‘Lick up my tears’: a horrifying childhood in an out-of-control bohemian family

Alice Carrière and her father Mathieu, pictured in 2002
Alice Carrière and her father Mathieu, pictured in 2002 - Franziska Krug/Getty

After 19-year-old Alice Carrière tried to kill herself in three different ways in one night, a therapist asked her why she hacked at her limbs with knives. “I think,” she replied, “it’s because my parents believe we’re an exception to the rules. I can’t distinguish my thoughts about myself from my parents’ thoughts about me. I feel my arms and legs don’t belong to me.”

At times, while reading Everything/Nothing/Someone, I felt that the decision by Carrière – now 39 – to write it might be an ongoing act of self-harm. I’ve always felt that it’s healthy to let fresh air into private shame, but this memoir depicts almost too many appalling incidents to handle, the blame for most of which lies at the door of Carrière’s parents, the charismatic German actor Mathieu Carrière and the late, glamorous American artist Jennifer Bartlett. They were wealthy, talented and dangerously open-minded. After they divorced, as Alice turned 7, their sharply observant daughter clocked that “there were no rules in my father’s house because they didn’t apply to us and were meant to be broken anyway; there were no rules in my mother’s house because it never occurred to her to make them.”

Best known for her paintings of fractured houses, Bartlett raised Alice in a sprawling 17,000-square-foot, three-storey home on New York’s Upper West Side. It lacked boundaries, very literally: the doors of glass didn’t lock. Yet Bartlett, Carrière writes, still communicated with her daughter via the house intercom, leaving day-to-day mothering to an ageing British nanny.

Believing that she had been abused as a child (though Carrière suspects she was a victim of the “Satanic Panic”), Bartlett felt that self-preservation required her to shut her feelings away and fill her hours with work and white wine. Only on occasion would she flood their house with celebrity friends, whereupon her daughter would give tours of the rooftop garden and its pond to the likes of Steve Martin and Julia Roberts.

The artist Jennifer Bartlett, pictured in New York in the late 1980s
The artist Jennifer Bartlett, pictured in New York in the late 1980s - Susan Wood/Getty

Meanwhile, Mathieu Carrière offered intimacy of a differently damaging variety. I dry-heaved through Alice’s accounts of him pushing chewing-gum from his mouth into hers, asking her to “lick the tears from [his] eyes”, admiring her bottom, and celebrating her coming-of-age by filming her naked, astride a horse, holding a spear he had carved. “Incest is best!” he once exclaimed, a line overheard by the nanny and passed on to Jennifer, who used it against him in court. (“I’m not a paedophile,” he claimed at a family meeting many years later, “but I behaved very badly.”)

Throughout Everything/Nothing/Someone, Alice Carrière clings to words. Her mother lived on a relentless diet of audiobooks, and passed on the addiction. When, in her late teens, Carrière was first admitted to psychiatric units, she took pride in her ability to nail her disassociative experiences with her superior grasp of language. “I felt virtuosic naming my ailments,” she writes.

She laughs at how she tried to impress and distract medics with lines such as “feelings are like nictitating tinsel caught somewhere in between where my mind has receded to and where my brain kind of slumps nesciently.” (In retrospect, she agrees with a fellow patient, who said she was “full of s---.”) But after several hospitalisations and her nanny’s death, Carrière found notebooks left behind by the latter, full of “all her frustrations with my parents and her fervid desire to protect me… laid out in her tiny script.” Suddenly, language validated her trauma.

Everything/Nothing/Someone is Alice Carrière's first book
Everything/Nothing/Someone is Alice Carrière's first book - Atlantic

Yet this isn’t a neatly redemptive book. It ends with Carrière finding a kind of mental balance as she nurses her dying mother, who would die in 2022. Struggling to balance two desires – her craving for maternal approval; her yearning for artistic engagement with the great Jennifer Bartlett – the adult Alice realises that some things arrive too late. “I would not be her peer,” she writes. “But I could be the daughter whose hand she wanted to hold.”


Everything/Nothing/Someone is published by Allen & Unwin UK at £14.99