THE AMNESIA MEMOIRS AND DIARIES

PART ONE


Chapter 1

EULOGY FOR A PROSPECTIVE SUICIDE

I fell in a trap and I don't know how I'm gonna get out of it. I believe that the purpose is to have me commit suicide so that my tormentors can have me out of the way while feeling innocent of the crime.

I'm the only child of my parents' who, among five daughters, eschewed marriage and motherhood for the sake of music. That's my "sin".

Beauty, harmony are based in truth. There is no beauty without truth, and since I wanted to create beautiful things, I had to get to the truth first. I had to face the truth about my past, which was so painful it took me ten years to be able to face it.

To my family I am a witness, a survivor who has lived to tell. I realize that they have been trying to destroy me, and that all together, they haven't stopped setting up traps in my life to prevent me from achieving anything. Anything I created has been destroyed or robbed, particularly writings and photography. Destroying my creations was destroying the evidence of my talent, my creativity, my value, and it was pushing me towards despair. Music, my ability to play and sing, I had lost but recovered, but they have spoiled this area too.

So if I commit suicide, I won't remind them of what they did to me and bother them with my human rights. Also, they'll be free to share the estate of my father as they see fit, without me protesting that they're ripping me off. So there are good reasons for them to push me over the edge, and the reason I'm writing this is that, in case I do commit suicide, the lonely, friendless woman I have become won't disappear without explaining why she did it.

SERMENT TO THE GROOM

Two year after the end of World War II, my parents got married. As a condition of marrying him, my father made my mother promise that she would forfeit her musical career.

My mother's a woman who likes to be the center of attention. She forfeited the public, but by having seven children, she had a homemade little crowd of fans. True she had a beautiful voice. After we moved [from Paris] to the French Alps [in 1955 when I was 2 1/2 years old because of my father's tuberculosis], she participated in some local productions. I remember going after school to the city opera where she was rehearsing when I was about seven or eight. I went with my sister Sophie. We would watch for a while from the empty theater, but soon the bug of exploration would take us through the whole building. It was a fabulous world, this theatre. It was deserted, we never met anybody and opened all the doors. We found our way to the roof and I remember the exultation when we came out into the light after climbing flights of stairs that became narrower and more metallic the higher we climbed. And now us little girls looked down on the pretty city. Maybe it was then that my vocation was born.

But light opera was not really my mother's cup of tea. She was a dramatic soprano. She gave some concerts of [Schubert, Schumann and Mahler] Lieder with piano accompaniment. However it was always as a hobby, of course.

MY EDUCATION

When I showed a propensity for music, my mother didn't object outspokenly. It's just that she offered music lessons and instruments to every child except me. I grew up with the silent distress of being denied the knowledge that I yearned for. My schoolmates who studied the piano were progressing. I thought that I didn't deserve to know, for some reason that I didn't dare to inquire about.

When I reached eighteen, I felt too old for a professional music career. Many brilliant musicians had started at 6 and I was despondent. My second best choice was to learn scriptwriting but there again my desire was frustrated. After I obtained the Baccalaureat in 1971, my family moved to Normandy and I to Paris where I was enrolled, without being consultated, in a three month typing and steno course that cost my parents nothing, since afterward I had to work at least one year for the company that offered the course.

I owned a guitar [my father finally offered me one when I was sixteen and had given up the hope] but I was so depressed that I played music less and less. For the following ten years, I worked as a temp in Paris and moved lodgings at least twice a year. I tried to be a "good girl", do what the mainstream did, but I never shared my co-workers' aspirations, their desire for security, I didn't want to make the sacrifices they made for it. I had something burning me inside and I had forgotten what it was, but it did burn. I tried to kill the pain with pot and alcohol, but as I approached my thirties, a growing sense of self-betrayal brought me to a turning point. I realized that I owed it to myself to do it. I felt like a total fake with everybody, and it would stop only if I became true to myself.

I heard singers and thought that I could do better. I already had a good practical knowledge of the guitar. It wouldn't be like starting from zero. In the back of my mind there was the memory of when I was in a catholic boarding school for three years. There I was free to learn and practice, as long as some girl would lend me her guitar. In the mid 60's it became a trend to sing Gospel at mass, and I was called upon to provide guitar accompaniment. I was much in demand. I also played in the evening and my classmates liked it. I played at family gatherings and they liked it too.

But this memory which held the proof that I could make people happy and that there was something likable about me was in contrast with the opinions I had of myself in my twenties, so I kept it in the back of my brain. Wasn't I instead a good for nothing? A temporary secretary? Always broke, always moving, a promiscuous woman with a drinking problem, a tobacco and pot addiction?

Anyway, I bought a guitar, having lost the previous one. I had always wanted to learn Jazz, and now Latin music was coming back, and so much of it was happening in New York. Then I became enraptured with the conga drums and started to learn how to play them. In 1982, I had an affair with a Cuban conga player my father's age, who stayed one year in Paris instead of returning to New York like the rest of his band. He taught me the real way to play Afro-Cuban congas. I had started to snort cocaine, and since people were always giving it to him, he was always giving some to me and I felt safe about that.

A few months after he returned to the U.S. [in January 1983], I took the same route and landed in New York August 8, 1983, and it was only in May of 88 that I picked up the guitar again. Actually it was one month after I had moved to Jessie's.

HOW I FOUND A ROOM AT JESSIE'S

It was March 88 and the prospect of spending a second summer with old Harry in his 34th floor studio apartment at 95th and Columbus, [plus his not so light hints to move], prompted me to seek better lodgings. Harry was a retired pressman who had spent all his life in the garment industry. He was a fierce Communist and loved to speak about politics. Furthermore, he never took a shower and well, the hot weather was upon us.

I was anxious to find new digs and asked around, and thought about asking Jessie. Although we both spent a lot of our free time at the local bar, we had never spoken to each other. She was always surrounded by men and women drinking, talking and laughing and none of them attracted me.

She was a 40 year old big and tall woman, [quite butch-looking, she indeed was a lesbian and I made sure before accepting the room that she understood that I was NOT], with short blond hair, blue eyes, red cheekbones, and a front tooth framed in gold. I felt her smile looked phony. She had moved to the neighborhood about one year ago.

That day the bar was almost empty and quiet and I approached her to ask if she knew of any room to rent. She said she was just looking for a roommate in her one bedroom apartment. I introduced myself. At the time I had just got a job as secretary to the big boss at the French National Railroads in Rockefeller Center and earned $400 a week after taxes. She had recently moved from NJ. where she worked in the park maintenance team at Merck Pharmaceuticals. She didn't explain clearly why she came to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which required that she leave at 6:30am and catch a train at Port Authority, and be back home around 7pm.

The rent would be $400 a month and I was interested. She offered to show me the place. We finished our beer and walked there. It was in a renovated 5 story building in the middle of the block between CPW and Columbus ave. on W96th street. The apartment was dark since the view was on a tiny courtyard and the walls in front of us were dark grey. The bedroom was darker still but cool, most of the space occupied by a king size bed. She would sleep on the couch in the living room and would empty the closet so I could hang up my clothes. I asked for a few days to think about it and the following week, on April 1st, moved in.

PAT FLEMING

About one month after I had moved to Jessie's I had bought a classical guitar at a pawn shop for $150, and during a lunch break I went to 48th street in search of a Jazz guitar teacher.

Soon enough I got in touch with Pat Fleming who, like many young musicians, was a salesman at Sam Ash. We agreed on one hour per week. He would come to my place and charged me $15 per hour. I thought the deal was great.

I learned my first standards with him. It was very difficult in the beginning. Most of the chords were new to me. I had trained my ear to Jazz by listening to it, and now I wanted to play those strange harmonies myself. I told him which tunes I wanted to learn and he wrote down the fingering on a grill. I very little played him what I had been practicing the previous week. It was a king of shyness. I felt that I wasn't progressing fast enough and I feared his criticism.

Besides I had a kind of irrational dread, everytime I sat to practice, that someone would violently open the door behind me and enter screaming. This dread was unshakable. [It was so bad that once I did something I had never done before: I went down on my knees and implored God to help me. The dread diminished noticeably after a few months but it did not recede completely.] So it made the enterprise of practicing much more difficult than if I had approached the instrument with eager curiosity and light- heartedness.

One day Pat said that he'd like to learn Spanish, that in his line of work it would help. So we agreed to swap lessons. The problem was that he never learned anything and it was a total waste. Then he stopped Spanish and I think I reverted to paying him.

I was starved for a man and started to fantasize about this teacher ten years my junior, one head shorter, whose provocative crotch in tight jeans wasn't always hidden by the guitar. I talked to Jessie, my roommate, about my fantasy and she said there was nothing wrong with that, if I wanted to why not. So I vanquished my shyness and one day as he came for the lesson I told him I'd like to have sex with him. That was ridiculous. A tall woman like me with this little young man. I also needed the affection but there was none. After a brief embrace, I felt I had made a big mistake. I told him. But now my need for affection was all focused on him and I would try for the following months to get some out of him.

Sometimes he would invite me to his place for the week-end. He shared a house in Brooklyn with two other young men. They were nice but I felt out of place, much older than they were.

In February of the following year, [1989] he announced [casually] that he was returning to Chicago and left within two weeks, giving me his address there [and once more I had this feeling of abandonment, so soon after the affair started].

Practicing the guitar stirred overwhelming emotions in me and the more I thought about my mother's attitude towards me, the more I felt that she had had much more power than she said. She had portrayed herself as the helpless mother unable to prevent her husband from harming me, but I started to suspect that what had happened and what had not, particularly my education, was the result of her decisions, not my father's. But with the double burglary at Veronique and Norbert's respective apartments on Friday, January the 13th of which I had learnt recently, I couldn't help thinking that my mother was behind it. My sister Agnes could be the actual perpetrator, together with her husband Val.

THE FRIDAY THE 13TH BURGLARY

What made me suspect a family member was the fateful date, a really vicious touch of which I thought my sister Agnes quite capable, and the fact that the mode of entry had been by breaking the door hinges, another vicious and deranged m.o. Why would a burglar break a door hinges? I think it is impossible to unhinge a door from the outside, so my thinking was that the burglars entered with the keys and ripped the hinges from inside to make it look like it was not an inside job, in a variation on the theme "The lady doth protest too much".

I also thought that the purported victims, my sister Vero and my brother Norbert, were not actually victimized, but that the whole episode was a kind of psychological terrorism directed at me. When I had questioned Vero on the phone, she had seemed strangely calm and indifferent, even when speaking about the theft of her boys'toys and clothes, although as a single mother of two nearly teen-agers she certainly had no money to throw away. Her unconcern made the incident appear even more horrible. She had been positive that the burglars were black guys who had gone with the loot to the underground parking on the next block. When I asked how she could be so sure, she said that there are bad people in that parking and that later the same day she had seen black guys pass on the avenue in front of the building, carrying stuff in a shopping cart, that looked like what had been stolen from her. But she had not followed them or called the police. She expressed surprise that I took the matter so seriously and made no reference to the particular date on which the burglary occurred as if it didn't have any special meaning. I asked her to send me a copy of the complaint she had filed at the police station and she did send me her original copy, excerpts of which follow:

REPUBLIQUE FRANCAISE
MINISTERE DE L'INTERIEUR
DIRECTION GENERALE DE LA POLICE NATIONALE


Act complained of: Burglary
Date of occurrence: Friday 01/13/1989 between 15:30 and 16:15
Address: 32 Ave de Choisy, 75013 Paris
Property missing: Stereo equipment. portable radio-casette, remote control toy car, one gold watch, clothes
Value of he missing property: unknown
Cost of damage to property: to be evaluated.
Modus Operandi and apparent motive: The burglar or burglars entered the premises by breaking the door at the site of the hinges.
Victim: Veronique Picart (address follows)
Occupation: Decorator
PROCES VERBAL

In the year 1989 on January the 16th at 10:30
WE, JANNIN Pascale, Police detective, report that the person above mentioned appeared before us and declared the following:
"I am making a complaint regarding the occurrence above mentioned. I have made summary repairs to the door and I shall give you a complete list of the missing items after inventory.
I want to point out that the burglars, after robbing me, used my balcony to enter my brother's apartment where they also committed a robbery."

Signed: V. Picart

And what did the burglars steal from Norbert's apartment? A Technics turntable that belonged to me, which he had taken without asking! (In other words I was robbed twice of the same item: once by my brother and the other time by the burglars). And a set of spare keys.

But there were two more events that prompted me to seek the advice of a mental health professional. One was a sudden flash of insight one bright sunday morning when I went to Central Park to photograph the trees in bloom: I was crouching under the low branches of a pink tree, waiting for the apparition of a yellow cab, of which I only wanted the tail end at the right of the pic when suddenly it hit me.

In 1977 I had spent a few months in a house in E. (one hour west of Paris) that my mother had bought with the inheritance she got from her parents. About one year previously I had bought a Pentax camera and two lenses with my hard earned money. In my mother's house I stored this photo equpment in a dresser. Because I hardly knew anybody in the city and because the house was in a dismal state, I never had any visits. However the only black dude in this fair city was quitting his DJ job and was looking for a replacement. That's how he came to my place. And a few days after his visit, I found that all my photo equipment had disappeared. But just because the cute black dude had visited me a few days earlier didn't mean that he was the culprit. Besides he was into sound equipment, not photo. And since there had been no effraction, the person who stole my gear had a key. And who besides me had a key? The conclusion was too horrendous to contemplate, so after the robbery I took to leaving the front door unlocked, in the hope of fooling myself after some time had passed that I had always left the front door unlocked, so that anybody could have done it.

And now in Central Park, under the sweet smelling, innocent bloom of May, (actually it was Sunday April 30th) while I was lying in wait for a yellow cab to appear in my viewfinder, the thought irrupted: my mom did it. Nobody else but she could have stolen my camera and lenses, because she was the only one besides me who had a key, and before the theft I always locked the front door.

Funny how the mind works. I had not made any conscious association, but my subconscious had done its job all right: associating one burglary with another, and one camera with another, and converging on the theft of my camera eleven years ago!

The other event, and the decisive one, was what came in the mail: two letters the same day, one from my mother and one from my father (my father's letter which follows my mother's in the linked scan-pdf is not legible, sorry!) They both bore the postmark of April 26, 1989 and I received them on the Wednesday following my insight. Neither one made any reference to the other. How strange. They could have said "Mom and I have decided to write you a letter each..." but they seemed to want to give the impression that Mom and Dad had not consulted each other and that, fortuitously, they both had had the same idea the same day, and I smelled a rat. My father NEVER wrote to me.

In her letter my mother calls me by two names: Axelle and Brigitte. Brigitte is my official name. Axelle is a name that, for reasons of numerology, she gave me (without asking first if it was ok with me) when I was fourteen. But only she and my siblings ever called me by that name, so that there was a division in the family and in my social life between those who called me Axelle (I presumed they were the "good guys" of course), and those who refused to call me by any other name but Brigitte, like my father and everybody else in the family, and the people I worked for, naturally. However, in his letter to me, for the first time ever my father calls me Axelle!

Here is the translation of
the letters.
Although I could write pages of comments, I'll limit myself to just a few striking points of the two letters.

  1. Both my parents ask me to forgive them, but they do not offer to make amends or reparation, so their sincerity is dubious.
  2. They dismiss the gravity of the harm they caused me with a quick brush off. Father: "I dare hope that you never doubted that I love you, although you might have believed otherwise due to some arrangements I made erroneously." "Am I to blame for wanting to saw off the young shoots at the foot of the young tree?..." This is the passage that chilled my blood, equating education with the sawing- off of the young shoots. No pity, no compassion.
  3. While asking for forgiveness and advocating "humility and modesty" and "contrition", my father claims all the extenuating circumstances. He claims that he "acted against me, rightly or wrongly." So he has a justification for acting against me. Then he casts the blame on me by asking: "Am I to blame?" and making it look unfair of me to "consider that the sawed-off branches would have added to his [the "subject's"] fulfilment and deplore their absence for decades?"
  4. On the other hand, my mother takes responsibility "wihout seeking any extenuating circumstances". But she attributes "all these grudges" to her "weakness, cowardice, inability to chose, isn't it?" Not to bad faith, manipulativeness and deliberate harm.
  5. My father always approached me as if I were full of vices, defects and perversions which it was his duty to "saw off" without regard for the shrieks and moaning. "I would like to read... victories over others and most of all over yourself."
  6. However, at the end of the letter he acknowledges that I am "endowed with numerous and wonderful talents". He doesn't say which, that would be too much of a commitment, and apparently it never occurred to him that his job was to help me develop them by, for instance, spending money on me instead of focusing on "sawing off the young shoots".
  7. My father downplays his power by making it look as if I had hurt him as much as he hurt me: "There is no way out if one is not able to forgive each other... to forgive the wrongs done to each other."
  8. As for the money question, he did send me $2,000 for Christmas for two or three years. But otherwise it's a gross overstatement to say that he gave it "quite willingly". What about the other 34 years of my life, and specifically, the first twenty?
  9. As to my mom, she is full of grandiloquence and flamboyant imagery: "All these grudges... I take them upon myself, [which] means taking the load off your shoulders so you can be free... and then together we'll throw this burden into a great fire of love," but short on practical means, besides "forgiveness". How exactly does she propose to take the burden of my grudges off my shoulders onto herself?
  10. And although, in contrast to my father, she doesn't seek any extenuating circumstances, no sooner has she taken the burden off my shoulder onto hers than she wants to throw everything into the fire! So her repentance doesn't appear heartfelt, rather it appears like a pose she adopts to humor me.
  11. If only I forgave them, all my problems would go away like magic. "After forgiveness is granted and received, drastic transformations follow. Ask and you shall receive. Then new paths will open up for joy, and the flavor of life will return after the crossing of the desert."
  12. They abase themselves, addressing me in a manner that would be more appropriate if it was directed to a divinity than to their daughter. "So I beg you, beloved daughter, to forgive your father... Forgive me, I beseech you... Grant him all the extenuating circumstances as deserves every sinner who repents." And Mom: "I call your beloved name..." Are they flattering me, trying to give me a sense of omnipotence, as if their future happiness depended only on my decision to forgive or not?
  13. Just because they abase themselves doesn't mean they cannot put me down. Father: "Wanting to evaluate the situation seems today to be quite a futile intellectual exercise." "Stop judging now, forget without pretending."
  14. They seem to believe that forgiveness can be achieved by willpower, not by a process of reconciliation that involves honest communication between the two parties, and that I owe it to them! But like trust, forgiveness has to be earned. But they dont want to earn it.

Of course I was not able to make this analysis at the time. It all seemed very confusing, and there was something about these two letters that I couldn't put my finger on, a kind of portentousness... and I was scared.

It was only in July 1999 that I understood what it was: these letters had the tone of a farewell.


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