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The Longest Night : Veronique Le Guen Found That 111 Days in a Cave Changed More Than Her Sense of Time

Times Staff Writer

She was alone in a cave, 275 feet underground, for 111 days. She had no clock or music to provide a rhythm to her life. There was no sunrise, no sunset--not even a change of temperature from a constant dank 48.1 degrees to give her a clue her if it was morning or night on the surface of the Earth.

One “night” she slept for 31 hours. Another time, she took an afternoon siesta that lasted 18 hours, but when she awoke, she thought she had dozed off for only a few minutes.

She was, in the jargon of the scientific sect that studies such voluntary isolation, “de-synchronized"--outside time. Buried in the limestone belly of southern France near L’Aven du Valat-Negre, she temporarily was floating loose, freer and more disconnected than an astronaut in space.

Volunteering for the Experiment

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This, of course, was the whole point of the experiment. At the behest of a controversial French scientist famed for his long-term cave isolation studies, Veronique Le Guen, 32, volunteered to go underground as part of an effort to learn more about the human “body clock.”

The theory of this science, sometimes called chrono-biology, is that the body itself is a timepiece that marches to its own internal rhythms and cycles. The best way to see how the human clock ticks, some researchers say, is to place volunteers in caves or bunkers away from all time-related stimuli, which can be as varied as morning dew on the grass and the ringing of church bells on Sunday.

The results of the research have far-reaching implications for national defense, where the data is used to determine work schedules in such confined environments as nuclear submarines and missile silos, and for medicine, where body rhythms are relevant in determining dosages of powerful chemical drugs.

An Amateur Speleologist

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Le Guen is not a scientist, although she has spent the past several years exploring caves with her husband, a photographer and amateur speleologist. She is a former executive secretary, daughter of shopkeepers in the Paris suburbs, and in that respect a perfect product of the class the French call la petite bourgeoisie.

As a child she was an avid reader and dreamer. The dreary gray Paris suburbs imprisoned her spirit.

“Even as a small child she asked me why I hadn’t made her a boy,” said her mother, Mireille Borel, “She thought you had to be a boy to have adventure.”

“I hated my life. I felt I could do great things but I didn’t know what they would be,” Le Guen said.

Her life changed after meeting her husband, Francis, already an avid cave explorer. Their first weekend together was spent exploring an underwater cave near Paris.

In 1983, they went to Australia to explore the huge flooded Cocklebiddy Cave in the Nullarbor Plain. Whenever they could save a little money from his photography or her work as a temporary secretary, they spent it exploring caves.

Francis Le Guen was a friend of French cave researcher Michel Siffre, 49, a man who was himself driven to near madness after spending 205 days and nights in a cave near Del Rio, Tex., in 1972. After two months in the Texas cave, Siffre began to feel like a prisoner. He became paranoid about fungus that grew everywhere and feared it would invade his lungs and hair. He became preoccupied with an American Indian legend that rabies could be contracted by inhaling the dust from a cave.

Nearly broken mentally and financially by his cave episode, divorced from the woman who had acted as his ground crew in Texas, Siffre gave up cave isolation studies, disappearing for eight years, he said, in the jungles of Guatemala.

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Considered a Pioneer

Although the merits of his cave studies are sometimes disputed in French scientific circles, he is considered a pioneer and important researcher by other scholars, including a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, Franz Halberg, who is the so-called “father of chrono-biology.”

“Some people think he is a bad boy,” Halberg said, “but Siffre does what nobody else will do. He has, by far, the longest records of people in isolation. Others who have studied similar situations have done it for weeks; he has done it for months.”

A few years ago, after the long hours flown by British pilots during the Falkland Islands War with Argentina renewed military interest in chrono-biological research, Siffre decided “to make a comeback.” After struggling to obtain money and equipment, he came up with the plan to place a woman in a cave in France for more than three months.

Veronique Le Guen volunteered and was accepted. On Aug. 10, she descended alone into the well-stocked cave.

Last week she finally emerged from the cave and fell into the arms of her husband.

“I could no longer hold back the violent sobs that shook and overwhelmed me,” she said, describing the reunion. “If I had not held on with all my power and if he had not gripped me in his strong arms, trembling with emotion, I would have fallen to my knees. It was finally over.”

A week later in Paris, sitting and talking with a reporter, Le Guen was considerably less emotional and frankly surprised by the before-and-after sameness of everything up here.

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“When I was in the cave I was afraid of what would happen when I finally saw people again. To my surprise, I discovered that the return was not at all difficult. I was gone for months but now I feel as though I were only away for one week.”

At moments, she seemed strangely disappointed to be out. She had remained underground in de-synchronized isolation longer than any other woman. The previous record was set in 1965 by another Frenchwoman, Josie Laures, at 88 days. Last year, an Italian speleologist, Maufizio Montalbini, 33, set the male record when he stayed 210 days more than 600 feet underground in a cave in the Apennine Mountains above the port city of Acona.

Thousands of Tests

While underground, Le Guen contributed to science by performing thousands of tests on her body, often suffering the cumbersome process of attaching electronic sensors to her face and breasts. She had measured and weighed all her food and collected her urine for other tests. She conducted blood tests until she felt like screaming in rage.

“I feel a wave of immense aggressiveness that dominates my spirits,” she wrote in her diary near the end of her stay. “I struggle. One after the other, I look at each of the instruments of my torture: equipment to take samples, analyze, count up, manipulate, pierce. A crazy desire overcomes me to smash and destroy everything.”

But once out of the cave that she came to view as a torture chamber, she is swept with a strange regret. Entombed in the bowels of the earth, disconnected from measured-time, she nevertheless felt a Proustian remorse for temps perdu.

“My anger was against the machines. My big problem was never loneliness. It was the quantity of scientific tests that had to be done as close together as possible. I deviated between feelings of guilt if I missed a test and responsibility and I became aggressively resentful.

“At no point did I feel relaxed. I felt that I had no time for me. I read 80 books but I never felt I had time enough to read. I couldn’t organize my own days.”

Back in Paris, the agonies and frustrations of the cave experiment seemed far away.

“I do not feel changed by the experiment,” she said, “but I do feel enriched in living memories and feelings. And there is one principle that was reinforced for me. While I was alone in my cave I was my own judge. You are your own most severe judge. You must never lie or all is lost. The strongest sentiment I brought out of the cave is that in my life and all my future life I will never tolerate lying.”

After a period of 15 cycles that were about the same as the normal above-ground days of 24 hours, Le Guen’s sleepfulness and wakefulness periods began to deviate wildly. At one point, she had a cycle that included nearly 50 hours awake and 30 hours asleep. With no outside stimuli, her body was seeking its own rhythm, defining its own night and day.

In what may be the most enduring of her contributions to research, Le Guen remained in the cave through three menstrual cycles. Menstrual cycles are one obvious way of marking and measuring time. That makes them of great interest to scientists involved in chrono-biology.

Change in Periods

Laures, who was underground for 88 days, found that in the isolation, she menstruated every 18 days. Le Guen, however, had periods at intervals of 27, 34 and 28 days. During the four months before her isolation, her periods had fallen at intervals of 30, 24, 30 and 25 days.

Clearly, the cycles that she experienced in the cave were about the same as the normal cycles in the outside world. Using this as a gauge, she could have given a fairly accurate estimate of the time that had elapsed above ground.

But according to her much-longer “underground” days, she felt that the periods were coming only 11 days apart and ultimately she did not trust them as time-keepers.

“If I had trusted my body,” she said, “I would have been very close to the real time.”

One “afternoon,” she read two entire books. After fixing lunch--she had two freezers full of food--one day she felt a little drowsy and dozed off for a few minutes nap that lasted 18 hours.

When she woke up and talked to Siffre on the telephone, she found that he was furious because she had failed to connect the sensors that measure her vital signs. At another point, she blew up at him because she thought he had been spying on her through a microphone that had been installed in the cave, primarily as a safety precaution so that the above-ground crew could determine she was still alive after periods of long silence.

In fact, she began to focus all of her hostility on Siffre, the scientist who was “torturing” her from above. She did a sketch of her cave that included a self-portrait. Published with a series of articles that she wrote from underground for Figaro magazine in Paris, it showed her strapped and laced with wires and probes.

The sketch also showed a bookshelf that showed Siffre as the author of texts on sadomasochism. And she drew a dart board on the wall with Siffre’s face covered with dart wounds.

Affection for Cave

But as her resentment and hatred of her scientific master mounted, her affection for the cave and her books steadily increased.

When she finally received word from above that her time underground was over, she was overcome with affection for her cave. She placed candles around the interior of the large cavern to highlight its features and she had a final affectionate conversation with the stalagmites:

“One last time,” she wrote in her diary. “I spoke to my stalagmites. I praised their bearing, their elegance. I didn’t mention their age because like Dorian Gray, they are not accessible to time. I thought, not without pangs of the heart, one of those furtive and lucid visions of life, that I would come back with white hair, my face wrinkled like an old apple. I would be with them again, these staunch companions of youth, still as bright and fine as they were today.”


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