To outsiders, Camille Kouchner’s family seemed larger than life. Her mother, Évelyne Pisier, an early feminist, once had a relationship with Fidel Castro. Her father, Bernard Kouchner, a politician and doctor, co-founded Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), and was the French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs in President Nicholas Sarkozy’s government. Her stepfather, Oliver Duhamel, was a university professor and politician. Her aunt, Marie-France Pisier, was a star of the French New Wave, making her screen acting debut in Francois Truffaut’s 1962 film, Antoine and Colette.
“The famille grande” lived in Paris but spent the summers with extended family and friends in the south of France in their Sanary-sur-Mer house. Camille and her siblings, including her twin brother (called Victor, in the book), were envied by other children for the laissez-faire manner in which they were raised. During the gatherings at Sanary, there were few restrictions. The young children swam naked with adults, smoked, drank, and were encouraged to explore their sexuality. “Your mother’s super nice,” Camille’s friends would tell her. “You’re so lucky…there’s never any orders or punishments.” But the family story was much darker.
Évelyne was inspired by her own mother, Paula, “a stunning woman,” who, according to Camille, looked like Marilyn Monroe. She divorced her husband, Georges, remarried him and then divorced him again. Évelyne would divorce Bernard, too, telling Camille, “I’m much happier like this. You’re not allowed to cry. You’re a girl. Like my mother. Like me.” Camille’s grandparents both died by suicide, he used a shotgun, she used pills. Évelyne was never the same, finding solace in the bottle.
Camille longed to be close to her mother, but that relationship remained elusive. After Évelyne married Oliver, Camille found the love and closeness she craved from her stepfather. “At Sanary, as in Paris, my stepfather made my life better,” she writes.
What Camille soon discovered, however, was that her stepfather was making nightly visits to her brother’s room. Suspecting what was happening, she confronted her brother, but he swore her to secrecy. Even after Victor moved to the U.S., he pleaded with Camille not to tell anyone. Camille went on with her life, attending law school, marrying and giving birth to a daughter. But whenever another boy was added to the extended family, Camille (and Victor, too), feared that their stepfather would find another child to groom.
Camille Kouchner (Photo Credit: Bénédicte Roscot)
Camille tried her best to walk a fine line between honoring her brother’s wishes while protecting others from her stepfather’s tentacles. Her pain comes through on every page of this memoir. She describes her internal struggles with guilt and shame, like being strangled by a hydra, a snake with many heads. Even when the secret is revealed, there’s no redemption. The Sanary wagons circle and protect her stepfather. Even on her death bed, Évelyne is merciless, blaming Camille for not speaking up sooner, even though when she learns the truth, she stays with her husband. With the statute of limitations having expired, Oliver cannot be prosecuted. What finally brings some form of justice happens when Camille finally publishes her memoir, the book creating an earthquake in France, forcing Oliver to resign his many pubic positions, and sparking public dialogues about incest, sexual abuse, and how powerful men oftentimes escape punishment.
Camille dedicates the book to Victor, but that’s not his real name. To the end, Victor, like so many victims, are the ones who hide in the shadows.
Although Camille waited until her mother died to publish this memoir, that she finally did shows her bravery. Hopefully, others who are hiding family secrets will relate to this story and find the strength and courage to speak out, no matter the consequences.
The Familia Grande
Translated by Adriana Hunter