Alum’s new memoir offers advice for those dealing with brain illness in loved ones

September 7, 2021
Joan Gaustad, outside the Scott House on VCU's Monroe Park Campus.
Kevin Morley, University Marketing

The love of art, of life and a deep-rooted love for each other guided Joan Gaustad and her husband, Gerald “Jerry” Donato, throughout their marriage and their lives. That devotion never wavered when Donato was diagnosed with early onset dementia and died eight years later at age 68.

Art is “just who we were,” said Gaustad, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts in 1975 and has now written a book “Someone’s Missing … and I Think It’s Me,” chronicling the life and loss of her husband after 37 years of marriage.

In the book, published by VCU Publishing and which launches at an event at James Branch Cabell Library on Sept. 8, Gaustad combines memoir, art and advice for those dealing with brain illness in loved ones. The book is illustrated with original artwork by Gaustad, Donato and friends. 

During the launch event, Gaustad will discuss the book with Sara Monroe, M.D., a VCU professor emeritus of infectious disease, in person and via Zoom at 7 p.m.

The idea for the book surfaced after Donato, an accomplished painter who taught at the School of the Arts, passed away in 2010. Gaustad had written diaries during her husband’s illness. The diaries are an important element of the book as well as an exhibition currently on view in the first-floor gallery at The Anderson. An opening reception for the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 29, will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. on Sept. 10. 

“The book is very visual,” Gaustad said, noting the tie-in to both events. “An agent told me ‘you don’t need all those pictures,’ but I said, ‘I am an artist and this is about an artist couple. It’s what I am called to do.’”

A flood of memories

After Donato passed away, the stories associated with the couple’s past and her husband’s illness started flooding into Gaustad’s mind. 

“Images would come to my mind, like his license plate, which said ‘DOUBT,’” she said. “When Jerry was deep into the dementia and hospitalized, he looked at me and said, ‘someone is missing.’ He took a bite of his apple and then said, ‘I think that is me.’ He had crayons on his bed and I took them and wrote it down. As much as he was losing everything, his spirit and that kind of wit was still there. Jerry was never missing.”

The same sentiment that sparked the book, and serves as its core, is one that Gaustad feels many people can relate to, and that relatability is essential to her, she said. 

After writing the manuscript, she asked a widower she knew to read it and provide some feedback.

“He said, ‘this book makes me feel less alone,’ and I thought, this is exactly what I want to offer people,” she said.

When she was looking for a publisher, a friend shared the manuscript with VCU Publishing, a 2020 initiative of VCU Libraries that provides publishing opportunities and experiences for students and faculty in addition to amplifying scholarly and research findings from the university community.

VCU Publishing released the book digitally last November ahead of its launch this month.

“We thought it was important because of Joan’s connections to the entire VCU and Richmond artistic communities and the beautifully authentic intersection with arts and health,” said Jimmy Ghaphery, associate dean for scholarly communications and publishing. “She is a great person to work with.” 

Proceeds from the book will benefit the Gerald Donato Endowed Scholarship in Painting + Printmaking at VCU, awarded to deserving undergraduate students in the painting and printmaking and sculpture departments.

Finding a way to create a 3D version of the book

The exhibition in The Anderson contains artwork from both Gaustad and Donato as well as records, books and ephemera from their home. Creating a 3D version of the book was a challenge, said the exhibit’s curator, Michael Lease, director of facilities and experience design for the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. 

The book and the exhibit are separate mediums, he said.

“A book is a solitary experience. You can determine the pace at which you move through the pages, your setting and your proximity to the pages,” Lease said. “With an exhibition, you are standing, taking in an object or idea originally made in private in a public space, shoulder to shoulder with people you might not know. It’s a completely different experience.” 

Lease didn’t want the exhibit to simply recreate the book. He wanted it to be interactive and immersive.

“We wanted to imbue the gallery with the rawness of the book and the love between Joan and Jerry,” he said.

The exhibit contains hundreds of items, including original paintings, and pages of the book blown up to life-size proportion. One of the most striking elements of the exhibit is a huge print of Donato’s license plate with the single word DOUBT.

“We also have a fair amount of reproductions of paintings,” Lease said. “There is a 20-foot-long shelf holding objects from Joan’s kitchen, living room and even bathroom that speak to the vast complexity of life and relationships. Joan is an unabashed collaborator and her home is evidence of the many relationships and people that are part of her life.”

The exhibit is being held at The Anderson because of what the gallery represents for Gaustad.

“Joan is such an important artist in the city. She is incredibly youthful and loves students. She wanted to be where youthful energy rules the day,” Lease said. “There’s no better place than The Anderson.”

This story originally published by VCU News, Joan Tupponce

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