An interview by Richard Whelan
At the end of 2014, Richard Whelan interviewed Gonzalo Bénard about “The Sacred Book of G” and how autism influenced his life. The interview got lost and ended up not being published. Until now.
RW – When and how did you discover that you were autistic?
GB – I started being noticed at school once I used the breaks to be in a hidden corner of the library, focused reading, since I was a kid, avoiding any social relation. I was a very good student, even though I never participated verbally unless when I really had to. I didn’t do sports because I was too clumsy. These were some of the facts that made the director/teachers send me to the psychologist so they could check up what was my issue not being social, or being socially awkward. I was 13yo when she told me, after days being “tested”. When she told me that I was autistic with that very nice IQ, and the meaning of it all, I asked to not tell anyone, and that I would use that IQ to turn around and face it by myself. Practicing speech, walking straight (in line) to stop being clumsy, being more social, look people in the eyes. I created a shield then, which I carried for many years. And my need of expressing became my autistic obsession since then. When I turned 27yo I was diagnosed again, by a psychiatrist, with the same results.
RW – Tell me about your three days of brain death. How are you alive?
GB – Somehow the “NT shield” that I built and carried started cracking and ended up broken when I was living in Barcelona, with all the stress of work, social events, having to deal with more and more people, doing everything by my own without any help. Lots of exhibitions, demanding clients over seas, social events that I had to participate. After a year of constant meltdowns, keeping it all to myself, my body stopped fixing the blood and my brain got deprived of oxygen. My stomach closed, my brain shut down. I do remember well though the hours of pre-coma, and the battle I had inside in which I ordered my body to come back to life. That day I went brain death. 3 days afterwards I came back to life. I might be alive because I never feared death, so I faced it. In my mind it was not my time yet. And I didn’t give up. I felt that was just a life’s test. In the book I wrote the whole story, and how it happened, honestly, as I never told before.
RW – Your photography crosses the boundary between animal and human. Would you consider this an attempt to connect with temporality or physicality?
GB – After the 3 days of brain death I went to the country house for a sabbatical year, as I felt the need to be more connected with the elements, with nature, with life itself. When we tame a horse, we’re taming ourselves too. Or the horse tames us as well. We humans tend to think that we’re superior to animals, however we do envy them, or their skills on flying, on seeing, on running… Since the Palaeolithic era, humans have this need and respect that got lost with the institutionalised religions creating imaginary friends for us to adore and fear. I never understood that. I kept being more close to life itself. Learning with nature. Observing the animals. Always in a more shamanic and respectful way, as a full time pupil. Connected to them, sometimes deeper than the connection I have with humans. My first photograph after the brain death was a self-portrait with a bull’s horn in front, the one that ignited my series “Oneness“. I needed to call for its power and strength that I had lost. Lost cultures did the same: they brought the skills of the animals to empower them. Like in Egyptian or Greek gods and mythologies. Lately I created two more series based on Hybrids and Shamanic Totems.
RW – How do you feel about climate change?
GB – I think that we can only feel impotent or even castrated towards the governments, corporations and lobbies, and how they are destroying the planet in such a fast way. Even though I have this ritual of planting trees every year, I wish more people would do that too. And this seems incoherent, when I just published “The Sacred Book of G” only in paper, and not as ebook. But I talk about this few times in the book though. I always had this in mind, even when I light the fireplace; I always use the rests of the wood that were left from cleaning the fields. And if a tree needs to be chopped to feed the fireplace for the winter, I immediately plant another. My first thought when that BP well spilled across the ocean was how come they have the best engineers to build the oil rigs offshore to drill and to extract and they never thought of security? Or solutions in case of breaking? Do they care? No. How one should react when the supposed-to-be the most important experts on climate are using private jets to go from one conference to another. Does it make any sense? No.
RW – Do you think autistics have a different relationship with their environment, and could you articulate this relationship?
GB – I guess so, especially with animals, even though most of us have it with pets, hence why there are autistic people who never go out without their trained dogs. Also, I guess that we’re more aware of the importance of nature/surroundings, as we’re bit disconnected socially. I feel by talking with more autistic people that we’re very aware on humanity-environment issues. We’re very much into science, into evolution, in a more sensitive way. It’s our mind connection with the planet and with the main issues that can affect the world. As we can be very logic and rational, not losing our sense of humanity and deep empathy.
RW – You write in a language other than your native language. In your introduction, you say that there will be mistakes but that this ensures that the text remains yours. Why is this important to you?
GB – I was raised in a very catholic conservative family, in which everything I would do had to go through a daily process of censorship. What I read, the music I hear, etc. My private journal was constantly being checked/censored, so I had to create a way to not be read. I come from a European family, being born in Lisbon, from French and Spanish cultures. They didn’t speak English though, so I started writing everything in English to keep it private. I did revise the book to correct the main mistakes, but I already had some experiences with revisers and was not very happy with it as they often change the rhythm of my writing, sometimes even giving completely different meanings to it. I was editorial coordinator for few years in the Cultural Centre of Belém, and I know that sometimes the authors were not that happy with revisions or translations as they, revisers and translators, could be quite creative changing the whole original thought. I wanted the book to follow the rhythm of my thoughts, to be honestly me in the writings. It was important for me, so I could release it without even read it before. Maybe if I read it before publishing I wouldn’t have dared to publish it.
RW – Why transition from photography to writing? What can writing offer you that photography can’t?
GB – There was no transition as I write since very young age, but I always had the writing as private. They co-exist in parallel ways. I always made my public life as a creative: painting, drawing or creating photographs. I needed something else for my own, as I also do creative cooking for my friends. All these are needs, the need of expressing, that I fill. Maybe painting was more related with past and photography with now. Writing has been always timeless. Also writing became a need to express and share experiences of life, from my years studying in Himalayas, my travels in Africa, learning with shamans, etc. I always travel by my own, alone with a journal. Rarely with cameras.
RW – Your webcam series ‘B Shot by a Stranger‘ feels relevant to contemporary life and our collective isolation. What drew you to this project?
GB – Since I always had this obsession with expressing myself, I’m always creating something. Creating is also very healing. When I feel that I will have a shutdown (or feel ill) the first thing I do is to create something new, so I never felt lonely since I’m always busy creating and reading. I enjoy immensely the silence and never felt isolated even when I spend several months alone in the middle of nowhere. One day a friend made a post on facebook saying that he was feeling lonely since his plans were cancelled. I wanted to witness it so I could understand what was to feel lonely. I asked him to turn on the webcam so I could “spy” on him, asking him to forget that I was watching him. He did, and I spent sometime watching him and his own loneliness. I found so curious, intriguing, that I decided to go deep in this. I created the series B Shot by a Stranger and for 3 years I’ve been “spying” on youth loneliness. And it’s amazing how they forgot themselves, how they forget their own existence when they’re lonely. I guess it’s a result of this screenager’s era. In which everything is virtual. I never felt lonely myself. And I wanted to understand what was to be lonely. I’ve been always psychological and sociologically curious. So I started the “B Shot by a Stranger“, which will end up as book, with photographs and texts. This series have been lectured in several universities and colleges worldwide due to it’s relevance in sociology and innovation in photography.
RW – Can you articulate the difference between autistic solitude and loneliness?
GB – Solitude is when you enjoy your own silence; your own mindful and you listen to yourself in a positive and learning way. It’s a gift you do to yourself. Loneliness, no matter if autistic or not, is more imposed, against your own will. You’re lacking your own self, even though you think that you’re lacking others. In autistic people, or in other minorities like gay youth, it seems to happen even more, as it’s harder to connect socially, or being fully accepted as you are. If you do need to be accepted and you’re not “normal”, you feel that you’re being ostracised. You then hide yourself, alone. In this screenager’s era, in which everything is virtual, it can give you fake hopes. Friends are just cyber ones with whom you never experience a real hug. When you don’t need it, you’re enjoying the silence, your own solitude. When the society tells you that you need it to be happy and you don’t have it, you feel empty, you feel lonely. The same happens in Christmas with all the commercial propaganda for families. If you have no family, you will feel the lack of it. But if you feel that you’re your own family, you don’t lack anything, you just feel comfortable with whom you are.
RW – Do you have an autistic ‘persona’ for social situations?
GB – I’m always the same, no matter if I’m alone or with people around me. However, yes, I create social shields, like energetic and mind shields to protect myself. Shields that I built since I realised how tiring could be dealing with social. People can influence you if you allow them to. All those social rules that you have to accept, even when they seem dogmas, not very logic, or non-sense ones. But we can discipline and play their games. They’re happy with that. Even when we know how non-sense they can be. So I play their games. Not forgetting who I am, but maybe creating some filters to not hurt others with my raw honesty for example. I learned how to swallow thoughts to not make them verbal. I can joke inside and I laugh in silence, knowing that I shouldn’t make those jokes verbal though. My humour can be very sharp and I know that there are people who will not follow it. So I remain in silence. Listening to their minds instead. Of course that when I’m alone I am much more comfortable as I can undress myself completely. Without the need of further explanations. But one day you can get tired, and in fact when I allowed myself to come out as autistic, much more people understood me and now “allow” me to be myself, not being judgmental in case I say or do something not really “proper”. I do feel much more relaxed since I came out. Maybe when I came out to myself.
RW – What do you believe to be the most misunderstood difference between autistics and Neurotypicals?
GB – Neurotypicals can be much more judgmental then us, and being so, less compassionate. Less open minded, less wise on that. Autistics can be much more aware of differentness, as we are minority, though different in a neurotypical society. The biggest misunderstood though I think it’s the social lack of empathy vs. emotional empathy. We might not have the best social skills, but we do have an incredible emotional empathy. And I think it works like when you’re blind: your sense of touch is deeper than the one who can see. Since we can lack social empathy, our sense of emotional empathy goes deeper. Other senses too. We can develop deeper our rational minds, be more focused, etc, since we don’t “lose time” reading other social expressions, which is great for some jobs. But people often forget that is in differentness where resides the beauty of life.
RW – Can you articulate your experience of travel? How does the context shift of moving from Lisbon to Paris influence your thinking and your work?
GB – Last year I worked in different cities, countries, and even cultures. Paris, Dublin, Western Sahara, country house in Spain, Lisbon and Cascais, a small town next to Lisbon. Paris has that cultural collective energy that feeds you, cosmopolitan; awaken bringing the urban mixed with past history and its own weight. Dublin is a smaller city where you find the most sympathetic people, warming in its own cold weather. The light is even greyer than it is in Paris though. But people are warmer and more extroverted than they are in Paris. It also depends on the friends and people you know on these places, but you can always feel the collective energy wherever you are. Western Sahara, and south of Morocco brings us a different culture, to which you are receptive but not belonging even if you feel good and relaxed there. You listen and you learn. In the country house, open field in the middle of nowhere, you have no contact with other people, only random wild animals passing by. Both country house, Morocco and Western Sahara have an incredible warm light, the opposite of Dublin or Paris, which have a much cooler light. Lisbon makes me always deal with the ghosts of my past, including connection with family and old friends. There’s more expectation from them, more responsibility to you. Different collective energy too: more relaxed, less urban then Paris. Less stressing. Cascais is even less stressing, where I have good friends living, by the sea. All this influences our work. The light influences the photographic work, as I like to shoot with natural light. The language also influences, and it’s amazing how one feel more into deep conversations when you’re in Paris talking in French, or more “superficial” when in Spain talking in Spanish. The collective energy changes a lot when you travel, and reading The Sacred Book of G you will notice it. There are parts written in Paris or in Western Sahara that are deeper. Other parts freer and more connected to earth when I’m in the country house, or more stressed if under the pressure of my family’s energy. The different rhythms of writing, the language you use, your mood shaping the sentences following the thoughts. In this book you will find different moods, rhythms, tensions, worries, etc.
RW – What do you hope to achieve with this book?
GB – I started writing this book several times and ended up losing the files or even deleting them. It was not supposed to be written at the time. Last year I decided it was time to write it. I needed to release some ghosts, some past memories and especially to face some fears. As I wrote before I always wrote in private. No one ever read my journals from Africa or Himalayas where I spent 3 years. I always kept all my writings private. Last year I guess that I had the need to start releasing my experiences of life, my life travels and journeys. The Sacred Book of G was my first step. Hence why it had to come out raw, the way I wrote it. I was not worried with being a good literary book. I just wrote as I was thinking. I didn’t think out loud. I let the thoughts to write it by their own. In a stream of consciousness. With the same rhythm as I thought them at the time. My main target was to face the fears I had, now they’re released. They are no longer mine. I had no other expectations writing the book: I wrote to myself as I always write. If you read it, and you have good time reading it, I’m happy that I wrote it then. If my experiences of life can help you to become better person, if anything written there can shake you and make you think, that’s even better.
Any new projects soon?
GB – Yes, I’m afraid that I don’t know how to do anything else except creating, it’s a need and an obsession. I’ve already started writing my new book: “I Energy” on Collective Consciousness, Quantum Physics and Old Shamanism, as I’m connected with all of these topics since I was a child. In this book I bring my knowledge on healing yourself and others through collective consciousness, through the power of the mind, using visualisation and transcendental meditation. It’s a must read if you’re into collective consciousness and on mastering your own mind, but also for parents and tutors of autistic people, adult autistics and anyone else who wants to go deeper into shamanism and science of mind.
I’m also working on 2 video poems, that you may see here and here.
Richard Whelan is an Irish Grad student in Film Studies and journalist. He writes film criticism, fiction, and cultural theory.
He’s in the autism spectrum.
Preview and Purchase now:
“The Sacred Book of G” is a stream of consciousness, a thought provoking intimate journal written by Gonzalo Bénard. After 3 days of brain death he reborn with a deep loss of memory. He reborn without any sense of his past — of his own roots — of his own self. Before that he’d spent his time creating defences to disguise his autism. He had lost it too. New born G had no memory and no defences.
“I, Energy” is a book on Cosmic Consciousness, Quantum Physics and Old Shamanism written by Gonzalo Bénard who not only lived in Himalayas with shamans and in a Buddhist monastery but also in the Western Sahara with old shamans. A guide on healing and transcendental meditation and how you can master your own mind.
Gonzalo Bénard is a lecturer, a tutor of autistic teenagers, and a visual artist. His photography has been part of the annual programs of several universities around the world, and are in several private and public art collections such as Museum of Serralves or Sir Elton John’s. His works are in Hollywood productions and TV series.
You can see his work of photography at his webpage.
if you read any of these books, feel free to leave your comment here!