In the late 1970s, a veterinary student was raped by two truck drivers who had picked her up while she was hitchhiking on a road in Czechoslovakia. A few weeks later, the woman contacted her assailants, convinced them that she had enjoyed the experience and suggested they meet again. When the two men agreed, she availed herself of the opportunity to avenge her rape and mutilated them.
This true story inspired Mathieu Menegaux to write his new novel Femmes en colère (Angry women). “My mountain guide’s wife told me the story of this woman who took revenge on her [two] rapist. I had heard it before, but I had no clue [about] when or where it took place. After careful research, I managed to find out more about what happened.”
Menegaux’s novel narrates the final stages of the trial of a woman named Mathilde Collignon, a divorced gynecologist who has two daughters. In the book, Mathilde is in the habit of using dating apps to have sex sporadically with men she rarely ever sees again. During one of those dates, two men sexually assaulted her, and she is accused of having mutilated them in response. However, what might have been a simple self-defense case becomes much more complicated as the nuances of the case are revealed, especially Collignon’s attitude about seeking redress for her attack.
Distrustful of the French judicial system’s effectiveness and fearful of having to relive the events repeatedly for judges and the police, Collignon never reported the rape. Instead, she decided to deliberately plot her revenge on her attackers outside the legal system. In the eyes of the public as well as the jurors who must determine her guilt and sentence her, that decision makes the two men seem like helpless victims and Collingnon appears to be a woman incapable of controlling her impulses, starting with her sexual desire.
“Women should be as free as men to enjoy their own sexuality, but they still aren’t. Why? I think it’s because, for centuries, men have controlled women’s sexuality to make sure that babies were truly theirs. The fact that sexuality and motherhood have been separated [and understood as two different things] makes us optimistic, but the fact that this is a relatively recent phenomenon makes me fear that the journey will still be a long one,” Mathieu Menegaux reflected.
The author also underscored women’s precarious status under the law. He noted that in Europe most laws have been written by men, and many of them date back to the 19th century. “In France, women have only been allowed to have their own bank accounts since 1965. Congresswomen were only [given the right] to wear trousers inside the Parliament in 1980! As described in my novel, in the criminal courts, you might encounter many more men as Chief Prosecutors or as judges presiding [over] the Cour d’Assises (Court of assizes) than women. So, yes, I think it is fair to say that we are still far from true equality in the justice field, as [is also the case] in business or household chores.”
Throughout his novel, Mathieu Menegaux warns the reader that real trials are not as they are portrayed in the movie 12 Men Without Mercy. In fact, more than resembling the Hollywood classic, his novel occasionally recalls Michel Foucault’s “I, Pierre Riviére, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother,” the essay in which the French philosopher addresses the themes of confession and repentance through a 19th-century case of parricide.
Similar to the young Riviere, who claims that he does not regret murdering his relatives, Mathilde Collignon feels no remorse about what she has done. Even when her lawyer asks her to take advantage of her right to have the last word and apologize to the victims, she refuses. Mathilde’s attitude further complicates the jury’s perception of her. Jurors are convinced that she does not pose a danger to society but nevertheless cannot comprehend her lack of remorse.
“I do not believe that Mathilde is socially dangerous. However, I think it is essential that the judicial system prevents victims from taking justice into their own hands. Revenge cannot be tolerated because otherwise our society would explode. So what, in my view, would be the right solution for the Mathildes of this world? Simply a fair trial, where individual circumstances and background take precedence over the will to set an example,” explained Mathieu Menegaux, who pointed to repentance as one of these exemplary traits.
The author depicts remorse as an exemplary trait. “The climax of a criminal process is when the accused expresses repentance in public. Moreover, for victims, regrets are usually key to healing the pain. The problem is that, in Mathilde’s case, I am not sure that her attackers can be called ‘victims’ any more than she can be called one. That’s why she can’t say ‘I’m sorry’,” the author reflected.
Despite the fact that Menegaux is a man who will never experience the events he narrates, he has written a shocking book on the cruelty of patriarchal morals and legal institutions against women. He pointed out that “we are not in the United States, where it has become impossible for a man to speak on behalf of a woman, for a white writer to talk about slavery without being accused of cultural appropriation. Fiction writers should be able to talk about any kind of topic. Only readers can judge whether they are credible – and interesting! If not, it is the end of fiction, and we will have only autofiction [left as] literature. Germinal could never have written Zola, nor Hugo Les Misérables,” Menegaux said.
Menegaux’s novel has been adapted for the theater; the play will debut in France in January 2023. The television rights to Femmes en colère (Angry women) have also been sold, and a series will be produced. The book has not yet been translated into English, but it is available in a Spanish translation, the title of which is Mujeres de armas toma [Women up in arms.]
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