Immigrant song: A Frenchman’s Moody Pipe Dream

1976. I am 6

I have 2 mothers, 2 fathers, 3 sisters. Bernadette is my fairy godmother mom, my nanny during the day. She loves me like she loves her own children, Laure, Valérie, and Géraldine.
I love them like I belong with them. They belong with me.

We are family.

Life is great at that age, I don’t yet dream of America. I don’t feel the need to run away.

In therapy three decades later, I would realize that Bernadette, Dédé, her husband, and my three sisters played a crucial role in my early childhood development. They nurtured me into a respectable, law abiding citizen of this world.

1986. Sweet & sour 16.

Bernadette and my three sisters are no longer in my life; we moved away from that nurturing love 7 years earlier.

Love is no longer self-evident. It’s a wasted dream and it does not belong in my life.

Claudette, my mom, is depressed and physically violent. She nearly took my eye out two years ago. The belt whipped around my neck and ended it’s violent course on my face. Buckle prong thrashed into my open eye.

Blurry vision for the next 30 years until the surgery that removed the shattered lens of my right eye. Trauma leaves its scars.

Serge, my dad, is chain-smoking, permanently anxious and fidgety, angry, exacerbated, and emotionally abusive. He ignores the violence at home. Narcissism is his shield. Soul crushing insults toward his children, his weapons of choice.

He’s part of the problem.The most pervasive part, really.

I hate myself and most of all I hate praises, I despise those who show me love, my little sister especially. I am physically and emotionally violent towards her. I repeat the cycle, barely aware.

My parents don’t love me.

I hate myself.

I hate my sister’s absurd admiration.

My brain hates me.

Loving grandma Jeannette visits occasionally, but that’s not enough. I’m suffocating, my brain lacks validating oxygen. I don’t love, I just want to run away from the pain and my thoughts.

My daily thoughts are creating permanent injuries to my brain. Is the end near? Pills? A train at full speed? A blade? Drowning till it hurts no more?

Dead like I never was born. Peace, serenity, and eternity in absentia with my forgotten ancestors.

Two years ago, my friend Gilles sent me a postcard from America, from a place called Detroit, in Michigan. His uncle lived there. He visited him, went to a baseball match, had a blast. It’s not called a match he tells me. It’s a baseball game. America is so grand, they have different English words for the usual English words.

On the postcard, there was a big American football stadium with a large yellow M printed in the middle of the field. Amazing Americans to paint a big M in a middle of a field, and call it “La Grande Maison”, the Big House.

That year the Tigers were the baseball champs, and Magnum PI was my favorite TV show. When Gilles returns to France, he has a gift for me. Magnum PI’s cap, the champs hat. I cried of joy and confusion. Someone cared about me from far, far way. America is love.

I love you back America, one day we shall meet! You shall free me with love!

1996. America, here I am.

I’m in college at Ohio State, starting a graduate program in French Literature. I’m training to teach college courses to smart Buckeyes. That thought blows my mind. That responsibility is a true honor.

Five years ago I was a high school dropout who flew to Alabama to learn English. Yip, A-la-freaking-bama.

I’m smart, I’m in America. Professors love me. My friends love me. America loves me. All is good!

Not so fast.

Bernadette, the Ideal Mother died two years before. I could not go to the funeral. I was too poor and my parents could not help with the expenses, they were too poor.

Jeannette, my loving grandma died that same year, within six weeks. I did not go to her funeral: brokenhearted and broke. My parents could not pay for the flight. I cry far away, trapped in America, living a nightmarish dream. Absurd.

Fortunately two years prior, I met Martha, Heather, and Tully. The first two sisters to me and the last, a caring mom. Martha was my younger and wiser sister. Heather, my true Alabama sis; we kinda dated for a week or two. Tully was a nurse, with a nurturing heart. She fed me when I ran out of food. She sheltered me when I was evicted from the house where I lived, at gunpoint.

They helped me live the happy way. Away from the threat of flying bullets.

Fortunately the year before, I met Maureen, a wonderful woman, a great lover. She was beautiful, intelligent, and loving. Older, wiser. She helped me grieve, the healthy way.

She reminded me of Bernadette who taught me that Iove transcends time and space. She reminded me of Jeannette whose wise opinions were never to be questioned. She taught me self-assertiveness, if not self-love–that would be the next step, many years later.

Maureen’s love for Desmond and Joel, her silly twins, taught me that nurturing does not have to be gladiator sport. Loving others comes first and does not need the belt or violent language.

At 26, my American dream is becoming true. I’m in America discovering that even a NRA sanctioned death cannot undo love. I have witnessed and enjoyed love from others. Now, I must grieve my loved one and keep my own death at bay. As long as I can.

I must learn to love myself.

2006. Home sweet (and sour) home.

I have lived in the US over fifteen years. I have a good job at the University of Michigan, a small home with a big garden, a car, a scooter, a beautiful wife, Shannon, friends, and even seasonal enemies during football season. I work 5 minutes away from La Grande Maison, 45 from Detroit, and Tiger Stadium. The dream did come true? Or at least come around. But it’s not postcard pretty.

I’ve earned an M.A. in French Literature from Ohio State University. I’m now working on my PhD at the rival school.

My seasonal enemies are also my best friends, Andrew and James. They just hate that OSU football dominates the rivalry. I laugh at work with them, and I laugh with other great friends, Dan and Margaret and Erin and Amy, who don’t give a hoot about football.

I don’t laugh at home.

I am married to a remarkable woman I met in Alabama. We don’t get along. I don’t get along with her.

City rat and country mouse. In the privacy of our home, I am a pest I’m an abusive asshole really. But I don’t know it yet, or I ignore it. I ignored it for 14 years.

She has yet to leave me.

I break her heart daily.

I am an emotional tyrant.

Like my dad.

She should have left years ago.

Like my mom.

Narrow vision, the irony. I have yet to open my good eye on the nature of my self-loathing and its dominant self-destructive feature.

Love is not easy to believe in. Never was. Self-hatred causes a lot of pain. Easy to recognize and accept. Brutal on those who always pay the steepest price.

I’m 36, I’m a law abiding immigrant, who is successful and who is living the American Dream of a 14-year-old. Yet I don’t really know who I am.

I don’t want to love myself and I don’t know why. My deepest desire at that time is to have a vasectomy.

I don’t want children. I don’t want kids who would be like me or my dad, my mom. Not only do I hate the past in the deepest layers of my DNA, I am not ready to love the future.

Two years later, Shannon would finally leave me.

Her sanity.

Her safety.

Her life, she is freed at last.

2016. Love? 

I am 46, wondering how I survived the past 10 years.

A lot of therapy to make up for lost time. A lot of meds.

Second, surgery to scalpel out the traumatic memory of a scared childhood.

Cataract surgery: my ritualized choice to look at life literally and figuratively with a fresh eye. New lens. New perspective.

Third, and most importantly, love for and from a loving mother and her child, my lovely wife Jane and my silly stepson Gabe.

At 46, I have accepted that I was a victim of childhood abuse. I have Body Dysmorphic Disorder. My therapist Barbara helps me heal a lot and hate a little less. Also, it helped that my father died four years prior. Eternally quiet, his words will never hurt a soul again.

I have accepted that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Barbara helps me control my thoughts, my mind, my body, my injured brain. I take pills, they help regulate my brain and show me that I was also the victim of neuro-chemical chaos.

I cry when my brain does not hurt. So much peace is beautiful.

I didn’t know the neuro side of me 10 years ago. I refused to accept that a dream come true can be built on shitty foundations. I never thought that my nightmare of a childhood crossed the Atlantic with me.

I am realizing that the pipeline of my American dream was made of brittle clay. The roots of my early suffering never stopped to grow and it had to break through. I had to rebuild the pipeline, reset the Dream

All is great now.

Not so fast.

Not long ago I was diagnosed with Bipolar II. Will this neuro-battle ever stop? It does not lool like it. But I am resigned because Bipolar Disorder makes sense to me. The Earth is bi-polar, I must belong.

This diagnostic scares many, but it reassures me to the point of tears. Daily.

It is me. It has always been me.

I know why I hated myself (depression) to the point of getting a vasectomy (hypomania, self-hatred).

I know why I fought so many battles with suicidal ideation (depression). I still fight and I still win. I know why I was a dismissive, grandiose arse hole on so many occasions (hypomania).

I am beginning to know who I was (self-hatred) and what I should be (self-love).

And, if I ever forget that I am truly capable of self-love, I have my lovely Jane to remind me that loving her is quite frankly the easiest way to love myself.

Every morning I tell her she is beautiful.

She loves it.

I love to see her experiencing my love.

Every morning.

At 46 I know that I am no longer running away from myself, chasing the dream of a fearful 14-year old.

I still wear my Magnum PI hat, but I left Detroit for Atlanta. I still love the Big House, but will forever root for the Horse Shoe. I have lived the dream of my young self.

Now I share the dream of a wonderful mother and wife and her 15-year-old boy. My Jane. My Gabe. I love them so much.

All is great. I know that the neuro-battle will haunt me until the last liberating day. But I have love on my side and it is blossoming within.



  1. I love this too, Michel. Your honesty is very inspiring, as is your story of survival, perseverance, and eventual peace and happiness. I wish you even better times in the years to come.

  2. So honored to read your piece, Michel. I could write an entire piece myself on how your words drew me in, spoke to me, moved me. Want to read it again, savor every beautiful powerful sentence. My goodness.

  3. Michel, this is such a candid and powerful essay. It is never easy to admit our own wrongdoings and weaknesses, but you’ve done this graciously. I admire your resilience my friend, I identify myself so much with your story, from the brutal beatings by our parents, to the new experiences living the so called “American Dream”. You’re gold Michel, never forget that.

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