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She was convinced she didn't exist. This is how she tethered herself to reality

Alice Carrière has written a new memoir called <em>Everything/Nothing/Someone</em>.
Sebastian Piras
Alice Carrière has written a new memoir called Everything/Nothing/Someone.

By almost any standard, Alice Carrière had an extraordinary childhood.

She's the daughter of Jennifer Bartlett, an internationally renowned artist who also happened to be an emotionally distant mother. Her father is a popular German actor, Mathieu Carrière, who exhibited inappropriate behavior during Carrière's childhood.

As Carrière entered her teen years, her brain started to splinter into a dissociative disorder, which she describes as losing connection to her mind, body and history: "I was convinced I didn't exist. I would write to keep myself from getting completely lost. And it was my one tether to myself and to reality."

All that writing has led to this moment, a new memoir called Everything/Nothing/Someone.

All Things Considered's Ailsa Chang spoke with Carrière about everything from Carrière's struggles with mental health, to her relationship with her parents, and how the two continue to influence her life and work.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. It includes the discussion of topics relating to sexual abuse.


Interview highlights

Alice Carrière: Doubt is so intrinsic to the dissociative experience.

Ailsa Chang: Right.

Carrière: So that doubt often feels realer than anything else. The process of doubting is just the process of living for me. And I think it was precisely that doubt that not only splintered and shattered me but also gave me the capacity to connect in a way that I never thought possible. It gave me the opportunity to listen to my father's story, to humanize my mother in a way that I don't think she ever could and to recognize the humanity in myself even when I couldn't recognize my own face in the mirror.

Chang: Well, I just want to be up front. Your book raises serious questions about whether your father sexually abused you. When you started writing, how much did you share with him about what you intended to reveal?

Carrière: Well, I was estranged from him for 12 years because he did transgress in many ways. There was an oversharing of information that was often inflected with sexuality, and he put me in dangerous situations.

But then I was subjected to a similar indoctrination to what my mother was subjected to. An overzealous clinician implanted false memories of ritualized sexual abuse and murder into her. And I went to a treatment center where I was told that my father had molested me, that he was a monster and I should never speak to him again.

And I didn't speak to him for 12 years. And then after a massive dissociative episode in 2018 that dissolved my entire identity yet again, I needed to rebuild myself from the raw materials of my life. And my mother was suffering from dementia. The nanny who raised me was dead.

He was the only one left. And I went, and I confronted my father. And I told him everything. I told him all the ways I felt that he had violated boundaries. And it was an extraordinary reunion that helped me understand how so many things can be true and how to humanize. So I told him everything.

Chang: You know, your book made me think about how much we are formed by our parents and all of us who are wrestling with our parents' influence, whether it's through therapy or medication or spirituality, whatever it may be. We believe in the ability to be something different from our parents. And I think that there's something really optimistic about that. There's something really optimistic about your story because through your struggle, there was hope.

Carrière: Yes, exactly. Even when it was a challenge to, let's say, find the words for what I was experiencing, it was exactly that challenge that kept me from getting lost. And I really hope, through this book, I can help people who are inside of the dissociative experience articulate it, and I can help those who are outside of the dissociative experience — I can help them to understand it. And it's really because of my partner, Gregory, because this book is an unlikely love story as well.

Chang: And may I ask how has this book, if it has, helped you deepen your connection to your mom, who has since passed away? But I imagine you've reexamined and re-remembered your whole relationship with her.

Carrière: So, yes, she died a year ago in July. And it's interesting because when she was diagnosed with dementia, it's obviously an illness that takes a lot away. But in what it removed was a really profound opportunity. And the dementia liberated her from these false, implanted memories of ritualized sexual abuse and murder that had made her hide in her work and had kept her away from the people she tried to love.

And it freed her from this crushing ambition. And that allowed her to just be tender and curious. And then what it did for me was it liberated me of this story that had defined me for so long, which was I was just a mental patient and a screw-up. And that allowed me to just be her daughter. And in writing this book, I not only wrote myself into a place of deep, deep, deep empathy for her, but the only advice she ever gave me was just do the work. And just doing the work is how I can emulate her in a way that's not destructive or alienating. And in just doing the work, that's how I continue to stay connected to her.

Chang: Yeah. When I think about the arc of your relationship with your mother, I'm struck by how much it had meant to you or how much you had desired at one point for her to see you as brilliant and also a great artist in a way, I mean, through writing. You wanted to discuss your work with her, to be her peer. But in the end, you wrote that you became the daughter whose hand she wanted to hold. How does that sit with you?

Carrière: I mean, she was so marked by and also transmitted to me a certain grandiosity. You know, she was as famous for the scale of her work as she was for her ambition. And near the end of her life — and now that I get to share the story with the world, it's an interesting inflection point because I settled for just being seen by her.

Chang: Yeah.

Carrière: And I'm so grateful for that whittling away. And one of the things I realized in the dementia was that after everything was taken away, everything that had made her who she was, what had stuck was me. And that's really powerful for me.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Sarah Handel