Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Amazing Strength of the Human Spirit

On December 8, 1995 Jean-Dominique Bauby the 43 year old editor-in-chief of the French version of “Elle” magazine suffered a cerebrovascular accident or massive stroke. Due to the modern advances of medicine, he survived in a state that is called “locked in syndrome”. He was paralyzed from head to toe with his mind intact. Jean-Dominique could blink his left eyelid and it was his only means of communication.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is the amazing memoir that Jean-Dominique Bauby “wrote” while he lay in Room 119 of the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer on the French Channel coast. He describes his state as that of being in a “diving bell”. A diving bell, also known as a wet bell, is a cable-suspended airtight chamber used by divers. As he wakes in the morning and stretches (moving only a fraction of an inch) he writes, “My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly”.
What Mr. Bauby does in this “locked in syndrome” is compose his thoughts, his memories, and his fantasies into a story. His speech therapist, at the hospital, has enabled him to set up a code in which the alphabet is arranged in the order of a letter’s frequency of use. He relates that, “It is a simple enough system where a reader reads off the alphabet until, with a blink of my eye, I stop you at the letter to be noted……until you have a whole word.” But the system doesn’t work for all visitors because of “nervousness, impatience or obtuseness”. It did work for his publisher’s emissary who took dictation letter by letter until this beautiful book was completed. A book written in French and translated to English by Jeremy Leggatt. Each sentence is carefully constructed and edited by Jean-Dominique in his head. The result is, his poignant thoughts on his stroke, his career, his family and friends and his life as it was and as it is. It is sad, but not maudlin because he is very funny and often rightly indignant at the incompetence of the medical staff that cares for him day after day.

“The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” is an amazing tribute to man who was not willing to be left to die. His spirit, his strength, his intelligence and his courage come through on every page. He had an amazing life before his “accident” and he treasures the memories of that life and shares them in a beautiful memoir. Jean-Dominique died two days after the book was published. The book was made into a film that was nominated, in the United States, in 2007, for best foreign film.
I loved reading this book and I look forward to seeing how they made this moving, logistically complicated story into a movie.

1 comment:

  1. I thought the movie was beautiful and amazing, but I haven't read the book. I'll be interested to hear how it compares.