“If repression has indeed been the fundamental link between power, knowledge, and sexuality since the classical age, it stands to reason that we will not be able to free ourselves from it except at a considerable cost.” Michel Foucault, The History Of Sexuality, Vol 1
A beautiful day is breaking in Paris. A sleepy-eyed girl comes downstairs as usual, to be greeted by her mother, and a petit dejeuner of croissants and chocolat chaud. Everything is in its place. But as she holds the bowl up to her lips and peeks over the rim at her maman, just to make sure, the child senses something is wrong. The smile on her mother’s face is drawn tighter than usual. There is a piece missing from the jigsaw of family life.
Before she even thinks the word it escapes from her mouth.
The absent presence of her father is nothing new. But today his ghost is haunting her mother’s eyes.
‘Ou est papa?’
Her mother starts to cry at the sound of her daughter’s question. She has only seen her mother cry twice before. Once when their dog died, and once when, the memory has blurred in her consciousness. There was a phone ringing, raised voices, a door slamming.
The child leaves her place at the table and goes over to her mother, clambering onto her lap like she used to when she was small. Today she senses she has to be a big girl, but she just wants to feel her mother’s arms around her and to breath in her comforting scent. That mixture of cologne, baking and cigarette-smoke she knows and loves so much.
‘Ou est papa?’ she repeats. His not being there grows and grows till it fills the room, her mind, her lungs, the world.
Her mother just shakes her head and holds her tight, almost squeezing the air from her body.
Suddenly it is as if they are the only two living people left on the planet, and this is how it is always going to be.
‘Mais ou est-il?’ she asks, louder this time, her own voice shaking with the beginnings of sobs, that come from somewhere deep inside.
‘Papa est parti’. Daddy has left.
There is one thing this child is not, and that is stupid. In those three words she hears all the possible contradictory meanings, all the discours. She senses with the precision only a child can, all the nuances of her mother’s grief, all the late nights he spent away at the university, or locked in his study, doing his writing. All those times she walked in on the couple, as they lowered their voices from shouting to hissing at eachother. That foreign word her mother spat at her father, only a few nights ago, before covering her mouth in shame, when she saw their daughter in the doorway: Pederaste.
‘Papa est pederaste’ says the girl, echoing her mother, spitting it out, trying it for size.
She does not expect the slap that descends on her flushed tear-stained cheeks. But it isn’t a surprise either. She knew that word had a power, a puissance, even though she doesn’t know what it means. She enjoys the shock of the sting of pain, the hatred she feels emenating from her mother’s hand. At least it replaces for a second or two, the sorrow in her heart and the nausea in her belly. Isn’t it amazing how you can make violence out of a single word? You just have to choose the right one.
Years later, when the girl has somehow grown into a woman, she still isn’t stupid. She still knows how to turn language into something much more – tangible. She goes to the cinema one afternoon, to hide from the bright lights of the world – its relentless gaze. She sits in the dark and watches Bicycle Thieves for the first time. It hits her like a slap across the face.
The blow comes right near the end of the film. Bruno, the boy, stands helpless in the street, as he watches his father steal a bicycle (as his had been stolen earlier), that he needs in order to get a job to feed them both. Bruno sees his papa get attacked by an angry mob, who hit him and shout at him for taking something that wasn’t his. The girl, who has somehow grown into a woman, looks at the expression on the boy’s face, and she sees her own expression in his eyes, herself as a little girl, that day in the kitchen with her mother. The girl and the boy are united in a freeze frame of that precise moment in their lives, the point at which a child realises its parents are fallible creatures. Bruno will never again see his father as an authority figure to be respected and to aspire to, not after he’s seen him steal in broad daylight and then be humiliated by a bunch of angry thugs. And the girl could never look up to her father again, not after that day when she was slapped round the face by her mother, simply for finding him out. For speaking the truth.
Her father has since found himself surrounded by sons and daughters, far more than he is comfortable with (one child was hard enough for him to handle). Needy, admiring sons and daughters who aspire to be like him, who are desperate to hear his ‘truth’. But the qualities they cherish in him are the very qualities that have caused his first, original daughter – a girl who has somehow grown into a woman – to be sitting alone in a cinema in the middle of the afternoon, crying like a child. This lost child is mourning far too late, the premature disappearance of her innocence. The collapse of her faith in the man she once knew only as ‘papa’.
Outside the sunlight dazzles her eyes. The world is in perpetual motion; as chaotic and splintered as it was when she briefly abandoned it, for the dark stillness of the cinema. ‘Freedom’ has not been achieved, except at a considerable cost. Not for the first time in her life, she wonders whether her father ever asks himself if perhaps the cost was too high.