A Haunting Story of Sex Abuse

Using collaboration as a primary form of storytelling, Nina Berman compiled an overwhelming book about the extraordinary resilience of a woman victim of sex abuse since her early childhood.

© Nina Berman, from the book An autobiography of Miss Wish

Photographer Nina Berman met Cathy Wish in London in 1990 while photographing the legacy of Margaret Tatcher’s neoliberal economic policies in the streets of London. Short-haired, a Yankee jacket on, Miss Wish wandered the street, eventually got high and strived to survive. For a week, Nina got a glimpse of Cathy’s story, but only over the years will she know the details. “The story would reveal itself over time”, Berman writes.

Over a period that spans 27 years and various geographies, the book unfolds Miss Wish’s horrific reality at the same pace as Nina discovered it, quickly taking the reader into a vortex of dreadful events – she has been victim of sexual abuse as a child, survived sex trafficking and child pornography led by members of her family; was forced to see her friend being assaulted, raped, killed, and dismembered; was harassed, threatened and tortured by her offenders; and was inevitably soaked up into mental illness and homelessness over the years that followed. The power of the storytelling comes from the variety of documents used to narrate her life - psychological reports, first-person accounts, letters, as well as impressive graphic drawings by Kimberly Stevens (Kim) – a name Miss Wish took as she moved to New York.

© Nina Berman. Illustration by Kimberly Stevens, from the book An autobiography of Miss Wish

The book questions the role and responsibility of a photographer whose boundaries Berman literally blew up. Many letters, and later text messages, attest to Berman and Cathy/Kim’s close relationship. “I love you so much, Nina”, Queenie, as Berman calls her, signs her many letters.

“Through all this, I was her emergency contact and de facto next of kin. I met with therapists, took her to hospitals, helped explain her story. I became something of an expert on New York’s psychiatric facilities which varied widely in care but more often than not, genuinely attempted to help Kim through her flashbacks, suicidal thoughts and addiction”, Berman writes in the book’s afterword.

So much so that, as Berman explains, “I stopped photographing her after watching her nightmare that time [i.e. in 1991] in my apartment and for many subsequent years I only took the occasional snapshot”. She didn’t consider Kim as a subject anymore, she was her friend. She felt guilty when she was not there for her. She felt responsible for her. She only started to photograph Kim again in 2007, when “I thought she was going to die and I had only a few pictures to remember her by.”

© Nina Berman, from the book An autobiography of Miss Wish

Going through the book is distressing. One holds breath in fear of worse that never seems possible but invariably materialises. In the end, a picture depicts a handwritten note from Kim to Nina “Thank you, I’m sorry. I will always love you!!! Look AT THE MOON”, and we fear to learn that she succeeded in an umpteenth suicide attempt.

She didn’t. But this note, as several others, reveals Kim’s frailty – she talks about her love of the moon, of the sun, of people giving her courage when they smile at her in the street, and never leaving her teddy bear which she still carries with her, crossing the street with lost eyes and a heartbreakingly aged face. With this collaborative work, Berman and Miss Wish manage to recomplexify the world and make it less binary by hacking social injunctions.

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An autobiography of Miss Wish by Nina Berman

Photographs by Nina Berman // Texts by Nina Berman and Kimberly Stevens // Design by Teun van der Heijden

Cloth-hardcover // 15 drawings by Kimberly Stevens and with AR-functionality

268 pages // 175 colour illustrations // 18.6 x 24 cm // €49.90

BUY HERE

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Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, author and educator. Her wide-ranging work looks at American politics, militarism, post violence trauma and resistance. She is a member of Noor Images. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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