Zibby Mag

The Webby Award-winning literary lifestyle destination.

I Went to Paris to Mourn My Mother

Monday, May 10, 2021

By Sherry Turkle

Like Proust and his madeleine cake, the taste of pain d’épices still reminds me of my initial grief

I dropped out of college after my mother’s death in the fall semester of my junior year simply because I could not put one foot in front of the other. I did clerical work for a professor during spring semester and then left Cambridge.

I moved to Washington, D.C., to be with my boyfriend and spent the summer preoccupied with my mother’s death. At night, while he slept, I sat on the cold tiles of his bathroom floor and ate one of my grandmother’s favorite snacks: Lorna Doone cookies dipped in cold milk.

I resumed the smoking I had experimented with as a Radcliffe freshman. I felt guilty that just as I was beginning to assert my identity apart from my mother, I had been called home to attend her funeral.

My reaction to my mother’s death was to idealize her. I rehearsed to myself the good ways I was like her — feminine and intelligent, grateful for new experiences, eager to be seen by the world — and actively forgot, at least for a while, the things I didn’t like. Becoming my own person would mean remembering them, little by little, and learning to love and mourn her with full knowledge of them.

Only later could I begin the work of confronting in myself the qualities of my mother that I’d criticized. Becoming my own person meant that I could be grateful for all she gave me. The upside of all the downsides.

In the meantime, during that D.C. summer, I sat on Rick’s bathroom floor and summoned the courage to proceed. I remember the stifling cigarette smoke and feelings of dread.

I took part in a weekend group-therapy experience that asked all participants to find their own mantras. I settled on one that seemed both realistic and hopeful: “You are not supposed to be happy. You just have to walk toward the light.”

It was too much to pretend that I felt myself on an adventure. It was enough to do the best I could. I felt dizzy, unmoored. To avoid my stepfather who had wanted me to discontinue my education, my grandparents encouraged me to leave the country.

I chose Paris.

Once in Paris, I found a job as a cleaning person in exchange for a maid’s room under a mansard roof. In my new job, Les Dumas, an elderly couple, lived in a large apartment on the second floor of 70 rue du Bac. Rue du Bac is a glorious street, steps from the place Saint-Germain-des-Prés and a short walk along the boulevard Saint-Germain to Sciences Po, where I would go to school.

Madame Dumas usually filled my position with a Portuguese woman, and from the very first, I heard her referring to me in the third person to her husband as the Portugaise.

I said nothing. I existed, for this gig, as an interchangeable nonperson. I was visiting this status. That, too, was part of my French lessons.

Loneliness in Paris is broken by the warmth of what sociologists call its “third places” — places where you can be alone in public; that is, alone but still part of an informal community.

During my 1968 stay, there were markets where I was alone yet swept up with familiar people and conversations. There were cafés for perfect coffees and for citron pressé, lemon squeezed into a glass with a carafe of water on the side. If I asked for extra water and ice, I could make lemon-refreshed water last for an afternoon of reading among neighbors.

But sometimes, when I wanted comfort food, I bought a liter of milk and a plastic-wrapped loaf of what the grocery store at the end of the block called pain d’épices, a kind of autumn quick bread spiked with anise, cloves, honey, and cinnamon, available all year round.

If, when visiting Paris today, I smuggle a pain d’épices into my hotel room and order a glass of milk, then, no matter how elegant my accommodations and no matter how happy my current circumstances, I can find my way back to my 1968 state of mind, how I felt when I mourned my mother in Paris.

I could not think about my mother except to idealize her.

I thought back to reading Erik Erikson during my freshman year. And I remembered my impressions of him — tall, distinguished, with white hair framing a beautiful head.

When I first saw Professor Erikson walking across campus, it was like watching my childhood representation of God in a blue blazer and knit tie, carrying a briefcase.

Erikson described identity developing over the life cycle. He made it clear that neither handle cranks nor gear turns “graduate” you from one stage of development to another.

So, for example, the issue of basic trust comes up in infancy and identity is most pertinent in adolescence, but you work on both of these all your life, always bringing different skills to bear, always using the new materials you have on hand at the time.

This way of thinking saved me during my very depressed year in Paris, particularly the idea that all important life issues are revisited again and again. We each have many chances to rework our identity.

I never gave myself space for any kind of identity crisis in high school. In college, I took some first steps away from my mother, but this was cut short by her death. When she died, I felt guilty for those first steps and idealized her to keep her close. I couldn’t bear to think of her as she really had been. I tried to reclaim only what I admired, beginning with her relentless optimism, which I so needed.

Remembering what I learned from Erikson, I could think, You are here to mourn your mother, yes, but you’ll be doing that for a long time. What you are doing now is your best possible first step. Or rather, it’s the only step possible for you now.

Only later could I truly mourn her. I lost her and came to understand why she had kept me from my father. I no longer needed to be angry at her. She had saved me. Now, I was free to bring her inside of me. What I had lost could come within and take on new life.

Excerpted from The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir by Sherry Turkle, Penguin Press, 2021.


Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and the founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. A licensed clinical psychologist, she is the author of six books, including Alone Together and the New York Times bestseller Reclaiming Conversation, as well as the editor of three collections. A Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year, TED speaker, and featured media commentator, she is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.