Memoirs of a Marked Woman


1971: 18 years old

I wanted to prepare the exam to enter IDHEC, the Institute for High Cinematographic studies, because I wanted to be a scenarist and needed to learn the specific language, conventions and concepts of the medium to adapt my creativity to it. The language of words being my forte, I was aware that in film, the two main literary devices were the dialogues and the voice overs, with occasional song lyrics and reading material like posters and signs. I knew that dialogue-heavy movies were boring and tiring, and that a good film dramatist had to tell the story in powerful moving images and sounds, keeping the spoken word to a minimum. I wanted to be able to convey meaning with pictorial elements: lights and shadows, shapes and colors, camera angles, camera movements, to structure the narrative within acts, and give it rhythm with sequences and plans.

I had never discussed my future with my father but I told mom what I wanted to do. There was a $40 fee for the entrance exam and mom gave me the money but it was hush hush. I had to plan for my future behind my father's back.

After sending the fee I received the exam subjects. I chose to make an essay on an old lady who lived alone with her goat in a deserted village in the Cevennes. The Cevennes is a mountain range in the South of the Massif Central of France. Industrialization wreaked havoc in rural life. The young gave up farming and left the countryside to work in factories and live in the cities. This old lady was the only one who remained in the ghost village.

I had passed through this village during a one-week hike in the summer of 1967 when I was fifteen and starting to smoke my first cigarettes. My mom had arranged for me to accompany her elder brother Bernard, his wife and an old priest on this hike on the GR7. So I wanted to go back there by myself and interview the old lady for a week or two, do a feature illustrated by photographs, but my father refused to let me go and although I felt I deserved some independence now that I had successfully graduated, I was forced to spend the month of August with my parents in the family house in Brittany like when I was a little girl. Why don't you pick a subject in Brittany? There must be some kind of essay you can do there, and we'll drive you where you need to go", mom said to me.

Before going to Brittany I spent a few days in Paris with my mother. As was her custom she never informed me in advance of her plans when they concerned me, and she took me to the ONISEP on Boulevard Montparnasse, a career information center, where I spent a whole day, alone in a room, answering the questions of a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)

Here is a copy of the ONISEP's mission statement, picked up from their website:

1L'Onisep (Office national d'information sur les enseignements et les professions) est un établissement public sous tutelle du ministère de la Jeunesse, de l'Éducation nationale et de la Recherche.

Notre métier: Offrir aux jeunes -à leur famille et aux équipes éducatives- toutes les informations sur les études et les métiers : 8000 formations, 20 000 adresses d'établissements, 400 métiers...
- Recueillir, traiter, produire et difffuser l'information.
- 30 ans d'expérience.
- Plus de 600 professionnels de l'inforrmation et de l'orientation, de l'édition et de la documentation.

And here is the area of application of the MMPI test, "the most widely researched self-report instrument for employee selection". Excerpt from Wikipedia follows: The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is one of the most frequently used personality tests in mental health. The test is used by trained professionals to assist in identifying personality structure and psychopathology. Among its many uses, it is perhaps best known as the personality test that is used in conjunction with Secret and Top Secret security clearances required for many positions within United States federal agencies that incur an extensive responsibility for life and property, such as the Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

One gathers from these excerpts that the MMPI is a thorough assessment of an individual's personality, (the PI in MMPI stands for Personality Inventory), including the individual's emotional state, cognitive ability, adaptability, reaction under stress, how he relates to authority figures, psychopathology, all based on "self-reporting", that is, multiple choice answers. Today in November 2003 I still remember clearly that many questions were based on my hypothetical reactions in different types of work situations: how I related with co-workers and supervisors, and ethical choices that revealed my degree of honesty and trustworthiness. Since 1971 the test has been refined to target specific high-risk occupations such as Law Enforcement, Firefighters and Paramedics, Medical and Psychology Students, Nuclear Power Facilities workers, Airline Pilots, Seminary Students and Patrol Officers, but even in 1971 the psychological, mental and character profile of the test-taker was the object of in-depth investigation.

Maybe it was not the ONISEP after all! As a matter of fact, this institution doesn't claim to offer testing among its services. Read again the mission statement:/p>

To offer the young public, their families and teaching teams all the information on studies and occupations: 8,000 studies, 20,000 school addresses, 400 occupations...

On the way home at the end of the day of test-taking we walked on Boulevard Montparnasse past a bookstore that had outdoor bins. I stopped to look for a few minutes and found two books that, for some reason I suppose were subconscious, I felt compelled to buy: the Dictionary of Demonology and Les Esclaves du Diable. Although I never had any money, this time I happened to have just the amount I needed for the two paperbacks so I bought them without having to ask mom for her approval and her money. I had never been attracted to the occult before but I felt in a diffuse way that Evil was a reality, and here was the opportunity to learn about people who deliberately embraced Evil and then became enslaved by it.

Mom went alone to get the test results and when she came back, eight hours of answering hundreds of questions boiled down to one word: Advertising.

After that I went to Brittany with my parents. I had hoped my reportage would take me away from the familiar family vacation home and I was very upset that the subject of the reportage I had chosen was taken away from me, and the prospect of having the family around to do any kind of intellectual and creative work upset me even more because I knew that they would interfere with my concentration and my organization. I reflected on what subject I could do a reportage on and after two or three days I still hadn't found anything that interested me. I was deeply hurt by the refusal of my parents to let me go by myself do the reportage in the Cevennes and I couldn't adapt overnight to the situation. It didn't occur to me to read the local newspaper or go to the library do some research on the rich culture of Brittany. In my view, Brittany equaled family because that was where my father's family came from, and now that I had graduated, I wanted to get away from the family's influence, so I had a bias against anything Breton.

I couldn't think of anything to do a reportage on and was depressed about it but lo and behold, one night shortly after we arrived, a remote cousin, Gérard Quéré, paid us a visit and mom asked him: "Do you know of any subject Axelle could do a reportage on?" I was upset that she took it upon herself to act on my behalf without having first discussed it with me. I considered the choice of a subject my very own prerogative, and the fact that she asked that question in my presence, as if I were unable to make inquiries myself, relegated me to the status of a klutz. "What about the Johnnies?" Gérard asked. Never heard of it. He explained that the Johnnies were peasants from the region who crossed the English Channel to sell their onions in Great Britain until the 1940's and that the Britons called them all Johnny, hence their collective name. It didn't inspire me. Since the activity had ceased, I didn't see what visuals could be part of the reportage. But mom was very enthusiastic and she asked my cousin if he knew anyone who had been a Johnny and, wouldn't you know it, he did, and the old man lived not far away. So that was it. I would do a reportage on the Johnnies, mom would drive me to interview the old man, she would come to pick me up one hour later and by the end of our vacation I would have my reportage.

I was totally disheartened by the turn of events. Because of my mother's interference in a task I was originally passionate about, the whole thing had turned into a nightmare. Always smiling and with a caring, warm voice, she suggested to me what I should do, taking away from me any initiative and in fact, dictating to me every action, once again treating me like I was brain-addled, unable to figure out for myself what to do. Get the old man's phone number, call him up to ask if he was willing to talk about his experience, make an appointment, ask permission to take photographs, she dictated everything to me, giving rise to an intense anger and resentment which I didn't know how to express and felt guilty about because I didn't understand why I was so upset. She was only trying to help, after all, wasn't she?

The old man received me in a very dark and large room and offered me a chair twenty feet away from him. He was always smiling and answered all my questions with monosyllables. I was never able to make him tell me stories about storms at sea, team work, language barrier, entertainment with his mates after a hard day's work peddling onions from door to door in the U.K., rentability, time constraints, zilch. He never gave me a handle, never said anything that would have opened a line of inquiry. I was embarrassed, tortured and defeated to be with the old man with nothing to say, casting discreet glances at my watch and longing for the time mom would come to deliver me. Dream into nightmare. I went reluctantly to see him two or three more times, with mom always upbeat and smiling, cheering me up, but in the end I didn't get enough material to fill a page. He didn't have any photographs or memorabilia and the only picture I took was of him sitting on his chair outside the house, a boring photo. I didn't even bother to write anything. Padding? To pad, you need something to begin with. I didn't have anything

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