La sociologue Christine Détrez a grandi sans connaître le moindre détail de la vie de sa mère Christiane, décédée dans un accident de voiture quand elle n’avait que trois ans : l’existence même de sa mère est devenue sujet tabou dans sa famille, jusqu’à ce que Christine décide de briser le silence. Pour te ressembler (Éditions Denoël, 2021) est le récit de cette expérience. À la fois témoignage personnel, à la fois travail de sociologie, c’est un texte bouleversant qui se dévore comme un polar. Traitant du même thème – mais écrit avant qu’elle n’ait commencé d’enquêter sur les traces de Christiane – le roman Rien sur ma mère (Éditions Chevre-Feuille Étoilée, 2008) est absolument à lire en parallèle. Dans cet entretien, elle raconte pour nous son parcours.
Sociologist Christine Détrez grew up without knowing any details of the life of her mother Christiane, who died in a car accident when she was only three years old: her existence became a taboo subject in her family, until Christine decided to break the silence. Pour te ressembler (2021) is the story of this experience. It is both a personal account and a work of sociology, and can be read like a detective novel. Dealing with the same theme, but written before she began to search for traces of her mother, the novel Rien sur ma mère (Chevre-Feuille Étoilée, 2008) is an essential text to be read in parallel. In this interview, she tells us about her journey.
And then one of the answers is to say: “There were no women”. So if we say to ourselves: “There weren’t any women”, we either say to ourselves: “It’s because they are not intelligent enough, not talented enough, not brilliant enough”, or we say to ourselves that there were social reasons that prevented them from going to university, painting academies, etc. So that’s a first reason.
And then a second reason is to say to oneself, well, perhaps the presence of these women is wiped out by art historians, encyclopaedists, those who compile scientific encyclopedias. So as a sociologist that’s what interests me and interested me. It was: who we don’t talk about, who decides we won’t talk about it and what’s done to ensure we don’t talk about it.
And then I realized that I was working on erasing women from history with a capital H and that in my personal history with a small h, there was also a woman who was not talked about, who had been completely erased and who was my mother.
I always knew that the mother who raised me, who I call “Mum” – she is still alive – was not my biological mother. But, on the other hand, we had a… I say “we” because my little brother and I, well, we were in the same boat… a taboo, a taboo – a family secret – about the existence the identity of this biological mother who had raised us for two years and three years, as she died when I was three years old. And I only knew one thing, that she had died in a car accident in Tunisia, because at the time we were living in Tunisia, since my father was a development worker.
My father never said to me: “No, you don’t have the right to ask questions”. But, well… To begin with, we never talked about it. So no photos. My little brother, because I have one brother who is from the same mother and then a second brother who is from my father’s second wife, from my second mother… my brother didn’t know that we didn’t have the same mum. So it was a secret where, yes, it was… Even in the photo albums of that time in Tunisia, there was no photo of Christiane, in fact. So there was never an explicit ban. But we knew, well… It was so anchored. And there were a few times when I tried to ask questions… when I was about 15 or 16… and I was rebuffed in a very violent way actually. By saying that Christiane had wanted to leave him and that when he had said to her: “And the children?” she had said, apparently: “I don’t want to see the children anymore. You can keep them”. And so, that, for me, that completely closed the possibility, or even the desire, to ask questions, in fact.
It’s perhaps because it was a happy childhood too that I didn’t dare ask questions. Because I have a second mother, who I call “mum”, who raised me, who really, who is our mother. And I think as well that I was in a sort of loyalty conflict and that by asking questions about Christiane, I was afraid that it would hurt, that it would hurt Danielle… who was my second mother. And that too, I find that as a sociologist, is really interesting. Because it means that we are brought up with the idea that love must be exclusive: that if you love Danielle you don’t have the right to love Christiane, in the end. And that if we ask questions about the first mother, that would mean that we’re going to hurt the second, because we… It would be the sign I was missing something.
It’s that over the years I’ve thought about it. But when you’re a little girl, you don’t have the tools to confront it. So in fact, me, I… no, I was curious, I didn’t find it normal not to know anything, so it was never something trivial. But, you see, in truth I didn’t dare. Because I said to myself: “I am going to hurt someone”. That was it. And then, me, I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a teacher’s daughter so we always learned, well, to be well… to be very obedient. There are sociology studies that show that the children of secondary and primary school teachers are the best at school. Because they’re… they’re really… they respect the norms. They obey the rules. They do what they are told. They read the instructions and everything. And I was like that. I was a girl, very good at school, whose father and mother were primary school teachers. And so I didn’t step out of line, in fact. I didn’t make any noise.
And then, well, everything I was talking about earlier about my work in sociology, I came to a point where I said to myself: “No, no. You have, you have the right to smash up this image of the nice little girl who obeys” and to… well… to claim my right to know, in fact. And I remember that when I finally did the interview with my father, I said that I respected the narrative he had with his wife, Christiane, as his wife, but that I needed with my narrative with my mother and that Christiane had been his wife, but that she had been my mother too… and that… well… He had the right to think what he wanted, but he couldn’t stop me from having my own story with her.
I learned that she had attended l’École Normale des filles in Douai. So it was a school you went to to become a teacher. You entered at the end of the troisième (age 14 to 15), and you left a year after la terminale (aged 18) and you were boarders. And so that was it. I said to myself, I’m going to go to the archives of the l’École Normale des filles. I found documents, I found the list of her old classmates. So I found the classmates who interviewed, and so on. That was it, I had found the… thread that really allowed me to untangle the knot.
Pour te ressembler (2021), Éditions Denoël, p62-63
Pour te ressembler (2021), Éditions Denoël, p62-63
What struck me most was the treasures that emerged from the investigation. It’s the coincidences, the incredible coincidences where you say to yourself: “But it’s not possible. If that had been in a movie or in a novel, I wouldn’t have believed it. And in fact, it’s not a novel, it’s not a movie, it’s true, in fact.
And so an incredible coincidence of that nature was… So, with the internet, it’s quite easy to find things in the archives in France. And then you identify pretty quickly where to look. So, the files on primary school teachers, it’s the departmental archives, and so on. On the other hand, what was very complicated to recompose is the whole part in Tunisia. Because here, well, we are at a time when, well, papers were probably kept less, where the administration for the development workers was, well, in reality, much less, perhaps… I don’t want to say rigorous but, nevertheless, yes… And then the archives, they were moved from Tunisia to La Courneuve and then to Nantes. There is one part in Nantes, one part in La Courneuve. Well, in short, it’s complicated.
And so in fact I tried to find people who would have known her there. And on Facebook I find a college, an establishment. And I thought it was the college, the Souk-el-Zitoun or Olive Market college, which today has been renamed. And in fact it turns out that it was not the right college at all, as it’s a technological college, but it was a college in Sfax. But all the same, one of the ladies who takes care of the former students’ association… I explain to her what I’m doing, well, there was a former development worker, a friend of my father who helped me too, so he explains to her. And then she says: “Well, okay, I’ll help you.” There you have the generosity of people, in fact, that’s what’s it is. Well, that lady, I didn’t know her from Adam, in fact. And then a few months later, or a few weeks later, she sent me a photo and then she said to me: “Look, what I’ve found”.
And it was a class photo from the time. So it wasn’t at all the photos of people in rows like we have in France, but it was… In fact, the Tunisian students used to do kinds of design arabesques and then they glued on to them the photos of the students and the photos of the teachers. And she said to me: “It’s actually my… my mother’s sister – so her great-aunt – who… well… I realized when I went to see her that…” – so she went to see her, deep in the Sfax countryside, it’s a family… well… So, the family is not poor, but Aïcha was kept in conditions, like… as a servant of her family. And so she said to me: “I saw my…this great-aunt” – who no longer speaks French because she was only educated for two years in this college where French was spoken and she said: “Well here, it turns out that Aïcha went to the college. She was at the Olive Market college”.
Rien sur ma mère (Chevre-Feuille Etoilee, 2008, p126)
Rien sur ma mère (Chevre-Feuille Étoilée, 2008, p126)