“When I have had such men before my camera my whole soul has endeavored to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man. The photograph thus taken has been almost the embodiment of a prayer.” – Julia Margaret Cameron
I was in the middle of a horrific separation and divorce, home educating my two children, isolated from all my family and friends, and living in the exact center of nowhere in the Midwest, when I finally accessed my own laptop, (I wasn’t allowed), my own cell phone, (I wasn’t allowed), my own credit card, (I wasn’t allowed), and eventually, my own life, (nope, I wasn’t allowed that, either). It happened slowly, over time, this erosion of my personal identity, and I was determined to restore and rebuild it, in the face of tirades, threats, and tyranny. I’d listened to all the, “But, I let you… (fill in the blank with any normal occurrence, such as taking one’s children home to New England for annual visits with family and friends), that I could possibly hear, before I made the decision to finally leave what was nothing more than a contract of marriage, rather than a covenant of love, with almost the most deplorable human being I have ever known.
It was clumsy. I worked for the business that the father of my children and his parents owned, for fourteen years, and had never, ever, ever been paid a salary. I had absolutely no social security, no savings, no retirement – and worse, no marital real estate property or vehicle of my own. Everything, absolutely everything, I believed that I owned, including the nineteenth century farmhouse I lived in, and which I restored to twentieth century standards with my own hands, did not belong to me. Worse, I was a 45 year old woman with no education. To hell with this, I thought, I’ve been single parenting since the day I brought my babies home from the hospital, so I’m taking my little family, and I’m leaving. The only problem was that he would not let us go. And worse, he devised ways to keep me imprisoned for another five years. We were in a cage of his making, my children and I, as he crafted deadly spears, with which to poke at each of us through a locked metal door.
Agency, however, is a grand thing. If you’ve never studied Women & Religion or Anthropology of Religion, you really should, but I’ll save the storytelling about religion in my life, the reasons for deconstructing it, and the wonder of agency, for another installment. I miraculously found myself the most lovely, diligent, and powerful advocate for women and children, and began a journey that changed my life and the lives of my children, forever. I enrolled in the local university extension, got a part time job in the college library, and began what was to become, for me, an awakening. All those years of researching for home educating my children had prepared me for a life in academia that I had only ever dreamed existed.
Things began to look up. The bridge troll next door, (literally, next door, with a hand gun and a practice target), as I began to refer to him, met his very own unscrupulous, unrefined, unfit female version of himself and they became lovers. “How absolutely wonderful, for you,” I said to him, most sincerely. Yes, anthropological studies were very helpful to me, indeed, for the discovery of my own agency. I quickly learned where to identify more of it, and how to apply it – liberally. Before I knew it, I was driving 1260 miles east, all the way to my home in New England with both a U-Haul truck and my children following me, to one of the top Seven Sisters colleges in the country, with a full scholarship and everything.
But through those five years of hardship, before we left the Midwest, and through all the pain and suffering we endured, my children and I made many new friends. One of my friends, who became a mentor to me, was a college professor at Boston University. His voice of encouragement, his belief in my capabilities, and our shared anguish over the dissolve of each of our marriages, in which we had invested so much faith and trust and commitment – all to no avail – became the foundation for our relationship, which continues to this day. Our common interests in our Anglican Church heritage, art, music, literature, and travel, quickly became apparent. Whenever we found ourselves able, we shared time together when I returned to New England, often in the museums and galleries that we both enjoyed, so well. During a visit to one of them, he explored the gift shop and later presented to me, a Phaidon volume from the 55 Series on Julia Margaret Cameron, by Joanne Lukitsh.
So began my love affair with Julia Margaret Cameron, which has lasted these many years, since. Wife, mother, and Victorian Photographer of Fine Art Portraiture, Julia began her career as an artist at the age of 48, and inspired me to begin my own career as a scholar at an Ivy League Women’s College, at the exactly the same age. There, I learned to seek out, explore, discover, create, and become, again, a woman with her own identity. Finding Julia was the single most influential and meaningful vocational experience of my life, after my careers in Home Education and Motherhood. Finding Julia allowed me to find myself, and in finding myself, I have also found a life filled with a wealth of opportunities, successes, achievements, and victories. Finding Julia led me to understand that my narrative is a narrative not so very unlike many, many women today, living in countries all across the globe, and that the importance of women helping other women cannot be understated, in all our sisterhoods.
Finding Julia led me to extraordinary circumstances one evening, as I was seated at a lovely candlelit table in a charming restaurant in England, raising a glass together with the current day’s most important Julia Margaret Cameron academics and scholars, in the world. And who should be sitting directly across from me, enjoying a plate of fine delicacies and wine during our enthusiastic discussion of the new January exhibit on Julia Margaret Cameron, to be installed at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London? None other than Joanne Lukitsh, History of Art Professor at Massachusetts College of Art & Design, in Boston, and the author of that first Phaidon volume on Julia Margaret Cameron that I ever owned, given to me by the man who was to become my husband.
By then, I wasn’t finding Julia any longer. Julia was finding me.
On Finding Julia, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020.