Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Bauby, Jean-Dominique. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

My father died of a massive stroke. When I first opened Bauby’s book I thought I knew what the life of a stroke survivor would be about. I was wrong.

Jean-Dominique Bauby was 43 years old when he was the victim of a rare kind of stroke that occurs in the brain stem. While he survives the event he is basically a prisoner in his own body. His body was completely paralyzed to the point where he could only move one eyelid. From this meager movement he learned to communicate with others and, amazingly, write this memoir. The title of the book comes from Bauby’s description of his condition. While his body felt as weighted down as a diving bell sinking in the sea, his mind was as free as a butterfly floating on the breeze.
There is a sense of stoic realism in Bauby’s tone and while it is impossible to believe, there is also a touch of humor in Bauby’s heartbreaking story. When he talks of everyone gathering for physical therapy and those same patients being uncomfortable with his plight. He describes their eyes skidding away from him as “…feeling the sudden need to study the ceiling smoke detector. The “tourist” must be very worried about fire” (p 33).

Other quotes that grabbed me: “She would take a vacation from life for five minutes or several hours” (p 67) and “I can weep discreetly. People think my eye is watering” (p 78).

As an aside, Bauby’s hospital room was #119. Go listen to Natalie Merchant’s “Verdi Cries.” The opening lyric is “The man in 119 takes his tea all alone.” I wonder what Natalie would have thought about this man in 119?

Reason read: There is a day in August when you are supposed to acknowledge guilt. I can’t remember where I learned this but I am reading The Diving Bell and the Butterfly because it definitely makes me feel guilty.

Author fact: Jean-Dominique Bauby died just two short days after the French publication of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Did he have any idea how many people he would touch with his memoir?

Book trivia: While The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is short, less than 150 pages, it is huge on emotion. It has also been made into a movie. Now, there’s a tear jerker!

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Other People’s Shoes” (p 181).