You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
Every book exists within its own political and cultural context, but Camille Kouchner’s The Familia Grande is completely dwarfed by the world she is writing about. The daughter of two senior figures of French legal and political life, and the stepdaughter of a third, Kouchner uses her book to describe her troubled and confused childhood growing up in the embrace of La Familia Grande. This was the name given by her stepfather to an extended group of friends and relatives, many of whom were also important figures in France’s legal and political systems, and who gathered at their villa on the Côte D’Azur in the South of France each summer. The devastating centre of the story is the revelation that her stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, sexually abused her twin brother.
The members of the Familia Grande were part of a generation of left-wing political figures known in France as Soixante-Huitards (the 68-ers). These are the political and legal professionals who carried the idealistic torch after the era-defining riots of May 1968 and who came of age during the presidential term of François Mitterrand (1981 to 1995). Right at the forefront of that group and movement were Bernard Kouchner, Camille’s father, Évelyne Pisier, her mother, and Olivier Duhamel, who would become Camille’s stepfather. Bernard Kouchner is a recognisable figure in France’s political life. Twice Minister for Health, he was a health campaigner and later became a member of the European Parliament (MEP). Pisier and Duhamel were both authorities in the legal establishment and lectured at the University of Paris Pantheon-Sorbonne. They were all part of the broad movement of the French left-wing which was both fashionable and successful in the 1980s, even if some of the original rebels thought the Soixante-Huitards compromised too much with The Establishment in order to obtain political power.
Turning the dreams of 1968 into reality was not purely a matter of politics and law, however. Much of the energy behind the protests came from a reaction against the repressive mindset of a conservative Catholic church, and it brought about a loosening of legal controls around abortion and contraception. For some, the ambitions went further, aiming at complete sexual freedom, and Kouchner’s mother, Évelyne Pisier, was among them. She was militant in her attitude towards sexual liberation, following in the footsteps of Camille’s adored grandmother, who talked to Camille about different ways of achieving orgasm on bicycles and horseback. If the church and state had repressed them by controlling sexuality, then ‘fucking is freedom’ as her mother put it.
The summer gatherings of the Familia Grande were therefore a strange mix. There was a lot of political talk, and semi-nudity was encouraged by the adults, while any dissent was mocked as prudery. Unsurprisingly, this led to instances of seediness which Camille and the children found uncomfortable, even if the adults did not.
This is the context of Kouchner’s revelations that when her mother Évelyne Pisier was mourning the death of Kouchner’s grandmother, her stepfather developed a habit of creeping into her twin brother’s bedroom at night. For Kouchner, the damage done to her childhood was inflicted by Duhamel and she has said that ‘he alone’ was to blame. While that is certainly true of his crimes, it doesn’t take much textual study to realise that she was also mistreated in many other ways.
From the start of The Familia Grande, Kouchner’s adoration of her mother is made clear, and a refusal to judge her harshly is established early in the narrative. The book opens with a description of her siblings gathering for her mother’s funeral, discussing the curious question of whether her deceased mother is fully dressed. It was a touchstone of her liberated attitude that Évelyne Pisier usually went without underwear.
There seems to be pride in the telling of this detail, but the very abbreviated, almost secretive style of Kouchner’s writing also seems to carry the constant signal that there is more to tell. Passages covering episodes of surprising emotional deprivation are offered to the reader in exceedingly sparse language, often heavily weighted with irony. It takes reflection to unearth just how shocking these episodes are.
A child’s first encounter with death is often a tender moment when reassurance, comfort and warmth can do a lot to protect them from troubled memories or trauma that might result, especially when the death is of someone close. Camille Kouchner was ten when her grandfather became the first of the family to take his own life. She had already endured her father’s irrational outbursts of anger, his absence and then his disappearance from her life, but the death of her grandfather seems to have been entirely without comfort. Her mother had, of course, lost her own father, so it would be hard for her to be a comfort to her own children, but Camille Kouchner seems to have met with coldness from every direction. Her grief actually seemed an affront to her mother:
“’Speak Up. What’s wrong? You barely knew him.’ The shock of suicide. There’s a violence to your reactions when you’re ten years old. Most likely because of the pain. I learned to hold my tongue.”
This is a “violence” that is enacted on Camille Kouchner several times, always with equal savagery. When her parents separated, they did not seem to have taken the feelings of their children into consideration nor done anything to manage the impact:
“She didn’t tell us. She packed us off to summer camp to learn horseback riding. When we returned, she had us visit our new house. ‘Well, it was a nonevent!’ she would say to me later. ‘Your father was never around anyway. It was a relief. Definitely no big deal.’”
And Pisier does not stop at just ignoring her daughter’s emotional needs, she co-opts them, insisting that the daughter’s emotions become a response to the mother’s circumstances: “You’re not allowed to cry, I’m much happier like this. You’re not allowed to cry. You’re a girl. Like my mother. Like me.”
Some people are guilty of emotional blackmail, but this is more like emotional theft. Camille’s mother allowed herself to be sensitive but permitted Camille and her siblings nothing more than reflections of her own responses. The narration of these events, however, is so succinct it’s hard to be sure what sort of perspective Kouchner has on them. We have only the narration of events and needle-sharp lines of irony: “Of course, it had to be laughed off. That was compulsory for us. Not for her.”
The ironic tone (carefully rendered by Adrian Hunter’s translation) seems to show that she doesn’t fully accept her mother’s cruelties, but the complete absence of any analysis, any discussion of the effect this had on her, has to make you wonder whether she ever dips below that surface level. To speculate further would be disrespectful and intrusive, but there were other emotionally devastating events that Camille Kouchner had to endure without the protection that should have been provided by the adults around her, and these events are worth noting. A few years after her grandfather took his own life, her grandmother followed him. It was double the blow where there was already a wound, but the emotional exclusion followed the same pattern. Camille and her siblings were sent to their father’s house where they were told not to “exaggerate” their pain. He gave them sleeping pills. “Everything was said, nothing explained.”
These are emotionally devastating events for children, but Kouchner was afforded no comfort or reassurance from any direction – and even worse than that, she was denied her own natural reactions. Her relationship with her mother started to fall apart after her grandmother’s suicide and was never fully repaired. Pisier took to alcohol and disengaged. Kouchner writes that she was “entombed in fear that day” and has been frightened ever since. If she cried, her mother shouted at her and told her despondency was a betrayal of freedom. She became so perennially sad, her schoolteachers voiced concerns, but that only earned her more reproach: “They asked her to send me to a psychiatrist. She bawled me out.”
It was particularly cruel that of the adults around them, one of the few sources of kindness and compassion for Camille and her siblings was Olivier Duhamel, their stepfather. There was also some warmth and support from Kouchner’s aunt, the famous actress Marie-France Pisier, but she was married to Duhamel’s cousin, so the children were surrounded, and when her twin brother revealed the abuse that he had been suffering, it seems that there was no-one they could turn to. They chose to remain silent in the apparent hope that it would limit the damage.
Kouchner offers no description of her twin brother and gives him the pseudonym Victor to protect his true identity because it was his wish, much more than hers, to keep the crimes of their stepfather secret. But both suffered the consequences. Through the years that followed, Kouchner suffered severe illnesses which she implies were psychosomatic, while her brother tried to get on with his life, but eventually a new generation made silence impossible. To prevent the risk of cousins being left alone with their stepfather, they told their brother Colin, and after that their mother. She reacted badly, as she tended to, dismissing the seriousness of the matter and blaming the children. Marie-France, their much-loved aunt, apparently confronted Duhamel by email on the matter, but this only came to light after she added to the family tragedy by drowning herself. The subsequent police investigation revealed the emails and Duhamel’s crimes became more widely known (if still not public). Even after that Kouchner met with hostility from her mother and denial and secrecy from the broader community of the Familia Grande. It wasn’t until her mother died that Camille was able to write and (with her brother’s agreement) publish her book.
Camille Kouchner’s revelations about her stepfather’s alleged incest, come at a particularly sore moment in France. La Familia Grande was published in 2021 soon after another revelatory book called Consent, written by Vanessa Springora. Consent caused consternation in French literary circles by chronicling the relationship Springora had had, as an underage girl, with an author by the name of Gabriel Matzneff. Like the British paedophile, Jimmy Saville and the American, Jeffrey Epstein, Matzneff had conducted his crimes while hiding in plain sight. He wrote novels about his young “lovers” and even published his diaries, but rather than being prosecuted or even vilified as a consequence, he was fêted. Whereas Duhamel was at the heart of the political and legal life of France, Matzneff was close to its literary and philosophical centre. Decades previously, in the late seventies, at a time when many intellectuals were campaigning against laws prohibiting same-sex relationships, Metzneff co-opted their campaign to include sex with minors. He secured the signatures of such luminaries as Roland Barthes, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in an open letter published in a national newspaper, calling for relevant prohibitions to be repealed. It is reported that Bernard Kouchner was also a signatory.
So now the left wing of French politics, for so long the standard bearer of radical and progressive ideas that have spread the world over, finds itself having to either defend the indefensible or unpick and separate the valid policies and ideas that have developed over the last 50 years, from the grotesque crimes of a small number of individuals and the tolerant environment that allowed those crimes to go unchecked. The two books and other similar revelations have led to the tightening of laws around the age of consent in France, and to laws that effectively create the crime of statutory rape. It has also led to investigations into incest and sexual abuse and proposals for better care, awareness and vigilance.
The Familia Grande is not an easy book to read and surely must have been challenging both psychologically and emotionally to write. The largest issue facing the story is whether Camille Kouchner should be telling it at all. The crime was perpetrated upon her twin brother, not on Camille herself, and it is clear that for a very long time Victor did not wish to make the matter public. While her brother clearly gave his consent before publication, it still might be argued that this was the result of persuasion rather than his preference. Male victims of childhood sexual violence are significantly less likely to talk about their experience than their female counterparts (‘See No Evil Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil,’ Holmes, Offen, Waller), but there is a very good reason for this and ‘outing’ someone against their wishes is no answer.
On the other hand, Camille Kouchner has her own story and the right to speak for herself and what she does is to tread a very narrow path by explaining how her life was impacted by her brother’s experiences without invading his privacy. She tells us very little of him or what happened to him and focuses instead on the emotional impact as she felt it. In this manner, she demonstrates care and respect around her brother’s boundaries while explaining how events influenced her own life. It is clear she struggled with the decision to go public: “The monster was perverse. It disseminated lies: ‘This isn’t your battle. You were just the custodian of a childhood secret, you have no right to complain. Nothing happened to you. Your claims have no legitimacy.’ It was impossible to defeat the hydra so long as I didn’t believe I was a victim.”
The monster she describes here is guilt. Guilt is characterised as a hydra and a snake and is seen as the cause of her illnesses and the basis of her emotional devastation. She attempts to rationalise this guilt in many different ways; guilt at being unable to help her brother; guilt at being unable to protect her mother, guilt at having to damage the family. None of this makes any sense, but then guilt in this context never makes sense, even though it is a common response (according to the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programmes):
“Guilt is like a snake. You expect it to uncoil in response to certain stimuli, but you don’t always know when it will lash out and paralyze you. It wends its way, marks out its routes. Guilt insinuated itself inside me like a poison, and soon it had invaded every part of my mind and heart.”
For all her different descriptions and attempts to explain the guilt she feels, Kouchner doesn’t settle on any of them. Like us, she knows it makes no sense. This is an area where the brevity of her writing leaves a lot unsaid. She very rarely goes the whole distance and states, for example, that she now understands her claims do have legitimacy, she lets us reach that conclusion alone. This understatement works well in the concluding, damning, itemisation of her stepfather’s crimes, but it leaves most of the rest of her experience unexamined.
We tend to think of guilt as having a straight-forward relationship with wrong-doing. We are taught that if you do something wrong, you will feel guilty and if you haven’t done anything wrong, you should have nothing to feel guilty about. But what we’re taught is nonsense. If there was a simple equation between a sense of guilt and the act of wrong-doing, then the perpetrators of sexual crimes, the Duhamels of this world, would feel significantly more guilty than their victims. If guilt had a simple relationship to morality, these people would be immobilised by remorse and their victims would feel no shame. But that’s not how life works.
Much like Springora, who also had a father with a mercurial temper, Kouchner learned from an early age to be both frightened and forgiving of her father’s bad temper: “My mother and grandmother insisted we be proud of our father and find him amusing. ‘You have to understand him. With all the things he sees and all the things he does…maybe he can’t control his anger. You can’t resent him for that. It’s nothing really.’”
This is not only conditioning into the acceptance of male violence, it is also the conditioning that taught the young Camille to ignore her own intuition and to accept the arbitrary rules laid down by figures of authority. She spent her childhood years trying to comply with impossible rules established by the adults who should have been protecting her, and this seems to have made her very vulnerable to the risks posed by her stepfather
When Olivier Duhamel moved in to the Pisier/Kouchner household, his career was on the rise. He cemented his position by building the community who would visit his villa – the Familia Grande.: “He would tell anyone prepared to listen that he was now an advisor to the president of the Constitutional Council, the highest jurisdiction. He made sure he was king in court and in the city. And he was the roi, the king, in La Plaine du Roi.”
What interested Duhamel was not power as such. It was status. If you have sufficient status, you can establish the rules of what is and what is not acceptable behaviour – you create power. In the case of Duhamel this was true at the level of both family and the nation. He was an advisor on the constitution of the Republic of France, and he decided how things would work in the Familia Grande: “Good constitutionalist that he was, my stepfather established the power structure. The rule of law, etiquette, regulations – as if it were a game. ‘To each their own role. I’m the prime minister, and we’ll appoint ministers. Camille, you’re in charge of the ministry of cigarette butts…’”
There might not be a better illustration of the status that Duhamel carried or the part it played. This is not the type of status that can be summarised in the symbolism of conspicuous consumption; it’s status at an animal level – the type of status that determines among pack animals who gets to eat and who doesn’t – or among male primates, who gets to mate and who doesn’t. This is not a way we like to think of ourselves, but the Duhamels of this world drag us down to such levels.
For Camille and her brother, Duhamel’s abuse took from them what he claimed for himself – their status was trashed. And while Camille knew that her feelings of guilt were not rational in the context of the broader rules of morality, those broader rules were not the only rules in her life. In her family and her immediate social circle, Duhamel had set the rules. And then he made outcasts of his own adopted children. If anything can explain her sense of guilt, it is that she felt, at an intuitive, almost instinctive level, the danger from her potential loss of status within that familial social world – a loss that Victor, very wisely, refused to make public.
One can only hope that Camille Kouchner and her brother, and everyone who suffers as they have done, are able to recover their own status and the sense of self-esteem that goes with it. The loss can be devastating, and the recovery requires strong hearts and unconditional support.
By Camille Kouchner
Translated from the French by Adrian Hunter
Other Press, 224 pages
Andy Charman is an author and writing coach. His first novel, 'Crow Court', was longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2021, and longlisted for the CWA Daggers Awards for Historical Fiction 2022. Andy is a Laureat of Festival du Premier Roman de Chambéry 2022 and his short stories have appeared in 'Every Day Fiction', 'The Battered Suitcase', 'Cadenza', 'Ballista' and other periodicals and websites.