We Need to Talk About Carrie

A personal project from Carrie Thompson explores therapy and family

by Emily von Hoffmann

Emily von Hoffmann: How did the idea for your artist exhibition photobook, “Notes From My Therapist,” arise? Can you describe its concept for our readers?

Carrie Thompson: I made Notes From My Therapist from 2012–2015. I was so unhappy. I was starving physically and mentally. I spent my days surviving, not living. I decided to try therapy. Because my mom was a therapist, I’ve always disliked therapy. She made me go as a child. I was very good at convincing them I was just fine. This time I wanted to be open and honest in the hope that I would be able to live more than just survive.

I wanted to stay invested in the therapy, so I asked my therapist if she could please talk to me the way she would talk to a friend. I did not want to hear psychobabble. She did as much as she could and I was thankful. She started giving me notes at the end of our sessions. The notes were things I said or themes from our session. Soon after, I also asked her to start making portraits of me. She seemed as vulnerable taking the photos as I was telling her about my struggle. It was a collaborative process.

EvH: In a recent exhibition, the book was installed within a replica of your own therapist’s waiting room, which served as a real waiting room for real patients. Can you tell us more about the book as a public experience of therapy? What do you expect it to invoke in the reader-participants, who are presumably already in a similarly vulnerable state?

CT: The waiting room replica was a place for the book to be consumed. I have grown tired of photos framed on the wall, so I made a room for my book, photos and writing. The room was in a gallery as a part of a show. The viewer would sit in this room, a room that looked and felt like a therapy waiting room and look at my book about my experience in therapy. The only reading material in this room was my book and my writings from this time. The room, when more than one person was in it, felt very vulnerable. The viewers were looking at and reading about real raw situations and reflecting on their own lives in the company of others.

EvH: You wrote that the images, and the work more broadly, explore “roots, rootlessness, and restlessness, generally in the context of my own upbringing as the child of a broken family.” Rather than being a mere record, is the work itself therapy? What was the process of exploring these topics like for you?

CT: The work itself was not therapeutic. The work is a snapshot of one person’s experience in therapy. It also is a story that so many have experienced. I am from a broken family. My son is from a broken family. Thousands of people can say the same thing. I want people to see that good can come from pain. Learning from, not pushing away struggle is very important. Most importantly, broken families are not really broken.

EvH: Interspersed throughout are scraps of lined yellow notebook paper with handwritten notes. Can you tell us more about these notes and the purpose they serve? How did you choose these specific ideas to structure the story?

CT: At the end of every session my therapist gave me one of these handwritten notes. She wrote them during our session. The words she wrote were a theme from the session or something I said. The yellow paper she wrote her notes on was the same paper she wrote these notes. She would rip off the note and I would put it in my bag for the week. These notes were the things I was struggling with at the time, so they help set the mood and flow of the book.

EvH: Can you tell us about one or two of your favorite images from the collection, and the situation surrounding them? What makes these particularly compelling or memorable to you?

CT: All of the photos of me in the therapy room were made by my therapist. We talked a lot about me not crying in therapy. One day it was raining really hard. I decided to stand in the rain for awhile before going to my session. When I got there I asked her to make my crying photo. It was faked, I was not crying but the wetness had the same weight of me not crying in session.

The spread with the dogs laying on the floor are images of my two dogs from that time that both passed away. They died a year apart. My son’s father and I had to put both of them to sleep. Both images were made at the vet only minutes after they passed. As I said, these years were very hard. I was desperately trying to survive as all the things I loved went away.

EvH: Who are some artists or creatives in any medium, who give you joy right now?

CT: I have spent most of the last six months reading. I love the New York Times weekly Modern Love essays. I get the sunday paper. The first thing I do is find Modern Love and cuddle up in bed with the paper.

In addition to Modern Love, I also enjoy Pico Iyer’s writing. His work on stillness calms and excites me. A year ago I would never think that being still would be a personal goal for my life. Now it sounds like the most enriching way to be in the world.

Carrie Thompson is an artist, writer, and studio manager. Follow her on Medium. Order Notes From My Therapist.”