Who was Elsa Cayat?

Historical photo collage by the author.

Historical photo collage by the author.

by Marcela Davison Aviles

Who was Elsa Cayat?

She was a psychiatrist, a specialist in human relationships.

She was a journalist, who wrote about the human journey.

She was a Jewish citizen of Paris.

She was a wife and a mother.

She was a woman – the only woman killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo on January 7.

Who was Elsa Cayat?

In reading the numerous tributes to her since January 7, one thing stands out to me.

Elsa Cayat was someone who listened. She listened to people tell their problems because it was a requirement of her profession. She listened to their memories of experience. And she shared these memories anonymously, as artists will, by writing.

“She had a lot of patients because she gave her time to others and had an ability to listen to other people, and wanted to help people to have a good life,” said her brother Frederick, in an interview with the Independent. “ She was a good listener. That was paramount in her dealings with her patients.”

Sunday January 11, 2015 ended a week in which we remembered not only September 11, 2001 but as well, June 14, 1940. Sunday was a moment when we recalled the day the Nazi’s captured Paris and watched as Paris captured the world. “Nous Sommes Tous Charlie” is a sentence we all now understand as more than a call to global action – it is a recollection of the words of another French artist. “We Are All Charlie” is a sentence we now understand, in a way remember, as once the savor of a madeleine was recalled and understood.

And in the moment the Paris march took hold, Proust became paraphrased in our hearts: No sooner had the heads of state lined up with each other, with their arms linked, than a shudder ran through our collective souls and we stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening. An exquisite memory had invaded our senses, something from an image, something learned, with a hint of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of an over-connected, networked life became indifferent to us, the disaster had become innocuous. This new sensation had on us “the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence …Whence did it come? What did it mean? How can I seize and apprehend it?”

We are bitterly aware of the experience of loss and exclusion—loss of loved ones, loss of affection, friendship and innocent joy, which was exploded upon us on January 7, and on September 11 and again and again by global nihilism. But this week the attack was to art itself and the response of art, dramatized in the illustrations of a global artists collective, demonstrated that the work of art, and art itself, recaptures what we lost and saves it from destruction, at least in our minds.

Art triumphs not only over the destructive power of time, but of destruction itself: evil, incomprehensible, destruction which seeks to obliterate the memory of liberty, equality and fellowship. If on January 7 the terrorists attempt at Charlie Hebdo sought to eliminate the impulse of creativity and imagination, the response on Sunday restored what Elsa Cayat might have called the desire for empathy, the desire of humanity for mutual relationships and a fundamental understanding that we are all capable of transcending differences. Sunday was the day of remembering that we are all capable of making art. And it was a day we understood, in our mourning for time lost, that we are all Elsa Cayat. We are all capable of listening.

Marcela Davison Aviles is an author, lawyer and founder of Chapultepec Group, a leading cultural insights agency serving the arts and entertainment industry and Managing Director of El Camino Project, a new arts social venture initiative.