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March 28, 2024

Book Review: A Very Easy Death

Maggie Roberts
The PDF for this issue which includes footnotes and endnotes can be found at here.

Caring for a parent at the end of life is an experience that, despite its near-universality, is often quite isolating. In addition to the usual grief associated with saying goodbye to a loved one, seeing the people who cared for us when we were at our youngest and most helpless become helpless themselves brings its own psychological disturbance. In her classic memoir, A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir writes of her weeks spent at the bedside of her dying mother, a woman with whom she had a fraught relationship from adolescence. Seemingly without pulling any punches, she documents the emotional messiness and medical unpleasantness of a death that, though “easy” in the grand scheme of deaths, brings with it great suffering. A Very Easy Death faces a perfectly natural, but frightening and painful all the same, process about which many people avoid speaking or thinking until they themselves must grapple with it. Though the work is by no means a self-help book, its lack of sanitization, its humaneness, and its emotional frankness help to destigmatize a topic – dying – that remains taboo for many people.

The mothers of memoirists are some of literature’s most exploited subjects. Their lives, having shaped those of their endlessly-introspective offspring, receive pages upon published pages of far-from-impartial examination. No matter how private a woman may keep her life, if she happens to have given birth to a talented (or connected) enough writer, she can never be sure her more difficult moments will not end up preserved for posterity in a book, rendered by an adult child's biased hand.

Simone de Beauvoir's A Very Easy Death, in which Beauvoir documents her mother's death from intestinal cancer in careful detail, proves just such a violation of maternal privacy. Beauvoir writes of witnessing her mother, Françoise, experience the myriad humiliations of severe illness—incontinence, nakedness, confusion—with compassion, but without flinching. Through blunt prose harboring bald, unpleasant descriptions of illness, Beauvoir shares the terrible discomfort of the adult child forced to see her mother—the person who long seemed invincible to her—fearful, physically helpless, in pain, and at the mercy of condescending doctors. And Beauvoir's mother certainly did not give Beauvoir permission to write about her terminal weeks: Beauvoir discloses her own complicity in hiding from Françoise the fact Françoise was dying at all. Day after day, Beauvoir lies to her mother, insisting she only has peritonitis and will recover soon. In her rush to confess to the reader her own deceitfulness, Beauvoir broadcasts another humiliating detail of her mother's story: at the end of her life, everyone around Françoise knew more about her health than she did—via a common, paternalistic practice among doctors at the time, she was made a fool.

While Beauvoir approvingly notes Françoise's newfound disinterest in Catholic confession while ill, Beauvoir herself seems to seek a confessional audience in the reader—an audience whom she tells not only of lying to Françoise about the imminence of death, but of allowing a doctor to perform a life-prolonging operation on Françoise that may have only lengthened her suffering, of not spending much time with Françoise before these last weeks, of missing the moment of Françoise’s death because she slept through thirty minutes of her phone ringing. A sense of uncertainty, of a wish to know she did the right thing, pervades the book in the form of revisitation of and rumination about possible failures, large and small. Her humility about these sickbed decisions—made all the more apparent when contrasted with the assuredness with which she writes of the unjust working conditions of the nurses who care for her mother—echoes the sentiments of multitudes who have sat at the bedsides of ailing loved ones, thrust into the novel roles of medical advocates and caregivers. A Very Easy Death, while facially about the vulnerable moments of a once-independent woman experiencing the end of life, ultimately constitutes an account of the emotional and intellectual disorientation of Beauvoir herself.

Beauvoir's attempt to make sense of the common, senseless midlife experience of witnessing a parent suffer centers the concrete and mundane; she seems to grasp at the tangible for balance. She is sensitive not only to how different medical professionals interact with her mother, but what these professionals' individual habits are; she is affronted that a nurse must bring her own coffee to work, unable to depend on the nursing facility for complimentary coffee. She tells the reader the exact food and medications her mother takes and will not take, down to the bite. She documents the layout and lighting of the room that becomes her entire world. She transcribes the precise, meaningless nonsense her mother utters while delirious, rather than simply noting her mother utters nonsense. Beauvoir gives patient voice to the loneliness, the boredom, the minor irritations and inconveniences, the bizarreness of awaiting death.

In her commitment to detail, Beauvoir seemingly attempts to exert control over an uncontrollable experience. Unlike her Catholic mother, she believes immortality exists only in this world, through writing; as unpleasant as her mother's death was, she chooses to immortalize it—perhaps to imbue it with meaning, perhaps to exert control for the sake of exerting control. At her mother's bedside, she struggled to get medical staff to pay sufficient attention to her mother, to view her as a human being and not a mere medical challenge; through her account of her mother's death, she again demands attention to her mother's needs—this time from her entire readership, present and future. It is this demandingness that makes A Very Easy Death touching: it a story of a renowned philosopher rendered almost childlike in her desire to make a senseless experience less senseless, to make others see her dying mother as she did.

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