Constance Debré: Mother, Lonesome Cowboy

In Love Me Tender, published in the United States last year while she was part of the Villa Albertine residency program in New York City, the author and former lawyer describes how she lost custody of her 11-year-old son when she came out as gay. A deeply intimate, autobiographical novel.
© Laura Stevens

In just a few years, Constance Debré has transformed, radically, past the point of no return. With her shaved head and tattooed body hardened by her daily swimming routine, she proudly displays her homosexuality and identity as a writer. In order to stay true to herself, she left everything behind – her job as a lawyer, and her husband of 20 years, the father of her son. Moving from a sprawling apartment in the sixth arrondissement of Paris to a small one-bedroom, followed by a garret, she decided to lead an ascetic life by accepting deprivation as the price of her freedom. “Apart from the fact that I don’t see my son anymore, everything’s going well, he’s eight, my son, then he’ll be nine, then ten, then eleven, his name is Paul, he’s great,” she writes at the end of the short self-portrait that opens Love Me Tender.

Forming an autobiographical trilogy with Play Boy (2018) and Nom (2022), the novel describes how she misses Paul after his father was granted exclusive custody. Before this brutal decision by the court, she would see him every other week, like any other separated parent. Because she is a woman, a lesbian, a writer without a steady income, and because she leads the life of a “lonesome cowboy,” she is forced to wait for a ruling by the Paris Court of Appeals. With biting honesty, Constance Debré offers a stark and factual description of the banal, repetitive passing months and seasons: writing, swimming, making love, stealing enough food to survive from the grocery store. A daily existence punctuated by occasional visits to her father, a former international correspondent and a recovering drug addict, the eldest son of Michel Debré, France’s prime minister under General de Gaulle, and the black sheep of the family.

Much like the narrator’s life, her writing is bare, reduced to the essentials. Each sentence is like a slap to the face of a society in which maternity is the blind spot in an unfinished revolution. “Out on the streets, it’s all #MeToo and gay marriage, but it’s all talk,” writes Constance Debré. “In reality, a judge is essentially forcing a mother to wear an electronic bracelet at the request of the man who’s still her husband.” Readers hoping for a happy ending will be disappointed. Love Me Tender is a gripping account of a transformation in progress and gets straight to the point, like a punch to the gut.


Love Me Tender by Constance Debré, translated from French by Holly James, Semiotext(e), 2022. 168 pages, 17.95 dollars.

Article published in the February 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.