C for CIS is used to mean your gender identity is the same as the sex assigned to you at birth. C for closet is where LBGTQI+ kept their gender identity hidden because we were afraid of backlash. C is for Council of Europe as old as I am. C is for celibate. C is for Claire Nuer.
My sobs surprised me. The question that unblocked the emotion behind the veneer of coping competence was about my occupation working for Children’s rights. The tears were no surprise to the young French woman who looked up from the cupboard in the office in Paris, where she was selecting a brochure for me.
- C’est le Vide, she said.
I didn’t understand or dare to ask what “le vide” was. I knew “vide” meant “empty” but I had never heard it used as a noun. I recognised later the nearest translation is “the void” Emptiness. A vast pool of nothing. Emotions vanishing into a deep hole without colour or shape and without hope – hurtling into a downward spiral of disappointment and broken dreams. Dreams of finding a life partner; dreams of getting a job Ireland; dreams of publishing my novel; dreams of non-monogamy. It was 1995, my lesbian relationships had collapsed; I had failed to get through an interview working for Children’s Rights in Ireland and another for development work in Donegal. I had given up dreams of one day being a writer. Save the Children UK was going through a major reorganisation and I had taken on the stress of acting as Regional Manager. I had no desire to follow up sparks of hope for my writing in letters from Russell Davies and Jeanette Winterson. My friend Ann who had suggested this trip to Paris had recurring cancer. The young French woman was right, I felt empty and in desperate need of the turning point promised by ACC ACC (Au Coeur de la Communication/ In the Heart of Communication).
My instinct as I stood in the office of ACC was to hide from this stranger and to cover-up the emotions evoked by her question. I give a garbled explanation to the young French woman of how I’d decided to leave Save the Children UK; how I’d come for information on their courses on a friend’s recommendation. She nodded an acknowledgement of both of us in crisis. She talked about the courses on how to steer yourself through a major turning point in your life faced with challenges – career burn-out, illness, addictions, relationships to name a few. The bare roots of my sense of self were exposed in that Paris office. I could see no path to a sense of self-or to a sense of belonging to someplace or someone.
The ACC course led me to review my past and seek out a future which did not pull my roots apart. I was a long way from the Strabane of my childhood and adolescence in 1950’s and 1960’s Ulster. I left Ulster for England in 1972 when our student campaigns for Civil Rights were hijacked by the resurrection of ugly sectarian violence. In Paris in 1995, I was planning to uproot myself again – this time from work, home and relationships in England against the advice of my therapist.
Celibate for years after turmoil in non-monogamous lesbian relationships, I found no recognition or support for how to cope with my bisexuality. As the years of resistance in Thatcher’s Britain came to an end, I did not feel consoled by the promises of Tony Blair’s Labour Party in England and I was too long out of Northern Ireland to help the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition negotiate peace there. This first meeting with ACC in a lonely trip to Paris was an interlude in the “holiday” where I was hiding out in the Brussels’ apartment of my childhood friend and spending my days reading her large collection of Elmore Leonard. All my relationships seemed fraught with the need to protect my sense of self. In the celibate years, my commitment to children’s rights, to the Irish family and to friendships continued to give my life meaning but it was no longer enough. Save the Children UK had to make redundancies of staff at all levels. I volunteered.
The 2-week training course with ACC Au Coeur de la Communication/ In the Heart of Communication used humour, theatre, lectures, shared emotions and experience, to help understand the forces governing our energy. Through exploring our fear of vulnerability, we could find a source of strength. We could get in touch with the behaviours we use to block our emotions or to channel then into the usual compensations – alcohol, sex, drugs, TV. We were invited to search for the balance – Le Bascule which would help create a turning point.
The key figure in ACC, was Clare Nuer. Born Jewish in Paris in 1933, Clare was a hidden child during the Second World War; her father and most of his family died in the Holocaust. As a survivor who had cancer, Clare explored links between personal crises in mental or physical health and the traumatic effects of abuse, discrimination, torture, hunger, exploitation and deliberate extermination of humans. She devoted the last two decades of her life to developing education programmes, conferences, seminars and panel discussions aimed at fostering conflict resolution and inter-cultural dialogue. Her sessions, her leadership and her power were life changing. Free of career and relationship responsibilities, I followed her to a session in Auschwitz.
I persuaded a friend whom I met while working with Travellers in England to join me for the seminar in Auschwitz. Anisa. is an exceptional woman and she turns up again alongside memories of HRH Princess Anne under the letter I of my alphabet. The rattle of the train heard from the station hotel room I shared with Anisa in Ozweicim brought back Anisa’s memories of the stories of her father jumping off a French train bound for Ozweicim better known as Auschwitz. He survived.
The lessons of the Auschwitz seminar and the experiences shared there and afterwards in Warsaw and Krakow with Anisa brought a new dimension to my responses to sexism, fascism, racism and inequality. My research and experience of racism left me tired of the knee-jerk anti-racism in England which had got locked into Us and Them or glossy multiculturalism with little space for exploring deep connections and intercultural exchange. Ideas on interconnection as resistance took root in the Council of Europe campaign – All Different: All Equal – a publication which used my writing skills and commitment to human rights.
ACC, its founder, Claire Nuer and her network of supporters were a gift to me but a threat to others. The association suffered from vindictive complaints to French authorities. Our commitment of confidentiality to the other 200 people in the room was filmed with a hidden camera and brought claims that ACC was a cult. The Paris office and the courses organised had to close down. I am happy to find Claire Nuer resurrected on the internet so you can listen to her message.
Council of Europe: All Different: All Equal www.coe.int @coe
Claire Nuer: @FoundationNuer www.nuerfoundation.org
One thought on “C for CIS, Closet and Celibate”
Dear Margo, thank you for this “piece of writing”. Much more accessable than A and B. Thanks for sharing this turning point with us. I am curious to read more about the “sense of self” and inter-connection.