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“Guilt is like a snake”: a family secret of incest and sexual abuse shakes France

Camille Kouchner in Paris this month.
Camille Kouchner in Paris this month. “If you don’t speak, you leave a world upside down,” he said. “You have to take risks because you have a small chance of telling those who suffer that their suffering is not in vain.” Nytimes.

Camille Kouchner, a thin, clear-eyed woman who for decades was consumed by guilt, has become the great disruptor of French society. His struggle to free himself from a painful family secret has touched a nerve throughout France.

For decades, Kouchner felt trapped. “Guilt is like a snake,” he writes in The big family, a book whose history of incest and abuse is also the stark portrait of a prominent French family. It was a “poison”, a “hydra” with many heads, that invaded “all the space of my mind and my heart”. Until he felt he had no choice but to record the unspeakable.

It was not easy. Olivier Duhamel, her stepfather and the man she accuses of having sexually abused her twin brother when they were teenagers, was on the cusp of Parisian intellectual and cultural life before resigning from all his positions on the eve of the publication of Kouchner’s book.

His mother, Évelyne Pisier, a prominent writer who was a lover of Fidel Castro and who passed away in 2017, had vehemently turned against Kouchner on the indictment. The “big family” in the book’s title was, by extension, a certain left-wing French cultural elite who had chosen to protect one of their own.

In summary, Kouchner was taking a big risk.

“Well, Camille, you are afraid of repercussions, but if you don’t speak up, how can you be of integrity?” Kouchner, 45, said in an interview. “If you don’t speak, you leave a world upside down. You have to risk it because you have a small opportunity to tell those who suffer that their suffering is not in vain.

By taking that “little chance” she has caused what the French call case, a kind of political-cultural explosion. The tag #MeTooInceste (# YoTooIncesto) it has taken off as tens of thousands of French victims break the taboo. The book, published this month, has sold more than 200,000 copies. Several friends of Duhamel, including Élisabeth Guigou, a former justice minister, have resigned from senior positions.

Olivier Duhamel was on the cusp of Parisian intellectual and cultural life before resigning from all his posts on the eve of the publication of Kouchner's book (AFP)
Olivier Duhamel was on the cusp of Parisian intellectual and cultural life before resigning from all his posts on the eve of the publication of Kouchner’s book (AFP)

President Emmanuel Macron has taken to Twitter to applaud the release, for “the courage of a sister who could no longer be silent.” He condemned “a silence built by criminals and successive acts of cowardice.”

“It’s really overwhelming,” said Kouchner, a lawyer and university professor, in a calm, almost self-deprecating voice that tends to mask her determined bluntness. His gaze is frank and direct. “I am very happy with the #MeTooInceste movement, not so much because people talk – many have already done it – but because they are listened to”.

However, he continued, his main objective is not political but literary, an attempt to describe the agony of their own evolution. As a descendant on her mother’s side of an anti-Semitic French fascist, and on her father’s side of ancestors massacred at Auschwitz, she had to forge her own identity from a very young age. When she had her own child, she found that she couldn’t keep quiet about Duhamel for fear that he would attack again.

He also had to face the strange complicity of his mother. When asked why he wrote the book, Kouchner replied, “Because my mother is dead.”

His mother had many facets: the playful intellectual Kouchner adored; the woman who indulged in drinking after the suicides of her parents; the suffering mother whose sister, actress Marie-France Pisier, also died in an apparent suicide.

She was also the feminist mother who did not say no in Cuba when Castro — in a classic macho display — sent a car to pick her up; the mother who left Kouchner’s father, Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders and later French Foreign Minister, because “he chose to save other children, not his own.”

In many ways, Kouchner’s mother is the central figure in the book, loved and then estranged. Évelyne Pisier sided with Duhamel, at least with silence, when she was faced in 2008 with the accusation that, two decades earlier, her second husband had sexually abused her son when she was 14 years old.

Towards the end of the book, in a startling passage, the author quotes her mother as saying: “If you had spoken, I could have left. Your silence is your responsibility. If you had spoken, none of this would have happened. There was no violence. Your brother was never forced. My husband did nothing. It’s your brother who cheated on me”.

(AFP)
(AFP)

Thus transfer the blame, assuming multiple faces. Thus the buried crime metastasizes. This is how a long-kept secret takes its inexorable measure of suffering.

Kouchner, whose brother made him swear he would say nothing when he first told him what had happened, writes that he concluded in adulthood that “my fault is consent. I am guilty of not having detained my stepfather, of not having understood that incest is prohibited”. (Under French law, sexual abuse by a stepfather of a child is considered incest).

His guilt was compounded by his mother’s accusation that his silence was the real crime. Above all lurked a particular terror: in a family of multiple suicidesIt could never be ruled out that her mother was willing to take her own life. In the end he died of cancer.

“My mother reversed responsibilities, reversed roles,” Kouchner said. “Became the victim of my decision not to speak. Y when I spoke, he accused me of wanting to ruin his life. I said, ‘So, should I speak or not? Whatever i do is wrong’”.

And Duhamel? “My mother confronted him, and I think in the end They built a story to try to absolve themselves, to hide the violence of the whole affair ”.

Now you can’t seem to contain the case. Duhamel, 70, has hired a prominent lawyer to defend him. He has said nothing since his resignation this month as head of the body that oversees the renowned Sciences Po university.

It has become clear that Duhamel benefited from the silence of many in his circle of friends in Paris, a recurring pattern in cases involving powerful men. Jean Veil, a prominent Paris lawyer, and Frédéric Mion, director of Sciences Po, have acknowledged that they were aware of the allegations of sexual abuse, but did not take any action against Duhamel.

This month, in Paris, a wall read
This month, in Paris, a wall read “Duhamel and the others, you will never have peace.” AP

Kouchner’s brother, named “Victor” in the book, has filed a lawsuit against Duhamel for the first time. The French prosecutor opened an investigation for rape of a minor and sexual assault. An official commission investigating incest has been strengthened with the appointment of two new co-chairs.

“Silence is decent,” Kouchner said of Duhamel. “Because in reality, he silenced me for many years. Not directly. But still, it tore us apart. Until at one point I said, ‘Why am I keeping quiet? What is this secret that is not a secret, this secret that an executioner preserves? ‘”.

Isn’t “executioner” a strong word? “Ah, it did us a lot of damage,” Kouchner said. He noted that Duhamel is unlikely to face punishment due to France’s statutory statute of limitations, one of the reasons why he wanted “indelible” testimony that his children and grandchildren could read.

Their descendants have a lot to ponder. Kouchner’s evocation of summer days on the Côte d’Azur family property is powerful in its evocation of a false idyll: tennis, food, Scrabble, wine, laughter, as well as naked bathing in the pool, touching underneath. the table and mocking bourgeois sexual restrictions.

“Prohibiting is prohibited” was the motto of these family gatherings, he writes. Her grandmother explained to her how to have an orgasm on a bicycle or horse.

All the time, a snake lurked, in this family and beyond. Kouchner quotes a saying much loved by his father Bernard: “Between the strong and the weak, it is freedom that oppresses and the law that liberates.” Observe: “I would discover the full meaning of that.”

© The New York Times 2021

About the author

Kim Diaz

Kim recently joined the team, and she writes for the Headline column of the website. She has done major in English, and a having a diploma in Journalism.

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