25 February 2014

Marie Cardinal: Les Mots pour le dire | The Words to Say It (1975)

Les Mots pour le dire (The Words to Say It) is quite a staggering autobiography, the account of a woman on the verge of madness and her journey not back, but into a new life, an authentic existence.

This is a long journey, very harrowing in the first part which begins with the thirty-year-old narrator's frequent pyschosomatic vaginal bleeding, her extreme panic attacks, her refusal to take medication and her flight from a psychiatric hospital to expensive three-times-a-week sessions with the psychoanalyst who will cure her, but only after seven years.

This is the story of a pied noir, an Algerian descended from comfortable European parents, but divorced before she was born. Now a non-believer, she was largely brought up by a pious Catholic mother of overwhelming hypocrisy, who never educated her in sexual matters and still mourns the earlier death of her infant daughter. The book steadily reveals, as if from the psychiatric couch, the reasons behind her mental illness and takes us through the childhood and adolescent traumas and the almost unbelievable callousness of the mother.

The book is dedicated to 'Le docteur qui m'a aidée à naître' ('The doctor who helped me to be born'), and he is very much a listener as opposed to a talker, only speaking when it's really necessary, not taking notes but taking everything in. For instance, he coaxes from his patient the meanings of 'tuyau' ('tube'), which caused her shame as a young child when urged to piss down the tube of the train toilet by her mother and grandmother, or the makeshift one she (ignorantly) later uses to masturbate with, causing more shame.

But the key to a vital source of the victim's pain is her mother taking her, as an adolescent, into a crowded street and telling her that she did everything she could to induce a miscarriage to prevent her giving birth to her: this is a mother whose Catholic convictions mean that she sees it as a sin to have an abortion, but sees nothing wrong in attempting to perform her own abortion, nor in describing to her daughter how she wanted her not to be born.

The telling of this sickening act frees the patient from her loss of blood, and even the madness in her (which she calls 'la chose' ('the thing')) subsides to a large extent. But now she is really born she must learn to be a person in her own right, which is what the second and final part of this book is about, and which ends when she settles her final account with her psychoanalyst, just after being freed at last by the effective suicide of her mother drinking a bottle and a half of rum.

Unforgettable.

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