Wanting & Not Wanting To Be Found

The burning question in John Maloof’s poignant and heartbreaking documentary, Finding Vivian Maier is this: did she want to be found? As a psychoanalyst with years of experience working with similarly troubled and traumatized patients, I’d have to say yes and no. There were two sides to Vivian Maier; some saw one, some saw another; some saw both.

Locked Inside Herself & Opening The Door

Vivian Maier was locked up inside herself as tightly as her padlocked room. John Maloof opened the door. Many of us walked in. But, do we know her? Those that had contact told varying tales of love, mean-spiritedness, and even abuse to the children in her care. What this tells me is something about her own experiences and longings – secreted away in those two very discreet sides of her that rarely touched.

Scared of Men & Hiding Behind Her Camera

One side she wore on the surface. She was secretive. A loner. Angry. Distrusting. Clearly very, very scared. She was scared of men, especially. And, she hid behind formalities to most: Miss Maier. Not Vivian. Except to very few. She hid behind her camera too. Ask her what she did: “I’m kind of a spy.” Getting inside other people’s lives. A voyeur. She recorded pieces of life for no one to see. This was safer than living her own. Watching others gave her control.

The other side of Vivian Maier was much more hidden. The clue is in her preoccupation with horrors in the news: murder, rape, abuse. There’s no question she was abused, probably sexually. This made her terrified of letting anyone in. She expected hurt. Yet, there was this other part of her – the one that needed and wanted love. The one she kept very well hidden, mostly from herself.

There & Gone: Running From A Need For Love

Vivian Maier hid her need for love. That is, except for the few times it leaked out. When a couple she worked for considered a foster child, she quietly asked: “Why don’t you take care of me?” Or another time, Vivian pleaded with maybe the only woman she considered a friend: “Please don’t leave. Please stay and talk to me.” Yet, when her friend asked her to follow her to talk, Vivian suddenly went the other way.

“She could go into a space with another person and get them to be themselves – and then she’s gone,”  Joel Meyerowitz, also a photographer perceptively said, Indeed, that’s exactly what I find in my work with those as terrified as Vivian Maier. As soon as they open up, even just a little, to their need for understanding and love, they’re gone. As if they never wanted it at all.

Because of this very history, Maloof and we as voyeuristic viewers must ask. What would Vivian Maier really want? Is it to be found or not to be found? Both, really. The deprived little child still living inside her, hungry for care and friendship and love desperately wanted to be found. But, the other part of her held her hostage; told her NO, forced her to hide away, certain she’d be hurt. This other part convincingly said: You need no one and nothing. It’s better to be alone.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.