In 1972, my uncle Jeff Ramsey was raped and murdered on a small island in the Mississippi River near Rock Island, Illinois. He was missing for some time and the search for him was, according to his peers, something of a local adventure. Eventually his nude body, strangled with a nylon chord, was found hidden under trash against a log. He was 12 at the time of his death. His killer was never found.
Jeff died seven years before I was born, but his presence – or more precisely the shape of his absence – was always there. My mother’s family never recovered from the trauma – she and her surviving siblings went on to lead troubled lives and passed their trauma down to us. They rarely spoke of the details Jeff’s death. Most of what I’ve learned of the event has come from my research into contemporary news archives.
But I remember the unexpected breakdowns, the crying and yelling. The dire warnings to be back before dark. The implied menace behind every bush and building. Because of this, I grew up with an intense awareness of mortality and horror which was further amplified by suffering my own sexual abuse at age 7.
All I Ever Had of You Were Shadows is a multimedia installation that engages with fragmented, reconstructed memory, the archive of media, photographs and memorabilia that remain of my uncle, and a spiritual investigation of the site of his murder. Distorted photographs, video and redacted text invoke the struggle to piece together a narrative of a definitive event in the history of my family through painful, haunted fragments. Newspaper clippings demonstrate how a family’s private suffering became communal. They are relics both horrifying and cherished, explaining the particulars of an apocalypse. Our own Book of Revelation.
The sculptural form at the center of the installation invokes the ever-present ghost of Jeff in the lives of my family and I. It also explores the generational nature of trauma since I took a casting of my young son’s body as a template for the form.
The work investigates the meaning, if any, to be found in the brutal murder of a child. It forms a kind of Limbo, a half-place of unanswered questions and unhealed wounds. I draw upon my family’s collective trauma, my individual trauma, and biblical narratives involving the death of children as a kind of payment for sin. In doing so, I seek to question notions of redemption through suffering.