On the day the Berlin wall came down, I was ten; television screens all over the world glowed with images of people cheering and chanting, swarms of men and women dancing and crying and raising victory signs in front of crumbling stones and debris and clouds of dust; in France, we attended this historic event via the evening news, with fadeouts to the somber face of the anchorman, whom we’d invited to sit down to dinner with us—at least those among us who were sitting down to dinner, who still followed that family ritual and for whom the eight o’clock news had replaced the saying of grace as a sort of prayer for the Republic. I could tell, by the way the pitch of the anchorman’s voice fell, that something serious was going on, yet despite his explanations, the geopolitical significance of all this chaos was entirely lost on me. I had no idea of the issues at stake. Still, I was transfixed by the footage, riveted to our television set, in which I discerned—past the glare of the screen, among the ruins, the debris, the rubble—traces of my mother: her mangled face, her scattered body parts, her ashes. Up to that point, I’d admired my mother blindly, rapturously. But now a shadow had fallen over her image. Maman had sunk into a depression so severe that she had been hospitalized by force, for months.
After having been lied to regarding the reasons for Maman’s sudden disappearance, I was informed that she was manic-depressive. The words all ran together— your-mother-is-manic-depressive—a sentence pronounced by one adult or another, one of those useless grown-up sentences that only added to my distress. I rolled the words around on my tongue; they became the leitmotif of my torment. Manic-depressive. It didn’t mean anything. Except Maman had disappeared from one day to the next. My memories of the events preceding her flight are probably too fragmentary and disjointed to weave into a coherent narrative, but the explanations offered by the adults around me were both implausible and unacceptable. In the end, no one knows my childhood better than I do, apart from my sister, who is two years older and recalls slightly different episodes from the epic of our youth. Only one point continues to elude us: the precise moment of our mother’s collapse. The definitive incident, if indeed there was one, seems to have slipped away from both of us, leaving behind only a vague and ominous sense that whatever precipitated her fall almost took us with her. In the absence of any specific catalyst, this memory will have to do: a car crash on the way to or from school, with my sister up front in the death seat and me in back, not wearing a seat belt (as usual), and Maman, stopped at a red light where the avenue George V meets the Champs-Élysées, suddenly accelerating into the intersection as tires screeched and people screamed. It’s impossible to tell now how many cars smashed into us in the pileup but there were enough to total our little green Opel.
We were used to Maman’s sporty driving habits. She was constantly running late, and she sometimes climbed onto the sidewalks when the roads were backed up, a time-tested method for avoiding traffic jams. Cigarette dangling from her left hand, she’d scream at pedestrians: Get out of my way! We’re late! If she hesitated before taking the emergency shoulder lane on the highway, it was only when she suspected cops were around—Look out!—and if the cops did pull us over while she was driving on the sidewalk, or heading the wrong way down a one-way street, or running several red lights and stop signs, all the while insulting numerous drivers, cyclists, and other assholes, my sister and I had been instructed to pretend that we were deathly ill. She would then claim that her two daughters—or one of us, in which case the other one had to assume a worried expression—required urgent medical attention, we were on our way to the hospital, it was a matter of life and death. This strategy worked sometimes, but mostly because of the charm offensive that accompanied it, in which my mother’s beauty played a starring role. Maman was one of the most beautiful women to have ever walked the face of the Earth, swore all those who knew her at the height of her splendor, and her beauty was almost as fatal to Maman herself as to the men and women who fell under its sway. It was no surprise that Maman drove like a madwoman, the rules of the road were purely theoretical to her, and pointlessly annoying, although she would, if she saw a truck bearing down on us as we swerved into the wrong lane, retreat: Oh well, he’s rather big, that one! But the day she hurled us into the Champs-Élysées she betrayed no interest in self-preservation. I still don’t know by what miracle we survived.
With Maman in the hospital, we landed first at the home of friends. Our parents had been separated for a number of years by then—something to do with my father chasing a piece of ass, our mother had told us—and my mother had remarried; later on she would explain that it was the disastrous breakup of that new marriage that had triggered her collapse. Our father was not exactly thrilled with the idea of having sole custody of his daughters, so every other option had to be exhausted before arriving at the inevitable conclusion that we couldn’t continue to be tossed from one home to the next. My sister and I were happy to be staying with our classmates—or at least, we weren’t unhappy with that particular aspect of our fate; on the whole, we were desperate. Our friends were then, are now, and always will be our chosen family, a family we built for ourselves. At twelve and ten, my sister and I suddenly had to manage on our own, without Maman, and our makeshift families would prove to be our greatest support.
Oh fuck off! was one of my mother’s refrains, as was ordering us to go fuck ourselves or to fucking leave her alone, to stop fucking around, to understand that she didn’t give a fuck about our little moral dilemmas or the concerns of a couple of spoiled brats. Oh will you please fuck off! Who gives a shit about your stupid problems! Maman’s diatribes didn’t build to that climax—that was their starting point. My sister and I were so often subject to her harangues that from the opening notes, we’d avoid looking each other in the eye; we’d look at our feet instead. Let her have her say, above all, don’t look up—that was our rule. And no laughing, not even when her tirades became extravagant to the point of hilarity, to the point where we had to pinch ourselves to keep from giggling. We’d try to appear contrite, repentant, even when she’d hit us with the clincher, the craziest line of all: You do realize, don’t you, that I wiped your asses for years! That sentence, a classic in her repertoire, amounted to proof positive that the woman was nuts. How could we take such a declaration seriously? We hadn’t asked for any of this, above all, we hadn’t asked to be born to such a lunatic! The expression served to remind us that, in fact, we weren’t responsible for all of her suffering. These speeches, always delivered with the same feverish indignation, all began more or less the same way:
You self-righteous little shit, if only you knew how much I’ve done for you! You ingrate! You can’t even begin to suspect the number of sacrifices I’ve made for you and your sister. Who are you to judge me for my lapses? Do you know anyone who’s perfect? Who? Just who do you think you are, you sanctimonious little cunt? You do realize, don’t you, that I wiped your asses for years? No, obviously not. Well, I couldn’t care less about your stupid drama. Deal with your own shit, for once. And we’ll see who comes crying for help after you’ve finally managed to do me in. I do what I can, get it, I do the best I can, and if that’s not enough for you, have a look around to see if you can find a better mother. In the meantime, Maman does what she can, Maman is sick and tired, Maman has had it up to here, and Maman is a human being, by the way, and Maman says: Fuck off!
In fact, at the time we didn’t realize that for Maman to have changed our diapers, to have wiped our asses, wasn’t something to be taken for granted. For Maman, being a good-enough mother didn’t come naturally. Given the course of her life, her illnesses, her past, when faced with an infant’s incessant demands, with the mind-numbing work and emotional upheavals of motherhood, with the identity crisis that becoming a mother had entailed for her, she could only respond violently, unpredictably, and destructively, but also with all the love that was missing from her own childhood and that she dreamed of giving and receiving in return. That insane love, that almost intolerable passion for and from two brats who were annoying at almost every age; that boundless love that would outlast everything, transcend everything, forgive everything; the love that led her to call us (when we weren’t little shits, or bitches, or cunts) my adored darlings whom I love madly—that love kept her going for as long as she could.
My sister and I had a formula for this love, an expression that functioned like a spell: Darling Maman, I love you like crazy for my whole life and for all eternity. That sentence, if we managed to answer one of her tirades with it, had the power to dissolve her anger and transform her mood. Suddenly she’d calm down, be reassured, knowing that we loved her enough to respond to her attacks with an outpouring of affection. The antidote to her rage wasn’t sobriety—it was veneration. We loved her more than anything, and that proof of adoration was sufficient to pacify her and soften her tone. Yes, we loved her and she loved us. The storm would pass with a gentle caress on the back, a kiss on the neck, a shower of kisses, more and more kisses.
Finally, inevitably, we landed at Papa’s house. This was after a brief stopover at Grandma and Grandpa’s—Maman’s mother and stepfather—who couldn’t very well drive us every morning from the suburb of Montreuil to our school at the far end of the 15th arrondissement, because Grandma and Grandpa worked! And they were not taxi drivers! They explained to Papa that if he wished to send his chauffeur for us—Papa had a company car at his disposal—then he should go right ahead. That the question of who should house us was a source of conflict was not lost on me. During our stay at Papa’s place, I locked myself in the bathroom and wept. How can you be such a crybaby, Maman had scolded me throughout my childhood, when she found me sniveling. Stop crying, for fuck’s sake! What, you don’t know why you’re crying? Want me to smack you, so you’ll have a real reason to cry? Of course, Maman was a hypocrite. She herself would cry at the drop of a hat, not all the time, of course, but when the season of tears arrived, it was a veritable monsoon. It’s from Maman that I’ve inherited the annoying habit of leaving a trail of tissues behind me wherever I go, and when she was in one of her weepy phases, her tissues would leave damp marks on the furniture, the couches, the beds, and the pockets of her jeans, the disgusting jeans that she no longer bothered to wash and that she never changed out of, because she no longer had the strength to decide what to wear.
With my mother gone, I lost all sense of time, the minutes and hours seemed too long in themselves to imagine them adding up to days, weeks, or months. Someone explained to us that Maman was ill—so there was something worse than manic-depressive after all, there was ill, your mother is ill. The adjective, in this context, had nothing to do with a temporary indisposition, the type of routine childhood illness we might have experienced in the past. Rather, this ill seemed definitive, final, ringed with darkness. It no longer served to describe a transitory state, with specific symptoms; it drew a line around her whole being. It was probably, I thought, a euphemism—probably they weren’t telling me the truth, they were continuing to lie to me to obscure the fact that Maman was gone for good. If I’ve doubted my memory at times, if I’ve worried, with the distance of years, about exaggerating the despair I felt then, I have proof of my desperation in the form of a poem that I wrote to my mother when I was ten, and whose first lines read: Maman, maman /You who love me so / Why, without telling me, would you go?
It was during that very autumn of my mother’s disappearance that I discovered Apollinaire:
How much I love o season your clamor
The apples falling to earth
The wind and forest weeping
Their tears in autumn leaf by leaf
The transience of being, the sense of slipping from existence, the meter that captures that fleetingness, embodies, in verse, life’s inexorable passing; that poem, in my memory, merges with a walk in the woods near my grandmother’s country house, when a friend of Maman’s—the first one to dare—tried to explain to us what had happened to her. It was November, the light was pale, at our feet were strips of gold the chestnuts had set down along our path. In the intermingling of poetry, conversation, and branches, a timid autumn sun broke through the canopy, tearing a hole in my heart.
That Christmas, like every other Christmas, my sister and I were buried in presents, snowed under with packages wrapped in brightly colored paper and encircled with ribbons, all of it laid out under a fir tree decorated—by whom? Who knows. How could the adults in our life— and Papa above all—have had the audacity to prepare such a holiday for us? We wanted Maman for Christmas, was that so hard to understand? We didn’t want any presents when we couldn’t have the only one that counted—Maman. Where was Maman? And when would she return?
Christmas was always a calvary for us, but that year, we were obliged to proceed through all the Stations of the Cross, and at the time I couldn’t believe—and I still can’t believe—that we were forced into pretending that we loved our presents, that they were sufficient, so as not to hurt Papa’s feelings. It was all meant to please him, and we mustn’t upset him, he was the only one we had left. We weren’t prepared to be orphans, so we did our best to play along, to smile and say thank you, and to go into raptures as much as possible, so that Papa wouldn’t throw us out in a fit of rage. We couldn’t let our ingratitude betray us—not the ingratitude Maman had regularly accused us of, but the eternal ingratitude of children (because as everyone knows, children are always ungrateful, their lack of appreciation for the many sacrifices their parents have made for them is an established fact). We celebrated Christmas even though Papa was a bit Jewish around the edges, as Maman said. He said he was an atheist.
The defining event of my father’s life was the Second World War. The son of a Cabinet member and former Vice President of the Republic, from a young age Papa had grown up in the Élysée Palace and, later on, in official residences of comparable luxury, but when the war broke out, the Judaism of his ancestors had nearly cost him his life. His father, dismissed from his post and banished, found himself penniless. Papa recalled that one day in the middle of the war, when they were hiding out under an assumed name in Marseille, his father informed him that if by the end of the month he couldn’t find the money to support his wife and children, they’d all go throw themselves off the dock of the Old Port. I had noted, in my father’s personality, the ravages of this psychic wound, the extent to which he remained scarred by the unspeakable experience of fearing he would be killed because of his religion, of losing everything from one day to the next. Between the difficulty of our respective childhoods there could be no competition. The disappearance of Maman, for my sister and me, could not compare with the war’s horror for my father.
Maman’s tragedy, the one she never recovered from, the scratch on the record that caused her to repeat herself, endlessly, was the emotional neglect she had suffered in her own childhood. Her mother, of course, was the one to blame. She had opened a hole in her daughter’s heart by giving birth to her, and had left it gaping. Faced with her mother, Maman was an abandoned child all over again, choking up at the very sight of her. She said she felt something rising in her throat as we approached Grandma’s house, she felt a lump—as if the stifled sobs of her childhood had congealed there. In front of her mother, she became an overgrown teenager, perpetually angry, puerile. Grandma responded to her daughter’s tirades or effusive tenderness with the same paralyzing coldness, powerless before Maman’s excesses. That Grandma was icily beautiful didn’t help matters. Her features, exceedingly fine, possessed an intimidating symmetry. Her habitual expression was a kind of pout, midway between weariness and annoyance, her pinched lips, her narrow nose turned up with disdain. Her face resembled a Venetian mask, brandished against the steel blue of an arctic sky. Her jet-black hair, always pulled back into an impossibly tight chignon, called to mind the black swan from the famous ballet. That hairdo, it’s just too much! Maman would say, making fun of the hairstyle her mother had adopted after opening her dance school in Montreuil. Maman’s birth had been neither planned nor desired, and on top of the accident of her birth, there had been her childhood illness, and then her mental illness. Grandma had done what she could: pregnant at twenty, married to a nightmare of a man, giving birth to a puny little baby girl, anorexic, sickly, and soon gravely ill. Maman said that from eighteen months until she was five years old, she lived at Necker, the famous children’s hospital, in the immediate aftermath of the war. Grandma was vague about the dates. Maman said that Grandma never came to see her in the hospital, even though visits were allowed, she knew that because Granny, her grandmother, came regularly! Maman remembered the name of the great professor who directed the wing of the hospital in which she’d grown up, she recalled the hospital beds around her emptying, she knew very well what that meant, that the children were not cured, that they were not coming back. She said that if she got out of there alive it was thanks to a nurse on her floor who became fond of her. Psychologists have studied the effects of separation on young children, orphans or seriously ill children. Without the constant presence of a stable, affectionate figure to whom they can become attached when they are young, some children will waste away and die, others will never learn to walk or to speak, all will suffer serious behavioral problems. Human contact is required to create a human being: bodily warmth, a comforting smell, a calming breath, the fluctuations of a beloved voice, a loving touch, the brush of someone’s lips. Maman understood this intuitively, and maybe a nurse did save her life. In the same way my sister was sure that she owed her own good health to my birth, twenty-two months after her own. The permanence of my presence, the simple fact of my existence had evidently rescued her. Maman, however, was an only child, and her own mother would probably have aborted Maman if she could have done so.
When Maman came back to us, her mind still hazy and dark, she confessed that she was the one who had forbidden us to visit her in the hospital. She justified it by saying that she feared that seeing her there would traumatize us. In the midst of total collapse, she had held on to her position, her role as mother, her dignity and authority. Whatever else happened, she had to remain a mother, she couldn’t let go of that. I pictured the psychiatric hospital—the hospital, not the clinic, an important distinction—as it had appeared to me on-screen a short time after her departure (when her diagnosis was repeated to me at every turn, your mother is ill, your mother is manic-depressive, your mother is ill, mentally ill) in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which happened to be on television just then. That the parents of the friend with whom I was staying at the time allowed me to watch this film, dazed and numb with fear as I was, no longer surprised me. Clearly, the adults surrounding us were either scatterbrained and irresponsible, or blind, or overwhelmed. A bunch of morons! Maman might have said. Her descriptions of psychiatric treatment matched in every detail the treatment Jack Nicholson received, at least as I recall it. I have never watched that film again.
Once home, Maman would frequently ask us to forgive her for having yet again almost set fire to the kitchen by allowing the strange stew that was supposed to be our dinner burn. It was the fault of those damn antipsychotics, she said, she couldn’t get over them, they’d leached her brain, it was all scrambled inside, there was too much static on the line. We told her it didn’t matter, don’t worry, above all don’t beat yourself up over such a small thing, we couldn’t care less about dinner. It’s no big deal, Maman. Don’t cry, Maman, it’s no big deal! She burst into tears, sobbing that she couldn’t take it anymore, it was too difficult, too hard, she’d never manage. Don’t worry, Maman, we know you can do it! Look, everything’s fine, you’re doing really well, it’s just a casserole, it’s nothing! We tried hard to convince her, we exhausted ourselves trying to restore her confidence in herself and in the future. But we weren’t sure about anything; we weren’t even sure we’d find her alive the next morning. So our bedtime ritual took hours to unfold, a prelude to the nightmares that never failed to visit us in our sleep.
The apartment we moved into the following fall, just before school started, had three bedrooms along a hallway: my sister’s room, my room, and Maman’s room. At bedtime, Maman would first go kiss my sister, and then me, and that configuration—my bedroom right between theirs—would come to define my entire adolescence. Maman began by saying good night to my sister, and I’d overhear them talking, faintly—though in fact, I’m not entirely sure that I really heard what they were saying, I remember only that I tried to listen in on them, and that the ritual went on for ages, centuries, light-years. I would count the minutes as they passed or rather, as they dragged on, huddled under my comforter, imagining that I was counting schools of multicolored fish, pausing to describe their hues in vocabulary that I hoped was fancy—opaline, cyan blue, vermilion. When I finally heard Maman’s footsteps coming down the hallway, I knew I had to tough it out awhile longer. Because as soon as Maman had one foot out the door of my sister’s room, my sister called her back. Maman! One more kiss! Maman, wait! I’ve still got something to tell you! Maman, I swear, it’s superimportant! Maman, come back! And when at last Maman went out, leaving the door slightly ajar, just the right amount—no, that’s too closed, yes, just like that, that’s good—when the last kiss had been bestowed, and then the very last kiss, and then the very very last, the chorus of See-you-tomorrow-Mamans took over. This chorus was repeated at least a hundred times with some slight variations—See you tomorrow morning, Maman!—to which Maman had to respond Yes, sweetheart! in a tone that was at once clear, open, and decisive, otherwise they’d have to start again from zero. I’ve never asked my sister if there was a magic figure, if she counted the number of times she repeated that sentence. I don’t believe she did. I think the figure must have corresponded to a certain emotional temperature, and measured by that thermometer, the fever was always running dangerously high. When at last it was my turn and Maman had finally crossed the threshold of my bedroom to come tuck me in, more often than not she would have to return to the side of her elder daughter, who still had a little something to tell her, something superimportant, absolutely essential. She wanted to let Maman know, using the coded language they had developed between them for these occasions, that on waking, she expected Maman to be there. With the puny means at her disposal, my sister was trying her hardest to make Maman swear that she would survive the night.
But you promised me! Before the hospital, that’s how we would have chided Maman if she tried to get out of finishing a story she’d started telling us a few days earlier. There would be serious consequences if Maman didn’t finish the story tomorrow! It was the game of a child who mimics the authority of the parent, because the parent in question, having broken her word, finds her status temporarily diminished; after the hospital, we didn’t play that game anymore. We were no longer certain of the rules, we would no longer play around with our mother’s place in our lives. Maman had collapsed, was languishing on a corner of the couch, a defeated mess; we saw her struggling to get out of bed, or limply pretending to have dinner, or passed out in the hallway. Very early on, without having taken a single first aid course, we learned how to revive her. We knew a few simple techniques that she herself had taught us: have her sniff some vinegar, wipe her face with a damp washcloth, slap her, lift her eyelids, shout her name, shout it louder, ask if she can hear us, and when she wakes, ask if she can understand us, ask what day it is—no, too difficult—ask if she knows who we are. Maman, do you recognize me? Say my name! Who am I? You’re my daughter, you’re my darling daughters. What happened to me? You fainted, Maman. It’ll be okay, don’t worry, it’ll be okay. When we couldn’t manage to wake her, we’d call the fire department; the firemen, with their impressive uniforms and their EMT kit, always arrived very quickly. They’d put an oxygen mask on her, and watching her regain consciousness, we ourselves began to breathe again, we exhaled a deep sigh, midway between relief and exasperation. Maman bawled us out for having called the fire department for no reason, it was nothing at all, everything was fine, look, everything’s fine! She’d give us a dirty look and, with a knowing air, explain to them that she’d stupidly skipped lunch, her blood pressure had just dropped a little, it was nothing, really, no reason at all to bother them. She’d gather herself up and adopt a serious look, the one she used for officials or our teachers, chin up, radiating maternal authority. Girls, don’t you have homework to do? Come on, come on, get to work! But if the firemen insisted, as a precaution, on taking her to the hospital, Maman would start to scream: Not the hospital! Don’t take me back to the hospital! I don’t want to go to the hospital! No, not the hospital! Then my sister and I would say calmly to the worried firemen, Please, leave her be. She doesn’t want to go to the hospital. The question that inevitably arose—what would become of us if they took Maman away?——always resolved things in her favor. Is there another adult living here? these great big guys would ask us gently. Well, no. There was just us. Maman and the two of us, now thirteen and eleven years old.
Our apartment building was across the street from the National Institute for Blind Youth, at number 1, rue Necker—right by the children’s hospital where Maman had spent the longest and most painful years of her childhood. She refused to set foot there, not even if we had to have our tonsils out or our appendix removed; she preferred to go across Paris, she would have gone to the other side of the world, rather than risk reviving the traumas that haunted those corridors. Yet she had chosen to live near this memory palace, a monument that loomed so large in her personal mythology. It towered over us like a ghost when we left our apartment house; she stumbled in its shadow. It was a sign of the inescapability of her past, both the past she had lived and the past she had invented. That she had chosen to live near the edifice of this past, just next door to it, was an indication of how much she needed to make visible, to make material, a cause, an origin story, for the disaster that was her life.
And tell the story of her life she did, continuously, ad nauseam, an unbearable monologue. She was like Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, hectoring us, calling upon us as witnesses, her two darling, adored daughters, whom she loved for all eternity. During the years that followed her hospitalization at Sainte-Anne, she worked day and night on the writing of a story she called Saxifrage, for the flower that grows in rock. It was published by Éditions Séguier. Or rather, it was published at the author’s own expense, but with her incomparable powers of persuasion, she succeeded in convincing the publishing house to print it for her. This text demanded more than three years of indefatigable labor; she wanted to do everything herself, including the layout, which involved little bits of paper cut out and pasted onto sheets that she folded into a booklet. She presented her autobiography in the form of calligrams made of rhyming expressions she sometimes made up, all ending with-ing: Babbling/Floundering// Deporting/Hospitaling//Abandoning/Dead-bed-emptying//Trauma-ing . . .
The story ended with her being locked up, her need to pull through for her daughters’ sake. As evidence of her daughters’ need for her, she chose to publish poems which my sister and I had written for her. She wrote that she had received them while still in the hospital, that the poems had cut through the fog of antipsychotics, had cleared her head with a force far more powerful than the electroshocks the orderlies were administering. My poem was a talisman. This was all invented for the sake of the narrative she was shaping in her book, but I had really written that poem, and it was soon impossible for me to untangle the truth from the story she was weaving. She had me write out a fair copy of my poem on graph paper, and that’s the way it appeared in the book, in a color photocopy. I recognized my childish handwriting, I recognized the blue and pink tints of the lines in the Clairefontaine notebook. She had had me write the date, and my name and my grade in the upper-left-hand corner, like a piece of homework I’d handed in to my teacher. This element of realism tore a hole through the memory. That date was probably a falsehood, but I was no longer certain of that. I caught myself believing her literary invention. Yes, after all, perhaps she had received my poem in the hospital? Perhaps my verses had given her faith in the future. Perhaps poetry can help a person live a little longer.
Excerpted from The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman. Copyright © 2021 by Violaine Huisman. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.