The Slowest Fuse: Veronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea

Beside the Sea (Bord de Mer), the debut novella from French playwright Veronique Olmi, was written during the summer of 2001 and translated into English in 2006. It is first and foremost a book about motherhood, its challenges and its dangers, and it is positioned in an America fraught with deep conflict about those same issues. Ongoing arguments about the legal and moral ramifications of abortion, contraception, and sex education threaten to flood America with unprepared and unhappy mothers. The claim is made that the desire to prevent unwanted pregnancies somehow demeans or affronts the institution of motherhood itself. Beside the Sea, while it concedes that motherhood is threatened, offers an inversion of that thesis. Those same unprepared mothers, it contends, are the real threat.

The terrifying reality of that threat was proven, coincidentally or not, during the same summer Beside the Sea was written. On the morning of June 20, 2001, a Houston, Texas woman named Andrea Yates was alone with her five children for one hour. Her husband, Rusty, had to go to work at 9:00 am and his mother, Dora, couldn’t come around until 10:00. The children ranged in age from six months to seven years, and were named after four biblical prophets and the holy virgin herself:  Noah, John, Paul, Luke, and Mary. When Dora arrived on time, police cars surrounded the house and Rusty was crying in the backyard. All of the children except for Noah were in their mother’s bed, fully clothed but soaking wet, drowned in the bathtub. Noah was still in the water. After she downed her children, Andrea called both the police and her husband. “It’s the kids,” she said, “all of them.”

For the rest of the summer, the 24-hour news cycle was consumed by expert testimony: Ph.D psychologists, marriage counselors, and social workers discussing the various stress factors facing new, recent or multiple mothers, as well as those specific to the Yates case. We learned that the Yates family adhered to the principles of the Quiverfull movement, believing that children were a gift from God and that it was their duty to bring as many of them into the world as possible. A corollary to this belief required that the Yates children be homeschooled in order to protect them from supposedly corrupting influences present in the secular public education system. More universal were the less practical stresses–small psychological worries, moments of doubt, feelings of helplessness and of being overwhelmed. Social dissonance between Andrea and her children seemed to foreshadow a separation between them that threatened to release the children into a dangerous and amoral world. The buildup was too much; by the time Mary was born late in 2000, Andrea had already been hospitalized for a psychotic episode and had attempted suicide twice. Her final act less than a year later forced Americans to recognize just how powerful the accretion of stress over time can be, and forced people to think differently about the difficulties of motherhood.

Beside the Sea is narrated by a troubled mother, who, like Andrea Yates, is eventually driven to filicide. She explicitly describes the same kind of stresses that the Yates case revealed. She feels a sense of loss associated with the dissolution of the infant-mother bond, the overwhelming succession of minor daily tasks, and the fear that the outside world is an unsafe and unclean place for children to grow into. Added to these are the basic conditions of single motherhood and financial stress, a history of mental illness, constant visits to a “health center,” and a series of meetings with social workers. As these factors mount up, they begin to constitute a palpable threat: that the children, should they continue to live, might be taken away and put into foster care. The boys, ages 5 and 11, worry only about why they’ve been taken out of school and whether their teachers will be upset. The mother goes through all of the motions that her biological responsibility dictates for her: she washes the children, feeds them, and makes sure they wear their raincoats; she kisses them and tries to make them laugh when they seem sad, and she takes them to the carnival and the beach. But something is clearly wrong:

 

 I can’t do anything before 10 o’clock. I don’t sleep well at night. It’s the worrying. I couldn’t tell you        what about. It’s like something has been lowered onto me…like someone’s sitting on me, that’s it.          No-one even notices I’m here. They sit down on me like they’re sitting on a bench. I’d like to get up, stand up, thrash and scream. Nothing doing. They keep on sitting there. How can anyone understand that? I’m being smothered at night. That’s why I often have to lie down in the daytime. To sleep a bit.

 

Olmi questions the reader like a relative lamenting this experience: “How can anyone understand that?”  And, as if to answer her own question, Beside the Sea very quickly brings the reader into its protagonist’s troubled mental universe. Olmi’s prose (even in translation) embodies some of the airless tension and suffocating pressure that her narrator describes. Even when Olmi allows herself to use commas, they string together basic, bare-bones descriptions that evoke a mind barely holding together the components of external reality. Passages like the above, where the subject matter phases into metaphor, come and go without so much as a stylistic ripple, constantly punctuating banal moments of mother-child interaction with portent and insight. This deadpan style suggests that subjective reality is always a blend of external and internal conditions, and that those conditions necessarily and constantly contaminate each other. It becomes clear as the novella progresses that maintaining the precarious balance between interior and exterior is a life and death matter, and Olmi elegantly describes her protagonist’s struggle–and ultimate failure. The refusal to sensationalize the process does nothing to lessen its horror, but instead renders it believable and frighteningly reliable.

Extant reviews of Beside the Sea focus heavily on Olmi’s ability to avoid demonizing her protagonist, to render something monstrous and alien human, to allow us to sympathize with someone we should, perhaps rightfully, identify as a sinner. The novella reinforces the sense that human interactions (and especially those that occur within nuclear families) contain immanent dangers, that emotional closeness and attachment are always double-edged, and that the line separating any of us from Andrea Yates or Beside the Sea‘s nameless narrator is a fine one. It’s a sobering thought, but maybe also an empowering and timely one. As it enters a new context, Olmi’s book will insinuate itself into established narratives and may ultimately help change the terms on which those narratives are evaluated and discussed. It seems that the debates surrounding motherhood and women’s reproductive rights as they currently stand are in dire need of such a reframing. Of course, we cannot absolve Andrea Yates or others like her. It is equally irresponsible, however, to ignore that such cases are often preventable, and to refuse the critical reflection that that realization necessitates. The drive to filicide has roots both in individual pathology and in socioeconomic factors beyond individual control, and Olmi’s book lays out the interactions between them in elegant and arresting fashion. It’s a vexing and ambiguous thing to feel compassion for Beside the Sea‘s narrator, as it will and must be to feel it for real-life victim/perpetrators like Yates. Yet at the end of the book we are left with no choice. The compassion and the horror bleed together, and what we’re left with is a new perspective on the idea of motherhood as well as a new appreciation for its difficulty and its importance. In America in 2012, that’s a radical and valuable thing.

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