I Remain in Darkness

by Annie Ernaux

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Ernaux, Her Mother and Role Reversal

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The relationship between Ernaux and her mother, Blanche, lies at the center of I Remain in Darkness, but this relationship, long fraught with difficulty, becomes even more complex as Blanche’s illness leads the two women into a confusing, inherently unnatural role reversal. As Blanche becomes increasingly sick, fragile, and unbalanced in the last years of her life, Ernaux takes on more of the nurturing duties and emotional characteristics that belong to the parent. Blanche’s deterioration, and her daughter’s record of it, is a sad testament to only one of the many regrettable effects caused by illness, particularly one as devastating as Alzheimer’s disease.

As evidence of her comprehension of this distressing process, Ernaux, in her journal fragments, makes continuous references to her childhood. This inclination is not surprising, for throughout the two and a half years of her mother’s illness, Ernaux is constantly forced to re-evaluate their relationship as she sees it irrevocably change. Other people point out some of the ways in which she resembles her mother physically, as well as her inheritance of Blanche’s ‘‘brusque, violent temper, as well as a tendency to seize things and throw them down with fury.’’ Ernaux also recognizes the similarities that exist between the relationship she had with her mother while growing up and her mother’s relationship with her at the present time. Blanche usually awaits Ernaux’s visits impatiently, causing Ernaux to recall her own experience as a child waiting for her mother to pick her up from school. Both of them felt ‘‘the same surge of excitement’’ when the other finally arrived.

While understanding this role reversal intellectually, Ernaux rebels against it emotionally: ‘‘now she is my little girl,’’ she writes. ‘‘I CANNOT be her mother.’’ This change in dynamic is inherently unnatural, and to Ernaux, it is ‘‘agonizing.’’ She sees her mother regress physically and mentally. At times, her mother even takes on the petulant aspects of a child such as when she refuses to let Ernaux take away the cake wrapper that she is eating. Blanche is ‘‘fiercely clenching her fist’’ with all the might that a stubborn child possesses. Further, in becoming Blanche’s mother, Ernaux loses her own mother and now must acknowledge adulthood. One startling day, upon seeing her mother dressed in ‘‘a printed dress with flowers, like the ones I wore when I was a little girl,’’ Ernaux, though in her 40s, ‘‘realize[s] that it’s only now that I have truly grown up.’’ Blanche becomes not only ‘‘the personification of time’’—a physical representation of the passage of the years—but also someone who is ‘‘pushing me toward death.’’

Ernaux accepts this role as it is foisted upon her, for the circumstances of her mother’s illness offer little other choice. It is infrequent that Blanche demonstrates a parental role: pride in showing Ernaux off to patients or in telling others that her daughter won a prestigious literary prize; or when, as Ernaux bends over to check the safety catch of the wheelchair, ‘‘she leans over and kisses my hair.’’ Ernaux compares how their roles toward each other have reversed. At times Ernaux feels great tenderness toward her mother, like the day that ‘‘[F]or the first time I touch her like a child who is sleeping.’’ She often writes about caring for her mother, for instance; clipping her fingernails, shaving her face, and feeding her. She combs her mother’s hair as if her mother were the child, an action that brings her mother great pleasure.

For Ernaux, however, the primary pleasure drawn from this activity is the transformation of her mother back into a ‘‘human being’’; although...

(This entire section contains 1580 words.)

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she does care for her mother and wants to make her comfortable, the change in roles still causes Ernaux tremendous conflict. To an extent, Ernaux refuses to demonstrate her love—or even to acknowledge the purity of the those feelings—as a way of rejecting what is taking place: that her mother ‘‘had become a child again, one who would never grow up.’’

More often, however, Ernaux acts within the scope of the power of her new position, which is so absolute that her mother obeys her ‘‘fearfully.’’ Ernaux acknowledges that when her mother lived with her when her symptoms first started to manifest themselves ‘‘I was (subconsciously?) cruel toward her, panicked at the idea that she was becoming a woman without a past, a frightened woman clinging to me like a child.’’ On one level, Ernaux’s attitude toward her mother demonstrates the normal feelings of denial that a debilitating, fatal disease like Alzheimer’s can engender. At the same time, however, Ernaux’s actions partially stem from the desire to punish her mother; this inconsistency of behavior—indeed senseless behavior—shows just how confusing this illness and its ensuing role reversal is for those who are close to its victims.

Ernaux’s own conduct also forces her to deal with her belief that, at times, her mother treated her cruelly during childhood. For instance, while clipping her mother’s fingernails, Ernaux ‘‘can feel the sadistic streak in me, echoing her behavior toward me a long time ago’’ when ‘‘I was terrified of her.’’ However, these snippets are so brief that there is no way for the reader to evaluate Ernaux’s childhood with any accuracy.

Ernaux juxtaposes specific statements revealing her mistreatment at the hands of her mother with fond, loving memories. She reports that Blanche commented of her, ‘‘She’s not nearly as nice as the other one [Ernaux’s sister who died in childhood],’’ or that Blanche ‘‘would slap me for the slightest little thing.’’ However, she also recalls the closeness of sharing the same bed with her mother on Sunday afternoons. One set of memories does little to belittle the other set, for Ernaux’s writing in I Remain in Darkness is more impressionistic in its presentation of raw feeling and emotion than it is objective.

Indeed, true objectivity would be close to impossible in light of the difficult circumstances surrounding the mother and daughter. Ernaux’s comprehension that this new relationship creates a power imbalance only enforces her sense of unreality. Blanche is weak, confused, and needy. She relies upon her daughter both for physical and moral support. Ernaux’s descriptions of the hospital— reeking of urine, with [sh—] on the floor and patients roaming around unclothed—clearly demonstrate that the staff does not provide well enough for the bodily upkeep of the patients. The eagerness with which Blanche awaits weekly visits, as well as the short portraits of her fellow patients, show that Blanche receives little emotional support.

Ernaux, by contrast, determines how much time and energy she can invest in her mother. At one point, Ernaux enters the hospital for a dangerous, unnamed operation and does not tell her mother that she will be unable to visit for two months. This operation makes her even more aware of her own mortality, so that when she is able to walk on crutches, she chooses not to visit her mother. ‘‘I won’t go to this temple of old age,’’ she writes, ‘‘hobbling ‘like an old lady.’’’ In control of the relationship, Ernaux has the option of putting her own fears and desires above those of her mother, and in this instance, she takes advantage of her authority.

Ernaux shapes her relationship with her mother to maintain her own emotional detachment, which is a luxury that her mother does not have. Blanche would prefer living at Ernaux’s home to staying in the hospital; ‘‘I’m sure I’d be happier with you,’’ she tells her daughter. However, Ernaux refuses these pleas, and others, because Blanche’s condition has a detrimental effect on her. ‘‘I feel like crying when I see how badly she needs my love because I cannot satisfy her demand,’’ she writes. She then immediately juxtaposes her mother’s feelings with her own when thinking of her lover—‘‘I think of how badly I want A to love me now, just when he is drifting away from me’’—when there really is no similarity between her relationship with A and Blanche’s relationship with her. Whether it be consciously or subconsciously, Ernaux is maintaining distance from her mother, despite, or perhaps because of, the older woman’s dependence on her.

Despite the imposition of this role reversal, Ernaux never can really function as Blanche’s mother. For all the physical or emotional care she can provide, it is impossible for Ernaux to fulfill a mother’s most crucial duty: giving a child a sense of security and safety. Ernaux recalls how she felt when, as a child, Blanche took her to visit an uncle in the hospital. ‘‘The sun was shining, men and women were walking around in maroon bathrobes: I was so sad and so happy that my mother was with me, a strong, protective figure warding off illness and death.’’ For both Ernaux and her mother, this sense of security can never be recaptured. Instead, Blanche dies, and her body reminds Ernaux of nothing so much as a ‘‘sad little doll,’’ while Ernaux lives on with the ‘‘devastating pain’’ of a life without her mother.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on I Remain in Darkness, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

The Author's Personal Experience as seen in Ernaux

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I Remain In Darkness—the final written words of an aging, ailing woman, and the title of a memoir by Ernaux. Composed merely out of ‘‘jottings’’ on ‘‘small, undated scraps of paper,’’ Ernaux wrote of her ‘‘bewilderment and distress’’ experienced in the company of her mother. Her writings have an emotive power precisely because they capture the mix of emotions an individual may feel caring for an elderly mother with brutal honesty. An elderly dependent parent can inspire love, revulsion or disgust, anger, and as a result, guilt and fear. Ernaux’s scribblings betray her conflicted feelings. Her account has a surreal or fantastic quality about it, bringing into sharp focus the distorted emotions of the author.

Ernaux describes her mother with revulsion and brutal honesty. The memoir opens with an unattractive description, ‘‘She just sits there on a chair in the living room. Staring straight ahead, her features frozen, sagging.’’ This is not a heartwarming, loving description of a relative. One would be hard-pressed to guess that the author is actually talking about her mother, without reading the introduction to the work. This cold, detached, blank description is a reaction shared by someone coping with a nonfunctional, dependent elderly parent. There is no longer a strong mental connection based on shared history between mother and daughter. A daughter pleads, ‘‘Where are the eyes of my childhood, those fearful eyes she had thirty years ago, the eyes that made me?’’ At times barely functional, Ernaux’s mother is reduced to a crude character or the product of mere observation.

Her mother’s presence often evokes a sense of loathing in the author. In describing one visit with her mother, she says, ‘‘Her greedy instincts are back, she leers at the chocolates, tries to grab them with clumsy fingers.’’ The baseness of these descriptions contributes not to the image of mother, but of creature. The author again responds, in a situation not unlike countless others recorded among her entries, ‘‘the piece of pastry I put in her hands slips out. I have to pop it into her mouth. I am dismayed at such degradation and bestiality.’’ Yet the author uses other moments or absurd cameos, one in particular of a grotesque, ugly, caricature or exaggerated figure, to describe her parent. For example, ‘‘a transsexual with bluish skin’’ sparks a subconscious memory of her mother, specifically, her unshaven face. The carnival-like quality of the experience only enhances the unreal, the incomprehensible figure her mother has become.

The vision of the transsexual is unremarkable to the work. At times, old age is cruel, ugly and for Ernaux, not only a dehumanizing experience but a gender neutralizing, or unfeminine one. One scene etched in her memory involves another female patient, who can be seen, ‘‘diaper sheathing her vagina.’’ Again, the awkward, the grotesque, and the absurd come alive. ‘‘Such scenes inspire horror,’’ says Ernaux, at the sight of a grown woman whose reproductive region is comically cloaked. It is as if the reader has witnessed a genital mutilation. Certainly, Ernaux is not shy to comment on the injustice she feels. ‘‘Here it’s different,’’ she says, ‘‘There is no horror. These are women.’’ There are also countless references in the text to her own mother’s exposed vagina, moments of humiliation as seen through Ernaux’s eyes. Mentioning the onset of her mother’s menopause, ‘‘the change of life,’’ she comments that seemingly ‘‘everything had come to an end.’’ It’s as though her mother’s credibility as a woman and, by extension, a human, is attributed to her sexuality.

Denial plagues everyone dealing with a person affected by dementia or senility. The process of mental decline an elderly person undergoes is often subtle. Human nature generally dictates that one look at the softer edges of a situation, the more pleasant the realities, rather than cope with the ugly truths that the author skillfully explores. During the course of her rough emotional ride, Ernaux too often rallies behind her mother, using personal memories and life experiences to provide a logical rationale or framework for her mother’s troubling, often childlike behavior. At one point in the memoir the author comments on a moment in which her mother has felt compelled to hide brioche under her skirt. She responds by relating to the incident, calmly stating, ‘‘as a child, I would steal candy from the store and stuff it inside my panties.’’

Additionally, life events outside of the geriatric unit also trigger similar responses. When Ernaux speaks of parting with her mother’s clothes, she cannot bear it; however, the author immediately recovers when speaking of the sale of antiques left behind from her marriage. She again relates the circumstances to her mother, claiming, ‘‘Parting with these objects means nothing to me. Like my mother, I am letting go of these things.’’

Capturing the mental decline of an aging woman, Ernaux’s emotional journal also addresses the often shocking childlike state an elderly person can be reduced to in the aging process. Recalling her mother’s words plainly, without visible feeling, she shares, ‘‘This morning she got up and, in a timid voice: ‘I wet the bed, I couldn’t help it.’’’ The event is again reduced to mere observation. Ernaux’s response is matter-of-fact, she describes her mother’s words as simply, ‘‘the same words I would use when I was a child.’’ The response, in and of itself, is not cruel or harsh when taken in a broader context. Ernaux is responding to the impact these moments have on her. Her cold words only reverberate or echo the sense of abandonment she feels as a suddenly parentless child. During a visit to the geriatric center, a failed attempt to free a cake wrapper from her mother’s clutches sadly inspires Ernaux to write, ‘‘She wouldn’t let me pull it away from her, fiercely clenching her fist. An agonizing reversal of roles between mother and child.’’ The author again expresses, on many levels, no less in a cold statement as opposed to a tearful moment, the emptiness, the loneliness, the seemingly illogical but real sense of betrayal she feels towards her mother for being in such a feeble mental state.

The most revealing aspects of the memoir involve the strong identification Ernaux has with her mother. Her mother’s illness seems to have turned her world upside down. Motherless, fearful, alone—Ernaux is the victim of an ongoing trauma, the loss of a parent, and she often cries out in protest. Crying out in the voice of a defiant child, she exclaims, ‘‘The situation is now reversed, now she is my little girl. I CANNOT be her mother.’’ There is no longer a mental connection, no longer a shared history between mother and daughter. Ernaux’s selfishness masks a deep sense of rage. Somewhere in the midst of coping with her mother’s behavior, the author has discovered her own mortality. ‘‘For me, she is the personification of time. She is also pushing me towards death.’’

Dr. Robin Robertson, in A Beginner’s Guide to Jungian Psychology, offers an interesting perspective on the maternal in a discussion of the mother complex. ‘‘Over the course of the years it takes to develop from infant to adult,’’ states Robertson, ‘‘each of us acquires a vast number of memories of his or her particular mother.’’ What happens with these memories, according to Robertson, is that they cluster around the archetype or model of the mother (what is understood to mean ‘‘mother’’ ) to form a complex, or group of associations, to the term mother. What essentially has happened is that an individual has formed a mother within, or an understanding of a mother with both universal characteristics and characteristics specific to the individual’s own mother. Of note is the necessity for all human babies to contain a mother archetype to imprint onto their own mothers. The importance of this psychological component is that this archetype contains the entire human history of interaction between mother and child. In the words of Dr. Robertson, ‘‘A relationship that has been so important for so long gathers energy, energy which shapes the newborn baby’s relationship with its physical mother.’’

Perhaps this interruption in energy flow has sent Ernaux on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Her maternal instincts tug at her incessantly yet she is unable to come to grips with the role reversal that has taken place between herself and her mother. At one point, torn with guilt at her own inability to comfort her mother, Ernaux says, ‘‘I feel like crying when I see how badly she needs my love because I cannot satisfy her demand (I loved her so desperately as a child).’’ In framing her mother’s needs against the backdrop of her own desires as a child, Ernaux is drawing on her own maternal instincts.

For Ernaux there is no reciprocity or mutual exchange in roles between herself and her mother. Instead, her mother’s emotional demands tend to enrage her. The painful irony for the author is that she is no longer reacting as a demanding child does but fails to respond as a nurturing parent. This failure inspires Ernaux’s dismal assessment of her mother’s expectations of her: ‘‘the maternal instinct is tantamount to a deathwish.’’

The power of I Remain in Darkness is truly attributable to Ernaux’s ability to economically convey the complexity of emotion as well as the tenor of a relationship between a daughter and her dying mother. Frustration, fear, anger, and longing echo throughout the body of the work, haunting the author even after her mother’s death. In the end, finality of the event does not inspire resolution or relief, but darkness.

Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on I Remain in Darkness, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer.

Tensions and Paradoxes in Ernaux’s memoir

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First-time readers of Ernaux’s I Remain in Darkness are often surprised by it. It’s a paradoxical book in many ways. It’s ostensibly about Ernaux’s mother, but Ernaux is in the forefront of nearly every page. It seems underwritten, but in fact it has an intensely focused literary power. It’s essentially about thoughts and feelings, but many of its strongest passages describe vivid physical images. It is written with profound love, which is mixed with an equally profound anger and fear. And although it is about the end of a person’s life, ultimately it is a testament to life and regeneration.

Ernaux had written a book about her mother prior to this one; soon after her mother’s death in 1986, she began writing A Woman’s Story, which was published in 1988. A Woman’s Story is a much fuller, more developed work than I Remain in Darkness, which largely consists of notes Ernaux jotted down during the years of her mother’s decline. However, since the tone and style of these ‘‘notes’’ are recognizably the same as those of Ernaux’s earlier books, and since that famous style has made her a nationally known figure in France, it is fair to assume that this book is a companion piece, not just raw materials. Ernaux says as much in her introduction, describing it as a way to ‘‘question’’ the ‘‘consistency and coherence’’ of her earlier work.

But what is this style? On first examination, there seems to be no style at all, just direct communication of Ernaux’s thoughts onto ‘‘small undated scraps of paper.’’ A typical entry begins,

I went to see her before going up to Paris. I feel absolutely nothing when I am with her. As soon as the elevator door snaps shut I want to cry. Her skin is getting more and more crackled, it badly needs cream.

This kind of language seems transparent; in fact, it is pound-for-pound much stronger than a wordier style would be, and testifies to the old maxim that ‘‘less is more.’’ It may seem like an odd comparison, given that Ernaux is a cerebral Frenchwoman famous for writing about her feelings, but one of the American writers she most resembles is Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway pioneered the technique of writing most expressively by what he didn’t say, of letting his silences speak louder than other writers’ words. Ernaux also uses language that is sparse and specific, and that shuns over-elaboration to the point of being tight-lipped.

The reason for this is that both writers take the big issues of human life more seriously than we may be accustomed to. Ernaux, like many French writers, tends to write about the elemental facts of human life: birth, death, love, the body. Often in the past, American readers have been impatient with French writers for this reason; Americans take these things for granted, and always find it vaguely ludicrous to talk about them in an abstract way. That is why Ernaux’s style is so effective. She never ventures far beyond the (apparent) surface of things. The detail in the above quotation about her mother’s crackled skin is not just easy to visualize—it’s something you can feel. And more than that, you can sense Ernaux’s tension. Dry skin should be moisturized. Thirst should be quenched. Pain should be succored. There’s nothing for her to do but to leave that to the nurses, and to go on to Paris. And there’s nothing for her to say about it in retrospect.

Nor does Ernaux dwell on the disjuncture between her warring emotions. In one line she tells us, ‘‘I feel absolutely nothing when I am with her.’’ In the next, ‘‘As soon as the elevator door shuts I want to cry.’’ Ernaux makes no effort to explain away this apparent contradiction. There is no explanation. It’s the way she felt. If you’ve felt that way yourself, you understand. If you haven’t, possibly you won’t. As with her mother’s crackled skin, the fact is allowed to speak for itself—and it does, eloquently.

The combination of spartan and simple language with vast, imposing emotional realities helps drive Ernaux’s art. Another is the presence of opposite emotions juxtaposed. Ernaux is filled with pity and love toward her mother (‘‘She leans over and kisses my hair. How can I survive that kiss, such love, my mother, my mother.’’), but at the same time feels resentment and even anger (‘‘I can feel the sadistic streak in me, echoing her behavior from long ago. She still loathes me.’’) She is haunted by her mother’s dissolution, but also preoccupied with thoughts of her own: ‘‘It’s crystal clear: she is me in old age and I can see the deterioration of her body threatening to take hold of me—the wrinkles on her legs, the creases in her neck, shown off by a recent haircut.’’

None of these tensions are ever reconciled; instead, they supply much of the book’s energy. Each self-contained ‘‘jotting’’ functions like a haiku, dense with meaning. But the reader rarely gets wrapped up in them, because Ernaux describes the physical reality of her mother’s condition so bluntly. ‘‘Food, urine, [sh—]: the combination of smells hits one as soon as one leaves the elevator.’’

As a result, the book achieves that kind of timelessness and universality which is the aim of the writer’s art. Although written in French, I Remain in Darkness translates to English without any awkwardness at all—a tribute both to Ernaux and also to Tanya Leslie, her translator. The clarity of her prose and the accomplishment of her writing, however, don’t necessarily mean that I Remain in Darkness is an easy read. The material is undeniably depressing; and some readers may find it hard to warm up to the narrator, who makes absolutely no effort to win sympathy from anyone. Unlike, say, Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, or Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, readers are not invited to put themselves in her place, to identify with or even to like her.

But who is this narrator? Given the amount of personal information revealed, readers might think they know her fairly well. (Those who have read Ernaux’s other memoirs, such as A Woman’s Story and Simple Passion, may feel that they know her intimately.) On the other hand, in I Remain in Darkness, there’s much that readers are themselves left in darkness about. Who is this woman? Why does she resent her mother so much? What is her life like when she is not visiting the nursing home? What goes on between visits? The more involved one gets in this deeply emotional work, the larger these questions seem to grow.

Finally, Ernaux refuses us access. This is very different from typical memoirs, particularly one dealing with very painful issues. In those books, the author generally wants readers to understand them. Either they have been obscure, like McCourt, or misunderstood, such as Malcolm X. Moreover, they are saving memories of loved ones for posterity— making the past part of the future, with all the skill they can muster. In so many ways, I Remain in Darkness is the opposite of such works. The subject of the book, a woman about whom readers know little and whose consciousness is rapidly disintegrating, seems very vivid; while Ernaux herself, intelligent, articulate, and ruthlessly honest about her feelings, seems ghostly, spectral. That is a tribute to Ernaux’s powerful, paradoxical art—and to her own courage in leaving so much of herself out of, and so much of herself in, this remarkable work.

Source: Josh Ozersky, Critical Essay on I Remain in Darkness, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Ozersky is a critic and essayist.


Critical Overview