Portraits of Mothers and Addiction

By Brian Whitney 08/05/16

Each of the photos in Letter to My Mother comes with a letter, some of them are from the mother writing to the child, others are from the child to the mother. All are deeply emotionally affecting.

Letter to My Mother
via Author

Relationships with loved ones that suffer with addiction are always complicated—even more so when that loved one is your mother.

Like many of us whose mothers had a problem with addiction, Branislav Jankic had a bit of a rough time growing up. Jankic grew up in the former Yugoslavia where his mother was an alcoholic and was addicted to prescription pills. In large part because of this, they eventually became estranged. After almost ten years of little contact with her, he heard she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He began to deeply reflect on their personal relationship, and how it had been torn apart by addiction. Not just the addiction itself, but also his reaction to it as a child, and as a young man.

In his book Letter to My Mother he explores his relationship with his mother, and documents through letters and photographs 40 other mothers and their children across the United States. All of these women have fought addiction and have either achieved recovery or are working to do so.

The mothers that we meet in this book are of different ages, and come from different social and economic backgrounds—but their relationships with drugs or alcohol and with their children have all the same characteristics. With each portrait comes a letter, some of them are from the mother writing to the child, others are from the child to the mother. All are deeply emotionally affecting.

In his letter to his mother Jankic wrote, “Here I am writing you this letter, and it’s hard to find words. In the last 29 years we went through a lot together. Now the end is mixed with tears and laughter. All this was like a weird dream that we will always remember, like we will always remember you Mama. And we will carry you in our hearts forever, because you were and you will always be the best mother in the world. Until now I didn’t understand that our hearts are the same and that words can stab like knives. I am very sorry that I hurt you a thousand times and that I left you alone when it was the most difficult for you, but that’s life. We always learn at the end.”

Jankic’s mother died of lung cancer before he sent the letter, but the shame and feelings of hurt, loss and anger inspired him to do this book. A documentary is to come. He spoke to The Fix about his new book, and about his mother.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you were inspired to do Letter to My Mother?

My mother and I had a difficult relationship for many years because of her addictions, specifically the abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol. When she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2012, I wanted to do something to resolve all of our clashes, to say that I have forgiven her and to ask her to forgive me for not knowing more about her addiction and for running away from her in her time of need. Most of all, though, I wanted to express my love for and to her.

What kind of relationship did you have with your mother growing up?

My family is from ex-Yugoslavia and my parents divorced when I was two years old. Over the next few years, we (my brother and I) moved around with my mother, until she eventually lost custody over us in 1988. We then went to live with my father. My mother went to work in Germany and two years later, the civil war broke out in ex-Yugoslavia. She couldn't get to us until almost the end of the war, and when she did, she took us away from my father and brought us to Germany. When we got to Germany, it was great living with my mother, but when I was 18, my brother and I moved out to live on our own. At that point she started drinking again and taking anti-depressants, followed by sleeping pills. Her substance abuse began to take on a life of its own, increasing day by day.

From that point on we had a tough relationship. My brother and I did not understand why she was an alcoholic, and honestly, we were ashamed and confused. We punished the behavior we couldn’t comprehend, breaking contact with her for days, sometimes weeks. I eventually went to live in Italy, and later the United States, and my brother stayed in Munich. We had our ups and downs with her since then. Sometimes she would get better, stop drinking and taking pills, but she would always relapse. She tried rehabilitation facilities a couple times, but again she would always relapse. Although it was a difficult period for all of us, she remained a good mother.

One year before she was diagnosed with cancer, she started seeing a psychologist and began a new type of treatment for her addiction. She started getting better, and we saw great potential in her sobriety; but when she was diagnosed with cancer, that was it.

How did you find the women that were your subjects in the book?

I asked my dear friend and producer, Goran Macura, to help me with the project. He was able to get in touch with a writer who had written about her addicted mother years before. Through her, Goran was able to get in touch with a small circle of ten women living throughout the United States, who agreed to take part. Then, shortly before we started our trip, another friend, Travis Davenport, who knew about the project, connected me with his mother, Sherri Layton who is an administrator at an addiction treatment center, La Hacienda, outside San Antonio, Texas. She liked the concept and helped us find more women willing to participate.

What sort of emotional responses did you receive from the women and families that you were working with?

I shared the experience first with my mother, telling her all of the details from our trip and that she too would be in the book along with my brother. She was amazed, grateful, and proud. As for the other women who participated, they were incredibly trusting while I took photographs of them and their children, and they were thankful.

It took Goran and I three years to complete the whole Letter to My Mother project and get the book published. This past June we went further and did an exhibition and multimedia installation, which included 12 portraits from our journey. Several of the women came to New York to see the show. The moment that they walked into the space, saw the photographs, and heard their recorded letters to their children, was invaluable for me. I realized all of the struggles experienced throughout the project were beyond worth it.

I know that one of your goals with this project was to combat the stigma of addiction. How do you think your book accomplishes that?

My book and the documentary—coming soon—shows these women in a different light, a forgiving and accepting perspective. It shows them as mothers and not as addicts, a term that carries a negative connotation in today’s society. Currently, addiction in the United States and around the world is perceived as a choice and not as a disease, which is its true manifestation. Because of this, there should be nothing to hide. No shame. They are photographed in front of a pure white backdrop, which emphasizes this notion of honesty and transparency.

In the letters the women wrote to their children, they are asking forgiveness from not only their children but also from society, a community that does not understand them and therefore shames them, labels them. The letters and their writers are truthful, full of love and hope.

What are you working on next?

I plan to travel the Letter to My Mother exhibition throughout the United States. We just closed the New York exhibition and next stops include Los Angeles in October of this year and Texas next spring. My team and I are also in the editing process of the Letter to My Mother documentary, which will be completed in early fall.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
brian whitney.jpg

Brian Whitney has been a prisoner advocate, a landscaper, and a homeless outreach worker. He has written or coauthored numerous books in addition to writing for AlterNetTheFixPacific Standard MagazinePaste Magazine, and many other publications. He has appeared or been featured in Inside Edition, Fox News, People.com, Cracked.com, True Murder, Savage Love and True Crime Garage. He is appearing at CrimeCon in 2019. You can find Brian on Facebook or at Brianwhitneyauthor.com.