Darger was born in the Windy City in 1892, lost his mother not long after, and in short order was sent to an orphanage and then to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. There, though he felt that he “knew more than the whole shebang in that place,” as he later wrote in his autobiography, he was subjected to a range of abuses: physical, emotional, and likely sexual.
But he escaped the institution at the age of 17, walking some 200 miles from Decatur, Illinois, back to Chicago. He landed a position as a janitor at a Catholic hospital and for the rest of his life he’d move between menial jobs, attend Catholic mass three to four times a day, and make himself scarce around other people.
In a small boarding-house apartment where he lived for 40 years, however, Darger created a world where he felt safe and strong. Over time, he lived increasingly in the pages of “The Realms of the Unreal,” where the Vivian Girls fought to overthrow the evil Glandelinians—a band of grown men who wore Confederate uniforms and bore names like General Pugnose and Lord Lechery.
Darger wrote and illustrated himself into the story, too, as the benevolent general on the children’s side, helping them wage their war for freedom.
In Darger’s tale, the army of small, sweet children are also strong. More curious, though, is their ability to embody a “spectrum of gender, as opposed to just one,” as Darger scholar and curator of “Betwixt and Between” Leisa Rundquist explains. Upon close study of the artist’s work, Rundquist discovered that this fluidity is portrayed as an empowering force for the children.