A few years ago I sat down with Issa Ibrahim at the Washington Square Diner in the West Village of Manhattan for an interview. I knew his story—that in 1990 he had killed his mom, that it was at the apex of an undiagnosed and untreated schizophrenic break with reality. I knew that he was found innocent by reason of insanity, and that he had spent the next 20 years in a psychiatric facility battling with hospital administrators, his own family, and the demons of his interior. Those are the facts—but what I wanted to know, and what Issa shared with me, was a different kind of story, the story he mulled over for years. What happened in his mind to lead him into a place so strange and dangerous?
Issa remembers July 4 of 1989 as the day he “really” lost his mind. His family was having a barbeque. His mom, Audrey, was cooking burgers. Friends and family members smoked and played chess while Issa painted. All of a sudden he felt something, a shiver of energy, and looked over at one of the guests. “I felt in my mind he said, ‘you’re weak, you’re all heart.’” Issa’s friend hadn’t actually said anything at all. “I shot back with my mind,” Issa says, “‘at least I have a heart mothafucker.’ And then he looked away and sort of scratched his ear as if to say, in my mind, ‘I hear you.’” No words had actually been exchanged. “I’ll never forget it. That was the moment when I crossed the line.”
Issa described what ensued in the next nine months as a complete descent into madness.
“I didn’t really smoke pot as a kid,” Issa says, but his house was filled with it. He would come home and find artistic reverie, wafting pot smoke, and music pouring out of their home in Jamaica, Queens. He always “had a gift for rendering,” painting, and drawing, and his mother was also a painter and writer. His father, Jamil Ibrahim, was a jazz musician andvafter Jamil’s death, when Issa was 22, a family friend gave Issa some weed to calm him down. “I always hated it [pot] and avoided it all my life but I thought, ‘hey this is my dad’s smoke, I’ll get to know him.’ I knew he was a philanderer and a womanizer, and that she [his mother Audrey] loved him, but not much other than that.” From that point on, Issa smoked pot obsessively, but it did nothing to quiet the growing discord in his mind.
Issa began to notice things, a lot of things. All at once: looks, gesticulations, and mannerisms. A word or a nervous laugh could set him off into paranoia. “It felt like hearing other people’s thoughts, all at once.” He began to make micro-connections between all the little behavioral cues of the people around him, wondering what they really meant. “I was always waiting for someone to stab me in the back with what I called subspeak, or subtle speak: the words beneath the words,” Issa says.
He believed that a change was about to happen: a big looming event that was going to take place. And he was convinced that everyone was communicating about it behind his back. “I was so paranoid that everything anyone was saying was a part of it.” Issa was getting frightened and began to avoid people. “If anyone said anything to me, even talking about their day, I would assume they were talking about me in relation to this big change that was coming.” The fantastical plot that was forming in his mind became very real to him. “I thought some scary-ass shit was about to go down.”
Though Issa’s paranoia didn’t go unnoticed his family was hesitant to seek outside help.
“The African American community is fearful of the medical system,” Issa explains. He had never been taken to see a doctor and had never been medicated. “The way I see it now, I was self medicating,” Issa says in regard to his dependence on weed. He says his sister, a nurse, warned him of the dangers of diagnosis. “What, do you want to be locked up in the crazy house? Have a bunch of crazy white people tell you what’s wrong with you? Doped up on medication?” he says. His mother and siblings tried to manage him as best they could, but Issa’s sisters were both in tumultuous second marriages and his brothers were being swept up in the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Issa’s delusions were growing larger and pretty soon his concept of reality had morphed into a nightmarish fantasy.
Signs of “the big change, this struggle between good and evil” were all around him. Issa saw the eye of the CBS logo as a harbinger of truth, and a rocket launch as a warning that “they” were going to kill all the chosen people. “The chosen weren’t all black people, but they were mostly black people. It wasn’t like an exclusively black and white thing—but they’re definitely killin’ all the n**gas!”
Voices began telling him that his mother had become possessed, and that she was in league with the demons on the wrong side of the looming catastrophe. “My mother had tarot cards around and this made me think she was into witchcraft type stuff,” he says. He remembers walking into her room and seeing a torn photograph of himself as a young boy, and “the tear touched [my] head in the photo.” He took this as a sign that she had been messing with his mind, and decided to confront her.
“I asked her if I was Jesus and to this day I don’t know why she answered ‘yes.’” Her heavy mascara had cast ominous looking shadows across her face and Issa was convinced that she was somewhere in there, but that she was compromised. The voices were now booming, occupying the loudest part of his mind.
Issa grabbed his mother and wrestled with her. “I just wanted to talk to my mom, my real mom.” He says he was trying to perform an exorcism of sorts. They wrestled for a long time as he tried to get to his mother, past the “demon” that had taken her. (“I thought they had taken over my mother,” he explains. “Who exactly? I wasn’t sure.”) During the tussle, they became mutually exhausted and stopped for moments to breath.
All of a sudden the voices were gone. Issa remembers thinking, “What do I do? Tell me how to do an exorcism!” He grew weary, and Audrey was trying to wriggle away. “Somebody help me! Talk to me! I don’t know what to do!” he thought.
In order to keep his mother still for a moment, to gather his thoughts, he placed his knee on her chest. “I didn’t realize I exerted too much pressure. I didn’t know my weight, and I heard, CRUSH, CRUNCH, and a splattering noise, and that was it.” In a brief moment of clarity, Issa realized things had gone horribly wrong. He had cracked his mother’s sternum. “I fucked up. I fucked up. I fucked up. That wasn’t supposed to happen.” As he recalls the events of that evening, he pauses. “I think of her, and what she was thinking and…”
“I was too much of a pussy to just cut my wrists,” he confesses, but he did break a mirror and roll around in the pieces, hoping that one of them would fatally cut him. He then decided to drive up to Canada in the family car, where he hoped to find his mother’s soul still present in their vacation home. Along the way, thoroughly stoned and out of his mind, Issa hit a tree. The cops took him to a hospital, where he was medicated for the first time.
Finally feeling a bit of clarity, Issa told the doctors what had happened. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which usually develops between the ages of 18 and 25. (Issa was 24 at the time of his arrest.) Rather than going to prison, he would be committed to the Creedmore psychiatric facility in Queens for an indeterminate amount of time. A series of mishaps ended up keeping him there for two decades.
While at Creedmore, Issa started to draw again. “Autopsy of the Damned” was the first painting Issa made in the facility’s extensive art studio, called The Living Museum, a hospital building repurposed for the artistic endeavours of the patients. “’Autopsy’ is me feeling like the worst of the worst. I was a mental patient, I was a criminal, I had lost everything. I lost my mom and my family and it felt like there was a void inside.”
Issa was in his mid-twenties and after a year, he became involved in several romantic relationships in the hospital. He entered into a courtship with a woman named Susan. They would be on-again, off-again for the remainder of his stay. At the age of 27, Issa also began sleeping with a 65-year-old social worker. “Hey, the sex was amazing,” he says. She resigned after they were found out, and the administration confiscated all his artwork and decided to take him off the medication to see how he would react. By Issa’s account this was a punishment. However, some of the artwork did feature the legs of said social worker and other members of the hospital administration staff in highly submissive sexualized positions. The administrators wanted to study the artwork for pathology.
Issa cites an enormous regression in his mental state following this, and for the next decade he tried unsuccessfully to get released. The legal battle that ensued was the subject of a 2013 NPR program entitled ‘The Hospital Always Wins’ by Laura Starecheski. When assessed, he was diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder on top of paranoid schizophrenia by Dr. Angela Hegarty. In 2002 Dr. Hegarty was the new forensic psychiatrist at Creedmore, and her 40-page report would weigh heavily against his petition for release. In her written explanation for this diagnoses she called his “fantasies of success grossly unrealistic.” He disputed her assessment in court for the next 7 years. After a long legal battle, Issa was released from the hospital in 2009.
Though still on probation, Issa has been a prolific artist and musician in the six years since his release. His paintings depict Civil Rights activists and black leaders as superheroes, as well as iconic cartoon characters in BDSM positions. In one, Dick Tracy slyly reveals an enormous erection, side-glancing toward the viewer, while the Hulk sits on a toilet reading the paper in another. The superhero theme runs strong through his body of work.
But it was the music video for a song about a guy who cuts his girlfriend’s head off, called “Head Case,” that got Issa in a bit of trouble with the hospital, even after he had been living on his own for four years.
The hospital administrators called him back in to review his state of mind. “Do you really feel like cutting your girlfriend’s head off?” his doctor asked. “It put me right back to when I was a small, little, ugly mental patient sitting in front of a big desk full of people.” Issa was scared that he may be forced to stay on probation for a lot longer, or worse, be readmitted.
“It’s ‘Pagliacci.’ It’s a laugh to keep from crying. I have a very bitter, sarcastic wit or sense of humor because it’s a bitter sarcastic world. It dealt me a fucked up hand, and I’m trying to make the best of it, really, as best as I can.”
He still has no contact with his family, although occasionally one of his sisters will post reprisals on his Facebook page. “ISSA, YOU ARE A MATRICIDAL SELFISH LIAR! YOUR MOTHER DESERVES TO BE ALIVE, NOT YOU! WE SUFFER WITHOUT HER; YOU DON’T! HELL IS TOO GOOD FOR YOU, BROTHER!!!”
During Issa’s book launch and gallery opening at on Thursday, June 2nd at the Local Project Gallery in Long Island City one of his brothers stood outside in protest. His arms folded, he glared at the security guard stationed at the door, while his wife sat in the car across the street. Toward the end of the night he yelled, “All the art in the world doesn’t bring our mom back! He [Issa] is a coward, a MURDERER! His whole family hates him.” Another attendee replied, “you have no idea what psychosis is like, you can’t know what is real.” She was encouraged to not engage. (Issa’s brother declined to comment to me directly.)
Issa’s book, The Hospital Always Wins, put out by The Chicago Review Press, came out this month, and in it he chronicles how the unimaginable came to be, how his own mind betrayed him, and how he fought to get released for 20 years.
His closest confidant is his girlfriend, Susan, from Creedmore. After her release she stayed with Issa off and on even though he was still inside. She is an artist as well, and is featured in several of his videos.Together, they run around Queens making films and music videos like partners in art crime. When you walk into their ground floor apartment, it’s a memorabilia wonderland: a James Brown Bobble head is positioned next to Issa’s portrait of The Hulk sitting on a toilet, and there is always a project in the works. Currently the living room has been taken over by a mammoth portrait of Trump and family with gruesome expressions.
Issa still has a studio at The Living Museum and beneath his “Autopsy of the Damned” hangs a new self-portrait. This one has light emanating from his chest and a picture of his mother at the center. It’s the sequel to “Autopsy of the Damned”. “It’s telling the story of me and my mom, coming to the hospital, hating yourself, wanting to die, and getting to the point where you kind of forgive yourself. Your mother comes to you and you don’t know if it’s a psychotic process or just God, and if there is a God or if it’s just you finally forgiving yourself.”