Soon to be a major motion picture—The Upside—starring Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, and Nicole Kidman.
Born with wealth and privilege, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo was not generally someone in the habit of asking for help. Then, in 1993, right on the heels of his wife’s diagnosis of a terminal illness, a paragliding accident left him a quadriplegic. He was forty-two-years-old and unable to do anything—even feed himself—without the help of another person.
Passing his days hidden behind the high walls of his townhouse, after his paralysis Philippe found himself isolated and depressed. The only person who seemed unaffected by Philippe’s condition was someone who had been marginalized his entire life—Abdel, the unemployed, outspoken Algerian immigrant who would become his unlikely caretaker. In between dramas and jokes, he sustained Philippe’s life for the next ten years.
A Second Wind, the basis for the upcoming major motion picture The Upside, is the inspiring true story of two men who refused to ask for help, and then wound up helping each other.
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About the Author
Philippe Pozzo di Borgo spent his childhood in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Trinidad, Morocco, Algeria and Corsica. He now lives in Essaouira, Morocco. A descendent of both the Ducs Pozzo di Borgo and the Marquises de Vogue, he is the former director of Pommery Champagnes (LVMH). His bestselling memoir Le Second Souffle (Second Wind) served as the basis for the hit French film, Intouchables (Untouchables).
Read an Excerpt
I WAS SOMEBODY ONCE. Now I’m paralyzed, I’ve lost almost all sensation in my body. But even so, somewhere among the excruciating pain, there are still delicious memories of the senses that have abandoned me.
Retrieving my shattered body’s experiences, inch by inch, memory by memory, is a form of survival. Working back from my current immobility, putting a chaotic mass of short-lived sensations into some sort of chronological order, helps me to reclaim my past and reconnect my two entirely separate lives.
A FLUSH of confusion sets my whole body aglow. It’s only a memory. Even so I feel drowsy, my rational mind is shutting down, I am overwhelmed by far-off sensations, from when I was seven, or perhaps eight, and the dazzling Casablanca sun was beating down… My brothers and I were at the Collège Charles de Foucauld, a church school. At recess some of my classmates would play football in the middle of the playground, raising a film of dust that would stick to their arms and legs, and turn their shorts and navy blue shirts milky white. Others, aficionados of a local version of marbles played with apricot stones, would gather by the walls in groups of shopkeepers and players. I was a shopkeeper; Alain—my twin brother who was a crack shot—was a player. The shopkeeper would place an apricot stone between his legs and the player would try to hit it with his trusty projectile. I took up position by the playground wall, facing the morning sun—I loved baking myself to a crisp in the sun—and waited for Alain to throw, my half-closed eyes fixed on my stone. I counted to three, then shivered with pleasure. Drowsy from the warm, dusty playground, I drifted off. When I came to, my class had gone back inside; the playground was full of children I didn’t recognize. I shot bolt upright in a panic, wrapped my supply of apricot stones in a handkerchief, and ran back as fast as I could, my body on fire. For the first time, I felt a strange warmth between my legs. Was it the shorts rubbing or fear of my horrible schoolmistress? Either way, something was happening down there. I knocked frantically, the schoolmistress barked out a command, I pushed open the door, and then just stood there, motionless.
I FLUSH bright red all over again, alone in my bed, as I remember these first stirrings of desire.
NOT LONG afterward, we were in Holland. My father was working for an Anglo-Dutch oil company. My brothers Reynier and Alain; Valerie, my little sister; Christina, the governess; and I all slept on the first floor. Christina was very beautiful with her red hair and green eyes and freckles, which I kept discovering all over her body, helped by the fact that it was the heyday of the miniskirt. One day she was doing some ironing on the landing. I had been hanging around watching her for ages, when I felt that discomfort under my belt again. I blushed, not daring to look down at my gray flannel English shorts. Oh no, what was Christina doing? Squinting to see what was going on? I was done for. Until she—the beautiful, treacherous girl—did something extraordinary. She stepped out from behind the ironing board, came toward me, turned round, and bent over as far as she could. Was it really because she needed to pick something up?
If I’d known how and been able to, I would have taken her there and then. But I just stood there breathlessly, arms dangling, everything else straining skyward. I seemed to look at her bottom for an eternity.
Years later I saw some photos of her. I didn’t find her such a beauty that time, with her gappy teeth, double chin, and bony knees. Everything is a matter of perspective…
AT NIGHT I take deep breaths to try to free myself from the pain that alienates me from everything. Images come into my mind—so concrete and simple, I find them very beautiful—but the pain doesn’t abate.
I WAS fifteen and I wanted to impress my friends, so I went into the drug store. When it was my turn, I said, “Can I have a packet,” my voice fell to a whisper, “of condoms?” The female chemist asked me to repeat myself. Trapped, already bright red in the face, I asked her again. In a gently ironic tone, she then inquired, “Small, medium, or large?” I ran out the door.
Naturally she was talking about the size of the packet.
A LAUGH bubbles up in my throat and is answered by a spasm, which knocks the tape recorder off my chest. I have to start again, rebuild my world. I call Abdel, my caregiver. He puts the tape recorder back in position, and my strange, muffled voice sets it in motion. The voice I have now not only sounds completely different to “my” voice, but also changes constantly, as if my identity has gone to pieces like my body. My chest muscles don’t work anymore, so I can’t convey intonation or punctuation; the tape only registers the bare information of whatever words I have enough breath to utter.
I WAS seventeen, and we were on a skiing holiday. Alain already had his “squeeze.” We spent our time on the slopes with boys, and with girls, and I’d never blushed so much in my life as when I was with the latter. One night after supper we all crowded in by the fire, drinking wine, singing, playing guitar. I was next to a girl. She leaned over at one point and rested her head on my shoulder. A friend of Alain’s girlfriend, she was older than me and had been born in Vietnam to a French colonial family. She had slanting eyes and olive skin. She laughed, then moved closer. I could smell her spicy scent now. I tried to shrink into the fireplace, but that didn’t change anything. I could feel desire burning in me; I wanted her. When it was time for bed and she led me to the only single room and to a little bed by the wall, I followed without a backward glance. I’d been dreaming of that moment for years, it felt like. She unceremoniously took off her clothes and lay on top of me. I must have seemed awkward because she smiled, then burst out laughing: “You haven’t taken off your pants!” She helped me. We were together for a few months.
EVEN NOW that I’m paralyzed, my inert senses can still play tricks on me, as they did early on during my time at Kerpape, a rehabilitation center on the Brittany coast. For my first outing, Béatrice pushed my new wheelchair to a little café by the sea and sat opposite me. Over her shoulder, windsurfers leaped the waves. The sky was gray. My neck felt clammy with sweat, but it was so lovely having Béatrice’s face close to mine, I didn’t want to break the spell. How could she still have that look of young love in her eyes as she gazed at the shadow of the man she had fallen for? After a while, I broke into a hacking cough. Béatrice became worried and took me back to the rehab center. The nurse diagnosed a lung infection, so I was returned to intensive care at the hospital in Lorient for the second time. My throat was opened up by another trach, an array of bottles decanted their poisons into me, while Béatrice sat by my bed. The veins in my left arm couldn’t cope after a while, so they bandaged it up to the elbow in cotton wool soaked in alcohol. I soon felt drunk. My room didn’t have a window, but I guessed it was nighttime. There was no nurse in sight. The red, green, and white lights of the machines blinked on and off. I was drifting farther and farther away, when suddenly a wildly pleasurable sensation came over me. I hadn’t felt intense desire for Béatrice for a year. Images of our bodies together raced through my mind. Suddenly the lights came on in a blinding flash of neon. Béatrice was bending over me. She’d understood immediately what was happening when she saw my eyelids fluttering. I asked her to tell the doctor. Laughing, she ran out into the corridor. The doctor came back with her, an irritated look on his face. He examined the object of these mad giggles. Negative. Phantom stirrings. Go back to sleep, my angel.