‘When I was born, my father was already no longer there’
Sibylle Lacan’s memoir of her father, the influential French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, is told through fragmentary, elliptical episodes, and describes a figure who was more absent than present. Sibylle was the second daughter, and and the unhappy last child of Lacan’s first marriage. Lacan abandoned his old family for a new partner and another daughter, born a few months after Sibylle. For years, this daughter, Judith, was the only publicly recognised child of Lacan – even if, due to French law, she lacked his name.
In one sense, then, A Father presents the voice of one who, while bearing his name, had been erased. If Jacques Lacan had described the word as a ‘presence made of absence’, Sibylle Lacan here turns to the language of the memoir as a means of piecing together the presence of a man who had entered her life in absence, and in his passing, finished in it. In its interplay of absence, naming, and the despair engendered by both, A Father ultimately poses an essential question: what is a father?
This first-person account offers both a riposte and a complement to the concept of the father as Lacan had defined him in his work, and raises difficult issues about the influence biography can have on theory, and the sometimes yawning divide that can open up between theory and the lives we lead.
- A Father is published by MIT Press, and the following extracts are published with kind permission. Keep an eye on Twitter @psychmag for your chance to win a copy.
‘I hated my father for several years. How could it have been otherwise? Did he not abandon all of us—Maman, my sister, my brother, and me—with the torments his absence had left in its wake? Only Caroline seemed to have emerged unharmed—at least, to an outside observer; she never confided in me. Note that Caroline was the only one to have had a father and a mother in her early childhood. The foundations had been laid …
That resentment, that fury, appeared relatively late in my analysis. I took my time in rebelling. I judged him guilty of the family disaster I became conscious of little by little, and of my own breakdown at the end of my adolescence. I am aware of the importance he attached to the “discourse of the mother,” but why should Maman have trumped things up? Besides, she never told us anything concrete, never tried to turn us against him. The facts spoke for themselves. He never took care of us and was gone during the first years of Thibaut’s life and mine. Maman was the one who raised us, who loved us from one day to the next. My father lived his life, his work, and to us, our own lives seemed like an accident in his story, something from his past that he couldn’t quite ignore. I know he loved us, in his way. He was an intermittent father, a father in fragments. I also know he was aware of his failings toward us, as the following anecdote shows.
One evening when I went to meet him in the Rue de Lille for dinner, I found him in the company of his manicurist, who was exercising her trade. He introduced me to her with pride. The young woman addressed me and began: “So, your father …”
“Barely,” my father interrupted her with a sigh.
It was in 1963, during my stay in Russia, that someone asked for the first time if I was related to Jacques Lacan. (I still remember the secretary at the embassy who posed this question to me.)
Why take note of what is probably no more than a trifle? To stress that never, during my childhood or adolescence, at school or university, was I “the daughter of.” And I think that was a good thing—a blessing, a liberation.
In my adulthood, after my return from the USSR, the question grew more and more common, and my reaction, like my feelings, was muted. Did I really want to be Lacan’s daughter? Was I proud of it, or irritated? Was there some fortune in being, in certain people’s eyes, merely “the daughter of,” in other words, no one?
The years passed and, with the help of my analyst, my feelings toward my father became clearer, more peaceful. I came to recognize him fully as my father. But above all—and this is even more important— today I have faith in myself and it matters little who my father is. Besides, if you think about it, are you not always your parents’ daughter (or son)?
More than once, my father’s behavior with others made me uncomfortable. The example of my mother, who treated everyone with the same kindness and respect, combined with my own conception of human beings as fellow creatures detached from any hierarchy related to birth or social position, explains why my father’s attitude often shocked me.
If they didn’t resist, if they let themselves be pushed around, “underlings” could expect the worst … unless my father, whose moods were unpredictable, felt like playing the charmer just then.
Others before me have related with skill—and sometimes with indulgence—his conduct with Paquita, the old housekeeper from Spain who in later years replaced Gloria in his office after a certain hour. The poor thing was in such disarray, she looked like a spinning top, first twirling this way, then that, according to her employer’s contradictory commands. It was painful to watch, and it made me ashamed for my father.
(A taxi driver, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate to throw us out of his car one night on the very first street corner, that was how hateful my father had been to him before we’d even gotten rolling.)
But I will retell here an incident that brought me great suffering at the time (especially as I was deeply involved in it) and which, despite everything, I can’t help but smile about today, given its frankly Ubu-esque character. In those days, I dabbled in leftist circles. My father took me to a famous restaurant. We went through the door, bowing and scraping from the headwaiter, too bad for him. He fawned over the “docteur” and mademoiselle his daughter. We took a table at a booth. Semidarkness. Upscale ambience, very snazzy. My father, menu in hand, sang the virtues of the cocoa-dusted truffle. Skeptical at first, I let myself be convinced. The truffle arrives. The head- waiter waits, bowing slightly. Under the two men’s anxious gazes, I put the first bite in my mouth … and then the catastrophe occurs. My father grills me with his booming voice: “Is it good? Is it good? If not, we’ll leave, you know.” Tense smile from the headwaiter. The doctor’s daughter finds it insipid but puts herself resolutely on the side of the “people,” the oppressed, the humiliated, and replies, as calmly as she can, “It’s excellent.”
That’s how my father was.
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