In 1969, Rachel Zarco left her husband and five children for a new partner. He was abused for more than five years. Then she suffered a brain injury through a particularly hard stroke and became a nursing case.
Today, Rachel Zarco is 81 years old. In a photo book * her daughter, the photographer Hannah Kozak, wants to talk about the tragic consequences of domestic violence and a long road to reconciliation.
10 picturesDomestic violence: One blow too much
SPIEGEL: Ms. Kozak, you were nine years old when your mother left your family. After that, you kept seeing how the mother was abused by her new partner. What is going on in a child?
Kozak: On Friday evening, she often brought me to the house where she lived with her new husband. She was afraid to be alone with him because Friday was the night he would go out and drink more than usual. Once we were both asleep in the living room, me on the chair, she on the sofa. I woke up because I heard the front door.
SPIEGEL: What happened then?
Kozak: I heard a loud clapping. He had slapped my mother's face in sleep. Then he switched on the light and said he just clapped his hands to scare her. That's when I first learned that adults are lying.
SPIEGEL: One day the new life companion abused her mother so badly that she sustained permanent damage.
Kozak: You had a fight because my dad had brought her a coat. My father sold leather coats and my mother loved to dress nicely. The new man became jealous and struck. He simply left her bleeding on the bedroom floor, all night. The next morning, his sister called and my mother must have lost weight somehow. The sister-in-law called the ambulance. My mother spent five weeks in the hospital. She was released on my fourteenth birthday. And was not the same anymore.
SPIEGEL: What was the diagnosis?
Kozak: A blow to the head had caused a brain hemorrhage, which in turn triggered a life-threatening stroke. Since then, my mother has been paralyzed on the right, can not walk alone, eat, dress or wash, and you have to listen carefully to understand her.
SPIEGEL: Can you describe how life went on for your family afterwards?
Kozak: I and my siblings stayed with my father, who took care of my mother for seven more years. My maternal grandmother came to us from Guatemala to help us. Then my dad remarried and my mother lived with him and his new wife for a while. When my father became too much, my mother came to a nursing home. The man who had done this to her divorced.
SPIEGEL: Did he go to jail?
Kozak: No, legally he was never prosecuted. My father hired a lawyer, but my mother did not sign the papers. She did not want to show my stepfather, even though he had caused her so much pain.
SPIEGEL: Has this act changed your own view of men?
Kozak: No, my view of men and women has remained the same: some are good, others are behaving very badly. But the whole thing has made me a pretty independent woman who will never let herself be controlled like my mother.
SPIEGEL: As a teenager, were you angry with your mother because she was gone?
Kozak: It took me decades to forgive her. As an adult, I broke off contact with her completely, as I found it difficult to bear the situation. Seeing them that way made me feel depressed - at the same time I felt guilty if I did not visit them in the home.
SPIEGEL: It was not until 2009 that you sought contact with her and began to portray her with the camera. What was the occasion?
Kozak: I worked as a stunt woman for 25 years, breaking both my legs on a job when jumping from a helicopter to the tallest building in Los Angeles. Now I was alone in my bed, cried and could not walk. I was already forty-seven years old and I realized: I have to heal the relationship with my mother.
SPIEGEL: How did you approach her?
Kozak: It was hard for me because there was a woman in bed who was completely foreign to me. In the beginning, therefore, a friend or my sister accompanied me during the visits. Then I started photographing them, creating the necessary distance between us.
SPIEGEL: Did you sometimes feel uncomfortable photographing your mother in her helplessness? Does she know about the project?
Kozak: I originally made the photos for myself, but I soon realized that I wanted to share the pictures with others. My mother loves to be photographed and I give her back some dignity with the way I show her. She knows that I always have a camera with me. I showed her a draft of the photo book and she was happy that I was planning such a project in her honor.
SPIEGEL: Is she aware of her environment?
Kozak: Yes, of course. When my father died in 2012, she said to me, "Everything went wrong." That was proof to me that she understands what's going on around her. It has good days and bad days, as well as others.
SPIEGEL: What memories do you have of your mother as a young, healthy woman?
Kozak: She has always been a friendly and caring woman. I can remember a scene very well. I was in 5th grade, we had a school event. My mother entered the classroom. She had long dark hair and wore an orange dress. I remember how I beamed and thought, "This is my mother and she's coming for my sake." Orange has been my favorite color ever since.
SPIEGEL: What is the goal of your project?
Kozak: One topic is the complex mother-daughter relationship. I want to show that it is possible to forgive one parent, even if the situation seems hopeless - if I can do it, anyone can do it. The other topic is domestic violence. I want to shake people up: Go before it's too late! Because it's only a matter of time before the situation escalates. One should never hope that someone changes, but radically break off the contact.
SPIEGEL: How is your mother doing today?
Kozak: For 35 years she had to share a shared room with two other women in a nursing home. For her, as a quiet, introverted person, it was hard to bear. In addition, she was only 41 years old and now lived in a retirement home. She withdrew completely, fell into a kind of permanent meditation. Her health improved tremendously when I moved her from the first facility to the second four years ago. She now has more privacy, looks more relaxed. "That's wonderful," she told me. My mother does not seem bitter despite everything, is friendly, tries to participate in activities. I often go for a walk with her outside in the garden in a wheelchair. A therapist once asked her how she views her life. She replied, "I have learned to accept all the changes."
* To finance her photo book, Hannah Kozak has started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.com (until October 21, 2019).