Black-and-white photo depicting Piero Heliczer using Patti Chenis' hair to make a mustache on his face. Patti Chenis looks at the camera.

A Seattle Filmmaker’s Search for ‘The Invisible Father’

by Beverly Aarons

Piero Heliczer, Beat poet, experimental filmmaker, and publisher, was a central figure in the 1960s and ʼ70s underground art scene. He published dozens of poems, produced at least 24 films, and participated in Andy Warhol’s Film-Makers’ Cooperative. But in the early 1990s, while reading his poetry at a venue on the famous St. Marks Place, Piero was something much smaller and ordinary: a drunk, disheveled, absentee father under the critical gaze of his 19-year-old daughter, Thérèse Heliczer. 

“How could my mom have fallen in love with this person [standing] before me?” thought Thérèse, who now lives in Seattle. “I was fearful of him,” Thérèse said of her dad, “because I was being protected from him in some way.” 

The people in the audience were enraptured by every word her father spoke, but Thérèse couldn’t connect to his poems. He was celebrated and well-respected in the art scene, but he was also an embarrassment for her and her family. There’s a photo of young Thérèse standing with her father on that day in St. Marks, her arms crossed over her body. It’s clear she didn’t know what to make of this man who was her father, but only in the most abstract meaning of the word. 

Decades later, Thérèse has produced The Invisible Father, a documentary about Piero’s life that, after two years on the film festival circuit, was just released nationally this spring. 

Black-and-white photo depicting Heliczer in a dark wide-brimmed hat holding a vintage camera pointed at the photographer. Members of The Velvet Underground are gathered next to him with their instruments.
Heliczer (with camera) and members of The Velvet Underground. Heliczer produced at least 24 films, and participated in Andy Warhol’s Film-Makers’ Cooperative. (Photo: Adam Ritchie)

Long before Thérèse’s aunt and grandmother escorted her to St. Marks Place to meet her father for the first time, she had a longing to know him. But every time she brought him up, there was a contagious sense of secrecy and caution that made her wonder if he was dangerous. After all, his own mother wouldn’t give him her address and would only meet him in public places. 

What Thérèse didn’t know as a child was that her father was suffering from untreated mental illness. 

She would later discover that her father had lost his own dad in the most brutal way possible: He was tortured and murdered, in Nazi-occupied Italy, by the Gestapo just weeks before the end of World War II. At just 6 years old, Piero was sent to identify his father’s mutilated body. Later in his life, Piero developed schizophrenia and ended up living on the streets of New York and then Normandy, France. 

He would die at 56 years old when he was hit by a truck while riding his moped.

For Thérèse Heliczer, Piero’s death wasn’t the end of her relationship with him. Hidden within her was a tiny seed of desire to really know her dad, to understand him beyond the surface chaos of his life. That desire would grow and blossom once she had her own daughter. 

“I was seeing my daughter grow up with a father, which I had not had,” Thérèse said. “And so, I started to kind of see the impact that having a dad had in her life.” She mentioned her thoughts to a friend who suggested that she make a film about it. 

Begun in 2012 and finished in 2020, the making of the documentary The Invisible Father sent Thérèse on a journey across the United States and Europe retracing her father’s artistic life as a poet and experimental filmmaker. She attended the Velvet Underground exhibit in Paris, France, which featured her father’s work. And she sought out his peers, friends, and admirers who could share memories, photos, and footage of a man who was just as much a mystery as he was a legend. But through that process, she was taken on another journey, one that was both emotional and psychological.

“Making this film has been the best form of therapy for me,” said Thérèse. “The other impact of making this film was actually getting to know my mother more and better, and understanding her choices,” Thérèse said.

Still depicting Thérèse Heliczer seated in a kitchen smiling.
Now living in Seattle, Thérèse Heliczer remembers feeling shielded from her father as a child. Making “The Invisible Father” helped her piece together details about the complex man Piero Heliczer was, and better understand her mother’s choices. (Photo: Dan McComb)

At one point in the research process, Thérèse discovered Super 8 footage of her dad and her 20-something mom (pregnant with Thérèse) happy and in love with each other. She showed it to her mother. And the experience of watching her mother react to it was a transformative experience for Thérèse. “I had never seen that. I had never seen these young bohemian people, that were happy and in love, that were my parents.” 

Before producing The Invisible Father, Thérèse Heliczer didn’t “fully understand or have a sense of the brilliance and the poetry and the artistic and the creative side of [Piero].” But in making the film, Thérèse “came to terms with the whole person that he was.” She also offered her own daughter a connection to Piero Heliczer as her grandfather, absent of the shame and fear that tainted much of Thérèse’s childhood understanding of him.

“I’m not embarrassed to be his daughter anymore,” said Thérèse. “I’m not ashamed. Now I know that he was a very complicated person.”

The Invisible Father is available now on most streaming services.

Beverly Aarons is a writer, artist, and game developer. She works across disciplines, exploring the intersections of history, hidden current realities, and imagined future worlds. She specializes in making unseen perspectives visible and aims to infuse all of her creative work with a deep sense of emotionality.

📸 Featured Image: Piero Heliczer (right) was a beat poet, experimental filmmaker, and publisher well-respected in the art world, but in his own family he was an absentee father suffering from untreated mental illness. In “The Invisible Father,” his daughter Thérèse, retraces his steps in her quest to learn more about the artist he was, and the history of her own family. Pictured with Patti Chenis, Thérèse’s mother. (Photo: Gerard Malanga)

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