In this post, we reach as far as we will go chronologically for now in exploring the autism of Simone de Beauvoir. You may read our coverage of her early childhood here, her later childhood (part 1) here, and her later childhood (part 2) and adolescence here.
Before describing Simone as a young adult, let it be said that autism doesn’t simply appear out of nowhere. Autistic traits have a genetic basis and can often be traced along family trees. In her case, it appears that her autism was inherited from her mother.
Her mother, Francoise, grew up receiving scan attention or affection from her own parents. Simone relates succinctly that she “suffered many sad disappointments in her adolescence. Her childhood and youth filled her heart with a resentment which she never completely forgot.” At the age of 20, Francoise was accustomed to repressing herself, silent and “brooding over bitter secrets“.
Her life changed upon meeting Simone’s father and she blossomed in the light of his love. She became joyful and lively, yet there was “something wilful and imperious which was given free rein after her marriage“. She was submissive to her husband, as a good Catholic wife must be, but “..with Louise, my sister, and myself she showed herself to be dictatorial and overbearing, sometimes passionately so. If one of her intimate friends or relations happened to cross her or offend her, she often reacted with anger and outbursts of violent frankness. But in society she was always timid. Brusquely transported into a social group that was very different from her provincial circle, she found difficulty in adapting herself. Her youth, her inexperience, her love for my father all made her vulnerable: she dreaded criticism, and, in order to avoid it, took pains to be ‘like everybody else.’ In her new environment, her convent morality was only half-respected. She didn’t want to be taken for a prude, and so she renounced her own standards of judgment: instead she decided that she would take the rules of etiquette as her guide.” Yet, even so, “she preserved, in her heart of hearts, a rigorously inflexible personal morality.“
In this can be found social struggles, rigid thinking, and intense emotions. Elsewhere, she was described as a strictly pious Catholic (though married to a sceptic), “profoundly conscious of her responsibilities” as a mother, and afraid in social situations. Though we have to extrapolate a bit on account of having less biographical detail, what we do know consistently points toward her being autistic in very similar ways to her daughter.
We have covered all of her autistic traits in the sections about her childhood and adolescence. We will now describe her as a young adult, still very much autistic:
As an adult, she was still characterized and isolated by her reactivity: “‘Do men marry women like me?’ I used to wonder with a tinge of melancholy… ‘I’m so sure that the one who would really be all to me, who would understand the whole of me, and be fundamentally the brother and the equal of myself, simply doesn’t exist.’ What was cutting me off from other people was a certain violence of temperament which only I seemed to possess. This set-to with Pradelle strengthened me in my conviction that I was destined to a life of solitude.“
In one particular extended social situation, “..although I was quite insensitive to other people’s feelings about me…“, she realized that Zaza’s family and their friends, representative of all that was right in polite French society, didn’t think much of her: after all, she was still “badly dressed, and caring little about my personal appearance, I couldn’t bring myself to curtsy to the old ladies, I couldn’t control the violence of my gestures or the pitch of my laughter… I held back my tongue as much as possible, and kept a check on myself, but in vain: every word I said, and even my silences, caused consternation.“
The one child cousin she had respected at age 8, an on and off romantic interest, who had won her respect and introduced her to some of her favorite literary influences, advised her that she would fare better “if you were more human…” and said to someone else that “it’s such a pity that Aunt Francoise dresses her so badly.“
Even in college, she said, “the students I tried to get friendly with at the Sorbonne were all, I thought, both male and female, without any interest: they kept rushing about in noisy groups, laughing their heads off; they weren’t interested in anything and were quite complacent about their indifference.“
Defying societal expectations, she preferred to stay with the men at dinners, even when the other ladies retired to another room. A friend brought attention to her “funny, husky voice.” She flattered herself that she “combined a man’s brain and a woman’s heart.“
When she went through several seasons of bar-hopping, using alcohol to loosen her “fundamental seriousness”, she still remained a virgin and wondered naively why she enjoyed the carnality of barroom conversation so much while holding herself to such standards. She grew tired of being a “disembodied spirit” and longed for a way to reconcile this tension.
When she began her college career, she started to keep a private diary: “‘I am alone. One is always alone. I shall always be alone.’ I find this leitmotif running right through my diary.” She passed through seasons with different degrees of companionship, but at one point experienced a depth in her solitude so profound that she, even in her atheism, wondered if she had had a mystical experience: “I had lost myself in so deep a solitude that at moments I became a stranger to this world, and I was dumbfounded by its strangeness; objects had no meaning; neither did faces, nor my own body: as I couldn’t recognize anything, it was very tempting to let myself believe that I had attained the Unknown.“
When, on the other hand, she discovered Sartre’s circle of thinkers, in completion of the long arc of being “the One and Only”, she wrote, “after so many years of arrogant solitude, it was something serious to discover that I wasn’t the One and Only, but one among many, by no means first, and suddenly uncertain of my true capacity.” Sartre made her feel that her own intensity of focus and pursuit of knowledge was moderate in comparison to his. This is why she felt so drawn to him.
As all of these vignettes show, Simone’s autism did not end or turn into something else in adulthood: it simply grew with her and matured.
Although some readers will have to take the author’s word for it, those familiar with autistic stories will doubtless recognize Simone de Beauvoir as one “on the spectrum” from the descriptions given. Her childhood seriousness and intensity distanced her from other children, yet she lived happily and content in her family home. Life grew harder for her as she matured and realized she didn’t fit in, but she poured her efforts into her studies all the more fully for it and the few friendships she had were unusually close. If autism can narrow, it can also deepen the course of life. It is probable that if it were not for Simone de Beauvoir’s autism, we would have no occasion to know her name or be discussing her life as we are.
In her story, we can see how autistic traits tend to isolate, but also, at the end of the period we covered, how the very same traits can draw people together around common interests. Simone’s life fits into the broad yet coherent pattern of autism, but her path is still very individual, even among autistics. Many things shape other equally autistic lives, like nationality, ethnicity, culture, family, education, intelligence, religion, and the era of one’s birth. Even some autistics will doubtless find her life far less relatable than the author of this short essay. Such is life, with or without labels that can clarify or (often as not) confuse our struggling grasp on humanity’s deep diversity.