Illness and infancy


Last week after a long weekend in Paris, it was a relief to reach the Gare du Nord having dragged and wrestled my small (but somehow weighty) suitcase across the city in a fog of dizziness and fever, only to have to repeat the whole process again at St Pancras, like a latter day Sisyphus.

Struck down by this flu-like virus for several days now, I’m finding the strange recovered pleasures of childhood food. Why eat my favourite curries and pasta (not that I could at the moment) when there is the heaven of two small juicy satsumas, the nostalgia of scrambled eggs piled on toast or the anticipation of one juicy apple. And there’s also that lurking idea (although my GP has been quick to reassure me) that perhaps  – this is it. The new reality. llness spreading into the future with only one way out. As Woody Allen famously said ‘I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ But I’m lucky to have children and friends to turn to and to remind me not to be so melodramatic.

I was coming down with this ‘thing’ in the Rodin museum – more acutely sensitive to almost anything. But I think the circumstances of the sculptor Camille Claudel’s life should move all of us. Brilliant from a young age she became Rodin’s pupil/muse/lover and successful in her own right. Her work is on display in both the Musee Rodin and the Musee d’Orsay. When the relationship ended after ten years she had what must have been a complete breakdown and demonstrated some bizarre  behaviour, but was supported by her father and friends and continued to work, living on her own. It was when her father died that her family had her ‘voluntarily’ incarcerated in a mental asylum.

As a mother and daughter, and also someone who has experienced periods of deep clinical depression and anxiety, (when all my family and friends were very supportive) I was particularly moved by the letter she wrote to her doctor five years after being admitted to the asylum. (My condensed translation of the French Wikipedia entry)

25 Feb 1917   

Monsieur le docteur, perhaps you don’t remember me but I have been here for nearly six years and fear I may never be free …. people accuse me of (oh terrible crime) living on my own, spending my life surrounded by cats and being paranoid ,but I’m desperate. …. Please could  you speak on my behalf to the lawyer who knows about my case…. I’m treated like a criminal and deprived of food, warmth and basic needs. My family, influenced by people who wish me ill, respond to my pleas with a  resounding silence; it is terrible to be abandoned like this….I trust your sons have not suffered in the trenches in this terrible war.

Camille Claudel

She was moved to another asylum but remained incarcerated for the rest of her life. The next thirty years. From the beginning of the first World War to the middle of the second. Her mother didn’t visit her once in that time.

It wasn’t until the book Camille Claudel then the film of the same name in the 1980s that she was ‘rediscovered’ and brought out of obscurity. A hundred years later the treatment of women, of artists and of those of us who experience mental health conditions has improved, and we can only be profoundly grateful. But it’s a fragile achievement, and we need to be aware of and fight against actions that result in such horror stories


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