translated by Adriana Hunter
It is not often that a memoir leads to a change in the law. But such was the impact of this powerful book that within weeks of its publication in France in January last year, its parliament began studying a bill to tighten the rules on incest.
Olivier Duhamel, the Left Bank intellectual accused in it of assaulting his stepson, dropped out of public life, while tens of thousands of people used the hashtag #MeTooInceste to tell their own stories of abuse.
Curiously Duhamel’s accuser is not his stepson but rather the victim’s twin sister, Camille Kouchner, 46, a law lecturer by day. Given the grim nature of the subject matter, it might be expected to be heavy going. But this is no mere misery memoir.
The author instead paints a vivid picture of life growing up in a family of champagne socialists who were always in and out of each other’s Paris apartments and holidayed together at the sophisticated end of the Côte d’Azur.
This was the 1980s, when François Mitterrand was the Fifth Republic’s first socialist president and the soixante-huitards, the generation who protested in 1968, were coming into their own. Camille’s mother, Évelyne Pisier, was a feminist activist turned professor of public law who during her wild youth had a four-year affair with Fidel Castro. We also learn on the third page, when arrangements are being made for her funeral, that she made a point of never wearing panties.
Évelyne’s first husband, Bernard Kouchner — the author’s father — is a doctor who co-founded Médecins sans Frontières and became a minister under Mitterrand. He also had a temper and was more concerned about suffering children in faraway countries than his own, so Évelyne dumped him for Duhamel, a political scientist (and later MEP) nine years her junior.
Olivier Duhamel, the Left Bank intellectual accused of assaulting his stepson, dropped out of public life, while tens of thousands of people used the hashtag #MeTooInceste.
Évelyne’s views on child rearing were predictably progressive. She encouraged her children to call their parents by their first names and treated them as little adults. This was particularly the case when they and their cousins decamped in summer to Sanary-sur-Mer, near Toulon, where Duhamel owned a pair of houses. There they all swam and played boules and tennis and talked politics over copious amounts of food and wine. At night adults and children danced to rock ’n’ roll together under the stars. It sounds idyllic.
The mood changed when Camille was about to turn 11 and her maternal grandfather shot himself in the head. Two years later the author’s grandmother, who had become her surrogate mother, took poison.
It is about this time that we learn of the dark side of her stepfather, whom she never brings herself to name. Her twin — whom she calls “Victor” — revealed that Duhamel had been creeping at night into his bedroom in their Paris apartment and assaulting him.
It did not come out of the blue: the elder children had been drawn into the highly sexualized atmosphere of Sanary. Often Duhamel would make suggestive comments to Camille when they were alone. “It takes the smallest carrots to make the best stews, my girl,” he said as she watched him wander naked by the pool.
Yet this did not soften the blow of what Victor told her. Like many a child victim he felt guilty. Wondering if he was to blame for leading his stepfather on, he endured his attentions in silence. Camille, who adored Duhamel, agreed to say nothing.
The abuse ended when Victor, aged 17, moved to a flat across the street. He later lived abroad, married and had children of his own. He wanted to put the abuse behind him. The author, by contrast, was increasingly consumed by guilt for not having spoken up. It began to dominate her life, casting a shadow over her own relationships. She likens it to a hydra growing and dancing inside her.
“It takes the smallest carrots to make the best stews, my girl,” Duhamel said as the author watched him wander naked by the pool.
Finally, when they were in their thirties, Camille, by now with two children, persuaded her twin to reveal all to their mother. The reaction was the opposite of what she wanted. Évelyne stood by her husband, telling her son he must have been 15 by then, and anyway “there wasn’t any sodomy … I mean fellatio is really different”. Her fury was directed at him and his sister, whom she accused of manipulating him.
The familia grande was torn apart: Camille’s aunt, Marie-France, a famous actress and director, sided with her and fell out with Évelyne, her sister — but was then found dead, wedged in a chair at the bottom of her swimming pool. Many of the family rallied round the author’s mother and stepfather.
Camille waited another six years, until 2017 and the death of her mother, to go with Victor to lawyers, who were in no doubt of her stepfather’s guilt, but said it was too late to prosecute.
But Duhamel’s career was finished. He resigned from the presidency of the Paris Institute of Political Studies and later reportedly confessed to police. Several associates at the university and elsewhere in public life suspected of being in on his secret also stepped down. Duhamel was the latest in a series of prominent Frenchmen to come unstuck over their sexual activities. Other names have since followed.
The law, passed last April in response to this book, made sexual relationships with family members under 18 — including stepchildren — a specific offense, prompting many victims to come forward.
In a recent magazine interview the author reflected on the number of people who have written to her with their experiences. She has yet to shake off her own guilt at not having spoken out earlier: the hydra, she said, “is always there”.