I Remain in Darkness

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It was in 1983 that Annie Ernaux's mother fell ill. The stopped eating and within a few days was unable to care for herself. Frightened but hopeful that her mother would regain her dynamic health, Ernaux moved the once-independent woman into her own home. This collection of relentlessly honest journal entries traces the descent of Ernaux's mother into the depths of Alzheimer's disease and reveals the author's complex feelings of guilt and pain.

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Overview

It was in 1983 that Annie Ernaux's mother fell ill. The stopped eating and within a few days was unable to care for herself. Frightened but hopeful that her mother would regain her dynamic health, Ernaux moved the once-independent woman into her own home. This collection of relentlessly honest journal entries traces the descent of Ernaux's mother into the depths of Alzheimer's disease and reveals the author's complex feelings of guilt and pain.

An influential writer in the genre of confessional memoir, Ernaux offers her heartfelt prose in describing her struggle to explore questions about death and parent-child role reversal. This honest self-examination provides readers with a window into the complexities of their own inner beings.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Unlike Aaron Alterra's The Caregiver LJ 10/15/99, this slim volume by noted French writer Ernaux Simple Passion is not a straightforward medical account of her mother's death from Alzheimer's; instead, it is a collection of the notes, in their original form, that Ernaux jotted down at the time of her mother's illness. "When I write down all these things, I scribble away as fast as I can as if I felt guilty, without choosing my words." Here in their raw, uncensored form are the "vestiges of pain"--the anger, guilt, and grief that Ernaux felt during her mother's two-year decline. Here are the graphic images of her once-powerful mother wearing diapers, the woman in the next bed peeing on the floor, a drawer in the bedside table filled with a human turd. Because the notes have not been edited, there is a choppy, unpolished feel to the book, which is perhaps Ernaux's intention--as a possible counterpoint to A Woman's Story 1991, her fictionalized memoir of her mother's life and death. For literary and Alzheimer's collections.--Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A small, powerful, and overwritten memoir of a mother's slow deterioration and death in a nursing home. Ernaux is a prize winning author (A Man's Place, 1992, also translated by Leslie) whose mother had been strict, controlling, but loving. When her aging, widowed mother first fell ill, Ernaux took her home. However, as her mother's senility turned into mind-wasting Alzheimer's disease, the author had her placed in an old-age home, where she visited and wrote this journal. This emotionally charged scenario has been handled before, notably in Rodger Kamenetz's Terra Infirma (1998). Erneaux's memoir is at its most effecting when describing details, such as her mother losing her glasses, dentures, modesty, posture, and possessiveness—rather than telling us she's losing her mind and body. Too often, however, poignant scenes are dampened by the memoirist's insistence on spelling things out. She precedes the heartbreaking realization that her mother "thinks that I have come to take her away and that she is going to leave this place" with the neon signs indicating that "it's beyond sadness" and promising "painful moments." Her disheveled mother is soiled with excrement, has to be spoon-fed, her right hand "grasping the left like an unknown object," yet Ernaux remarks: "I have no idea what she thought of sex or how she made love." The author is either in deep trouble or is French. Readers of all nationalities will sympathize with Ernaux's having to be her mother's mother, the good and bad memories of her girlhood evoked by these horrific scenes and emotions, and her tortured feelings of guilt in moments when she hates this former provider for draining her so. The pain doesn't ease atjournal's end, when Ernaux's mother abruptly passes away. The impact of this courageous, sometimes unsubtle little book is sure to not pass away quickly.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781583220146
  • Publisher: Seven Stories Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.72 (w) x 8.48 (h) x 0.49 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in 1940, ANNIE ERNAUX grew up in Normandy, studied at Rouen University, and began teaching high school. From 1977 to 2000, she was a professor at the Centre National d’Enseignement par Correspondance. Her books, in particular A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story, have become contemporary classics in France. She won the prestigious Prix Renaudot for A Man's Place when it was first published in French in 1984. The English edition was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The English edition of A Woman’s Story was a New York Times Notable Book.
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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


MY MOTHER began losing her memory and acting strangely two years after a serious road accident from which she had fully recovered—she was knocked down by a car that had run a red light. For several months, she was able to continue living on her own in the old people's residence of Yvetot, Normandy, where she was renting a small apartment. In summer 1983, in the grueling heat, she fainted and was taken to the hospital. It was discovered that she hadn't eaten or drunk anything for several days. Her refrigerator was empty except for a packet of cube sugar. Clearly, she could no longer be left on her own.

    I decided to let her come and stay with me in Cergy; I was convinced that the familiar surroundings and the company of my two teenage sons Éric and David, whom she had helped me to bring up, would cause her symptoms to disappear and that she would soon become the energetic, independent woman she had been for most of her life.

    This was not the case. Her lapses of memory got worse and the doctor mentioned the possibility of Alzheimer's disease. She could no longer recognize the places or people she knew, like my children, my ex-husband, myself. She became a confused woman, and would nervously roam the house, or would spend hours slumped on the stairs in the corridor. In February 1984, seeing her state of prostration and her refusal to eat anything, the doctor had her taken to Pontoise Hospital. She remained there for two months, then spent some time in a private nursing home before being sent back to Pontoise and placed in the long-term geriatric ward, where she died ofheart failure in April 1986, aged seventy-nine.

    While she was still living with me, I began jotting down on small undated scraps of paper the things she said or did that filled me with terror. I could not bear to see my own mother slip into such a state of decline. One day I dreamt that I screamed out at her in anger: "Stop being crazy!" Subsequently, when I got back from the hospital, I would feel this strong urge to write about her, the things she said, and her body, which I was feeling closer to every day. I would write hastily, in the turmoil of my emotions, without thinking or trying to marshal my thoughts.

    Wherever I went, I was haunted by the sight of my mother in that place.


Toward the end of 1985, I began writing the story of her life, with guilty feelings. I felt that I was projecting myself into a time when she would no longer be. Also, I was torn between my writing, which portrayed her as a young woman moving toward the world, and the reality of hospital visits, which reminded me of her inexorable decline.

    When my mother died, I tore up this first draft and started work on another book, A Woman's Story, which came out in 1988. While I was writing the book, I could not bring myself to read through the notes I had taken during my mother's illness. Somehow I felt I hadn't the right: I had committed to paper her last months and days, including the day preceding her death, without realizing it. This disregard for consequences—which may characterize all forms of writing, it certainly applies to mine—was horrifying. In a strange way, the diary of those hospital visits was leading me to my mother's death.


For a long time, I believed that I would never have this text published. Maybe because I wanted to offer only one image, one side of the truth portraying my mother and my relationship with her, a truth which I sought to convey in A Woman's Story. However I have come round to thinking that the consistency and coherence achieved in any written work—even when its innermost contradictions are laid bare—must be questioned whenever possible. Publishing these pages gave me that opportunity.

    I have delivered these pages in their original form, echoing the bewilderment and distress that I experienced at the time. I have chosen not to alter the way I transcribed those moments when I was close to her, removed from time (except maybe from my early childhood regained), removed from any thought except: "she's my mother." She had ceased to be the woman who had always ruled my life and yet, despite her misshapen features, because of her voice, her mannerisms and her laugh, she remained my mother, more so than ever.

    On no account should these pages be read as the objective chronicle of a patient's stay in the long-term geriatric ward and certainly not as an accusation (on the whole, the nurses were extremely caring), but merely as vestiges of pain.


"I remain in darkness" was the last sentence my mother wrote. I often dream of her, picturing her the way she was before her illness. She is alive and yet she has been dead. When I wake up, for a few moments, I am certain that she is still living out there under this dual identity, at once dead and alive, reminding me of those characters in Greek mythology whose souls have been ferried twice across the River Styx.

March 1996

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