Comprehending the incomprehensible…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
On January 9th, 1993, Jean-Claude Romand killed his wife, his two young children and his parents and then failed to kill himself. Emmanuel Carrère tells us that, on reading about the case as it was splashed all over the newspapers, he quickly decided to write about it. It wasn’t the facts that interested him so much, though – he wanted to understand what went on Romand’s head. By corresponding with Romand, talking to his friends and neighbours, attending his trial and using his own understanding of what drives people, Carrère sets out in this book to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Romand’s act seemed to those who knew him to be completely out of character and to come out of the blue. But the police soon discovered that he’d been living a lie for most of his adult life. What started with a relatively small deception – that he had passed an exam when in fact he hadn’t turned up for it – snowballed until he had invented an entire imaginary career for himself as a doctor working in research for the World Health Organisation in Geneva. Amazingly, he carried this false identity off for many years, convincing not only friends and neighbours but also his wife and parents. To finance his lie he needed a source of income, which he got by embezzling his elderly relatives out of their life savings. It was when, finally, discovery seemed inevitable that he decided suicide was the only way out. His explanation of why he decided that his family too must die is chillingly narcissistic but has a kind of warped logic to it. But was his suicide attempt real? The prosecutors suggested he never intended to die – in their view, his plan was to lie his way out of responsibility.
Having recently read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which he too sets out to understand the minds of murderers, I saw a lot of similarities in the approach of the two authors. Each tells the story of the lead up to the crime, taking us back into the childhood and early years of the murderers in an attempt to understand them. Each takes us through the crime itself, sparing us none of the horrific details, but avoiding gratuitous description designed purely to shock or titillate. And each shows us the aftermath, both on the murderers and on the community affected by the crime.
But there are also differences, which in fact made me prefer this one. While both authors speculate beyond the known facts from time to time, especially with regard to motive and character, Carrère always makes it clear when he’s doing this, whereas sometimes Capote presents fiction as fact. This meant that I had a much clearer picture of what was evidence-based and what was Carrère’s own interpretation. Carrère inserts himself more openly into the book, which I found a little disconcerting at first. But gradually it gave me an understanding of how he too became affected by this crime, and of how his opinion of Romand changed over time. I found the personal insight he brought to the subject perceptive and well-judged, and I appreciated his honesty about his doubts over the ethics of giving a platform to this narcissistic murderer. He at one point quotes a friend, journalist Martine Servandoni, who told him:
“He must be just thrilled that you’re writing a book on him! That’s what he’s dreamed about his whole life. So it was a good thing that he killed his parents – all his wishes have come true. People talk about him, he’s on TV, someone’s writing his biography, and he’s well on his way to becoming a saint. That’s what you call coming out on top. Brilliant performance. I say, Bravo!”
Carrère doesn’t put forward a defensive counter argument. He simply makes it clear that he is aware of the question, and leaves it for the reader to decide. And of course the reader too is part of this dubious morality – a question that is raised every time there’s a gun massacre or terrorist attack. Should we give any publicity to people who step so far beyond society’s norms? And yet the desire to understand is irresistible. Carrère’s own doubts become more marked as he tells of Romand’s life in prison where he had at the time of writing become a kind of celebrity and had “discovered” God’s grace. Carrère leaves us to question whether he has truly found redemption or just one more lie to hide behind.
A fascinating and very well written account that has given me much to think about – what makes someone behave like this, and what should our reaction be? I am chilled to discover that Romand is now eligible for parole and may soon be released* – I say I believe in rehabilitation and redemption but do I really, in every case? Against my rational will, part of me thinks he should have hanged or, being French, been guillotined. Or perhaps he should have been bludgeoned to death, as he did to his wife, or tricked and then shot, as he did to his children. Or shot in the back, as he did to his father. Or perhaps someone he loves should wait till he’s old and frail and then shoot him in the chest as he looks trustingly at them, as he shot the woman who bore him, loved him and supported him all his life. As a minimum, all of me thinks he should never be set free.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
*Happily, since I drafted this, the court has rejected his parole request. For now…