Hélène Cixous was born in Oran, Algeria, to Jewish parents. Her mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and her father came from a family that had reached Algeria after expulsion of Jews from Spain. Hélène, who never thought she was at home in Algeria, often draws on her own and her family's circumstances and life experiences with colonialism and anti-Semitism in her work. She attended secondary school in Algiers. In 1955, she married Guy Berger, a philosophy teacher, with whom she had three children. The couple moved to Paris, where Hélène attended the Lycée Lakanal, in which she was the only North African student in her class. The following year, her husband was assigned a teaching position in Bordeaux, where Hélène began to prepare for the agrégation (highest level teachers' exam) in English literature. She obtained a secondary school teaching diploma in English and then the agrégation soon afterwards. In 1960, she began to work on a thesis on James Joyce and in 1962 was named assistant teacher at the University of Bordeaux. In Paris, she met Jacques Derrida, another Jewish-Algerian-French intellectual. Their talks on James Joyce were the beginning of a lifelong friendship. They co-authored several books and texts on each other's work. In 1963, Hélène Cixous made her first trip to the USA, where she did research on Joyce's manuscripts and met Jacques Lacan, with whom she worked regularly on Joyce. In 1964, Hélène and her husband divorced, and a year later Hélène became assistant lecturer at the Sorbonne. In 1967, she published her first book of fiction, Le Prénom du Dieu (God’s First Name) and was appointed full professor at the University of Nanterre.
She was charged by the Ministry of Education with creating the experimental University of Paris VIII. Under Hélène Cixous’s leadership, a number of exiled Latin-American writers and groundbreaking scholars such as Gérard Genette, Tzvetan Todorov, and Michel Foucault received teaching positions. With Genette and Todorov, Hélène Cixous launched the journal Poétique in 1968. That same year, she finally defended her thesis on James Joyce and earned her Ph.D. She then was named professor of English literature at Paris VIII and won the prestigious Prix Médicis for her second book of fiction, Dedans (Inside). In 1974, Hélène Cixous set up the first doctoral program in women’s studies in Europe. In 1975, she published her first play, Portrait de Dora (Portrait of Dora), which was critically acclaimed and ran for a year at the Théâtre d’Orsay. Over the next two decades, Hélène Cixous became internationally recognized, and received numerous prestigious awards, including one for helping to promote the works of the Jewish-Russian-Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. She published some 70 works, including 23 volumes of poems, six books of essays, five plays, and numerous scholarly articles. She lectured in Europe, the UK, and the USA. In 1989, she collaborated on the film La Nuit Miraculeuse (The Miraculous Night). She published a series of autobiographic books, exploring relatives and places from her childhood. In 2008, she was appointed Professor-at-Large at Cornell University.