He Killed the Song: The Marina Experiment

This disturbing story reminds me of a Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell where he retells a Pygmy parable about a boy who finds the bird of the most beautiful song in the forest. He brings it home and asks his father to bring food for the bird. The father refuses to work to feed only a bird and at some point, he kills it. The moral is that the man killed the bird and with the bird, he killed the song and with the song, himself.

Pip first told me about the strange story of Marina Lutz (b. 1958) and at the time, I could not do much about it as it was late 2012 when Pigtails in Paint was shut down. It appears that Abbot Lutz (1917-1985), the father, had become obsessed with his daughter and compulsively recorded the first 16 years of her life. Over a decade after his death, Marina found a huge archive of materials: film, audio and over 10,000 photos. Far from being a precious record of a beloved child, the material actually revealed a kind of psychological abuse, particularly that of neglect. It is hard not to feel the emotional impact when examining this story and serious thought needs to be given before a fair judgment can be made. Some issues I bring up here have been discussed online, but many that I find particularly relevant, were not.

Marina’s therapist was the first to be exposed to the work. Short films were composed to illustrate some point about Marina’s childhood to the therapist. The source materials were compelling and Marina was encouraged to submit a short film to various film festivals in 2009. The reception was favorable and she actually received a couple of awards. Like the Vivian Maier photographs, this work was never meant for public viewing and so ethical issues arise about its use. On the one hand, this is the private efforts of one man, but considering the unhealthy environment that was fostered, there can be some justification that this work might be used for Marina’s therapeutic benefit and bring light to something that exists in the dark recesses of the dysfunctional family life of many women. Since Marina is the subject, it seems reasonable that given both her parents are dead, that she should be at liberty to engage in this sort of self-exploitation. Abbot’s material is strictly documentary so if there is any artistry, it is due to Marina’s efforts.

With the volume of material to go through, what made her choose what she did? Marina explains in interviews that she watched every film, listened to every audio tape and examined each photograph. Her explanation of what was chosen is that those things which had the most hurtful impact were used. She edited the film in such a way to maximize and more clearly communicate the emotion she felt when viewing them. It was clear in many of the images that she was irritated by the invasion of her privacy but over time, she must have became numb to the experience as though she were a deer in headlights.

Abbot Lutz/Marina Lutz- The Marina Experiment (c1970/2009)

Abbot Lutz/Marina Lutz- The Marina Experiment (c1970/2009)

It might be fairly said that many artists (including some covered on this site) have had a kind of obsession with their children and involved them in their art. But the critical distinction here is that in a loving family, the children are engaged in a relationship with the parent—sometimes remembering the photo sessions as a fond part of their emotional bonding. In contrast, Abbot’s cold observation gave me the distinct impression that he rarely if ever gave his daughter physical affection that would communicate a sense of being loved. When first sifting through the source material, a friend of Marina’s commented that it was as though she were a lab specimen and thus the title “The Marina Experiment” was coined. The most wrenching part for me is a recording where Abbot asks Marina to sing. His clear prioritization of propriety over love is reflected in his incessant interruptions in correcting Marina until she finally gives up—no longer wishing to sing the song.

On the official website, Marina shares some of her thoughts about the experience and she makes the suggestion that she was regarded as an object of sexual desire. But I believe that such a passionate reaction implies a warmth not consistent with his personality. In 1949, Abbot did solicit the participation of women to engage in erotic photography, but whatever emotional stirrings that may have implied were converted to cold fascination by the time Marina came along.

All told, I don’t believe most of the superficial observations made in this case have been especially insightful. Certainly, I am glad that many women have been able to come forward with their stories and take solace that their experiences were not unique or mere figments of their imagination. And I am glad that skeptics have come forward to caution us about the dangers of attributing sinister intent on Abbot’s part. Dysfunctional families exist and the peculiarities of their members can be expressed in bizarre and unhealthy ways. It also makes for an intriguing story to tell and I only hope that Marina can find a kind of emotional closure for herself that will give her some freedom from the shackles of her past.

The Marina Experiment: Part 1 (Marina’s original intent was to produce three parts)

Marina Lutz interview

2012 Commentary on The Novel Activist