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Girl disconnected

Just when artist Gretchen Hupfel's career took off, her life spiraled out of control


On Dec. 14, 2002, at 1:30 p.m., Atlanta artist Gretchen Hupfel arrived at Ed's Gun and Tackle on Canton Road in Marietta, which advertised its "Indoor, Climate Controlled Ranges" open seven days a week. After filling out a release form, Gretchen rented a handgun and requested Lane 1 of the range, the one farthest from the customer entrance and next to the wall. She waited for 30 minutes for that lane to become available despite other lanes being open. At 2 p.m. she began shooting paper targets.

The other shooters who were in the firing range at the time never saw Gretchen turn her attention away from the target, lift the gun to her head and fire a bullet into the brain that had caused her so much suffering.

As news of her suicide traveled through Atlanta, family, friends and even acquaintances who only knew Gretchen through her work were shaken by the dark end to a life filled with such accomplishment and talent. Those who knew Gretchen, myself included, were haunted by the helpless feeling her death inspired -- the feeling that, maybe, we could have done something to save her. Those closest to Gretchen had tried to surround her in a cocoon of support and protection.

But ultimately it was Gretchen who fought, and fought alone.

By the time she walked into that Marietta shooting range, Gretchen had been struggling for a very long time. It is tempting to say she didn't kill herself, although that was the result. Instead, Gretchen destroyed the psychotic disorder that had plagued her for years.

Gretchen battled an illness that defined her art, which consisted of photography mostly, but also video and sculpture. Her obsession was with unseen dimensions: the airfoil lift of airplanes, the miracle of gravity and an atmosphere seemingly devoid of matter but buzzing with unseen communication in the form of power lines, radio waves and her own auditory hallucinations. The world of invisible forces in her photographs was a world Gretchen knew well from her own silent battle with schizophrenia. Though her illness was inarticulate, Gretchen's art was uncannily communicative -- even prescient.

Her work was a glimpse into the controlled environment she had built to keep chaos at bay. Her day-to-day existence was a network of routine: anti- psychotics, anti-anxiety drugs, doctors' appointments, activities to fill the time so mania could not seep in and a diary to contain the spill-over ravings, as if even madness could be compartmentalized.

The same rigor and elegance that characterized Gretchen's black-and-white photographs of airplanes and radio towers extended to her manner. Gretchen looked like something sprung from the world of her photographs -- pared of extraneous detail, almost mechanical. I had never seen work that seemed to embody the personality of an artist so precisely.

From outside appearances, Gretchen was order and refinement, even at her sickest. She was thin and neat, with bleached white hair cropped into chic obedience. Her raspy voice, spiked with wit and pixyish charisma, suggested a tantalizing mixture of woman and child. That impish quality drew people to her, from the psychiatrists who treated her to the students she taught at the University of Georgia.

"What was so amazing about her," says friend Sheila Swift, "was that she was so desperately ill but still carrying on in a way."

None of the clerks working at the firing range that day noticed anything unusual or significant in Gretchen's demeanor. She had returned to the counter twice with questions about the Glock 9 mm pistol she fired and still never drew their attention. Even on the day of her death, Gretchen fooled everyone.

Part of the nightmare of schizophrenia is the mystery that continues to surround it. Unlike other organic brain disorders such as Parkinson or Alzheimer's, which target people at the end of their lives, schizophrenia is especially cruel. It typically strikes between ages 16-30, when victims are just beginning to survey their horizon, only to have it suddenly limited.

The manifestations of the disorder are the stuff of science fiction: an unimaginable invasion of the body snatchers in which the components of self-identity are overtaken by nightmarish symptoms. Sufferers hallucinate fully formed visuals and hear persecutory voices spewing horrifying litanies of self-hatred and rage.

"She was in a lot of pain, most of the time," recalls Doug Allison, a psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner who treated Gretchen the last year of her life.

Schizophrenia has been described as a progressive death of the individual: The illness eats away at the personality of the sufferer. Medication can dull the symptoms but cannot eradicate them.

Gretchen heard the voices continuously. She suffered, by most accounts, from an extremely self-destructive strain of the disorder defined by constant suicidal thoughts, auditory hallucinations urging her to kill herself and a paranoia so profound she would often be convinced that people -- whether a stranger walking across the street from her or someone in the room at a small gathering -- were conspiring against her.

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