Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

In collecting stories of Extraordinary Comebacks, occasionally, we say to ourselves, 'nothing can top this.' Then, along comes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It's a true story. Our protagonist, Frenchman and free spirit Jean-Dominique Bauby, 43, was in the prime of life, editor of Elle, with a sports car, three adoring children, a mistress, a forgiving (divorced) spouse, and the world by the proverbial tail. In one instant, he suffers a stroke and is submerged in a world where he can understand but not communicate, a victim of "locked-in syndrome" -- as the author states, "a hellish trap as likely as being caught in as winning the lottery."

Reduced to these abject and terrifying circumstances, he says he would be the happiest man if all he could do was swallow. But he can't.

So -- with an active mind that is disconnected from his entire bodily function with the exception that he can blink his left eye -- what does he do? He honors a previous contract to write a book the only way he can.

By blinking his left eye.

A translator painstakingly repeats letters of the alphabet in order of most frequent use. When the letter he wants comes up, Jean-Do blinks. And so goes the "dictation." And so through this tiny, pinprick-sized hole, his imagination can trickle forth -- one letter at a time: essays on life in the hospital in his new condition, imaginings of his children, gourmet food, events of his past life. Regarding the latter, forever gone in physical reality, but persistently alive in his spirit.

This story is all at once horrifying, uplifting, numbing, life affirming. And finally, heroic. Bauby died just 10 days after his book was published -- it was his mission to communicate, to affirm life itself, that kept him going.

Made into a film by artist and now director Julian Schnabel. Not for the squeamish, but also, not to miss.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", but the movie I'd rather see is "My Stroke of Insight", which is the amazing bestselling book by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. It is an incredible story and there's a happy ending. She was a 37 year old Harvard brain scientist who had a stroke in the left half of her brain. The story is about how she fully recovered, what she learned and experienced, and it teaches a lot about how to live a better life. Her TEDTalk at TED dot com is fantastic too. It's been spread online millions of times and you'll see why!