Sport 29: Spring 2002
Kate Camp — I Am Alive and You Are Dead
On January 9, 1993, Jean-Claude Romand killed his two young children, his wife and his parents then torched the family home in Prevessin, near the Swiss border of France. He survived the blaze, stood trial and was convicted of murder. What made his crime the focus of national—and international—attention was that in its aftermath Romand's life was revealed as a fiction. The man known to his family, friends and neighbours as a doctor at the World Health Organisation, working on ground-breaking research, had in fact never graduated from medical school, never held down a job, never travelled across the Swiss border to work. The person they thought they knew—and had known for decades—simply did not exist.
Disturbed and intrigued by the case, French novelist and biographer Emmanuel Carrere contacted Romand and met with him in prison.1 The Adversary is his account of Romand's life, a haunting investigation into not so much a heart of darkness as a heart of absence. The void at the core of Jean-Claude Romand gives questions about the construction of identity—so beloved of French intellectuals—a frightening, visceral immediacy. It also brings into focus those times in our own lives when, by living a lie, we have somehow ceased to live at all.
The details of how Romand managed the deception are fascinating, but Carrere's book is not merely or primarily a journalistic investigation page 209 of true crime. It is instead an exquisite and deeply unsettling portrait of a man who defies all expectations of the word. The Romand who emerges seems more like a figment of science fiction or a philosophical conundrum than a living, breathing human being. Far beyond the definitions of psychopath, sociopath or compulsive liar, he appears on these pages as a kind of psychological and moral invisible man.
I have read countless books about men who kill their families. Usually the sense one gets is of a world thrown into chaos by a sudden, aberrant act. No matter how disturbed and violent the family and environment, no matter how well-illuminated the recesses of the killer's mind, the murder almost always appears as an incomprehensible affront to reality, an act of senseless, even nonsensical, violence.
In Romand's case, murder makes sense. Having spent his whole life engaged in an elaborate cover-up, it is only once a crime has been committed that his story can be understood. Ah ha! one thinks. Now I know what he was hiding.
Like the moral and temporal reversals of Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, where a Nazi war criminal's life is reversed so literally that his shits jump out of the toilet and back into his arse, Romand's life story is perfectly logical if watched in rewind. There can be few criminal cases that so strongly demand a philosophical reading, and no people on earth more disposed to deliver such a reading than the French.
People will speak to you of compassion. I reserve mine for the victims2
To give a thumbnail sketch of Romand's deception and crimes is not difficult—in many ways he is a thumbnail sketch of a man. A quiet only child who grew into a tubby, timid young man, he attended medical school in Lyon where he met his future wife Florence. For no apparent reason he missed an exam in his second year and began a decade of fake study at the school, attending lectures but never sitting exams or graduating.
Jean-Claude and Florence left school, married, and moved to a town near the Swiss border. They had two children, Antoine and page 210 Caroline. Florence was a full-time mother and temped as a pharmacist; Jean-Claude claimed to work at the World Health Organisation in nearby Geneva. In fact he had no job and was living off funds given to him by his parents and in-laws to invest, since those working in Switzerland get favourable interest rates and tax breaks. At one point, Florence's father tried to get some of his money back from Romand to buy a car. A week later, when he and Romand were alone, the elderly man suffered a fatal fall down the staircase of the family home.
The protagonist of Camus's The Fall admires Adolf Hitler for the efficiency of his method. ‘When one has no character,’ he remarks, ‘one has to apply a method.’3 Romand's method of deception was remarkably simple. After leaving the house each morning he would buy some magazines and newspapers and spend the day reading and dozing in his car, or walking in the nearby forests. He frequently called in on the WHO building, picking up leaflets and newsletters, and using the carpark, post office and travel agency. He never gave anyone his office phone number, and no one thought to require it, not even Florence, who would page him if necessary through an answer service.
For many years Romand wasn't so much leading a double life as not leading a life at all. Eventually, however, he found something to occupy his empty days, beginning an affair with a woman living in Paris. She gave him some money to invest, he spent it, and when she asked for it back Romand realised he was about to be caught out. Instead of fleeing the country or killing himself, he opted to kill his family.
At the centre of this erudite, sensitive and beautifully written book is a crime spree of astounding brutality. The first to die is Florence. At dawn Romand clubs his wife to death with that most vaudevillian of weapons, a rolling pin.page 211
When the two pre-school-age children wake, their father gives them each a bowl of Coco Pops before taking them upstairs one at a time, placing a pillow over their faces, and shooting them in the head. He leaves the house, buys some chewing gum and a newspaper, and drives to his childhood home where he shoots his parents and the family dog.
That evening, he goes out with his mistress, stopping the car in a forest, and attacking her with mace and a stun gun. She survives and, inexplicably, does not report the attack.
Romand returns home and spends the night in the company of his murdered wife and children. At four the next morning he sets the house on fire. Though he is in possession of powerful barbituates, he takes only a handful of ten-year-old Nembutal, and these only after setting the fire in the attic. When firemen begin hammering on the front door, he opens the bedroom window and is rescued. Florence, Antoine and Caroline are removed in body bags. Jean-Claude is taken to hospital; smoke-damaged, burned, comatose, but alive.
Empathy with the devil
Romand told Carrere that his life of deceit started as a second-year medical student when he failed to attend the year's final examination. ‘On the morning of the exam,’ Carrere writes, ‘the hands of his alarm clock indicated in succession the hour when he should have got up, the hour when the exam began, the hour when it ended. Lying in bed, he watched the hands go around.’
How human Romand seems at this point! How great the urge to reach into the narrative, to shake him out of bed and send him off to explain himself. And how easy it would have been for him to recover from the error, to make an excuse to the school, his family and friends.
The most striking thing for me about this account of Romand's missed exam is how strongly I empathise with him. I can feel those slightly untucked sheets, can recognise the smell that beds have during the day. In my mind's eye I watch the turning hands of the clock with the same resolute sense of accomplishment that an anorexic might feel as she denies herself a morsel of food, a kind of power of non-doing page 212 that is the trademark power of the depressed and, perhaps, of the teenager.
Romand can't account for why he didn't go, can give no reason or explanation, offers no excuse. He was a young man, and young people, as we know, are prone to lie in bed when they should be doing other things. They are prone to create disasters through inaction, preferring in their youth to doze sullenly through life's opportunities, perhaps as a kind of passive resistance to the expectations of those around them.
At this point one certainly has the feeling that Romand, as one critic writes, merely ‘went a long way down a path most of us have set out on at least once’.4 It is easy to imagine, or remember, ourselves in his place.
And yet, did we really start down that same road? Were the self-destructive errors and lies of our youth really the start of a slippery slope that would see us one day club our mate to death with a rolling pin? Many critics suggest that Romand's deception started in a normal way and simply snowballed towards mass murder, but could it really have happened to any of us, as one of the terrible fates mother predicted if we didn't get up in the morning?
The part of the story that hooked Carrere in, and the part that most intrigues me too, is the time that Romand spent when he was supposed to be at the office.
The details of Romand's embezzlements, the way his double life had taken shape over the years, the roles various people had played, all that, which I would learn in good time, wouldn't tell me what I really wanted to know: what went on in his head during those days page 213 he supposedly spent in the office, days he didn't spend, as was first believed, trafficking in arms or industrial secrets, days he spent, it was now thought, walking in the woods. (22)
The thing that strikes one about Romand's secret life is that it was utterly dull. He didn't bunk off work to snort cocaine or gamble or have illicit sex, but to sit in his car, go for aimless walks, or read newspapers in cafés. These are the activities of a man at a loose end, waiting for something to begin, or simply killing time.5 They are hardly, one imagines, worth lying for.
And yet for some reason I have a very strong feeling of empathy with that grey, empty time. Carrere too felt an affinity with it, likening the experience to that of the writer. ‘I know,’ he writes, ‘what it's like to spend all one's days unobserved: the hours passed staring at the ceiling, the fear of no longer existing.’ (79)
Romand's hours in the car remind me of wagging school. For no real reason we'd catch the train into town and spend the day mucking around, bored and uneasy, but somehow elated too. We'd pick up half-smoked cigarettes from the ashtrays at the bottoms of lifts and light them on the street with matches, the taste of the match heads in our mouths. Sometimes we went to the Friendship Centre, where you could have a cup of tea for forty cents. It wasn't enjoyable, really, and I'm not sure why we did it, since I quite liked school and certainly would have had more fun there than haunting underground shopping malls and the empty foyers of movie theatres.
Other experiences that I align with Romand's ‘dead time’ are characterised by this same odd combination of exhilaration and staleness. Secretly sleeping with a dangerous ex-boyfriend, I would wake in one of his damp flats—they were always damp—and feel a certain thrill in the knowledge that no one knew where I was, and no one could know. At the same time, there was something cardboard about the experience, I felt somehow insubstantial, like an actor or double of myself.
That sense of being somewhere one cannot be, of somehow not page 214 being seen by life, comes upon the traveller too. ‘When I'm overseas,’ a friend once remarked, ‘I feel like I'm not attached to anything.’
That dead time of Romand's—and the experiences I align with it—are a kind of suspended animation, a time out of time, where one is still living, but not in one's own life. It is both an escape, and a limbo to be escaped from, both seductive and unsatisfying.
I wondered what he felt in his car. Pleasure? A mocking exultation at the idea of so masterfully fooling everyone around him? No; I was sure of that. Anguish? Did he imagine how it would all end, in what way the truth would come out, what would happen next? Did he weep, resting his head on the steering wheel? Or didn't he feel anything at all? Was he, in his solitude, becoming a machine that drove, walked, read, without really thinking or feeling, a residual and anaesthetised Dr Romand? (79)
The psychiatrists who interviewed Romand concluded that he suffers from a massive depression, which he staves off by sheltering behind fake identities. In prison, Carrere writes, ‘the character of the respected researcher has been replaced by the no-less-gratifying character of the serious criminal on the road to mystic redemption’. Like the cartoon coyote who runs off a cliff, Romand will only fall into the abyss if he looks down—and to date he never has.
In his shut-down, spiritless mode of being he exhibits the classic behaviors of a depressive, and anyone who has encountered that most banal of mental disorders may feel a degree of empathy with this devil. But despite some fellow-feeling for Romand, in the final analysis I must agree absolutely with journalist Martine Servandoni's assertion ‘that in every case, without exception, painful lucidity [is] better than soothing illusion’.6 (180) To recover himself—if such a soul exists—Romand would need to stop running and suffer the fall that followed.
Words, like things, have been monstrosities7
So what, if anything, makes Romand's case different from the usual domestic murder? And what makes The Adversary more than just another true-crime book? In both cases the answer seems to lie in a connection to existential and (for Carrere at least) theological questions, a connection made explicit by journalists and reviewers, by Carrere, and, most disquietingly, by Romand himself.
Of course, many criminal cases invite debate about philosophical questions, not least about the nature of evil. In the online version of The Guardian, interviewer Gaby Wood is surprised to hear Carrere refer to Romand as ‘a figure of Evil’. When quizzed on the usage, Carrere replies that he believes ‘deeply’ in Evil. ‘I think psychosis is absolute Evil,’ he continues. ‘That's not a moral condemnation—psychosis is hell on earth.’8
What is unique about Romand's case is the extent to which the philosophical, theological and essentially abstract elements of the case threaten to overwhelm the simple prosaic details. In most true-crime books there is a focus on the physical evidence of the crime, on the blood-stained rolling pin, the placement of the pillow, the telltale marks on the silencer. This focus on the crime ‘scene’, as it is evocatively known, is often derided as being sensational and speaking to a tabloid sensibility.
That is certainly not something of which we can accuse Carrere, or, for that matter, Romand. The Adversary, and Romand's own page 216 testimony, focus instead on the philosophical and moral minutiae. As Carrere notes, Romand is ‘as little inclined to go over past events as he [is] passionately keen on scrutinising their meaning’. (29)
The reader too starts to investigate the crime like a literary critic, seeing a fingerprint of Camus here, a fibre of Lacanian psychoanalysis there. Romand feeds this image by telling Carrere that he is reading up on Lacan9 and quoting from Camus's novel The Fall. One sometimes feels trapped inside one of those academic murder mysteries where the protagonists debate French literary theory the way those in Agatha Christie discuss the vicar's privet hedge.
If tabloid pictures of body bags and blood stains are one kind of obscenity, then surely this is another: to render this most visceral, concrete and conclusive of acts as a kind of existential puzzle feels uncomfortably like taking a criminal at his own grandiose estimation.
Carrere notes a desire in Romand to appear as a grand, abstract, even tragic figure. It is the reason, Carrere speculates, that Romand will not confess to killing his father-in-law. While admitting another murder would not have increased his sentence, Carrere notes that this supremely image-conscious killer has every reason to lie, because he can clearly see the difference between ‘monstrous but irrational crimes and a sordid crime’.
It's not at all the same to be the agent of a tragedy, impelled by some obscure fate to commit acts arousing pity and terror, and to be a petty crook who … to save himself shoves his father-in-law down the stairs. (87)
That one is buying in to Romand's own spin on the case is just one of the uncomfortable suspicions that are the reader's constant companion during the course of this most discomfiting of—I nearly wrote novels—most discomfiting of stories. And yet, there is no denying that the most extraordinary thing about Romand's crime is that the murder of page 217 his family is its least noteworthy component. Every day men kill their loved ones, but to fake an existence for no apparent reason is really one out of the box.
At the heart of Romand's story, and of Carrere's and my own interest in it, is the idea of the construction of identity, that hardy annual of French intellectual discourse.10 But while accepting that a person's identity is not innate and coherent but jerry-built and discontinuous is great in the lecture room, as far as it goes, we can't live as though it's true. Eighty per cent of our bodies are water but we still don't carry ourselves round in buckets.
On some level, maybe that duplicitous old ‘common sense’ level so rightly distrusted by theorists, we must live our lives as if there were something at our centre. It is this illogical belief in our inner core—our soul, or goodness, or humanity—that keeps us from being sucked down the plughole of existential angst. For what might we be, how might we behave, if we truly believed ourselves to be no greater than the sum of our culturally accumulated parts?
One answer is, that we would be a Jean-Claude Romand: a self-impersonator, a mirror image with no original, a ‘void disguised as a man’.11
Like the World Trade Centre towers, the revolutionary architecture of which is now an article of faith, Romand seems to be held together by nothing more substantial than his skin. While most of us benefit from the supporting framework of an illusory but deeply convincing authenticity, he appears devoid of integrity, both moral and structural. And yet, we can't help but wonder, doesn't this empty shell remind us of someone? Couldn't it be a kind of figuring forth of our own self-deluding, play-acting, insincere selves?
Perhaps what is so frightening about Romand's case, and what draws us to it with such magnetic fascination, is that he represents page 218 that figure so familiar from myths and fairy tales: the stony, monstrous, deadened creature we might all become if we even for a moment stopped believing.
If one had to pen a cautionary tale about the perils of taking French structuralism to heart, one could hardly do better than the case of Jean-Claude Romand.
One must be sincere. Sincere at any price, even to our own detriment12
‘Above all do not believe your friends when they ask you to be sincere with them … If you should find yourself in this situation, do not hesitate: promise to be truthful and lie as best you can.’13 So says the former Parisian lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, whose revelatory monologue is Albert Camus' short novel The Fall (La Chute). While awaiting trial, Romand copied eight pages of excerpts from the book, including the sentence above, and sent them from prison to a friend,14 saying that they expressed his thoughts very well.
‘Perhaps French murderers are exceptionally better read than ours,’ writes American Laura Miller, ‘or perhaps 18 years of killing time while you're pretending to be at the office gives a guy lots of time to catch up on the classics.’15 Whichever is the case, Romand's quoting from the novel is deeply unsettling.
As an element of his endless self-mythologising, Romand's attempt to align himself with a canonical figure in French literature and thought—not to mention a hero of the French Resistance—is page 219 abhorrent. It is as if the suave moral vacuum who is the protagonist of The Fall has stepped from its pages and declared: yes, that Camus was a clever fellow all right, he has struck the nail quite on the head. Camus wrote an indictment: Romand found a résumé.16
The Fall begins in an Amsterdam bar. Its protagonist and narrator, ‘judge-penitent’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence, was once, by his own account, a man of no ordinary virtue. Seeing a blind person on the street he would race, literally sprint, to their assistance. Giving alms was his greatest pleasure, particularly when he could do so secretly. He acted pro-bono for widows and orphans, evading their thanks and pooh-poohing the praise of his peers.
Eventually Clamence reveals that these were the actions of a man for whom all was a show, a performance in which he was both actor and audience. ‘In a way, moreover,’ he remarks, ‘I believed what I said … it is not surprising that my partners likewise began to tread the boards enthusiastically.’17
His decision not to rescue a woman who has jumped into the Seine throws Clamence off his stride. His life of disingenuous virtue begins to collapse and he becomes subject to a secret terror: ‘A ridiculous fear pursued me, in fact: one could die without having confessed all one's lies.’18
Published in the 1950s, The Fall is widely read as a condemnation of those who ‘allowed’ the holocaust to happen. An over-simplified reading might be that just as Clamence ignores the cries from the river, Europe ignored the cries from the camps, and so lost the illusion of its humanity.
I read it as a more universal tale, and see Clamence's failure as one page 220 of sincerity. He is simply not genuine, not in his virtue, his vice, nor his narrativising of the journey from one to the other. The Fall is a condemnation of a man who is willfully alienated not from society, but from himself. His alienation is shown by Camus not as a misfortune, a failure of will, or even a mental illness, but as a moral crime for which there can be no genuine confession, and hence no forgiveness.
Romand, then, has not merely missed the point of the novel, he is himself the living embodiment of the moral insincerity that so horrified Camus. Indeed, Romand is worse than Clamence, for he is both the horror itself, and the moral coward who turns away from the horror. One feels that The Fall should be an anathema to Romand, it should sizzle in his hands. Like holy water to a vampire it should be his nemesis. Instead, it is his apologia.
Chaos turned to order is a comfort. Hence the popularity of rationalising devices from the palm pilot to the murder mystery. I think it is this, more than anything, that draws me to read about crime. In a life where the little grey cells can so rarely tie up all the loose ends, there is something very reassuring about reaching a final conclusion. And there is also something superstitiously protective about encountering terror at one remove, as if by doing so we can immunise ourselves, and strengthen our resistance.
It is not surprising then that, after thinking about the case of Jean-Claude Romand for these months, the concept I keep coming back to in conclusion is comfort. The comfort of one who may close the book and turn away from the page, of one who has been, to paraphrase Camus, neither victim nor executioner.19
And the comfort of one who lives a good life, for, if we accept the banality of evil—and we so readily accept it that the phrase is itself page 221 banal—we must surely also accept the banality, the commonplace nature, the ordinariness of good.
To walk to our car in the morning and drive to a real office; to lie in bed with a partner from whom we fear no discovery; to have nothing to hide but our weakness and folly: these are the hallmarks of our virtue, our humanity, the tedious daily heroism of simply living as authentic a life as possible.
Near the end of The Fall Jean-Baptiste Clamence describes a medieval punishment for criminals:
To be sure, you are not familiar with that dungeon cell that was called the little-ease in the Middle Ages. More often than not, one was forgotten there for life. That cell was distinguished from others by ingenious dimensions. It was not high enough to stand up in nor yet wide enough to lie down in. One had to take on an awkward manner and live on the diagonal; sleep was a collapse and waking a squatting. Mon cher, there was genius—and I am weighting my words—in that so simple invention. Every day through the unchanging constraint that stiffened his body, the condemned man learned that he was guilty and that innocence consists in stretching joyously.20
Our unnoticed luxury, our reward for having the courage to travel life's awkward landscapes, our prize for simply being ourselves, then, is that of stretching to our full height. And that is the great ease and comfort I take as I turn away from the page towards the blank unwritten sheets of a newly-made bed.
1 Carrere gives this account of sending the imprisoned Romand a letter introducing himself and providing a sample of his work, a biography of science-fiction writer Phillip K. Dick: ‘I posted the letter. A few moments afterwards—too late—I realised with dismay what effect the title of the accompanying book might have been on the recipient: I Am Alive and You Are Dead.’ Emmanuel Carrere, The Adversary, translated by Linda Coverdale, Bloomsbury, 2000 (page 24). All further page references to The Adversary are included in the text.
2 Romand's prosecutor begins his summing up to the jury (164).
3 Albert Camus, The Fall & The Outsider, translated by Stuart Gilbert, large-print edition, Lythway Press, 1977 (10). One of the peculiarities of researching this essay was only being able to obtain The Fall in a large-print edition. It was a strange reading experience, as the very large letters seemed to leave grey shadows behind them on the page, and reminded me of reading primers like Hungry Lambs and Grandmother's Visit.
4 ‘Even if we average citizens never go so far as to build a life of lies or slay the ones we love, we all sometimes say and do things—craven, savage, courageous—that mystify even ourselves. The bizarre extremity of Romand's behavior paralleled the degree to which he'd lost any sense of an authentic self within the labyrinthine false self he created to impress others. He went a long way down a path most of us have set out on at least once; his story shows us its final destination.’ So concludes Laura Miller's excellent review of The Adversary for Salon.com.
5 If Macbeth murdered sleep, then surely Romand murdered time.
6 ‘Leaving him, one of the psychiatrists said to his colleague, “If he weren't already in prison, he'd have turned up on the TV talk shows already!”’ (152) One can imagine Romand after his release in 2015, aged 61, touring schools to speak piously about his ‘rehabilitation’.
7 Jean-Francois de la Harpe, writing after the French Revolution. From David A. Bell's review of A Revolution in Language: The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France in thenewrepublic.com.
8 ‘Empathy with the devil’, an interview with Emmanuel Carrere by Gaby Wood, as it appears in guardian.com. One thing that strikes this reader about the case is how religious France is as a society. ‘It is not every day you get to look into the eyes of the Devil’ ran the first line of Le Monde's coverage of the trial. In his reporting for Le Nouvel Observateur, Carrere referred to Romand as ‘a man damned to hell’. (34) The title of his book, L'Adversaire, is an ancient French nickname for Satan and Carrere ends it with the words: ‘I thought that writing this story could only be either a crime or a prayer.’ (183)
9 Reading the works of France's famously impossible psychoanalytic theorist might be considered a cruel and unusual punishment in itself. Reading Jacques Lacan, write Muller and Richardson, is ‘infuriating’ and ‘extraordinarily painful’. And these are the authors of a guide to his writings.
10 The construction of identity. How easily that phrase trips off the keyboard! It brings back nostalgic memories of literary theory tutorials at university, the bright, bright sun outside the window, the deathly silence as no one wanted to admit they couldn't make head or tail of the textbook.
11 Brendan Bernhard, laweekly.com, describing Romand in a review of The Adversary.
13 The Fall(69).
14 The ‘friend’ to whom the letter was sent was a Madame Milo, who had been a teacher at Antoine's school. After Romand's imprisonment she had visited him in jail, where, the prosecutor later made her acknowledge in court, the guards had observed ‘voluptuous embraces’ between them. As well as the letter with its quotes from Camus, Romand sent her a poem of his own composition which ends with the lines ‘… a je ne sais quoi / that gives confidence / even in silence / so I'm here to tell you / an ‘“I love you”’. It is one of life's curious facts that imprisoned murderers are rarely short of female company.
15 Salon.com. Laura Miller is one of the website's editors.
16 One might have thought even Romand could have guessed that quoting Clamence was unlikely to throw a sympathetic light on his character. ‘I live in the Jewish quarter,’ says Clamence, ‘or what was called so until our Hitlerian brethren spaced it out a bit. What a clean-up! Seventy-five thousand Jews deported or assassinated; that's real vacuum-cleaning. I admire that diligence, that methodical patience! When one has no character one has to apply a method.’ The Fall (10).
17 The Fall (57).
18 The Fall (83).
19 A collection of Camus's essays is titled Neither Victims Nor Executioners. Camus was passionately opposed to the death penalty, even for murderers of children, whom he considered the worst of criminals.
20 The Fall (101).