Constance Debré’s Deviant, Defiant Performance of Motherhood

Everything, we acknowledge these days, can be a performance: virtue, outrage, gender, desire. But, though the reality that we all perform when we need or want to is no longer revelatory, the details of how we perform, what we choose to say or do, and what inspires our behavior are still raw territory. Women may be particularly attuned to the nuances of performance; women of marginalized racial and sexual statuses even more so. After the French writer Constance Debré leaves her husband of twenty years and pursues her life as a lesbian, she writes in her novel “Love Me Tender,” “I spit it out, I say, I’ve started seeing girls. Just in case there was any doubt in his mind, with the new short hair, the new tattoos, the look in general. It’s basically the same as before, obviously just a bit more distinct.” Debré goes on to tell us the other changes that she made to her way of life since leaving her marriage. She quits her job as a lawyer to write. Her possessions shrink: “two pairs of jeans, three T-shirts, an old leather jacket and my old Rolex, just for a laugh, a single espresso to go, a baguette, a packet of cigarettes, my swimming pool pass.” She gives up the apartment that she once shared with her son to sleep in cheap, bare studios, in lovers’ beds, and on friends’ couches. In part, these changes are for the sake of aesthetics, a way to affirm her identity and present to the world as a butch lesbian; others are necessary to survive—“nothing to bog me down, a style inspired by emptiness”—she tells us. Her life is falling apart, and so she turns to austerity and a single-minded focus on writing, sex, and swimming as cures.

“Love Me Tender” is Debré’s second book about her life after leaving her husband. (The first, “Play Boy,” was published in France, in 2018.) In “Love Me Tender,” she recounts losing custody of her son after her ex accuses her of incest and pedophilia, charging her with having “homosexual friends ‘who may or may not be pedophiles’ ” and quoting passages from books she owned by Bataille, Duvert, and Guibert as proof of obscenity. The book opens with a provocative proposal: Why can’t the connection between mother and child be like any other relationship, something that can break, that can be put to the side, at least for a while? Why is maternal love seen as more lasting than any other kind? Implicit in the question is the realization that the love she shared with her son is as violent as other relationships between men and women, as volatile and painful, and so can betray a woman just like any other. Debré’s son is eight when, to avoid upsetting his father, he refuses to see her. He tells a judge that his father thinks Debré is insane, and that he agrees. Her ex wins full custody; the judge openly wonders why a mother would talk to her son about her sexuality and grants Debré limited supervised visits with the child. As Debré waits months for her appeal to be heard, and months to see her son, she tries to make sense of the incomprehensible. While doing so, she strips her life of almost everything that had made it easier and more comfortable as both punishment and pleasure. She dates woman after woman, leaving when they want commitment, and relishes her ability to go without material things, stability, her son. She reconsiders the role of motherhood in her life.

Debré leads the show with the flashiest number: the women. There’s “number one” with hairs that trail all the way down to her thighs, brown skin, beautiful legs; “number two” with pale skin and small breasts; more in their twenties, thirties, forties, with red lipsticks and kids, their details becoming a blur in our minds, and maybe Debré’s, too. Debré is forty-seven, but doesn’t feel or look it, she writes, and prides herself on going through girls with a cool, unstoppable hunger. Her performance of machismo appears like a performance of strength, real or desired. The act can be funny—“I call them both honey. It would be nice to be able to pay them to avoid any misunderstandings,” she writes, of two of her lovers. It is also distancing. Debré is hot in her old leather jacket and Rolex, but her prowess seems beside the point. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that she does want to connect with these women, but finds it impossible after her loss. “I’m learning that I can love anyone, desire anyone, come with anyone, be bored with anyone, hate anyone, I’m learning that there’s a fine line between loving and not loving,” she writes, and we understand that she wants this statement to apply to her son as much as her lovers. But the bravado falls away when she writes about becoming a mother and her determination to parent her son how she wanted: “I thought about the dogs we had when I was a child, the bitches, I thought about what they used to do, how they took care of their puppies, without it ever seeming ridiculous, without any shame, without losing a part of who they were or giving up anything, how they went back to hunting when the next season began.” The thought unfurls in a single long sentence that feels like a jagged, glorious exhale. “I thought about how simple it was, how there was no need for doubt, I was going to do it my way, without the absurdity that comes with being a woman, the obscenity that comes with being a mother.”

The passage returned me to questions that have been on my mind in recent months, as my friends and I have begun to think about having children, and to have children. For those of us who can bear children but don’t conform to the gender binary, and who are uneasy calling ourselves mothers, what name do we use? By what name do our children address us? Even if we refused to call ourselves mothers, we would still be seen as ones by teachers, doctors, acquaintances, and strangers. Can the word “mother” ever be divorced from femininity and womanhood? Could it be a term of endearment that applies to anyone who mothers—women, men, those who are both and in-between and neither? Debré’s rejection of how a mother should behave, especially when losing custody of her son, suggests one answer. What she was experiencing, people told her, was more often the domain of divorced fathers whose ex-wives punished them by denying custody. They couldn’t understand how Debré was coping, those people said. It was worse for mothers, because they couldn’t exist without their children. Debré resents the comments: “If people want to believe that women have a connection to the Moon, to nature, a special instinct that forces them to cling to motherhood and give up everything else, that’s their business. But I’m not interested.” She realizes that being the kind of mother she wanted to be had prepared her to leave her family. The feeling that she didn’t need to perform the role of a conventional mother around her child was a kind of liberation. “What does it mean to be a girl? How should I know? . . . It was so easy to be myself around him. Often easier than being around other people. I didn’t have to pretend,” she writes, of their relationship. “I might never have become a lesbian if I hadn’t been his mother first, I might never have dared, I might never have understood.”

We watch her performance of deprivation with the understanding that her material circumstances will never quite match the extremity of her emotions. “The world is turning into a skeleton without any flesh,” Debré writes. “I’m getting stronger, more focused. It’s important to have limits so you don’t lose yourself in the chaos. I’ve been stealing from Franprix and Bio c’ Bon, I don’t pay my train fare, I jump the barrier, I’ve learned to ask my friends for a hundred euros, let them pay for my drinks, thank you friends, there are thousands of things I can do without, the doctor for example (but not cigarettes), I’m living on nothing.” It is true that Debré is making little money while writing her book. It is also true that she comes from a bourgeois family that once owned several properties. Once she and her son are allowed to see each other again for supervised visits, nine months after the custody hearing, and then eventually spend occasional weekends together, Debré retreats with him to the last remaining family home. Because of her social connections and professional status, she is never truly at risk of being homeless or without food. As much as she might wish she were on her own, a lover or friend’s sibling is always ready to take her in. The pleasure she takes in deprivation can derive only from the fact that her existence is never truly threatened. As Debré writes, “Sometimes I steal to eat, sometimes it’s just for the sake of it, for the beauty of the gesture.”

How do we talk about who becomes pregnant, who gets to be a mother, and how expansive those categories should be? Whose rights are at stake at a time when reproductive rights are being limited and slashed all over the nation? Queer women, trans men, nonbinary people, and others who don’t fit into neat descriptions give birth; people of all genders and sexualities adopt and foster children. Yet these forms of caregiving are generally not recognized as equivalent to those performed by cis, straight women. Debré herself, though cis and white and relatively privileged, is viewed with suspicion by the state and society. Because she is a lesbian who left her husband, she is seen as an unfit mother. Even her father, who ostensibly supported her, shows signs of betrayal. She writes, of him and her ex, “It does something visceral to them both, the fact that I’m sleeping with girls, I see it whenever I see my dad. . . . It’s the same panic they experience.”

What sustains Debré through the pain of losing her son is her commitment to rejecting both the heteronormative conventions that governed her old life and the bourgeois queer norms that would have made her new life more socially palatable. Her rejection of these norms is also why she is being punished. “If I’d have settled for just liking women, it would’ve been fine, I think,” she writes. “Lesbian lawyer, same life, same income, same appearance, same opinions, same ideals, same relationship to work, money, love, family, society, the material world, the body. If I still had the same relationship to the world, it would’ve been much less hassle.” Her deviance lies in leaving her partner and becoming an artist who presents like a man and, for a time, fucking whomever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Would her ex have fought her for custody if she had left him for a male lawyer? Perhaps, but the contours of the divorce—the pedophilia and incest allegations, the shunning by other parents at her son’s school, the loss of friends—feel specific to the choice that Debré has made to abandon her old life for a more slippery, opaque one. The persecution she suffered feels more acute. She’s in limbo, she tells us. “Waiting for the book to come out, waiting for the court case to start moving, waiting for a bit of cash to come through, waiting to see my son again. Waiting for things to calm down, for the universe to adjust.” But she refuses to give in: “I won’t go back, I won’t climb back into my old skin.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *