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When literature and documentaries warn about incestuous sexual abuse

The book ‘Triste tigre’ by Neige Sinno, one of the literary sensations of the year in France, and a television documentary by Emmanuelle Béart give new impetus to reports of rape of minors in the family

Emmanuelle Beart
French actress Emmanuelle Béart, at the opening ceremony of the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival last May.VALERY HACHE (AFP)

There is a moment, in actress Emmanuelle Béart’s documentary about incestuous child abuse, in which a woman named Norma explains that as a child her grandfather raped her. And with her confessions she leads the actress herself and the viewer into a nauseating abyss, similar to the one that literary testimonies such as those of Christine Angot and Camille Kouchner have revealed in France in recent years.

In the documentary Un silence si bruyant [Such a loud silence], which premiered this Sunday on the French cable channel M6, Norma remembers the years of abuse by her grandfather. And then she says with horror: “One day, I was 12 years old. And I felt sexual pleasure.” Béart asks: “How is it possible to feel sexual pleasure during rape? I don’t remember feeling anything. It was like I was numb.”

The documentary mixes Béart’s recollections with those of three women and a man who speak openly about the abuse perpetrated by adults in the family. The actress who starred in Manon des sources (1986) explains that she was a victim of incest between the ages of 11 and 15. The documentary does not offer any clues about who attacked her. In any case, she makes it clear that it was not her father, the singer-songwriter Guy Béart. Instead, she prefers to give voice to the other victims, whom she interviews with filmmaker Anastasia Mikova.

The strength of Norma’s testimony comes from her ability to face the past without shielding herself, in a way that is reminiscent of the story Kouchner tells in La Familia grande, or by Angot in Le Voyage dans l’Est, both published in French in 2021, or Consent, by Vanessa Springora, published the previous year. With the documentary and the recently published Triste tigre, by the Mexican-based French writer Neige Sinno, France is experiencing a new wave of autobiographical texts on incestuous abuse after a first wave, two or three years ago. If in the United States the #MeToo movement advanced due to investigative journalism, in France the complaints have found their main platform in the form of books, some of high literary quality. They have brought to light the sexual violence committed against boys and girls in the country: 160,000 victims each year, according to the Independent Commission on Incest and Sexual Violence against Minors (Ciivise).

This is the case of Triste tigre, which has been lauded by the most demanding critics and was chosen in the first round of the Goncourt Prize. It is a work that puts a twist on previous approaches to incest. Firstly, a change in the setting. The social environment is different from those of Springora and Kouchner.

“Except in the case of artists, only [when it comes to] priests have we witnessed such impunity,” Springora lamented in Consent, where she recounted how she was seduced by the writer Gabriel Matzneff. She was 14 years old, he was 50. The setting was the literary world of Saint-Germain-des-Près, also close to that of La Familia grande, where Kouchner exposed the abuse of her twin brother by their stepfather, the famous constitutionalist and former member of the European Parliament Olivier Duhamel.

Neige Sinno, on the other hand, lived in rural France — in a town in the Alps — and in a family with modest finances. Her stepfather was a fan of Johnny Hallyday, the popular French rocker that the author came to detest because she saw a reflection of her abuser in him: “All this façade of the brave man with a pure heart, a tough guy who is tender deep down, a man who suffers…”

Neige Sinno
The French writer Neige Sinno at a presentation in the south of France.JOEL SAGET (AFP)

Sinno’s second work is literary. Triste tigre is not only a description of the abuse to which her stepfather subjected her when she was a child, and for which he was sentenced to nine years in prison. It is also an essay on works like Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov: “What I like in this novel, while it deeply disturbs me, is playing at getting into the head of someone who deliberately does evil, who knows that he is destroying another human and continues anyway.” And it is a reflection on the usefulness of literature. Because writing about abuse is difficult: “Not because it brings back painful memories […], but because this realization, in which you have put all your effort, your good will, your years of reading, your heart and soul, is again a project of the aggressor, at whose center you find yourself, which he has almost predicted and desired.”

There is a chapter titled My reasons for not wanting to write this book: “1) Not specializing in writing about rape; 2) I distrust books with themes, and here it is difficult to escape them. How do you write something new and aesthetically valid if the topic crushes you?; 3) I would like to do something else, I would like to think about something else, have another life with another center.” And so it continues until point 7: “I don’t believe in writing as therapy. And if it existed, the idea of curing myself with the book disgusts me.”

Sinno is torn between literary ambition and the recognition that her work is a testimony. “I agree with the demanding critics who refuse to give in to sensationalism, to emotion, to compassionate storytelling,” she writes. “On the other hand, making art with my story disgusts me.” A few lines later, she states: “As I leave the protected terrain of fiction, I fear that the only thing that will happen to me with this book is that I will be invited to radio programs [to talk] about incest, in which I will be asked to summarize [my experience] in simple language. What is said is even simpler than what is said in the book so that distracted and apathetic listeners do not have to make the effort to read it.”

What Triste tigre has in common with its literary antecedents and the documentary is an attitude: the courage to set out to examine and talk about “this love that one has had no choice but to feel, of this attraction that one has aroused,” as Springora writes. “It was evident to me that I never consented, at any time, and my stepfather confirmed this,” says Sinno. “On the other hand, he didn’t stop until I had an orgasm […]. By giving myself pleasure, I was making myself complicit in my rape.” Kouchner points out: “When a teenager says ‘yes’ to someone who is raising them, it is incest. They say ‘yes’ at the moment their desire is born. They say ‘yes’ because they trust you and your stupid lessons. Violence is about taking advantage, do you understand that?”

And here the books, and the testimonies of Un silence si bruyant, go to the heart of the matter: consent. Since 2021, in part thanks to the books by Springora and Kouchner, it is no longer necessary in France to decide whether or not there was consent when the victim is a minor under 15 years of age, or under 18 in the case of incest. The law says that below these ages, consent does not exist.

But there is still a way to go, according to Emmanuelle Béart. She regrets not having reported her abuser. “I couldn’t have borne the risk of hearing that nothing had happened,” she says. “If the child is not listened to, he or she can be locked in eternal silence, with all the disasters that it causes.” The message of the documentary, and that of the books is: talk before it is too late, and listen to the minor. Protect them.

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