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Book and Media Reviews
December 24 2008

Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

JAMA. 2008;300(24):2922-2927. doi:10.1001/jama.2008.873

In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 42-year-old editor of the French edition of Elle, sustained a brainstem stroke. On recovering from a 20-day coma, he was diagnosed with locked-in syndrome, conscious but aphasic and incapable of purposeful voluntary movements apart from the use of his left eye. An ingenious communication scheme was devised in which a rearranged alphabet of letters was read to Bauby, who would blink each time the letter he had in mind was said, eventually spelling out words. Over 2 months, Bauby “dictated” an autobiography, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The scale of this accomplishment cannot be understated. Each morning, without the benefit of a pen and paper—his tools as an editor—Bauby had to compose, memorize, and edit tracts of writing that he would then “dictate” later that day. The book—published 2 days after his death in 1997—became a sensation, selling more than 1.2 million copies. It has now been adapted into an award-winning film. Back in the limelight 11 years after its initial publication, are the book and the current movie the triumphs they have been heralded as?