Culture

Book Week: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

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Jean-Dominique Bauby with his interpreter. Credit: commons.wikipedia.org

Jean-Dominique Bauby seemed to have it all. The successful editor of French Elle magazine, he had a loving family and even a mistress on the side.

But this was all cruelly snatched away from him when he had a stroke whilst behind the wheel of his car aged 43, leaving him almost completely paralysed. When he woke up in the hospital 20 days later he found he could only communicate by moving his left eyelid. And through an interpreter he wrote (or ‘blinked’) a book about his new life ‘locked in’.

A dramatic story, yes, but also a true one. I first discovered it when studying Film and Media, where we watched the film adaption. I was so enthralled by his tale I went to the library, got out the book, and finished it that very same night.

Never has a book touched me more. When reading you are inside Jean’s head; you see, think and feel what he is. Dismissed by some as a vegetable – even by friends – despite being completely mentally aware, you feel his loneliness, his struggle and his determination to regain his sense of the man he once was.

Sometimes Jean’s existence seems painfully mundane. He would be bathed, go through physical therapy in an attempt for him to regain control of his body, and sit in his wheelchair outside of the hospital.

Yet inside his own mind, he is free to do what he wishes. His only escape is to delve deep into his memories to go to places he no longer can go physically. The diving bell is his body, where he is trapped; the butterfly is his mind, which flits around freely.

With the help of one of his therapists, Jean manages to devise a code to communicate, and then to write his book. The therapist recites the alphabet, from the most commonly used letters to the least frequently-used in the French language, and Jean blinks at the one he wants to use. It takes him four hours a day for over ten months to finish his book.

Sometimes Jean’s outlook seems very bleak, yet he never loses that underlying hope that he may recover enough to lead a normal life. That makes the fact that he died of pneumonia two days after the book’s publication even more tragic.

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