Ivan Jablonka: Laëtitia ou la Fin des hommes [Laetitia or the End of Men]
The first point about this book is that it is not a novel. Despite that, it has been marketed as a novel in France and has won prizes open only to novels, including the prix des prix (link in French), the prize open only to all prize-winning novels of the year. So it is here as a novel that is not really a novel, like quite a few other not quite novels on this site.
The novel tells the story of Laëtitia Perrais, a young woman who sadly only became famous because of and after her death. Her abduction and murder became something of a cause célèbre in France for three reasons. Firstly, she was abducted on the night of the 18th/19th January 2011. However, though the police found her abductor and murderer fairly soon afterwards, it took them six weeks before they found her body, which kept the case very much alive in the French media. Secondly, she was not only abducted and murdered but, prior to that, she and, more particularly, her twin sister had been sexually abused by their foster-father. This also only came out after her death. Thirdly, President Sarkozy was highly critical of the investigation and publicly threatened sanctions against the investigators, which led to an unprecedented strike and, of course, generated a huge amount of publicity.
Jablonka tells the story not just of the murder but of the early life of Laëtitia and her twin sister, Jessica, and examines in some detail the psychology behind their behaviour and the behaviour of others involved. Indeed, he more or less starts off by telling us why he wrote this book and got involved in the case, in a letter he wrote to Cécile de Oliveira, who was Jessica’s lawyer. He tells her that he is a professor of history and sociology, that he has written about abandoned children, that he has already written about the murder of young people, a book about his grandparents who were murdered at Auschwitz (the only book of his to date to have been published in English), and that he is the father of three girls. He interviews as many as the key people involved as he can, as well as doing detailed research into other sources of relevant information.
Initially, we follow both the story of the investigation into Laëtitia’s murder and of the childhood of Laëtitia and Jessica. The twins were born in May 1992. They were dizygotic , i.e. not identical, though they were often mistaken for one another when they grew up. Their parents were not married. Franck Perrais was a waiter while Sylvie Larcher worked in the schools inspection service, in maintenance. Jablonka gets his information from both Franck Perrais and from Alain Larcher, Sylvie’s brother and their opinions do differ. However, it seems clear, that Franck Perrais was a drunk and was abusive towards Sylvie and, to a lesser degree, towards the girls. The couple split but got back together. They finally split for good in 1995. Sylvie suffered (and continued to suffer) from depression. Her father had also been an alcoholic and violent. When Franck again attacked her, then took her home and raped her, she was persuaded to bring charges and he was imprisoned. Eventually, she was hospitalised. For a while, Franck’s mother looked after them but Sylvie looked after them again when she got out but she clearly was not in a position to do so. Franck looked after them for a while when he came out of prison but, eventually, the social services had them fostered by Mr and Mrs Patron, where they were till Laëtitia’s death.
Meanwhile, we are following the investigation. Laëtitia worked in a hotel while Jessica was studying at a cookery school. One evening, she did not return home. Jessica, who left early, saw Laëtitia’s motor scooter on its side outside the house when she was leaving the next morning. She immediately told Mr. Patron. He and his wife checked her place of employment and friends as well as ringing local hospitals, to no avail. Eventually, they contacted the police. It was soon discovered that Laëtitia had been seen with a man around thirty years old. Investigation by the police suggested that she was not badly hurt when she left the scooter, as the scooter was barely damaged and there was no trace of blood. However, her shoes were found nearby and, as it was cold, it seemed unlikely that she had fled of her own volition.
The police soon determined who the man was by speaking to witnesses but could not find him. Later in the book, President Sarkozy will strongly condemn the local authorities who should have been monitoring Tony Meilhon, the suspect, as he had committed other crimes and had only recently been released from prison. For various reasons, primarily because of lack of resources, they did not. While Jablonka tries to remain impartial, praising Sarkozy for his concern for the victim and her family, he clearly does not approve of Sarkozy’s political intervention, something he had done several times previously in related cases, both as Minister of the Interior and as President. Later in the book, when Jablonka is damning the whole male sex for their violence towards and control of women he states Meilhon equals Patron equals Sarkozy.
The police did eventually locate Meilhon and, in a dawn raid, arrested him. Meilhon was totally uncooperative, mocking the police and refusing to cooperate, except to say that he accidentally knocked Laëtitia off her scooter and, in a panic, disposed of her body in the Loire. Interestingly, when the police dragged the Loire, they found four other bodies but not Laëtitia’s. The search for Laëtitia’s body took six weeks and kept the case on the front page for all that time. Jablonka is also critical of the press but accept that they have a legitimate job to do.
A huge search effort was undertaken, using both the technique of searching everywhere near Meilhon, both to see if she had been buried or disposed of in a body of water, as well as speaking to his friends and family to see if there was anywhere where he might have disposed of the body, given that he had relatively little time to do so. Jablonka points out that if they had spent a fraction of the amount they spent on searching for her body to look after when she was alive, the search would not have been necessary. Eventually, as we know, they did find her and Jablonka gives us all the details.
Jablonka looks at the case from every angle. From what we might call the plot angle, we follow, in detail, Laëtitia’s life story, from her birth, difficult childhood with her parents, with her mother on her own and with, her grandmother, in a home and then with her foster-parents. We follow her relationship with her sister and with others. We follow Meilhon’s story, too. We also follow her disappearance and the subsequent police investigation and search, again in great detail. Of course, we also follow the trial and Meilhon’s appeal. Jablonka looks at the psychological, sociological, administrative, historical and political aspects of the case. As he points out, she becomes very much more famous in her death than she ever could have been in her lifetime.
Though this book is, as the title tells us, mainly about Laëtitia, it is also about Jessica. Indeed, late in the book, he says that this book is for her. Obviously Jablonka never met Laëtitia but he met Jessica quite a few times and got to know her. Moreover, she is the one who was most sexually abused by Mr. Patron. When the sexual abuse came out, by which time Jessica was an adult, both Jessica and Mr. Patron claimed it was consensual. The fact that she had been a minor in his household, that she was seeking to be adopted by him, that she saw him as a father and that he had a legal responsibility as a foster father did not seem to concern him. From her point of view, she had lost her parents and now lost her twin sister and he was all she had left, so she tried to cling on to him. However, several other girls claimed that he had sexually abused them when they were staying or even visiting the house and Jessica admitted that their sexual relationship started when she was still a minor. Did he sexually abuse Laëtitia? He was not charged with doing so, so, legally, he did not. However, Jablonka shows a lot of evidence to suggest that he did, though she seemed more able to resist than her sister.
Jablonka covers every angle and more in considerable detail. But he also writes very well, both outlining the facts of the case as well as giving his point of view as a historian, as human and as a man. Just as we had Je suis Charlie soon after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, Jablonka gives us Laëtitia, c’est moi [Laëtitia is me]. This book is about many things but, above all, it is about two things. The first is the treatment of children who live in a household where there is violence and sexual abuse. He had already written about abandoned children and, to a great extent, Laëtitia and Jessica were abandoned. Yes, their parents were (and still are) alive, though neither were able to give the love and care to them that any child needs. The foster parents, particularly their foster father, behaved particularly badly towards them.
The second is, of course, violence towards women, which is still very prevalent in virtually every country. Jablonka cites various cases which are known in Franbce. Meilhon clearly felt, as Jablonka tells us, that women were there for his personal satisfaction and if they did not provide this satisfaction, violence was justified. Sadly, he is far from being the only man to hold this point of view. Sarkozy even implicated the state in what happened to Laëtitia.
France obviously is not alone in failing in both of these areas. As regards children, we have seen the sexual abuse by Catholic priests and, in the UK, the sexual abuse by celebrities taking advantage of young people (of both sexes), symbolised by the DJ Jimmy Savile as well as the sexual abuse by football coaches. Violence towards women occurs everywhere and is clearly showing no signs of abating, from honour killings and FGM to rape (all too often unreported) and spousal abuse.
It is not a novel, as I said at the beginning, but it is a first-class book and deservedly won the prizes it did win. It has already had considerable effect in France and will surely be translated into several languages. It is to be hoped that it will have some effect on people. I can ascertain, from my own personal experience at my previous place of work, that violence towards women is not only carried out by the uneducated like Tony Meilhon but the educated man is just as capable of such violence. If – when – it does appear in English, I urge you to read it.
First published 2016 by Editions du Seuil
No English translation