A word from the psychiatrist


A strange illness

The illness of Thérèse at age 10

from Easter to Pentecost 1883

by Dr Marie-Dominique FOUQUERAY, psychiatrist



Psychiatrist since 1984 and licensed in theology since 1995, Dr Fouqueray, in addition to her activity as a self-employed psychiatrist, studies the psychology of persons who have been declared saints to understand how they lived through the ordeals of life with their faults and weaknesses in order to walk a path of conversion and holiness. Thérèse Martin, doctor in the science of love, was one of these, in as much as she is a beacon who enlightens little souls of the third millennium.


Where did Thérèse speak of her strange illness?


In manuscript A, from folio 25v° to folio 31: “Now I must speak about the painful ordeal that came to break the heart of little Thérèse, when Jesus took away her dear mother (reminder of the first traumatism, the death of her at 4 ½ years on August 28, 1877) until 31r° of manuscript A. It’s important to note that the strange illness happened when Thérèse was 10 years old, beginning on March 25, 1883 at Easter, and lasting until Pentecost, May 13th,1883 according to manuscript A, folio 27v° to 31v°.

We can read the complete text in the following section:What they said about it", with testimony from the two sisters who were the most involved; Marie as a nurse and Pauline as family support.


What importance should be given to Thérèse’s writings?

Thérèse had an excellent memory. She wrote her manuscript A in 1895 at the request of her sister, “Sr. Agnès of Jesus” (her second mother who was actually her sister Pauline Martin). She is then 22 years old, 12 years after her strange illness. It is a rereading of what she lived that she gives to her reader. She was capable of describing her feelings and symptoms as if it was yesterday which makes her an excellent patient in psychoanalysis; she wrote in her free time in Carmel which was limited and like a session of psychoanalysis ended for her by the sound of the bell which was a reminder of the hour of prayer. We know that it is she who writes in her cell. It’s possible to see the photos of her writing desk, her pen and inkwell, the composition of the ink….She wrote under obedience to Mother Agnès, she loathed trickery, she wanted to sign the mercies of the Lord through her weaknesses. She was aware of her weakness and littleness as she speaks of them so many times in other passages.

How serious was this illness?

Dr. Notta who consulted in 1883 at the request of uncle Guérin, said that Thérèse was suffering from a very serious illness (Manuscript A, folio 27 verso). Considering medical knowledge at the time of Thérèse Martin, it was impossible for Dr Notta to give a precise diagnosis of this illness described as strange.

He proposed to treat her with wet wrappings, a treatment still used today for psychotic patients and that is known by the name of “packing”, wet wrapping, a hydrotherapy used to contain abnormal movements or anxiety that is difficult to bear. Packing is a technique that consists of temporarily wrapping a patient in cold, wet towels.

This technique is used for children suffering from infantile autism and for psychotic adults during a period of recovery. It is sometimes used for troubles in elderly persons or for other indications, to help patients regain a certain awareness of their body image.

What is the context of the onset of the strange illness? the first symptoms?

1)Thérèse learns by surprise during summer 1882 that her sister Pauline was going to enter a convent. For Thérèse, it was a betrayal as her sister Pauline had promised to wait for her. And Thérèse understood that she was going to lose her second Mother. Here are the strong feelings that describe so well what she lived:
“Ah! How could I say what pain is in my heart?”
“In an instant, I understood what life is…I see that it was only suffering and a continual separation.”
“I wept bitter tears…I was weak, so weak…an ordeal that seemed much beyond my strength!”
“Having found it out by surprise, it was as if a sword had pierced my heart” (see Luke 2,35).
“I can still see the place where I received Pauline’s last kiss.”
Thérèse had a very developed visual memory. This hypermnesia can perhaps be linked to traumatic shocks she previously lived. First, the family separation when Mme Martin could no longer nurse her daughter and Thérèse had to live through being placed with a wet nurse in Sémallé with Rose Taillé in March 1873 for 13 months. Then, the second trauma due to the death of her mother on August 28, 1877, when she was 4 ½ years old.

Alphonse Henri Notta

He was born on February 27, 1824 in Fourqueux, Seine-et-Oise

and died on July 23k 1914 in Lisieux, Calvados.Notta-lt

A doctor in medicine, he practiced his entire life in Lisieux.

He was an extern in medicine in 1846 and an intern in 1847.

His doctoral thesis was about “Recherches sur la cicatrisation des artères”, “Research on the healing of arteries”, and was finished in 1850. He was a member of the National Academy of Medicine (surgical pathology section) as of December 10, 1878 and a member of the Anatomical Society of Paris as of 1847.

A page of his “Mémoire sur l’oblitération des artères ombilicales et sur l’artérite ombilicale” is available online at the internet site of the Lisieux Library:

2) October 2, 1882: two events would provoke very strong reactions from Thérèse. On that day, October 2, 1882, her sister Pauline entered Carmel. That morning Thérèse could not accompany her sister because it was the first day of school for her as a day boarder. For Thérèse, leaving the family unit was already difficult for her as well as returning to class at the Abby.
The first conscious traumatism that Thérèse describes is that of the death of her mother in Alençon on August 28, 1877. She described it as a state of sideration: her father made her kiss the cold forehead of her mother without having the least emotion. She was 4 ½ years old and doesn’t remember crying, which means she hadn’t cried over the death of her mother. The consequences of this death were a change of personality; from happy to sad. Thérèse became excessively hyper-sensitive, a nothing could provoke tears, revealing a traumatic affective immaturity.
The loss of her second mother, Pauline, reactivated all that. The following speak room visits at Carmel were a terrible suffering for Thérèse, who could only speak to Pauline for a few minutes; it was very frustrating. Pauline was not aware of the fragility of her sister, and provoked a new traumatism for Thérèse who trusted her completely. This would be the base of her strange illness with symptoms emerging. Toward the end of 1882, a continual headache began that would however not keep Thérèse from pursuing her studies and because of this, no one paid any attention to it. The first symptoms of her illness were beginning to appear.       
During Holy Week 1883, Thérèse and Céline found themselves with Uncle Guérin. Mr. Martin had gone with Léonie and Marie to Paris. The absence of her father weakened Thérèse. Her uncle’s words reactivated her hyper-sensitivity by speaking of her mother’s sweetness, like a dormant volcano waking up suddenly. We find here the trigger; the mention of traumatic memories. Mr Guérin began to speak of Zélie, Thérèse’s mother, with such sweetness that this was the start of the tears and trembling of Thérèse since the trauma of her mother’s death along with a fatigue that did not permit her to go to the Catholic circle. Thérèse was overwhelmed by her emotions that she is unable to control anymore and this provokes corporal reactions that cannot be controlled as well as hallucinations.

Thérèse in a state of post-traumatic stress

Following all the stress that Thérèse lived through since summer 1882, her health deteriorated in a strange way in December. She had continual headaches, pains in her side. She ate little and slept poorly; acne appeared. Her personality changed as well; she became angry with Marie and squabbled with Céline who was so close to her. In the Carmelite parlor, Pauline worried about her youngest sister to whom she offered advice and affectionate reprimands. During Easter vacation, as we’ve seen, her breakdown started. However there were moments of normality, which show that Thérèse did not have psychosis or schizophrenia which would have taken over her entire field of consciousness.

Several times a day she suffered from nervous trembling, hallucinations and attacks of fright. Then she was overwhelmed with a great fatigue and even though she is lucid, she cannot be left alone. However, the sick girl said she wanted to go to Pauline’s clothing expected to be on April 5th. The morning of the fateful day, after a particularly strong attack, Thérèse got up as if by miracle and apparently healed, went with her family to Carmel. She spent all day full of cheerfulness and liveliness. But the next day the relapse is brutal; the sick girl is delirious and seemed to have lost her reason. The doctor, who was very worried, still found no origin of her illness. Louis Martin wondered if his ”poor little girl” was going to die or sink into madness.

The entire family prayed for Thérèse, they had a novena of Masses said the Notre-Dame des Victoires church in Paris, they placed a statue of the Virgin in her room. But the sick girl only got her reason back temporarily when she received a letter from her Carmelite sister that she read and reread many times.

May 13th, Pentecost, Léonie, Marie and Céline tried to calm Thérèse who didn’t recognize them. Powerless to comfort her, they knelt at the foot of the bed and turned toward the statue of the Virgin. Thérèse says later: “Finding no help on earth, poor little Thérèse also turned toward her mother in Heaven, she prayed to her with all her heart to finally have pity on her...” Thérèse was deeply moved by the Virgin’s beauty and above all by the smile she had for her: “Ah! I thought, the Blessed Virgin smiled at me, how happy I am...” At that moment, the sick girl relaxed in front of her astonished sisters. The next day, all traces of her illness were gone, if only for two little signs in the following month. Thérèse remained fragile but she didn’t suffer any new appearance of these troubles in the future.

The doctor, had recommended that the family avoid exposing the little girl to strong emotions, she was from then on excessively pampered by her entourage. At the end of May 1883, she was able to start her visits again to Pauline in the speak room of Carmel. Questioned by her sister Marie, Thérèse who had promised to keep the secret of the Virgin’s smile finished by telling her everything. The Carmelites proclaimed this a miracle and pressed her with questions. Her joy was then changed into suffering’ she imagined she had betrayed the Virgin. Another insidious doubt seeped in: had she not feigned her illness? She wrote: “ I thought I had lied!...I could not look at myself without a feeling of deep horror. Ah! What I suffered I can only say in heaven!” Doubt and guilt were to plague her for five years.

Before the 19th century, individuals who showed similar symptoms believed they were possessed by spirits. A very strong interest in spiritualism and hypnosis followed during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. This is why Thérèse naturally interpreted her illness as a work of the devil who “had power” over her.


Diagnosis of this strange illness

Thérèse suffered from a state of post traumatic stress (PTSD). This state is defined as a group of symptoms and develops when a person has been exposed to a traumatic event that generates a sudden and significant distress. In Thérèse’s case, it was the betrayal by Pauline who left for the convent without waiting for her and the wound of abandonment by her second mother. Two existential shocks for the child who had not yet mourned her first mother who died in 1877. Faced with this kind of event, it is normal to feel a shock; this reaction is called acute stress that usually lasts less than a month. With certain persons the period of stress persists in an abnormally long way, from several weeks to several months accompanied by troubles that, with a psychologically weak individual, can bring about a peritraumatic dissociation. This is what happened to Thérèse at age 10.

This strange illness is today diagnosed as a dissociative attack, a dissociative disturbance of the person. It is a disturbance of identity like the phenomenon of mental breakdown, having a big impact on connections in the brain. The traumatized person constantly relives the event through memories, dreams or flashbacks that take them by surprise. Sometimes, physical sensations experienced at the moment of trauma return unexpectedly. These symptoms are accompanied by a tendency to flee from anything that can evoke the memory of the trauma. This attitude of avoidance can lead to partial or total amnesia of the events.

The person suffering from this also experiences a certain feeling of emotional anesthesia and detachment. The person has the impression of having lost contact with his or her environment, the feeling of always advancing in a fog, is abnormally cold or distant. Other symptoms can arise: troubles with sleeping, irritability, distress, difficulties with concentration or hyper-vigilance (an exaggerated fear of the outer world). Generalized or severe anxiety is characteristic of this state of post traumatic stress which can sometimes manifest fear or panic attacks. If the person is or believes themselves to be responsible for the traumatic event (because of a traffic accident, for example), the anxiety is often accompanied by a loss of self esteem. After several months, these symptoms have a very negative impact on daily life and well being. Complications can arise such as guilt and psychological weakness. With Thérèse, she will remain in part immature and it is the Christmas grace of 1886 that will help her to advance through the stages of development.



1.First listening: to give the sick person the possibility of speaking to assist in assimilating what has been very difficult for that person. Post traumatic stress syndrome can be effectively treated with psychological intervention.

2.Behavioral cognitive therapy on the process of thought linked to trauma, when memories return. Post traumatic stress is often reduced over time.

3.EMDR therapy, which permits reprocessing of traumatic memories from the past. This is a neuro-emotional therapy with alternate bilateral stimulation (eye movements or others), discovered in 1987 by an American psychologist Francine Sharpiro. This permits a natural processing of blocked painful information (for example, after a painful shock) to take place, the mobilization of psychological resources and the restoration of deficient self esteem.

4.If necessary, an antidepressant may be needed.



By making her way through the new anguish of abandonment from the unexpected departure of Pauline, Thérèse would make an effort to cross through the anguish by the path of the anguish of abandonment to the path of abandonment and confidence. First, in the hands of her sisters, then in the hands of the Virgin Mary with the novena made to Our Lady of Victory. It is through the death of her mother Zélie that trauma entered into Thérèse’s life and it was through grace coming from the smile of the statue of Mary, mother of God which brought peace to Thérèse. This smile of Mary was an inexpressible but fundamental spiritual experience for Thérèse. Mary would become for Thérèse her real mother, this gift that Jesus made to St. John at the foot of the cross (John 19,27).

This grace would take time to be fully received in Thérèse’s heart and it would prepare her for another more outstanding grace, the Christmas grace that Thérèse called her conversion and which would be the beginning of her giant’s course. Thérèse would still have to let go of other ideas tied to her ego to leave place for Jesus alone. When under pressure from her sister Marie, she spoke about this grace of the smile which would be the beginning of a new ordeal, that of scruples. As long as this grace is not fully integrated into the innermost heart of Thérèse, she transforms it into scruples; Thérèse believes she dreamed or imagined this grace…

Here then is a very clear example of the development of God’s grace in a person. Other ordeals would be necessary for Thérèse to be able to say under the impetus of the Holy Spirit; “In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love”, the height of her total gift of self-giving. Or yet when she would write at the end of her life “Oh, I would like to sing, Mary, why I love you”, which was well beyond her experience with the smile of Marie.

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