What's an appropriate response to tragedy? The Disappearance raises this question with terrible clarity. Twelve years after her two young daughters were killed in a car accident, Geneviève Jurgensen wrote a series of letters to a friend she had made a few years after their deaths. In these letters, she sets out to tell her friend about her children Mathilde and Elise. She describes their lives and deaths, and also her own life since their deaths. Her writing is beautiful and profound. The bare fact of the loss of her two little girls of course means her writing carries great emotional power, but her skill as a writer and the depth of her reflection on her experience make her book unique.
On the day of their deaths, Elise was four and Mathilde was seven. While Jurgensen and her husband Laurent were at home, their girls were on a trip in the back seat of Jurgensen's sister-in-law's car. Another driver hit the car, and the girls were flung out of the window. They died immediately. When Jurgensen and Laurent got the telephone call from their brother-in-law with the shattering news, one of the first things he said to her was, "To think we're going to have to get over this." The letters are a reflection on whether one does have to recover from such a loss, and what counts as recovery.
It's important to get the details of Jurgensen's life in correct perspective. The fact that she spent so much time to writing these letters does not mean that she now devotes all her time to remembering her daughters. She has written several other books, has worked as a magazine editor, and she has kept her marriage intact. Indeed, within a few years she and Laurent had two more children, Elvire and Gauthier. In short, she has maintained her ability to work and love. Nevertheless, from what Jurgensen writes, it seems as if almost every waking moment of her life is permeated by the thought of her lost children. She doesn't want to let go, because her memory is all she has of them.
Some forms of remembering are still too painful. Her mother has a tape of the girls speaking on the telephone, but Jurgensen has never listened to it. Remembering her children publicly is risky. Rarely can she speak of her thoughts to other people, because strangers would find it unbearable. When asked how many children she has, she doesn't know how to answer: should she say two or four? She feels that her loss sets her aside from other people, and effectively puts her in a different world. Her sense of isolation is diminished when she is with other parents who have also lost children, because they share a common bond and even a common language.
The letters say remarkably little about Laurent; she mentions late in the correspondence that she wanted to protect her husband's privacy. This suggests that she had in mind from the start that she could be writing for a larger audience than merely her friend. Furthermore, there is little in the letters to suggest that they are to a particular individual, Occasionally Jurgensen mentions meeting her correspondent in between writing the letters, but we learn nothing of the other person's character or life. Jurgensen is absorbed in the details of her life and her daughters' deaths.
What has psychology to say about such bereavement? What is it to "recover from the loss," "come to terms with it," "accept it," "reinvest and reintegrate," to use the weasely words of textbooks? These concepts might be appropriate if used by a high school counselor to a teenager upset at the end of her first love affair. As advice to a grieving parent, however, they strike me as obscene. It is interesting, moreover, that even the much maligned DSM-IV is circumspect in classifying feelings such as Jurgensen's as a mental disorder. Bereavement, while related to depression, is listed in the section on "Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention."
Even if we don't rush to press antidepressant medication on Jurgensen, we can still ask if she could be happier. In one of the most disturbing letters (dated 9 May 1992) Jurgensen berates herself for not going to see her daughters' bodies lying in hospital. At the time, she was only a couple of rooms away from them, but she did not go to see them.
"All of this brings me back to that moment of weakness on my chair when, even though two children, my two children, two very young children, had known how to die and were waiting to be presented to me one last time in their truthfulness, I had not even gone those few metres along the corridor that separated them from me. They had known how to die, I no longer knew how to walk."
It is very common for survivors to contemplate and even obsess on how they could have acted differently so that their loved ones would not have died. Furthermore, it is often observed that seeing the corpse of a loved one helps to provide a sense of closure, especially when the death is sudden and unexpected. But here, Jurgensen feels guilt at not going to see them that one last time, when they had been dead for several hours, and furthermore, she seems to be saying that her children had chosen to die. That is an especially strange way of looking at what happened, and maybe contributes to Jurgensen's sorrow.
If Jurgensen devotes so much of herself to the past, does she leave enough of herself for those in the present? Can she still be a good worker, wife, and mother? Even if we had the right to make that judgment, which we probably don't, she doesn't give enough information for us to tell. What she does convey in her letters is a sense of how she manages to go on with her life. Her book may help people in similar situations who can't see how to go on. For the rest of us, we have one of the richest accounts of living through loss to be published in recent years.
Note: you can listen to a wonderful half-hour reading by actress Felicity Jones of selections from The Disappearance on the This American Life website. "Where Words Fail," November 5, 1999, Episode 144. Real Audio
Thanks to my Winter 2000 Dowling College senior seminar on death and dying for their provocative discussion of these issues, which I found helpful in writing this review.
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