Friday 20 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: Charles de Gaulle's secret weapon: Love

De Gaulle and his daughter Anne 'so full of love and understanding'
De Gaulle and his daughter Anne 'so full of love and understanding'
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

A friend of mine sent me this picture recently. Isn't there something magnetic about it? It seems so full of love and understanding. This is Charles de Gaulle with his daughter Anne.

I didn't know anything about Anne, so I did a bit of googling.

When Anne was born, in 1928, there would have been a huge stigma attached to having a child with Down syndrome. It was often thought to be a result of parental alcoholism, venereal disease, or overall degeneracy. Eugenics was also coming into vogue at the time. In those days the norm would have been to put a child like Anne into an institution. (Indeed, nearly four decades later, when the great American moralist playwright Arthur Miller fathered a son with Down syndrome, he would not only make the boy a ward of the state and put him in an institution, he wrote him out of his life completely and pretended he never existed.)

The de Gaulles did not put Anne in an institution, although neither did they broadcast too much to the world that Anne had Down syndrome, and their family life became very private after she was born.

De Gaulle, as a human being, is generally thought of as a bit of a pig and a bully, often arrogant and unreasonable. He was not an easy man on a human level. He was apparently not very demonstratively loving to his family either - but with Anne he was different, as I think we can see in this picture. Apparently he delighted in telling her stories and singing her songs, doing little dances for her and putting on pantomimes. Who knows? Maybe she understood him more than others did, or accepted him more. Maybe he felt he could, with her, indulge parts of himself that he did not ordinarily indulge.

And indeed, in ways, she was de Gaulle's secret weapon: "She helped me overcome the failures in all men," he said, "and to look beyond them." So clearly she changed him, or taught him something. While we must be careful about the romanticising of people with Down syndrome as angels sent from God to bring us joy and teach us lessons, most of us who love someone with Down syndrome would probably admit that they teach us things, and bring us joy. But then, children do that, don't they?

Anne de Gaulle died of pneumonia at the age of 20. Of course she probably wouldn't die that way, at that age, now. Children with Down syndrome can be prone to respiratory infections, that can develop into pneumonia quite quickly. But we have better medical care now.

When Anne died, de Gaulle wrote to his other daughter Elisabeth that, "Her soul has been set free. But the disappearance of our little suffering child, of our little girl with no hope, has brought us immense pain."

These sentiments would be regarded as old-fashioned now, but still, you can sense the sadness. As well as joy, Anne probably brought sadness to de Gaulle in life, and of course she brought more in death.

On Anne's death, de Gaulle is said to have said, "Maintenant, elle est comme les autres." Now she is like the others.

De Gaulle credited Anne with saving his own life, literally. In August 22, 1962 an assassin's bullet was deflected in the car he was riding by the frame of the picture of Anne that he apparently carried with him at all times. But he credited her with even more than that. Apparently, de Gaulle was asked in an interview on the occasion of his second retirement what gave him the courage, the stamina, and the vision to fight so hard for his country. Unhesitatingly, he is said to have answered: "The love of Anne de Gaulle."

When de Gaulle died he was buried, according to his wishes, next to Anne. He called her "my joy". Anne was not a great talker, but the one word she apparently spoke with clarity was 'Papa'.

What a lucky man to have had such a love in his life, to have had such a secret weapon.

'Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge' is on RTE 1 on Wednesdays at 10.05pm

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