HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL BACKGROUND
My paternal grandmother, Catherine Gardic, was born in the late 1800's, one of thirteen girls. Her father was an alcoholic farmer who drank the family’s food money and many times the children went hungry. At eighteen she decided that agriculture was not for her. She had a head for business and went to Paris to trade potatoes, artichokes, cauliflowers, onions, garlic and shallots from her native Brittany. She did well and met her future husband, Yves Picart, who was in the same line of business. Both were from the same region, the North Finistere, where Breton was their first language. They bought a hotel in Paris and on November 13, 1925 my father, Célestin, was born.
Running the hotel took all my grandmother’s time so she had a wet nurse care for my father, then sent him to live in the countryside where he stayed until he was seven. When he returned to Paris he found that he had a younger brother, Jean. Neither boy knew about the other. The younger one asked about my father: “Who is this one?” and my father was emotionally hurt to have been left in the dark. He didn’t graduate from high school.
During the Nazi Occupation my grandmother did business with the Germans, providing them produce from Brittany and after the Liberation in 1945, during the period called “Epuration” (the Purge) she escaped having her head shaved by a hair’s breadth. A substantial part of her fortune came from her dealings with the Germans. Later on she bought a few buildings in Paris and the suburbs.
My maternal grandfather, Camille de Nève, worked for an insurance company in Paris and he and my grandmother, Marguerite Paulin, had three children: A boy, Bernard; my mother, Claire, born on March26, 1926; and another boy, Michel. The “de” in de Nève has no connotation of nobility. The name comes from Belgian ancestry. At age six my mother was molested by a priest but her mother hushed it up. As a teenager she had her voice classically trained.
According to my mother, she met my father at the parish and they were married in 1947. Prior to the marriage my father made it clear to my mother that she had to give up any dreams of a musical career if she married him. He wanted his wife to be a partner in business. With seed-money from his parents, my father started a business in Paris making house linens and had a workshop and several employees.
He was a handsome man, with a prominent, thin edged nose, a straight moustache and full lips. About five feet eleven and thin, he had chestnut hair and green eyes. He was a smoker of Gauloises. My mother was a brunette with straight hair but shortly after her marriage she had her hair bleached and permed, a treatment which upset my father in the beginning and which she maintained into her seventies. She was as tall as my father and had a wide, curved forehead. She had brown eyes, arched eyebrows and thin lips, high cheekbones and a small cleft in her chin. She was beautiful.
My sister Agnès was born on September 16, 1948, Elisabeth on December 3rd ,1949, Sophie on March 12, 1951 and I was born on November 12, 1952.
In 1954 my father contracted tuberculosis and had to go to a sanatorium in St Gervais in the French Alps to recover. All of us children were infected to a certain degree. My two older sisters were the hardest hit. They had to go to a preventorium in Brogille, near Besançon, where they stayed for more than a year. Elisabeth came out first and was sent to live with our paternal grandparents in Paris, rue de Grenelle in the 7th arrondissement. Sophie and I tested positive at age two and three and to this day my lungs bear the mark of the infection.
Our mother sold the business in Paris and with Sophie established herself in the village of Servoz, near St Gervais, where she visited our father. In Servoz she befriended a young, good looking priest who came to see her. I was sent to live with my maternal grandparents and there, for the first time, I experienced what it felt like to be loved. My grandparents had time for me, were unhurried and were affectionate. I was just beginning to speak.
41 RUE CARNOT
Pregnant with my sister Veronique who was born on October 23, 1955, my mother relocated the family to the city of Annecy in Haute Savoie, near the borders with Switzerland and Italy, where she rented a store and a one-bedroom apartment. When my father was cured in 1955, he and my mother went to the Chamber of Commerce and inquired what business the city needed. They were told that electric appliances were in short supply so my father opened a store of electric appliances, stoves and washing machines.
The city of Annecy sits by a lake. Verdant mountains surround it. The farmland that covers the lower slopes is rich, the cow is queen. It’s the land of Reblochon cheese and Gruyere, Emmenthal and Tomme de Savoie and a fine local wine called Roussette. The mountains do not hug the city too closely and provide an attractive contrast to the flat expanse of Lake Annecy. The city is traversed by the limpid small river Thiou. Remains of a lakeshore settlement dating to 3,000 B.C. have been unearthed, a castle which belonged to the count of Geneva and a prison dating from the 13th century are still standing. The Old Prison, built on an island, is a tourist attraction. Its walls are bathed by the Thiou in the old city near an arched bridge decorated by flaming geraniums. The visible length of the Thiou is bordered by very old houses and a pleasant walkway with a bar, Le Beau Soleil. The river empties into the lake through a garden by the municipal theater. Swans grace the lakeshore. The city offers nautic sports on the lake and winter sports a short distance away at Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc, Avoriaz, La Clusaz or Albertville. It is less than an hour drive from Geneva. In the early fifties the population was about forty thousand. This is the region where we were going to live for the next sixteen years.
The street where the family moved was lively. Among other stores there were a stationery, a jewelry store, a butcher for beef, one for horse meat, a charcuterie (delicatessen) and a dairy which sold locally-made butter, creme fraiche, eggs, and an array of cheeses.
The apartment was on the second floor. The bedroom opened into the living room which was transformed into a small dormitory for the four of us girls. The baby Veronique slept in the parents’ bedroom. The rear of the apartment where the kitchen was had a balcony which looked out into a small courtyard. The rear of the store opened there too.
The seven of us went to mass every Sunday. We always arrived late, during the sermon, so we would stand by a pillar waiting for the sermon to end, which made me very self-conscious, then we would go to a pew. The sight of Jesus on the cross horrified me but nobody in the crowd or at home seemed to mind such torture. How come they were not revolted and did something about it? Why didn’t anybody talk about it?
We said grace at every meal. My father marked a cross on the bread with the bread-knife before slicing it; my mother made us pray before going to bed a prayer addressed to le Petit Jesus and I couldn’t bring myself to believe in him while I was kneeling down in my nightgown.
There was a religious holiday called “Fete Dieu” . The bishop of the diocese paraded in the main street with splendid vestments, miter, gold staff, blessing the crowd with a bejeweled hand. Behind him little girls like us formed a procession and at a given signal we would throw flower petals all around us. We took part in the procession, carrying a little basket full of rose petals hanging from our neck with a pink wide satin ribbon. My mother enjoyed very much preparing us for this ceremony and watching the procession from the sidewalk, though it wasn’t very interesting to participate: the crowd, the long wait, the slow procession in the sun, having to watch the petal-filled basket all the time. Even throwing petals in the air wasn’t much fun.
My best memory of that time, until I was five and a half years old, was a visit to the doctor for a check-up because of the TB infection. I waited and waited for the next check-up and sometimes asked my mother when it would be. There for the first time I felt valued, I felt that my body was important and worth taking care of. I liked the gentle concern the doctor showed, it was new to me and it felt wonderful.
DIARY EXCERPTS FROM THE 1990'S
All the events related hereafter occurred while we lived in the city of Annecy, between July 1955 and Easter 1958. My age then was 2 ½ to 5 ½ . The reminiscences have been slightly edited for clarity.
Once my mother unjustly accused me and denied me the presumption of innocence. Maybe I had dropped or broken something, and she accused me of doing it intentionally. I had absolutely no clue why I would have done the deed intentionally because I had no concept of evil but she showed me, she explained to me patiently and convincingly why I could have done the deed intentionally, with malice aforethought, and I understood her devious reasoning, and that’s how for the first time, at age two or three, I knew what evil was. She made me aware of the criminal that lied dormant in me and that was the start of the guilt trip.
She taught me bad faith and guilt simultaneously, by making me guilty with a bad-faith reasoning. And I understood that from now on, she would always ascribe me the worst intentions whatever I did because she could always imagine a bad motive behind my actions.
Conversely, all my life, even when she did the most outrageous, disrespectful and damaging things to me in the open, she demanded to be absolved on the grounds that she was only trying to help me, she thought I would enjoy the surprise, bad luck was to blame, I should give her the benefit of the doubt, and she turned the guilt around by blaming me for daring to doubt her intentions.
Another episode around the same time was when I came to complain to her when one of my elder sisters tormented me. My sister came into the room as I was explaining her what had happened. Then she looked at my sister and said "T'es rosse!". I was learning to speak and this was a new word I understood meant mean or nasty. It is actually a slang word. And a few days later, I learnt the word "recette" which my mother pronounced "rossette". I knew that the suffix "ette" meant "small" and I wondered what the word "rossette" meant. Did it mean "small nasty"? As far as I knew a "rossette" was a slip of printed paper that came in the box of La Vache Qui Rit cheese wedges. Much later I learnt it was French for “recipe”.
I remember that when I was in France in 1990, after family members had left and I was alone with her, I reproached my mother that she had allowed my sisters to harass and torment me mercilessly, and I told her that not even animals were so cruel. And what she had answered has eluded me... till now. She had answered that I was wrong, that chickens were cruel to chickens, but that they ganged up only against the chickens that were deformed. In other words she was saying that my sisters'cruelty was a natural behavior dictated by natural selection, and at the same time she was saying that I was abnormal therefore unfit to live! The Nazi doctrine for you. She condoned three sisters ganging up against the youngest in the name of Darwinism though she never used the word. So her moral reference is neither the law nor Jesus Christ, nonobstant all her time-consuming Catholic rigmarole, but a PERVERTED INTERPRETATION OF DARWINISM, because baby chicks or chickens are not naturally inclined to attack each other. It’s only under abnormal, stressful circumstances such as crowding in industrial chicken factories that the poor birds misbehave. With five children and two adults in a one-bedroom apartment we were crowded too, but the cruelty continued even after we moved to the house in the country. The habit had been taken in the cramped apartment and would remain though the crowding had ceased. As to the mother hen attacking an intruder to protect her chicks, if one is to maintain the simile, well, guess what?
No matter whom I complained of, she always took the side of my tormentors. She always had a rational explanation to convince me that my tormentors were right to torment me.
* * *
The slightest request I made was met with a severe expression and silence. I had to explain endlessly to mom why I needed what I was asking for, counter her cross-examination whether what I was asking for was really so important, whether I really believed that I couldn't do without it, whether I had studied the alternative of not having it and did I think that not having it would really be a big problem for me. Sometimes the request and the discussion would require my father to be asked his opinion and permission, so I pleaded my case all-over again at lunch or dinner and my father, instead of settling the matter with a straight yes or no prolonged my misery by invariably pleading for time, and then never bringing up the subject again. "On en reparlera," “We’ll talk about it again,” he would say. But if I didn't bring it up again myself, we would never talk about it again. So I waited a few days first to see if dad would say that he had thought about it and give me his answer.
The color pencils for instance. I was dying to have color pencils. It took several weeks. It was I who brought up the subject, and in my father's silence and stern expression, I could tell that he didn't think I could have them. It really seemed that it would be a great act of clemency for him to give his permission so that I could have the pencils. His first reaction was that I didn't deserve them. So I tried my best to deserve whatever it was that I requested by being a good girl, helping with meals etc. But no matter how good a girl I was, it was never enough to offset the tremendous liability of being inherently contemptible.
Dad finally had a grandiose gesture: he gave me eight or ten color pencils that he said he used himself when he was a boy. The pencils were half used and ugly-looking because the wood was unpainted, and I was straining my eyes to tell their color just from the lead point. There was no box, but I WAS FORCED TO LIE, to pretend that I was happier than if dad had given me a new box of color pencils because he had used these when he was a boy, so they were unique and more valuable than new store-bought pencils.
And the more I wanted something, the more they tortured me with their questions, hesitations, evasions, adjournments, and their implication that I was unworthy of any expenditure and that I should not have a good time. They never said it. But their silence was eloquent enough. I fact it said a lot. It said : "I know that you have done something utterly despicable that shows that you're a bad person, and you have to pay for what you did but you'll never have paid enough, and I must punish you for your own good, so that you will be less in debt to the world, and by denying your request I'm doing you a favor."
This is a mind twister that makes people masochistic and self-destructive, because it demonstrates that what is bad is good, what hurts is good for you, deprivation is an expression of love. At age three I was like Mr. K in Kafka’s Trial: the perpetrator of an unspecified crime, having to purge a sentence unspecified in nature and duration. It reached a point where my parents had convinced me that if they allowed me to live it was only because they were specially nice people and I was lucky because anybody else would not be so magnanimous. I realized that I was indebted to them for allowing me to live and I felt grateful. I knew there was nothing I could do to repay them enough for their generosity, but I would try my best, I would try not to make them regret.
* * *
I have realized that my mother has acted like the Temptress since I've known her. Her objective was to instill in me a guilt feeling so that she could exploit it to make me do what she wanted. If I didn't do anything that made me feel guilty, she would provoke the opportunity for me to do something wrong. An easy way for her was not to provide the essentials, thereby forcing me to steal them. It happened with school supplies, gym equipment and in my teens clothes and Tampax.
Even if I didn't consciously do anything wrong, I was accused of misbehaving and lived under the oppression of being under suspicion. Sometimes mom would gather the four of us girls and ask with a menacing tone, the furrows above her nose deeply creased: “Who did this?” or “Who did that?” and for a long moment there was absolute silence. Being a suspect in a heinous crime I hadn’t done was a new experience. The pressure, the emotional torture was so unbearable that to put an end to it I confessed. Then my mother scolded me for being a liar. Then I would ask myself fleetingly because I couldn’t face the truth: “If she knows it isn’t me, why did she bring me under suspicion?”
Sometimes my sisters would taunt me to do something that I knew was forbidden. They would put pressure on me to do it and I would give in and do it, and as soon as I had done it they ran to Mom and told her what I had just done. I could never tell my side of the story and I was punished. I ended up with a crushing sense of guilt and I understand that when the weight of unspecific guilt becomes unbearable, some people turn to criminality just to have a rational reason for feeling guilty.
I made the big mistake of assuming that they would outgrow these antisocial tendencies. But since my mother didn't intervene in my favor, since she didn't listen to my side of the story before meting out punishment, she was de facto encouraging this behavior because it served her own hidden feelings of hostility towards me. It is quite possible that my siblings persecute me just in the hope of earning our mother's love, the unattainable assurance that they are loved. They are caught in the decision they have made subconsciously when they were children, of seeking their mother's love no matter what the cost, and because they have not recovered from the obedience brainwashing, they went as far as to kill their own sister. Because you can measure mother's love by how much money she gives, mother managed to take control of our father's estate by placing her own attorney and accountant in charge with her. And since every child vies for her favor, they go along with her decisions and carry them out.
* * *
1994 - November
"If they do it, it must be all right." This is what I told myself when my father or mother did something which I had assumed was wrong. I feel there is a strong correlation between self-esteem and whether the basic assumptions the person held as a child about "people" were confirmed or disproved. If these assumptions were disproved, the child questioned the validity of his perception, his instincts and came to believe that he couldn't trust himself. He therefore had to surrender his judgment to rely with blind faith on his wrong-doing parent. Assuming the parent had antisocial tendencies, the child adopted his parent's views because he was at the time unable to even consider the possibility that his parent could be wrong. His dependency on the parent made it impossible for the child to face the possibility that his fate was in the hands of a wacko.
* * *
Now the toy-stove incident is one the meaning of which has remained a mystery for over forty years: Sophie and I played kitchen with toy saucepans and this little electric stove. I was delighted by this toy, yet one day I trampled it, destroyed it. There was a short circuit and the Bakelite started to burn or melt with a characteristic smell. And even many years later, when we smelled hot Bakelite, Sophie and I would look at each other and say “Do you remember the little stove?” But we never discussed why I had destroyed it.
I have finally understood that I did this to relieve the unbearable anxiety about the toy being destroyed by someone else. I feared that sooner or later I would find the toy vandalized and I would never know who did it. So by destroying it myself I put an end to the excruciating wait and I knew who did it because it was me. This is the first self-destructive act that I remember and I also remember how utterly unhappy I was when I destroyed my dearest toy. Yet destroying it myself was the lesser of two evils because I KNEW that sooner or later it would be destroyed by an anonymous kiddie terrorist in skirts. And nobody said anything about it. This act that revealed a serious psychological problem in me was totally ignored by my parents when I needed so much to speak about it and be comforted. [Now (August 2003) I think that my parents’s absence of reaction was a sign of ASSENT TO MY SELF-DESTRUCTIVE TENDENCIES just like they assented to my sisters’s antisocial behavior towards me by their failure to punish them.]
About the nail polish, I was wondering why mom sat us down to go through the little dot-painting scene, and I think now I've got the message: it was part of her privilege thing. Personally I had never envied her the privilege of painting her fingernails, but she made it a desirable prerogative by dispensing it sparingly to us and making us wait for it, while giving us the impression that she was breaking the rules in our favor. Maybe she had intentionally painted big dots on my elder sisters' nails, and she intended to paint only tiny dots on mine, expecting that we would compare later to see whom mom loved the most, but I upset her plan when I requested only one fingernail completely painted. But what she made clear also was that she had control over the nail polish supply, and control over its dispensation.
* * *
We walked to le "Pâquier", a flat public garden on the shore of the lake. There were expanses of lawn with shocking WHITE dried turds that we pretended we didn’t see (I wanted to know why they were white but didn’t dare ask) and alleys, and trees. We fed the swans stale bread but these are mean birds I was afraid of. Mom told us to be very careful because if they caught our fingers in their bills it would hurt like hell. Still, this dangerous entertainment was the only one we got in that garden. But the most fascinating things were the little tricycles with horse heads and reins to steer. I would have loved to ride one of these, it looked like so much fun, but mom never bought a ride to anybody. None of us kids ever asked for a ride, we never spoke about them, we pretended we didn’t see them, we pretended they didn’t exist! And the peanuts! The delicious aroma of roasting peanuts and the funny cart of the peanut vendor. Same thing: they didn’t exist. Mom never bought us a bag of peanuts, so that I had the distinct feeling that we were a special family, there was something about us that made those simple things right under our eyes totally out of reach. The other kids would remain strangers. We didn't mix with other people. We didn't do what the others did. It was unthinkable that we ride a horse-trike or eat peanuts like everybody else. Mom just pretended she never saw any of these treats, they were not part of her world, and I walked with my eyes to the ground, obsessively scrutinizing every peanut shell in the hope of finding a stray peanut. Years later, when I learned how cheap peanuts are, I just couldn't believe it. I was totally floored. Same things for melons. When I first saw a half melon served in a restaurant I thought it was wildly decadent, when at home I had always had no more than one eighth of it. All these years I had assumed that melons were a delicacy and I now realized they were plentiful and cheap.
Another event from that period (1955 to 1958) is the Fair of St. André. The car my father had at that time was a commercial 2CV Citroen, which means it had no backseat but a flat surface to transport merchandise. So the four of us girls climbed into the car from the rear door and sat on our butts on the floor.
In the area where the fair took place car traffic was forbidden and a thick crowd of joyous revelers invaded the streets. So why, WHY did mother take us there at nightfall with the car, and drive through the crowd? I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that she was advancing toward the crowd. We were instantly surrounded by people who banged on the roof, on the windshield, on the back window, on the sides of the car, who brought their grimacing faces to the rear window to look at us, inebriated, shouting. And mother, without saying a word, kept advancing at a snail’s pace through the crowd. It was very frightening and it lasted, lasted. She never said a word about it and we knew better than to ask questions.