Kevin Edson, who refers to himself as Kayvon, made the news Tuesday. Barefoot, wearing makeup and a black veil and armed with a backpack containing a rice cooker filled with confetti, the 25-year-old self-described performance artist and fashion designer from Wakefield, Mass., shouted “Boston strong!” as he approached the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Civic pride about the race this year is more robust than usual as Bostonians commemorated the anniversary of last year’s bombing that killed four and injured nearly 300 people. Understandably, security concerns are just as robust, so police took the incident seriously, immediately evacuating the area, arresting Kevin and detonating the rice cooker.
Edson reportedly told the cops arresting him, “I knew what I was doing, it was conceived in my head. It’s symbolism, come on, the performance got the best of me.”
Outraged comments flooded Edson’s Facebook and YouTube pages after the story broke, some calling his “performance art” pathetic. Reporters and Internet looky-loos also descended upon the Facebook artist page of Kevin’s brother, Thomas Alan Edson Jr., who goes by TJ, who posted a statement on behalf of his family:
“What [Kevin] did at the finish line earlier today is absurd and shameful. It should not be considered art or condoned in any way. Do not play into that. He is a sick person with multiple diagnoses. Unfortunately, no consequences of his abnormal behavior were dire enough for him to shape up before he thought something like this could get him that fame he always chased. Ultimately, he is a disillusioned and very sick individual. I apologize to anyone that takes offense to his actions as his brother. My family has done all we can to foster Kevin’s mental health. He is an artist. I am an artist. I understand that much. Thank you God that he did not hurt anybody.”
TJ and Kevin Edson
The media was also unkind to the man who disrupted the ceremony to mark the anniversary of last year’s bombing.
The NY Post described him as a “crazy cross-dresser,” the New York Daily News headline about the incident called Kevin a weirdo and Slate dubiously referred to him as an “artist” (their quote marks) before updating the post later in the day to add that Kevin’s family says that he suffers from mental illness. Kevin’s mother, Joie, stemmed the rising tide of hurtful things being written about her son by swiftly issuing a statement from the family giving a heartfelt apology for Kevin’s actions and describing her son’s history of mental illness.
Joie wrote that she has fought unsuccessfully for 12 years to get her son help and that the family is “so sorry and emotionally overwhelmed by the events at the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday…”
“…To have this happen on the one year anniversary of such a horrific crime is unfathomable. My daughter and I have run the Boston Marathon six times for charitable organizations. It’s a glorious event that embraces the spirit of friendly competition and good will. Crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon is a feeling of accomplishment that cannot be described.”
Kevin reportedly is between therapists and isn’t currently taking his medication for his bipolar disorder. The meds issue is always a focal point when the mentally ill attract media attention: “Why wasn’t the person on his or her meds?”
Many people don’t want to understand that mental illness is incredibly complex, and so is treating it.
Those with no experience with mental illness tend to say the person should be locked up for the good of society, while those with friends or loved ones who have been touched by mental illness decry the difficulty in securing adequate mental health care. After one of these stories, hope arises for a conversation about access to mental health care, but interest quickly fades as we swiftly move onto the next tragedy (school shooting #_____).
Kevin’s brother TJ, also an artist and obviously an intelligent and talented guy, has had his own struggles with mental illness. Reflecting on an episode of his own seven years ago, he wrote on his tumblr:
“If you want to better know another madman, you have certainly begun your trials. As you start this process, I am beginning to unfold. My neck loosens and my muscles give way all throughout my body.
I can tell you about my life. I can tell you how brain chemistry and its residual anatomy, coupled with traumatic experiences and layered upon itself, can make you angry with the whole entire lot of things. Then, you will be right along and beside me for the ride. Welcome.”
After the arrest, TJ expressed his frustration about getting proper care for his brother and what lies ahead for his family. He posted, “Despite calls to 911, doctors, therapists, having incidents where he threatened my mother with a box cutter, we were still not able to get him safely into a psychiatric facility. No, he spent 45 days in Cambridge Jail instead. …
I had evaluators at my own apartment at the behest of his therapist to maintain a hospital bed, and they still dropped his bed to someone that needed it more than him. When he flipped out after getting the call that the secured bed for him had been lost, he stormed out of my apartment into a blizzard, I didn’t blame him one bit. I still felt compelled to chase him to the train station. No, these haters weren’t there for any of this and it is most likely that they do not actually have a single goddamned clue about it at all. Let the truth ring free.”
Regarding the media, TJ wrote, “It is setting in for me that all that is being debated on with his actions will not matter in a ridiculously short time. The next distraction and trench warfare debate that pops up will have you forget this in no time. Just you haters watch. See how long your focus can be maintained on anything at all.”
Because I too am often frustrated by the ignorance and insensitivity we see in the media regarding mental illness, I wrote to TJ and asked if I could interview him. With his parents’ blessing, he agreed to answer some questions for me via a late-night email exchange. Here are the very candid things he had to say about his brother, mental illness and the incident at the Boston Marathon (and due to the sensitive issues regarding this interview, we have verified these claims with Joie Edson, the mother of TJ and Kevin):
DB: How many kids in your family and who is the oldest, youngest?
TE: Kevin is the youngest, I am the middle child, and my sister JoEllen (Joie, middle name Ellen) is the oldest.
When did you know you were interested in making art? When did Kevin, do you think?
I stumbled upon my love for art in the 7th grade. I was doodling in class and when I realized what I was actually drawing, it dawned on me that I had artistic talent. A scratchboard I did a few months later was submitted to The Boston Globe scholastic art awards and I was awarded a gold key.
I believe Kevin’s true love for art began in high school when he began designing costumes for the drama program, which he was able to express his acting talents with as well. He also designed prom dresses for his best friends, which were the highlights of the prom. This soon turned into his dream of becoming a fashion designer.
When did Kevin’s mental illness start to show? Who first noticed it?
Kevin first experienced a manic episode at 19. He was experimenting with some psychedelics and was soon a manic mess. At the time, I was actually facing my own consequences of failing to address my own mental health problems. I was actually at Bridgewater myself when he was hospitalized for the first time. To think of the stress the rest of my family was under at this time is mind-bogging.
What is his diagnosis?
He was severely manic and I believe he was also diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder at the time as well. He was always on Ritalin for an ADHD diagnosis as a child. His behavior as a child was certainly abnormal and questionable, and he seemed to be one of those kids you would actually agree that they are ADHD.
How did you and Kevin get along when you were growing up? Were you always close, or did you have ups and downs? What was he like as a kid?
My relationship with my brother was very strained until I got through the experience at Bridgewater and was living in a group home near our hometown of Wakefield. At this point we had a bipolar diagnosis in common and could see much more eye to eye. We never really got along, to be honest, until this point. I hated that he never wanted to do anything brotherly together like sports and always was very bitter towards him.
In middle school, he would act be very bizarre around my friends when they would come over to swim in our pool or just to hang out. There was plenty of violence between us. I beat him up so severely once that my parents filed a restraining order against me and I ran from a warrant and lived in a tent in my friend’s back yard for two weeks. That was in 2006.
You write on your website in regard to your art that you’re “scheming with manic tendencies.” Do you have some mental health issues also? Mild or otherwise?
As far as the “scheming with manic tendencies” I am diagnosed bipolar type 1 and my mania is severely exacerbated and I become violent if opposed. It is anything but mild.
In 2007, I wound up in Bridgewater and got sober and started addressing my issues much more seriously. Coincidentally, this is about when my brother started his battle with his bipolar manic episodes. Truthfully, I have been hospitalized far more times than Kevin and have been in trouble with the law and in court just as many times. I have been sober for six years and during that time I have seen my brother fall prey to the same issues I had. Ultimately, I know that he is not at the place of self-awareness that he needs to be at to take better care of himself.
I got to that point through sobriety and better self-care, but have still cracked a few times under stress despite this. I think Kevin has been hospitalized around five times, two being jail situations, technically, this time and in 2009 in Cambridge jail, and at least three trips to McLean. I have been hospitalized well over 10 times, closer to 15. I have lived in a group home for a year. I have bounced in and out of other programs, such as respite residential programs and partial programs. As clearly as I can put this down, if I am symptomatic or even manic, you can throw that all out the window. I speak on this to give you a clear picture of where I understand it from and how I can truly relate to my own brother’s manic experiences.
How has Kevin’s condition changed over the years since? Are there ups and downs? Has it progressively worsened?
Kevin can go through bouts of depression where he sleeps and his quite bitter and angsty towards anyone. He “jumps” into his mania is how I will explain it. He will be in a lull or depression and then out of nowhere blow up into a manic episode. It happens differently for people. I know for myself, I progress over time into mania and the line is little blurred sometime where it starts.
Once it is full blown, however, I am screwed and will be in the hospital or arrested within a day. I always thought it was strange how my own brother could express the same illness in such a contrasting way.
The media has reported that Kevin told police that he knew what he was doing and that it was symbolism. What is your understanding of what he was trying to do, the point he was trying to make? The bombers last year used pressure cookers in backpacks, reportedly, so it does sound like Kevin was referencing that. Did this make sense to you given what you know about his work in the past? Has he always had an irreverent sense of humor?
I honestly believe his mania was driving his comment of symbolism. He was able to make some sort of relevant comment on what he was doing that was directed by his mania. When you are manic, you are on your toes and can react so fast to everything. He was probably thinking in grandiose terms and thinking he could maintain the integrity of his performance as he saw it.
Sometimes I wonder, myself, if he really knew where his opinions were coming from. This could be coming from his histrionic personality disorder issues. He wants you to be shocked and amazed at his antics and bizarre clothing and beliefs so bad that he has lost sight of what it actually means to him.
I have read many things about my brother since the incident. Many wonder what, if anything, this truly meant, or if it was just him in the center of attention as usual, just on a major scale. I’d like to believe he could bring you through the ins and outs of his intentions and the aim of his stunt, but i sadly doubt he could. Sure, the symbolism can be now considered by all of us, but what it actually was was sickness. That’s what separates this from being art. The things he left online, that is his art. What happened on Boylston Street, that is his mental illness.
How do you think mental illness relates to art? Of course there are artists who fall all over the spectrum, mental healthwise, but It seems like being able to see the world from a different or even skewed perspective could be beneficial.
I think if you are an artist with mental illness, you have to blend the two. Otherwise, you will fail at your art and you will be sick. Exploring the madness through creation is an artist’s true calling. so if you happen to have a diagnosis like bipolar, you have to embrace the journey for your art to flourish. I speak for myself and for other people I have spoken with very similar experiences. I speak for my brother.
How is Kevin now? Have you seen him in the hospital? And how is your Dad doing? [note: Edson’s father is battling cancer.]
We are not sure of Kevin’s current status. He is at Bridgewater and has yet to be put into population. We won’t be able to speak with him until he is taken out of solitary confinement and able to set up a phone account.
My father is quite sick with neck cancer that has spread. He is currently in need of a very level of care because of a recent surgery.
Do you think Kevin belongs in the hospital? In your opinion, was this an ill-conceived, risque performance and not any sort of episode related to his mental illness?
Kevin needs help. Bridgewater is not the kind of help anyone needs. He needs a rock bottom scenario. Unfortunately, this is quite a heavy rock bottom for anyone to bounce back from.
Your mother said in her statement to the press that she has struggled for 12 years to get Kevin treatment that would help him. I read your account on your site about how difficult it was securing a bed for Kevin when he needed one and that he was transitioning between doctors. Can you tell me more about that? Why has it been so difficult? I read this horrifying story in The Nation in the ’90s that parents of mentally ill kids, who don’t have a lot of money, have very few options other than to get their kids arrested and sent to juvie so they can get the mental health care that they need. Did you find this was also true in Kevin’s case?
My mom said 12 years of struggle more in reference to both me and my brother. I was first diagnosed at 17, almost exactly 12 years ago and a few weeks. Kevin was not diagnosed until 2008. I was the focus of my families concern for that first 5 years of the battle my mom has been fighting.
We struggled to get him into care in 2009. You almost have to wait for an incident unless the person will willingly go to the emergency room, even if you claim they are dangerous. What you read about in the nineties makes sense in relation to this. This was never actually the case for him, but I could see how families do that.
Do you think Kevin’s bombing performance at the marathon was for publicity?
I do believe Kevin’s stunt was a grandiose and psychotic way of gaining publicity. He had made it clear to all that cared about him that he wanted to be a famous fashion designer and entrepreneur. Only his full-blown disease would make him think that doing this would be a good way of getting this publicity. That still doesn’t make it anything more than a publicity stunt.
This is kind of an odd question, but I read in your post on your site that Kevin had to assault a police dog to get arrested in order to get treatment. One of the other participants on his site Natural Selection says he got arrested for barking at a police dog while getting evicted… is that a wild coincidence or did Kevin create the other writers on his site? Or at least that one?
naturalselection.net was run solely by Kevin and all the personalities were fabricated by him.
What do you hope for regarding continuing media attention about your brother? What do you most want people to know about him and/or about his illness? His art?
Kevin is talented and is devoted to his craft. Say what you want about the style of his work, but his craftsmanship and skill is undeniable.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.