Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The small book, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” caught my eye recently in a bookstore.  It is very short – only 134 pages in the paperback edition.  The title intrigued me and I checked the book out of the library (the e-edition).

Bauby with his children before the stroke

Jean-Dominque Bauby was a French writer.  At the age of 43 he had two children and was the editor of Elle Magazine.  On December 8,1995 at the age of 43, Bauby suffered a massive stroke. When he woke up twenty days later, he found he was entirely speechless; he could only blink his left eyelid. His mouth, arms, and legs were paralyzed but his mental faculties remained intact, a condition called locked-in syndrome.

Bauby dictating his book

Despite his condition, Bauby found a way to write.  He wrote “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by blinking when the correct letter was reached by a person slowly reciting the alphabet over and over again.  Bauby composed and edited the book entirely in his head and dictated it one letter at a time.  The book was published in France in 1997 and Bauby died suddenly from pneumonia two days after the publication.

I started the book hesitantly because I was afraid it would be depressing.  But it was a powerful statement about the human will to survive and to create.  Bauby struggled with depression and admits he would have killed himself if he had been able to do it.  But instead he works and writes and struggles to get better so he won’t scare his children when he sees them.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a powerful and honest look at the emotions of a man locked in paralyzed body.  The title comes from Bauby’s feelings of helplessness and his desire to gain some freedom from his inert body.  As he writes, “My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly.”

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a stream-of-consciousness book.  Bauby doesn’t remember his stroke or the days of treatment immediately after.  The book is not a chronology of his life but his way of coping from moment to moment.  I found the book powerful and inspiring.