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Archive for January 30th, 2021


The cover of the audible edition of Memoire de fille

I know it sounds absurd
Please tell me who I am
— Supertramp

‘One thing more,’she said. ‘I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in loving a person and saying so.’
It was not true. The shame of her surrender, her letter, her unrequited love would go on gnawing, burning, till the end of her life …
After all, it did not seem to hurt much: certainly not more than could be borne in secret, without a sign. It had all been experience,
and that was a salutary thing. You might write a book now, and make him one of the characters; or take up music seriously; or kill yourself
— Rosamond Lehmann, Dusty Answer

Friends and readers,

As Annie Ernaux says she feels compelled to write, however dangerous and difficult to do, autofiction about shaming, and traumatic incidents in her that she thinks central to the kind of person she became, so do I find her texts irresistible. I wrote about her Les Annees (The Years) and other books some eight and a half years ago in a blog I called The Poetry of Girlhood; of self and body acceptance. I was reminded of her last August when I read a superb review of A Girl’s Story in “Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings”. I had not realized she’d published another auto-fiction; now, having it read it with a few other people, I want to draw attention to the new (in the sense of published about) matter she most bravely of all has put before the public.

Letter the First
From Isabel to Laura
How often, in answer to my repeated intreaties that you would give my Daughter a regular detail of the Misfortunes and Adventures of your Life, have you said, ‘No, my freind never will I comply with your request til I may be no longer in Danger of again experiencing such dreadful ones.’ Surely that time is now at hand. You are this Day 55. If a woman may ever be said to be in safety from the determined Perseverance of disagreable Lovers and the cruel Persecutions of obstinate Fathers, surely it must be at such a time of Life. Isabel. — Love and Freindship, Jane Austen

She says she was prompted to write about this incident finally by reading Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer (first published 1957), 55 years after it occurred in 1958, when she was eighteen; she had tried before and some of the passages in this new memoir were written eleven years later, or 1969, but couldn’t go on with it. Now at last enough years have gone by so she can write down as accurately as memory will allow (and a few helps, like photos, some letters, the internet) what has lain not far from consciousness, in her mind, easily drawn up all these many years.

There is no girl’s behavior more misunderstood than promiscuity, especially when the girl persists in offering herself in the sexiest of clothes to boys and young men who treat her with scorn, and humiliate her, and in repeating this behavior when girls around her begin to know and ostracize and ridicule or accuse her of being a shocking tramp (that’s a 1950s Americanism — I am showing my age — for slut). Ernaux found herself falling into this pattern of behavior the summer she was 18 and sent away to a camp intended to help adolescents and young adults who were having problems adjusting to social life. What happens repeatedly is the girl is seen as “whorish” then or years later when she writes about it. Say at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, a woman who could tell such a tale of herself would present herself as guilty, sinful, and overcoming degradation; fast forward to after WW1, and Freudian influence, and she is understood at masochistic, asking for punishment because females are drawn to suffering (they like to be beat up). Mid to later 20th century, she would present herself as only partly compliant or raped (except the problem here is she came back to be raped again). Very recently, the explanation has gone further, oh of course she is enjoying it, but not because it’s a punishment, but because she revels in pro-active strong sex.

The wise girl of course never tells of this commonplace experience: where Ernaux perhaps differed is she seems to have let this kind of ugly reaction to her, the treatment, and her irrational submission to it go on all summer. A key factor is it began by her being ostracized for social awkwardness, the wrong clothes, a chunky body.

Gentle reader, I am here to tell you none of these statements explain the girl’s behavior, none get near her complex motivation nor acknowledges the cruelty and contradictory nature of this social experience. As with anorexia which most often begins (key factor) by the girl having been teased, humiliated, nagged for being overweight, the explanation lies in the point of origin, and the girl not knowing how to cope and then inventing a self-destructive coping mechanism, by which she hides from the world and herself what she is feeling, and either stays in the world (if she cannot bear to pay the price of the safety of self-isolation) or shuts herself off from it, sometimes for years. One technique for withdrawal that helps is anorexia, because then you cannot eat with others and that is the most common social act people do together. Ernaux became bulimic not long after the summer was over.

Her story belongs in Mary Pypher’s Reviving Ophelia, except unlike Pypher, she does not define herself or her society as sick. Pypher argues that present heterosexual norms are predatory towards the girl, rewarding and admiring the boy for triumphing over her body, and until recently despising the girl. Instead Ernaux gives us a startlingly frank moment-by-moment description of what she can remember herself as thinking and feeling.

Ernaux says (p. 55) she is telling the experience with such candor and detail because such descriptions commonly present such experiences falsely, in the form of an “imposture.” She is challenging the figures other writers make such girls. She is not what readers think she is, whatever that be. She is “deconstructing” such experiences, such spectacles.

One result is this is a very painful book to read — unless you simply dismiss her with the ready-made explanations given above, which are difficult to apply. Instead of withdrawing to protect herself what happens is she lets go. It’s as if she cannot stop herself. She is very clear that she is not enjoying herself –- she makes it explicit how much she is humiliated and how aware she is of this. One way she communicates this is she never allows the boy to fuck her and ejaculate in her. Or maybe not after the first time with the first young man. She says again and again she doesn’t let men into her vagina – they basically jerk themselves off over her thighs. She says how disgusting all this way. She says she was giving them mastery over her body so that they would not ostracize, reject her, all the while the act did not bind any of them to her (see p 59), so she had to do this again. The young woman all around her and the boys openly scorned her over and over too. They’d sing ribald songs to her. So she got nothing out of it – except this staying in social life because she didn’t know any other way to do it and no decent or kind person or authority figure stepped in to bring a stop to the lure of these repeated outrages of her by everyone.

Allow me to say I had experiences like these and took the option of flight, retreat. I became anorexic for five years (age sixteen), withdrew from society in effect, stayed home with my books, reading them –- didn’t have any girlfriends (I had tried confiding and discovered to my disbelief they rejected me and then to my horror told others what I had said!). I took the path that leads to social erasure and failure, with no growth in understanding through interaction with my peers.

These are coping mechanisms and so are Ernaux’s, though hers look so distorted from self-protection, and look so exaggeratedly eager (how she dresses especially) because society offers only maligning the person, or medicalizing her (talking of her as sick when it’s the society that has driven her this way). She didn’t want the first and never thought of the second. Sometimes these coping mechanisms — or frequently — are themselves forms of self-punishment. You can discern in bulimia the person who wants to stay in public and appear to eat with others, and then when alone frantically try to get rid of the food she has been taught to fear. Ernaux speaks sardonically or ironically but does not lash out at those who are hurting her. She repeats (very like Lehmann’s heroine) after the summer was over she was not ashamed, oh no, she had had experience and so triumphed. I see her as still not self-protective because she wants so badly to stay in the society.

In one of the many essays that have been written about Ernaux’s work,   this one by Chloë Taylor Merleau, Merleau asks (as if this needs heavy lifting explanations), why does Ernaux write about this kind of thing voluntarily still if it is (as she says also) so shaming. Merleau need only have read Edith Evans’s collection of commentary on acting Shakespeare’s women on the stage (most of the time until recently rehearsing with an almost all male crew), Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare’s Women Today: they say as these heroines they are making visible the emotional pain and damage human societies and communities inflict on women. What we are seeing is visible intense distress, anorexic, bulimic, promiscuous girls who are obviously scapegoated make visible the damage done everywhere on all women, the twisting and distortions.

I have another explanation: I believe that Ernaux is autistic level 1 (Aspergers Syndrome): this is why she was not able to understand the faces and bodies around her, could not imitate the unwritten codes, and until today does not realize she still is. I know a great deal about this disability and have learned over the past few years that in France, however wonderfully generous economically their health care system is, they do not accept and will not categorize and treat as a disability people on the autistic spectrum who have other kinds of strong capability and intelligence.

What makes her book so valuable is that women need to read it and when they do they find themselves and begin to think about their experiences as girls. All too often movies and novels present as a girl’s adolescence what are boys’ patterns of behavior. What girls are, what they do, is still stigmatized; the bases have changed, but there is no empathy or understanding by the mainstream media.

None of this fits into the usual narrative about what it means to grow up; you are to tell of how you made the most of your opportunities, and if any such sexual experiences happened, you are to get over it and accept what was (and of course then still is with men) in dignified silence. So it is as if these central experiences for girls — for they feed into marital and sexual choices all your life, into the way you may mother a daughter or son — never happened. But they did, do, and exert a strong influence on people’s older sexual & working lives.

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Her books

In the second half of the book (p. 85, summer over, September, her mother takes her to live in a convent school), we see the early reactions she has to her memories of what she was and did. She is determined not to opt out, not to retreat. So what does she do? she behaves as cruelly and badly as everyone else to new vulnerable types, in particular one male — she plies him with drink. This can serve to remind us the predatory culture we live in is as hurtful and harmful to many men as it is to women. She is determined to see what she did as triumph — especially with one young man she calls H. She “discovered parties, freedom, male bodies.” It is at this point she begins to look up what the internet can tell her today about this past she is trying to retrieve. Dread and desire mix together and she looks the young man up but tells the reader hardly anything about him.

The book makes reference now and again to the outer political world. In 1958 a right-wing coup took over Algeria, and the Gaullists came back into power in France. In 1969 there was a summer of rebellion by adult students against the conventions and authoritarian capitalism of French society. She mentions violence, terrorism, massacres (this could refer to the year 2014 when she is writing). She says the kinds of things she felt in the early 1960s after the last of her experiences were over, and would have like to have written are found in now unreadable novels or women’s magazines of the 1950s.

Yes I know those; I read them in the 1950s (I was born in 1946 so was 13 in 1959, just in time for Peyton Place). She thinks Colette or Sagan were better for girls to read. I’m not so sure. I am struck about how such magazines were found in France where she lived at the same time as they were found in NYC. I was reading just this sort of magazine at the same time as I read Austen for the first time (age 12-14).

In my view in the second half of her memoir, Ernaux is tremendously lucky. For whatever reason the camp refuses to have her back. We have seen from her relationship with H, she would have reacted in similar ways: promiscuous, dress sexy, be cruel to others. In her dream life (a la Jung’s theory) she feels was telling her she’d behaved like an imbecile with H, at the same time her conscious self wanted to go back to that camp and triumph as beautiful, brilliant, &c but one of her dreams offers her the first intimation she should make herself inaccessible — as a way to protect herself, surely.

She embarks on a campaign of self-transformation. My feeling — maybe readers would to like to comment — for better or worse many girls in their early teens do this. They find they do not look at all like those ads/norms they see in front of themselves — so they diet, go shopping, learn to use make-up, change their names &c She can’t bear to look at a photo of herself at this time – chunky, dowdy &c. She will get a driver’s license, learn to swim and dance to make up for what she recognizes are her lack of social skills. Beauvoir says girls are not born, they are made, the truth is they feminize themselves.

She is taking a philosophy course and the clarity of the writers and the demand she be clear enables her (it seems) to distinguish and repudiate what she was — so repudiating herself without really understanding why she did what she did or wants to go back. She does not know how to deal with the shame she feels – I feel very much for her

Then the anorexia takes over as dieting becomes more obsessive; then she wants to go out so she has to resort to throwing up (bulimia) — a vicious cycle where paradoxically all she can think about is food. She can’t figure out how to stop herself. Now how obscene is this throwing up. Again I feel very much for her. I never “practiced” bulimia but I was anorexic — for five years. And I know the experience never goes away ….

Doing so well at school no longer helps so much; she is called ugly names by other girls (the cruelty of girls to one another is important in this book). She at first does not go on to the higher form of education which would lead her to teach in higher schools but a lesser briefer one which leads to teaching younger children. Her father is presented as not wanting her to go higher than he did, and the mother disappointed. But she is thinking of herself as having had a woman’s experience; why sit at a desk scribbling away for long years to become a teacher in a higher school She idealizes teaching children to persuade herself.

Then the important books: The Second Sex by Beauvoir. It just woke her up. Gave her explanations. I thought the whole section on her reaction to it self-insightful. “To have received the key to understanding shame does not give one the power to erase it” (p 113) Of the other books she mentions I read Gone with the Wind (not in French) at age 12-13 obsessively for a while — and am interested to find that the heroine’s fate that remains with Ernaux is Melanie’s death in childbirth. Most people (women) reading this book talk incessantly of Scarlett as the heroine they identified with. For me both heroines were significant. In Suzanne Juhasz’s Romance of the Heart she has a long analysis of Gone with The Wind where she argues Rhett is a mother figure, and that often in girls’ and young women’s romance novels the hero who is tender, kind, loving, just about brother-like is a mother figure.

And then Ernaux switches to the school that will lead her to higher teaching — the “ecole normale superior” (sans accents & anglicized). It is the college type that Beauvoir went to — as did Sartre.

The last part of the memoir retells of her time in England as an au pair, with a friend R also an au pair. The family she gets an au pair job in is middle class so the job is not hard. She visits London, goes to bookstores and find French books, tourist sites. She is thrilled by self-service supermarkets. I do remember — very vague – when the first supermarkets of this type emerged in the middle 1950s in the Bronx where I lived. I was around 10. I found it hard to sympathize when this now spoilt pair of girls become petty shoplifters. I realize petty crimes like this are indulged by teenagers growing up and she is adhering to what seems to be the idea of this book: tell the truth about the way she was as a girl growing up. She is sticking to her “implacable memories.”

She is there at first and then the friend, R, joins her. She is using letters she wrote at the time to another friend, Marie-Claude. It is one of these intense friendships even though R comes from a higher milieu or caste. I am not sure she is correct in this since both of them seem to have no fear of what will happen if they get caught. No sense of R’s inner life, except that she is the one to get caught shop-lifting and there is a trial. She says her employer told her she was “marvelous” that one of them fooled the lawyers by looking like a heroine out of Bonjour Tristesse. She does not say what she concludes today but I take it the English authorities knew both girls were petty thieves and let them get off very easily. I wonder if the parents of these girls stepped in? Life, she says, she thought of as a game, an adventure. She is rather old to be so innocent, no? It was a shameful even if not as bad as getting pregnant (outside marriage).

This is to make a joke of what happened. She realizes this and a bit earlier says that she put down these illegal or daring activities as a continuation of what she did in camp. There is (to me) an interesting idea suddenly – that her whole life has been a sort of failure that can be traced back to this originating harrowing summer in camp at age 18. She was repeating that set of acts in another form.

She describes the way R looks – – “plain and joyless” — Ernaux presents herself as trying to be sexy, a la Brigitte Bardo. She says she was still bulimic at that point. Many years later (1971) she saw this friend from far in a spa park walking with husband and children — now wearing yellow summer dress, blue cardigan, and there is the middle class car.

Some of the most interesting passages in this second half of the book (and in the first half too) occur when she meditates over the photos she is looking at, and then goes onto the Internet to find a picture of the school she went the way it looks now, tries to locate some of the people. She looks the place up where her camp was – there is no trace of its “former vocation as an open-air sanitorium” — a kind of health camp. (How ironic.) It was for temperamental children. A post card from a friend doesn’t mention this. She can find a picture of an assemblage of buildings dating from different periods than the one she was there. She does not tell us where it is concretely. She does not tell the names of the people she got involved with except the friend she writes to.

The contrasts make vivid how we do not know what we will become and yet for the most part just about all the people she finds are living in expected patterns. More expected than those she’s experienced as a writer.

The diary peters off at this point. One of the central themes of the book is how hard it is to get back to the past. How our memories are not real, intermixed with what we have been told, and so all the sections are written as fragments of what comes into her mind purely as she thinks back to the past. What images especially. She also misremembers texts. She talks of this and the difficulties of her auto-fiction in this last part. She does insist, though, what makes this diary different from fictional narratives is the literal facts she is telling did occur.

*************************************


In her apartment/home today

She comes to no conclusions, more or less simply stops writing. What interests me most is her idea that what she did that summer age 18 has influenced her all her life and has led to her being a failure. In what sense I wonder? There is a lot of talk about her name: she was Annie Duchesne and now is no longer. Wrapped up in that birth name is an identity she is no longer.

I, too, sometimes attribute much that happened to me in later life to the coping mechanisms I developed after those couple of traumatic years 13-15 where I too experienced harrowing sexual ostracizing and shaming. My retreat into a private life with books became me. I understand the world from my own experience as much as anyone else, & feel for so many women whatever happened to them sexually in these crucial teen years and however they coped led to their lives as young and middle year adults. And yet how I have changed (if also remaining the same) since Jim died.

Maybe late in life another turn can come — when the children leave, if she’s succeeded in making money, being independent, found or ended up in a life she liked as I did with my husband, Jim, as a scholar-teacher. For me as long as I am able to be independently solvent, safety and peace lie in self-containment. It’s an ideal I don’t always achieve. I first recognized it at age 17 in Austen’s Elinor Dashwood.

Ellen

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