The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

4.3 86
by Jean-Dominique Bauby

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In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle, the father of two young childen, a 44-year-old man known and loved for his wit, his style, and his impassioned approach to life. By the end of the year he was also the victim of a rare kind of stroke to the brainstem.  After 20 days in a coma, Bauby awoke into a body which had

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In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle, the father of two young childen, a 44-year-old man known and loved for his wit, his style, and his impassioned approach to life. By the end of the year he was also the victim of a rare kind of stroke to the brainstem.  After 20 days in a coma, Bauby awoke into a body which had all but stopped working: only his left eye functioned, allowing him to see and, by blinking it, to make clear that his mind was unimpaired. Almost miraculously, he was soon able to express himself in the richest detail: dictating a word at a time, blinking to select each letter as the alphabet was recited to him slowly, over and over again. In the same way, he was able eventually to compose this extraordinary book.

By turns wistful, mischievous, angry, and witty, Bauby bears witness to his determination to live as fully in his mind as he had been able to do in his body. He explains the joy, and deep sadness, of seeing his children and of hearing his aged father's voice on the phone. In magical sequences, he imagines traveling to other places and times and of lying next to the woman he loves. Fed only intravenously, he imagines preparing and tasting the full flavor of delectable dishes. Again and again he returns to an "inexhaustible reservoir of sensations," keeping in touch with himself and the life around him.

Jean-Dominique Bauby died two days after the French publication of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

This book is a lasting testament to his life.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
On December 8 1995, 'Elle' magazine editor-in-chief Bauby suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma. He awoke 20 days later, mentally aware of his surroundings but physically paralyzed with the exception of some movement in his head and left eye. Bauby had "Locked-in-Syndrome", a rare condition caused by stroke damage to the brain stem. Eye movements and blinking a code representing letters of the alphabet became his sole means of communication. It is also how he dictated this warm, sad, and extraordinary memoir. Bauby's thoughts on the illness, the hospital, family, friends, career, and life before and after the stroke appear with considerable humor and humanity. Actor Rene Auberjonois's narration adds to the poignancy of the story. Sadly, Bauby died of his condition in 1997. This is a fine companion to works like Lucy Grealy's "Autobiography of a Face" (LJ 7/94). For all audio collections. Stephen L. Hupp, Univ. of Pittsburgh at Johnstown Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
'Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible cocoon holds my whole body prisoner.' Thus begins the remarkable testimony of Bauby, who was editor-in-chief of French 'Elle' when he was felled by a stroke in December 1995. The stroke left every inch of his body paralyzed—except for his left eyelid, which he could blink. But his mind was fully alive, capable of the whole range of thought and feeling from dry wit to sadness to tenderness, and by blinking in response to letters recited by an amanuensis, he dictated 'these bedridden travel notes' about being locked inside his body. It shows that his rich heart, too, was alive and beating, but it finally gave way in March of this year, two days after the French publication of his book.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
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5.16(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.39(d)

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Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible cocoon holds my whole body prisoner. My room emerges slowly from the gloom. I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children's drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris-Roubaix bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock.

No need to wonder very long where I am, or to recall that the life I once knew was snuffed out Friday, the eighth of December, last year.

Up until then I had never even heard of the brain stem. I've since learned that it is an essential component of our internal computer, the inseparable link between the brain and the spinal cord. That day I was brutally introduced to this vital piece of anatomy when a cerebrovascular accident took my brain stem out of action. In the past, it was known as a "massive stroke," and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as "locked-in syndrome." Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move. In my case, blinking my left eyelid is my only means of communication.

Of course, the party chiefly concerned is the last to hear the good news. I myself had twenty days of deep coma and several weeks of grogginess and somnolence before I truly appreciated the extent of the damage. I did not fully awake until the end of January. When I finally surfaced, I was in Room 119 of the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer, on the French Channel coast —- the same Room 119, infused now with the first light of day, from which I write.

An ordinary day. At seven the chapel bells begin again to punctuate the passage of time, quarter hour by quarter hour. After their night's respite, my congested bronchial tubes once more begin their noisy rattle. My hands, lying curled on the yellow sheets, are hurting, although I can't tell if they are burning hot or ice cold. To fight off stiffness, I instinctively stretch, my arms and legs moving only a fraction of an inch. It is often enough to bring relief to a painful limb.

My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas's court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.

Enough rambling. My main task now is to compose the first of these bedridden travel notes so that I shall be ready when my publisher's emissary arrives to take my dictation, letter by letter. In my head I churn over every sentence ten times, delete a word, add an adjective, and learn my text by heart, paragraph by paragraph.

Seven-thirty. The duty nurse interrupts the flow of my thoughts. Following a well-established ritual, she draws the curtain, checks tracheostomy and drip feed, and turns on the TV so I can watch the news. Right now a cartoon celebrates the adventures of the fastest frog in the West. And what if I asked to be changed into a frog? What then?

The Photo

The last time I saw my father, I shaved him. It was the week of my stroke. He was unwell, so I had spent the night at his small apartment near the Tuileries gardens in Paris. In the morning, after bringing him a cup of milky tea, I decided to rid him of his few days' growth of beard. The scene has remained engraved in my memory.

Hunched in the red-upholstered armchair where he sifts through the day's newspapers, my dad bravely endures the rasp of the razor attacking his loose skin. I wrap a big towel around his shriveled neck, daub thick lather over his face, and do my best not to irritate his skin, dotted here and there with small dilated capillaries. From age and fatigue, his eyes have sunk deep into their sockets, and his nose looks too prominent for his emaciated features. But, still flaunting the plume of hair —- now snow white —- that has always crowned his tall frame, he has lost none of his splendor.

All around us, a lifetime's clutter has accumulated; his room calls to mind one of those old persons' attics whose secrets only they can know —- a confusion of old magazines, records no longer played, miscellaneous objects. Photos from all the ages of man have been stuck into the frame of a large mirror. There is dad, wearing a sailor suit and playing with a hoop before the Great War; my eight-year-old daughter in riding gear; and a black-and-white photo of myself on a miniature-golf course. I was eleven, my ears protruded, and I looked like a somewhat simpleminded schoolboy. Mortifying to realize that at that age I was already a confirmed dunce.

I complete my barber's duties by splashing my father with his favorite aftershave lotion. Then we say goodbye; this time, for once, he neglects to mention the letter in his writing desk where his last wishes are set out.

We have not seen each other since. I cannot quit my seaside confinement. And he can no longer descend the magnificent staircase of his apartment building on his ninety-two-year-old legs. We are both locked-in cases, each in his own way: myself in my carcass, my father in his fourth-floor apartment. Now I am the one they shave every morning, and I often think of him as a nurse's aide laboriously scrapes my cheeks with a week-old blade. I hope that I was a more attentive Figaro.

Every now and then he calls, and I listen to his affectionate voice, which quivers a little in the receiver they hold to my ear. It cannot be easy for him to speak to a son who, as he well knows, will never reply. He also sent me the photo of me at the miniature-golf course. At first I did not understand why. It would have remained a mystery if someone had not thought to look at the back of the print. Suddenly, in my own personal movie theater, the forgotten footage of a spring weekend began to unroll, when my parents and I had gone to take the air in a windy and not very sparkling seaside town. In his strong, angular handwriting, dad had simply noted: Berck-sur-Mer, April 1963.

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Oliver Sacks
A book of surpassing beauty, a testament to the freedom and vitality and delight of the human mind.

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 86 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could really relate to him, I had a brain stem stroke 6 years ago and went through the LOCK IN state. I think anyone could benifit from reading this book. You never know!
BostonAustin More than 1 year ago
Jean-Dominique Bauby was a lively editor for Elle magazine in 1995 when he suffered a massive stroke that left him in a coma for twenty days. When he finally emerged from his coma, he found out he had fallen victim to ¿locked-in syndrome¿. His body was almost fully paralyzed, except for some slight head and eye movements, while his mind continued to function. With the use of only one of his eyes, he blinked to a translator who recorded letters to make words, sentences, and eventually this whole memoir. It took the pair nearly ten months to write at four hours a day. Although Bauby¿s condition was grim, his spirits were high and he never lost his wonderful humor and fascinating imagination. This book takes us through Bauby¿s experience of being a quadriplegic and his euphoric journey through a lifetime of memories. The anecdotes of his life serve to show how thankful Bauby was that he was still alive after such a horrific event and how not being able to move was not going to stop him from creating something great and sharing the best moments of his life. Bauby¿s style is unique, especially for someone in his situation. His witty sense of humor and use of irony add to the lighthearted tone, even though there is an underlying feeling on self-pity and regret. Although Bauby is confined to his body like a ¿diving bell¿, his mind is still free to fly like a ¿butterfly¿. This memoir speaks to the fact that the strength of the human spirit is undeniable and life is worth living.
Zeisinator More than 1 year ago
After living a normal life with a successful career and all the freedoms of motion, paralysis is an extremely devastating blow to anyone. Jean Dominique Bauby experienced a complete loss of his lifestyle after a stroke that left him with only the physical ability of blinking. Despite his bodily degradation, he was able to patiently author a memoir that reveals the thoughts of someone deeply isolated from the world, only connected through a communication system based on blinking. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a true story that never slows down for a moment. Since his communication was very limited, he does not focus on a single aspect of his life, but jumps around from scene to scene. While this style would seem choppy in most cases, Bauby's endless list of anecdotes flows together smoothly. The memoir does not leave out imagery and symbolism, but rather it uses these tools to make a string of stories fit together. With such a unique story, Bauby faces the huge task of making his situation understandable to readers. With no ability to physically do anything worthwhile, the only things he has left are memory and imagination; however, he is able to recall memories he can no longer experience with as much detail as if had just experienced them again. In one chapter, he recalls the time he helped shave his unable father and then uses this image to describe himself. His ability to explain unusual circumstances in a way that anyone can understand makes his memoir all the more interesting. One of the most obvious, yet important, symbols is the diving bell. Bauby uses the image of the diving bell to present the ideas of isolation and separation. As he is very limited in his communication, this symbol fits well; however, he also refers to "the tiny opening of my diving bell", which is his blinking communication system and only link to the world. The imagery of the diving bell gives a better perspective of his feelings of isolation. One of the most captivating parts of the memoir is that it makes the reader pity Bauby, yet Bauby himself does not spend his time pettily seeking pity. While he is often disappointed from recalling his past abilities, he tends toward a more hopeful spirit. When his kids come to visit him for a day at the beach, he finds joy in their lives, as if he is living through them. He misses the physical part of being their father, but he still realizes that he is their father and cares for them dearly. When he describes his thoughts at the beginning of his sufferings, he is almost in denial of his disability. Over time, however, he accepts his fate and tries to adjust to the less active life. He makes up for his physical inability by writing this memoir, reflecting on memories-a huge part of the memoir-and imagining things. Ultimately, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not the most cheerful story, but it presents Bauby's life with a positive aura and manipulates emotions. It is a very unique opportunity to look into circumstances that are indescribable except for the person who has experienced them.
AlissaH More than 1 year ago
As one who values a unique perspective, this memoir is the epitome of beauty and perfection. With enchanting language, painstakingly constructed, Bauby's writing transcends my capabilities of description. Written literally by blinking, this short story tells of his experience with Locked-In Syndrome, an unfortunate condition where your entire body is paralyzed while your mind is perfectly in tact. Straightforward and honest, without becoming too depressing or overly optimistic, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a literary jewel that will be the treasure of your library.
DMR1 More than 1 year ago
An incredible story of a man held captive in his own body after a severe stroke, which left him with only one eye able to blink and communicate this whole book. An amazing journey into the spirit and vitality of the mind.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I can’t imagine how this guy was able to communicate so well as to write this book. Wow! What happened to him was terrible but shows how humans can cope and make something from nothing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby to be quite an enjoyable read. Because of the subject matter, Bauby is paralyzed by a massive stroke that leaves him unable to move his body or speak, Bauby could have easily made the memoir extremely grave. However, he manages to keep the tone relatively light while still paying respect to the severity of the condition. He does so by incorporating self-deprecation and frivolous thoughts. Each sentence, page, and chapter included vivid imagery and carefully chosen words. This is even more impressive given the way he was forced to dictate the book (An aid went through a modified version of the French alphabet letter by letter until Bauby blinked, indicating that she had landed on the right one). Bauby’s musings, which are split into several short paragraphs, are very thought provoking. The reader is given insight into the deep thoughts of the narrator. Beginning with the title itself, many deep themes are expressed. That being said, the plotline is pretty anticlimactic, so the 144 pages can best be enjoyed in a single sitting. I would highly recommend The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to readers who appreciate the complexity of the human mind.
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            There are people in this world who are extremely blessed, and they appreciate none of it. How would it feel to not be able to move anything but an eyelid? The only one who can share this experience is Jean-Dominique Bauby.  He was paralyzed from the neck down, and in this story, he explains how much it affected him.He wrote this story, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, with the help of many others. In every page, there is a lesson.  Yet, in the end of the book, you learn the most important lesson. Don't take things for granted. One day, everything could be gone, and you have no way to turn back time and change what you did with the blessings you were given.             This book is at times difficult to understand, but in the end, it is well worth it. It explains how the littlest things can be the most memorable. It says that you should cherish everything. Even the bad moments are something to cherish. If something happens and people feel bad, they will give you pity, and there will be no more fights.They will just pretend like the thing that made them unhappy never even happened because they know there is nothing they can do. Instead of having open conversations, everything would be kept in the dark. If you are look for a book to make you smile and make you cry, then this is a good one for you to read. It's a touching story to show how much things can change in the blink of an eye.
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