parents.

“Ira raised money, helped sell the film, gave us advice, gave us some outside perspective not related to the family. And he’s not only a filmmaker himself but a therapist,” said Katie.

Yes, Katie Cadigan has a private life. “Oh, I am very married, deeply married, to a wonderful man, Mark Vickers, a chief technologist in software.” Yes, John Cadigan might still not be averse to having a crush on a girl someday, or more than that.

He asks if one would like to look at some woodcuts he just happens to have with him. And one did, and they’re good.

The movie “was snapped up by HBO Cinemax,” says Katie. “When we made it, we were not looking for theatrical release.” But here they are, and here it is, after making the rounds of film festivals — “first time in New York, first theatrical premiere. And John spoke at all those festivals,” his sister said.

People probably won’t say they’re crazy.

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