Adina Stroia explores care as durational practice in Noëlle Châtelet’s writings on her mother’s decision to end her own life. This article is part of the series ‘Contemporary Womxn’s Writing and the Medical Humanities’, guest edited for The Polyphony by Rebecca Rosenberg and Benjamin Dalton.
While psychoanalysis and the medical humanities have examined the subjects of mourning and of illness narratives at length, the ethically-challenging terrain of euthanasia and assisted suicide remains largely unexplored in a literary context. Focusing on Noëlle Châtelet’s writings on her mother’s decision to end her own life, La dernière leçon (2004) and Suite à La dernière leçon (2015), this essay asks to reassess end of life care as the very end of care. La Dernière leçon deals with the announced death of the author’s mother, a midwife by profession, who at 92 proceeds with her decision to die with dignity. To do so, she uses a cocktail of drugs she has gathered throughout her time in the medical profession. It’s a brief récit, coming in at little over 100 pages in the poche edition, and focuses on the coming to terms with the mother’s decision and the forms of care such a process involves. The second récit, Suite à La dernière leçon, written more than a decade later, follows the development of the filmic adaptation of La Dernière leçon and the author’s involvement in the process. The movie, directed by Pascale Pouzadoux, was released in 2015 starring Marthe Villalonga and Sandrine Bonnaire. The movie is based on the book but takes many creative liberties, adding characters or changing the age of the protagonists, enacting ‘une trahison consentie’, in Noëlle Châtelet’s words.
In this brief essay, I examine the effects assisted suicide has on the temporal and relational aspects of the mother-daughter bond within the paradigm of care practices. I will posit that difficulties arise not solely from bereavement and its anticipation, but also from the rearrangement of the ‘order of the things’. Where once it was up to the adult child to act as caretaker for the ageing parent, it is now the mother who cares for the daughter by imparting a final lesson: letting go. Care, as durational practice, takes on new meaning when the recipient limits it. Drawing on Lisa Baraitser’s work and Sandra Laugier’s ethics of care which proposes as its main tenet that ‘the human is vulnerable’ (2015: 219), this essay aims to open another complex question facing the subject in the final chapter of her life: who owns care?
I believe that Châtelet’s text can begin to point us in new directions, as she rewrites what a ‘pedagogy of care’ means throughout La Dernière leçon. In a gesture respecting her mother’s autonomy and determination, Chatelet positions herself as an apprentice, with the mother teaching her the ‘comment-mourir’ (71). While they are both engaged in a choreography of mourning, they are both learning to let go and not let the emotional charge and pathos overwhelm and overshadow their last days together: ‘J’ai appris la mort autrement, dans un langage inconnu et finalement familier. Une nouvelle langue maternelle, en quelque sorte, celle de la mère qui s’en va..’ (109). Despite the fact that we expect our parents to die before us, the determined and known duration of the period of togetherness left offers the daughter a ‘condensed temporality’. The question that is at the centre of Châtelet’s conundrum bears weight on our current times: how to live through a present when the very possibility of a future is foreclosed?
Care takes on different dimensions, not just offering physical and emotional proximity but also implying gestures of withdrawal and refusing pathos during several vital moments. Although certainly overwhelmed by emotion when saying a final goodbye to her mother, the author holds back her tears and firmly declares that: ‘Les larmes n’étaient pas la dernière leçon’ (110). Mother and daughter perform a dance of self-recognition and of a deep understanding of each other’s needs and wants, which often implies leaving things unsaid. Thus, the mother withholds from the daughter the exact particulars of her death – the daughter knows and trusts that her mother will go peacefully but she does not know when this will happen. The daughter sees the stack of coins that her mother keeps on the side table and can appraise how many days she will be receiving the daily newspaper for, but decides not to count them and to be left with an estimate. However, throughout the text, the temporal compression engenders a heightening of the emotional charge: ‘De nouveau m’est revenue la compulsion du calendrier. Dans l’agenda, l’étau se resserait. Sur mon cou, il se resserait’ (55).
The rituals of self-care her mother enacts are a far cry from what the neo-liberalist messaging hurls at us every day. The mother is actively engaged in leaving behind her affairs in order and preparing herself for the final act. Self-care becomes labour and is intensely active: “ Travail”…C’est ainsi que tu nommais toi-même les préparatifs: “J’ai beaucoup de travail encore”, ou “ Il faut que je me remette au travail”, me disais-tu, pour désigner la mise en ordre, les rangements nécessaires en prévision de ton depart. (69). Following her mother’s death, Châtelet herself engages in labor for what are creative practices but another dimension of care: maintenance? The way that we, the living, maintain relationships with the dead, reveals itself as another form of care. As Lisa Baraitser remarks,
By maintenance I am referring to durational practices that keep ‘things’ going; objects, selves, systems, hopes, ideals, networks, communities, relationships, institutions. These durational practices are forms of labour that maintain the material conditions of ourselves and others, maintain connections between people, people and things, things and things, people and places, and social and public institutions, along with the anachronistic ideals that often underpin them, and that constitute the systems of sustenance and renewal that support ‘life’. (Baraitser, 2017: 49)
By way of conclusion, I want to make reference to a discussion Châtelet has while promoting Suite à la dernière leçon.On the set of La grande librairie, Châtelet recounts that elderly people wrote to her asking for the ‘recette’, for the recipe to die with dignity. Francois Busnel understands it in the metaphorical sense and Châtelet has to set the record straight. This misunderstanding, albeit momentary, is nonetheless telling in that it signals an unpreparedness in society to openly discuss the mechanical means through which one seeks to die with dignity. In matters of both life and death, governmental and cultural forces yet again put the onus on the individual to take care of the self.
Adina Stroia is an early-career researcher in the field of women’s life-writing and visual culture. A former Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing, IMLR, Adina’s research focuses on psychoanalysis, thanatography, ageing, ethics of care, and visual studies. Her most recent publications include ‘Camille Laurens: L’écriture depuis soi’ in Dalhousie French Studies and ‘The Traumatic Structure of the récit de mort: Camille Laurens’s Philippe’ in French and Francophone Studies. Her current project investigates the ways in which Agnès Varda mobilizes the tension between photography and moving image to represent her own aging process in her late documentaries. She will soon be joining the French department at the University of Newcastle as a Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary French and Francophone Studies.
Lisa Baraitser, Enduring Time. London and New York; Bloomsbury, 2017.
Laugier, Sandra. “The Ethics of Care as a Politics of the Ordinary.” New Literary History 46, no. 2 (2015): 217-240.