Two years after a serious road accident Annie Ernaux’s mother started to show signs of losing her memory and behaving strangely. After fainting and being admitted to hospital Ernaux found out that her mother had not eaten or drunk for days. All that was in her fridge was a packet of sugar cubes. It was at this time that Ernaux decided to care for her mother and began to write down on little pieces of paper ‘the things she did or said that filled me with terror.’
I remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux is a memoir on the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s disease. Translated into English by Tanya Leslie (who translated Ernaux’s acclaimed novels, A Woman’s Story and A Man’s Place), Ernaux’s book is a collection of fragmented journal entries that record her mother’s slow deterioration and her death from an embolism, and Enraux’s own experience as her daughter, watching her mother become stripped of her personhood.
Whilst looking after her mother Ernaux experiences an ‘agonizing reversal of roles between mother/child’. Alzheimer’s profoundly affects her mother’s motor control and Ernaux describes in many enteries supporting her mother in feeding herself.
Her hands reached out for the cake wrapping and I gave it to her, as if to a child. One minute later, I glanced up and saw that she was eating it. She wouldn’t let me pull it away from her, fiercely clenching her fist.
It is when helping her mother to eat that she is shocked by the deteriorating state of her mother.
The dishevelled hair, the hands searching for each other, the right hand grasping the left like an unknown object. She can’t find her own mouth. Every time she tries, the cake ends up askew. The piece of pastry I put into her hands slips out. I have to pop it into her mouth. I am dismayed at such degredation and beastiality. A glazed expression, the tongue and lips protruding, sucking like those of a newborn baby.
Some of the most affecting enteries Arnaux makes are those that describe her mother’s emerging helplessness and a kind of return to infancy.
I hand her an almond bun, which she can’t eat on her own. Her lips suck wildly at thin air. Right now, I would like her to be dead and free of such degredation. Her body stiffens, she strains to stand up and a foul stench fills the atmosphere. She has just relieved herself like a new-born baby after being fed. Such horror and helplessness. Her right fist is clenched, her fingers digging deep into me – she also possesses the strength of a newborn baby.
There are times when witnessing her own mother ‘slip into such a state of decline’ is just too painful for Ernaux to keep a hold of in her mind and she attempts to detach herself from the moment.
She looks even more withered and confused. All she is wearing is her hospital gown, open at the back, exposing her spine, her buttocks and the mesh of her underwear. A glorious sun is beating down through the double-glazed windows. I think about my room at the students’ hostel twenty years ago. Today I am here with her. We have so little imagination.
Faced with her mother’s vulnerability and confusion and the nakedness of her body, Ernaux’s focus shifts towards the beauty of the sunshine and towards a happy memory. However, this distraction cannot last and she returns back to the harsh reality of the present, where there is no space left in her mind to imagine herself and her mother in a better place.
I Remain in Darkness is incredibly difficult to emotionally digest. It is a frank and affecting account of a mother enduring a debilitating condition and a daughter attempting to cope with the gradual loss of her mother.
© 2020 Nic James
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Nic James thinks too much and always talks over movies.