By Robert David Jaffee
December 10, 2014

Full Article [Remembering Artist Julian St. John, 24, With New Details on His Life, Death and Poetry]Huffington Post


"Rest, rest, perturbed spirit," says Hamlet to the ghost of his father.

I could not help but think of that line when I heard that Julian St. John, a gifted artist and poet, who suffered from schizophrenia, had passed away on Nov. 23, roughly two weeks shy of his 25th birthday.

Julian may not have been Danish royalty, but he was a prince of a young man, and he resembled both Hamlet and the ghost of Hamlet's father in having a shortened, battle-scarred life of much promise. Many saw that promise in Julian's art. I also saw it in person and in his rarely viewed poetry, from which I will quote at the end of the article.

The circumstances of his passing remain murky. Some media outlets have dubbed it a suicide or possible suicide, but out of respect for the memory of Julian, whom I knew, I am reluctant to characterize his death as anything other than a tragedy.

In my exclusive phone interview on Dec. 10 with Julian's mother Mia, she revealed publicly for the first time that she and her family are considering a lawsuit against La Casa Psychiatric Health Facility, a county facility in Long Beach, Calif., where Julian was being treated at the time of his passing.

"We want to make changes and reform these hospitals to prevent any future tragedies," Mia told me earlier today.

While no one knows the exact number of annual deaths at psychiatric hospitals, Mia cited a statistic she had seen that there are roughly 1,800 deaths a year at these facilities. I could not confirm that statistic, but there is no question that even one death at a psychiatric facility is one death too many.

In an explosive series of allegations, Mia said that even though Julian was on "precautionary watch" at La Casa Psychiatric Health Facility, he was left in the same unit with the very item with which he had attempted suicide on Nov. 5. Due to the sensitivity of the case, she was not at liberty to reveal the item in question.

She said that the L.A. County Coroner's office still has not come back with any definitive conclusions regarding Julian's death on Nov. 23. As she said, "the case remains under investigation."

At press time, I had not heard back from any officials at La Casa Psychiatric Health Facility; I was told by a receptionist at the facility that she had been instructed by her superiors that there would be no comment on Julian's passing.

Upon hearing of this tragedy, I thought back to the first time I met Julian. It was at Jerry's Famous Deli in Studio City, Calif., in late February 2013.

When Julian, joined by Mia, walked into Jerry's that day with a sweet, almost sheepish, grin on his face and a hesitant slouch in his gait, I immediately felt a connection to him.

It did not surprise me that Julian, who was dressed at the time in a Playboy Jazz Festival T-shirt and a pink Yankee cap, had endured bouts of depression since childhood, nor that he had grappled with psychosis from the age of 18, when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

I told him that I too had grappled with severe depression, going back to my earliest years, and that I too had been psychotic. He nodded knowingly when I described to him some of my delusions from the late 1990s when I thought that I was going to be blamed for a series of murders sweeping the country.

And as he ate his waffles at Jerry's, he smiled when I told him that back in 1999 I feared that my girlfriend's cat had been programmed by the CIA to monitor me.

Julian obviously understood what it was like to have delusions of a harrowing nature.

I had gotten to know Mia, a world champion boxer, through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), where I had given a talk about five years ago. In that talk, I had focused on my recovery from two psychotic breaks and a family history of suicide and mental illness.

When Mia, who has had panic attacks and has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, introduced me to Julian, she and I told him that I had been able to tame my illness, that I was living proof that someone with an acute mental disorder could go on to lead a productive life.

Even though he had the support of his mother and his father, Kristoff, a daytime Emmy-winning actor on The Young and the Restless, Julian did not seem so optimistic. As I wrote in my profile of him in March 2013, Julian had spent time living on the streets, in public bathrooms in parks, and occasionally in motels.

Julian, whose mother is of Mexican descent and whose father is African-American, shook his head when I asked him how he felt about President Obama and politicians in general.

He said with a sense of resignation that there is "not much of a difference who the president is."

As I pointed out in that profile, Newt Gingrich, whose mother had a mental disorder, was the only politician in the 2012 presidential race who broached any issues concerning mental health.

Too often, people who suffer from mental illness make the news when there is an alleged link to a mass killing, even though the severely mentally ill commit only 3 to 4 percent of violent crime in this country, as studies show.

Julian, like most of the mentally ill, lived a life that was very different from the one that is often sensationalized by media outlets.

While Julian had a few scrapes with law enforcement, he was a soulful man, who searched for meaning and truth through his art and poetry. His journey was idiosyncratic. It did not fit into the simplistic "cycle" of incarceration, homelessness and hospitalization that we all read about in the papers.

When I heard that Julian had passed away, I thought not only of our meeting at Jerry's, after which he lighted up a Pall Mall in the parking lot, but also of his exhibit opening several weeks later in late March 2013 at the Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art.

An hour or so into the art opening, Julian said in front of me and Mia and a few of his friends that he felt "overwhelmed" and that he needed to go back to his hotel room.

He headed back to the hotel, but he did return later in the night.

It would be inadequate to refer to Julian's need to light up a cigarette or to leave the exhibit as solely a reaction to stress. Julian, who grappled with substance abuse as well as severe, clinical mental illness, had a chemical imbalance and an existential dread that few people can comprehend.

That is not to say that he did not have admirers, who cared for him.

There were many people at his gallery opening, including Mia, Julian's sister Paris, and his paternal grandfather, Christopher, an actor, perhaps best known for his work in Shaft and other blaxploitation films of the 1970s.

One of Julian's paintings on display that night featured his take on his grandfather from the blaxploitation period. As I wrote at the time, Julian's art combined the vigorous brushstrokes of Van Gogh with Jean-Michel Basquiat's haunting portrayals of black men living in urban America.

Julian told me at our original meeting at Jerry's that he loved Van Gogh's "The Bedroom," not only because Van Gogh battled schizophrenia but also because "The Bedroom," one of the Dutch painter's canvases of an empty bed in a warped room, reminded Julian of his grandfather.

Julian referred to his grandfather as a "lonely man."

Shortly after Julian passed away, Mia emailed me that there was a lot of "inaccurate" information "on the Internet" about Julian's death.

As I wrote at the outset, Mia indicated that she and Julian's family are considering a lawsuit against La Casa Psychiatric Health Facility, where Julian was on "precautionary watch."

There is no question that when a patient is on such a watch, the patient should be stripped of all possible items and observed regularly. When I was a patient at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute in January 1999, my pockets were emptied of all implements and other belongings, and I was awakened every 15 minutes or so to make sure I wasn't trying to hurt myself.

There is also no question that those who suffer from mental illness receive very little support or empathy from most policymakers out there.

It is understandable that Mia, who has worked with Congresswoman Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) to try to pass a Mental Health in Schools Act, and her family feel that the county hospital failed them and Julian.

Mia and her family are experiencing unfathomable pain.

While I believe in free will and the ability to subdue mental illness, Julian was clearly fighting an excruciating battle, a test of his will, every day.

At the time of Julian's passing, his father tweeted that Julian is now with the angels.

He might have been thinking of Horatio's line about Hamlet, "Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Yet it might be most appropriate to conclude with Julian's own words from "The Story of Jewels," his collection of poetry and images that was published in 2013 and that Mia sent me earlier this year. The other articles on Julian's passing have not discussed this work.

As Julian wrote in "Windy City Girl," his final poem in the collection, "Go with a leap of faith/One who runs with the flow at a slow place/Stop for it has already been written, a new found Glory in the love we were missing/Loved and lost and love found/When hope no longer is fading, beginning patience/Waiting, I listen/Going back, back when, way back, going mad, I laugh/Re-occurring steps, reassuring eyes/Come home"

While the poem might be viewed as espousing suicide, it also expresses euphoria and a penchant for the past that evoke Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."

As the great Romantic poet, who suffered from severe depression, wrote, "Though nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind."

For me, what remains behind, among other memories, is one that occurred late that night at the Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art in March 2013. Julian and I each held a canvas that he had sold at his gallery opening. As we replicated a duel, lightly tapping the bubble-wrapped canvases against each other as if they were shields or swords, Julian said to his friends, "I love this guy. He always says, 'cool' and 'dude.'"

There is no doubt that many of us will continue to grieve Julian's passing.

I must point out in a sign of hope that Julian did not include a period at the end of "Windy City Girl." I am sure that was intentional, as his editor indicated in a note at the beginning of the text that "Great care has been taken to transcribe Julian St. John's writings exactly as he wrote them down."

 

Julian's life may have come to an end, but his spirit and his art live on, or as Wordsworth would say, "remain behind." I can only hope that Julian has indeed "come home"