The Search for Self for the Replacement Child; Captured in a Poem by Victor Hugo
In the literature and research I have read, there is agreement on at least one of the characteristics of the replacement child; the search for an individual identity apart from the child they have replaced, or have been born after. I can attest to this personally, in that the search for my own identity and for my role in my family was the strongest drive for me to write Replacement Child.
Looking at more academic studies of replacement children, I was struck by these selected lines from the poem “The One Who Returned” by Victor Hugo (1802 – 85) that are included in the article, “Life After Death: The Replacement Child’s Search for Self,” by Kristina Schellinski as part of her thesis for the Association of Graduate Analytical Psychologists in Geneva, Switzerland (2009).
The One Who Returned
Mourning mothers, your cries are heard up above.
God, who holds all lost birds in the palm of His hand,
sometimes returns the same dove to the same nest.
oh mothers, the cradle is linked to the grave …
death entered like a thief and took him
a mother, a father, the grief,
the black coffin, the head struck against a wall
the dismal sobs from the pit of the stomach …
the mother, with her wounded heart,
remained three months immobile in the shadows …
quietly pleading: “give him back to me!”
The physician advised the father, “She needs a distraction
for her unhappy heart, the dead child needs a
time passed … she felt the stirrings of motherhood
for the second time …
when suddenly, one day she turned pale
“No, no I do not want this! You would be jealous!”
Oh, my gentle slumbering child, who are frozen in the
you would say: “they are forgetting me; another has
taken my place,” no, no! …
The day came, she gave birth to another child,
and the father joyfully exclaimed: “It’s a boy!”
But the father alone was joyful …
whilst she was bitterly, despondently
dwelling more on the departed soul than on this new
saying: “My angel lies alone in this grave!”
she heard, in an oh, so familiar voice,
the newborn speak, from the crook of her arm,
and very quietly whisper: “It is I. No one must know.”
The full text is in: “Les Contemplations”, Librairie Générale Francaise, 1972, translated into English by Julia Roessler)
The poem touches on some pivotal issues that have I have thought a great deal about in my own life, especially during the four years of writing my memoir. Whether in beginning life after the death of my sister, I somehow straddled both death and life. Whether I carried my sister within me in some sense, her imprint on my soul, as both Schellinski and Hugo hint? And whether my search has been for my own identity, or hers?