Her One Reality
by ELLEN COPPERFIELD
What is an adult? A child blown up by age.
Young Simone de Beauvoir shared her room with the maid. Outside her family’s Paris apartment was the Boulevard Raspail and the Boulevard du Montparnesse. At the age of three she threw her first conscious temper tantrum. To her credit, she stopped when she no longer required the attention.
Her parents spoke to her only in a reproving tone during those difficult years. Simone reserved her true conversation for her sister Hélène. They made up a language their parents would not understand, full of winks and sounds, intimate gestures that they alone could understand in the presence of their parents. Together they created a fantasy world based on the lives of the saints. Simone would play the martyr almost exclusively.
She wrote of Hélène that “she was my accomplice, my subject, my creature. It is plain that I only thought of her as being ‘the same, but different’, which is one way of claiming one’s preeminence. Without ever formulating it in so many words, I assumed that my parents accepted this hierarchy and that I was their favourite.”
Although Simone’s father was engaged in the slow process of falling out of the upper class, he would not send his children to the public lycée, fearing contamination. One of her father’s favorite remarks was, “The wife is what the husband makes of her: it’s up to him to make her someone.” The pressure he puts on his wife Francoise extended to his precocious young daughter, who he expected would discuss books with him. Simone de Beauvoir had a library card at the age of four.
The de Beauvoirs fled Paris in fear at the onset of the first World War, but soon returned. Georges de Beauvoir was called to the front and returned to his family after a heart attack. Back in the presence of his young daughters, they could not help but be antagonized that his moustache had gone as well. The sound of gunfire could be heard every night. The family was forced to subsist on a corporal’s pay, and Simone imitated her mother’s frugality.
In her 1990 biography, Deirdre Bair recalls Simone’s younger sister Hélène telling her, “In our games when she liked to play the saint, I think it must have given me pleasure to martyrize her even though she was so kind. I remember one day reaching the summit of cruelty: she took the role of a young and beautiful girl whom I, as an evil ruler, was keeping prisoner in a tower. I had the inspiration my most serious punishment for her would be to tear up her prayer book.”
Most of Simone and Hélène’s classmates had left the city. Walking the grounds of their school was most eerie, almost like visiting a graveyard. The date was 1918. Paris had always disappointed her; it was too familiar, and she had nothing else with which to compare it. Simone de Beauvoir was ten years old.
She wrote in her memoirs that “I had made a definite metamorphosis into a good little girl. Right from the start, I had composed the personality I wished to present to the world; it had brought me so much praise and so many great satisfactions that I finished by identifying myself with the character I had built up: it was my one reality.”
Her father’s law practice had faltered, and a job with his charlatan father-in-law also dried up as soon as the company’s military contracts vanished. The family moved into a middle class building at 71 Rue de Rennes. The fifth floor flat had no elevator, and Simone now shared a bedroom with her sister. Seeing the small room, their friends could not contain their looks of shock. Her father wanted to give the girls bicycles, but her mother, in view of the family’s finances, could not allow it.
She did not understand sex, although she was determined to flirt with men, to do anything impetuous or brazen to attract their attention, not knowing what any of it meant. When she was very small she had thought her parents bought their children in a shop.
Until her adolescence began, she was her father’s favorite. The entire family had listened to her stories with rapt attention. But acne interfered, and soon she was clearly the less beautiful of the senior de Beauvoir’s two daughters. It was not simply her new appearance that so disgusted Georges de Beauvoir, it was that his daughter’s education had not stopped in the place that his had. She was becoming an intellectual, and he hated that sort. He called her ugly.
At school she fared no better. Her classmates ignored her, bullied her, mocked her. She told Bair, “Of course it bothered me that I was not popular. But when I compared all to the satisfaction of reading and learning, everything else was unimportant. Those slights meant very little, and soon I didn’t even think about it.” Even as a lie, it was a good one.
The last time Deirdre Bair saw Simone de Beauvoir was on the afternoon of March 7, 1986. It is difficult to imagine her at this age, so small and frail. In the introduction to her biography, Bair describes the last tiny embrace Simone gave her, hugging her lower body. Bair towered over Simone by several feet.
Her first attempt at writing was titled, “The Misfortunes of Marguerite.” She abandoned it when she realized, after consulting an atlas, that the crossing of the Rhine where she had set the story did not in fact exist. Her parents had a low opinion of cinema; they regarded Charlie Chaplin as completely silly, even for their young daughters.
When she found that despite her Catholic education, she was both willing and eager to discard God, Little Women entered her life. Of course she was Jo. She fantasized about her own death, imagining her funeral, the weeping mourners.
Her first real friend was Elisabeth Le Coin, an emaciated little girl with a dark scar on her left leg, suffered at her own hand. Elisabeth replaced Hélène in Simone’s life, much to the younger de Beauvoir’s chagrin. The two became inseparable. Simone’s mother would tell her nothing of becoming a woman, so Elisabeth and Simone were forced to figure out the particulars together.
Sexuality scared her more than anything. Once a young clerk in an antiques shop exposed himself to her, and she had no idea what to make of it.
Her prettier sister had no such conflicts with men. They both had heard their parents engaging in rowdy sex through the thin wall in the tiny apartment, but Hélène alone was normalized by relationships with her peers. Although she was at the top of her class, her parents’ only wish was that she meet a man and get married.
Simone found an article in a magazine about a woman who had become a philosopher and was now teaching the subject. Her mother was completely disappointed by Simone’s lack of interest in her Catholic faith. To hide from her mother’s frequent invasions of privacy, she wrote in handwriting so small it could not be detected by any eyes other than her own.