I Remain in Darkness chronicles the decline of Ernaux’s mother, Blanche, from Alzheimer’s disease. The first sign that something is wrong comes in the summer of 1983, when Blanche faints. Taken to the hospital, the doctors discover that she has not eaten or drunk anything for several days. Ernaux realizes that Blanche can no longer care for herself, and she invites her mother to come live with her and her sons. By December, when Ernaux writes her first journal entry, Blanche is already suffering the loss of memory that comes with Alzheimer’s. By January 1984, Blanche can no longer write. Her last words, in a letter to a friend, read, ‘‘I remain in darkness.’’
In February 1984, Blanche, prostrate and refusing to eat, is checked into Pontoise Hospital. The ward where she lives is filled with other older patients who also suffer from limited physical and mental capacities. She remains at Pontoise until mid-May, when she is briefly sent to a private nursing home. The situation there is even worse, so she returns to the long-term geriatric ward at Pontoise.
The next year of her life charts her decline. Ernaux notes that her mother seems to have given up on life. For instance, Blanche loses her personal possessions but does not bother looking for them. However, Blanche holds on to enough of her former self to make it clear to Ernaux that she would rather be at her home than in the hospital. She also makes her daughter feel guilty for leaving her behind. The hospital offers few areas of respite for the patients; for recreation, Blanche watches television, eats, or is taken through the garden. Blanche’s condition greatly worsens in 1985. She loses the ability to do just about anything for herself, such as walk or feed herself. More and more she comes to remind Ernaux of a child and even a newborn baby.
Throughout her mother’s hospitalization, Ernaux continues her regular life. She takes vacations, attends concerts and plays, goes to the museum, gets a divorce, has an affair, teaches class, writes fiction, and wins literary prizes. These events are touched upon but never become a focus. Instead, Ernaux presents the side of her personality that is intensely focused on understanding what feelings she is experiencing, primarily, her relationship with her mother.
Ernaux also reveals that during her mother’s hospitalization, she decided to write an autobiographical novel about her mother. She alternates between finding the writing helpful and being unable to write at all. The image of her mother that she records on paper is incompatible with her mother confined in the hospital.
Blanche dies in April 1986. Ernaux is disconsolate at her loss. She is unable to read and constantly thinks about what her writings about her mother mean. Everywhere she goes and everything she does serve as a reminder of her mother.