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    When we deny the evil in ourselves, we dehumanize ourselves, and we deprive ourselves not only of our own destiny but of any possibility of dealing [effectively] with the evil
    of others.
        -J. Robert Oppenheimer

On January 9, 1993,  Jean-Claude Romand, an ordinary-seeming doctor at the World Health Organization (WHO), well liked in his community, murdered his parents, his two children and his wife, tried killing himself, and set fire to his house, in Prevessin, France.  For the people who knew him, the crimes were shocking enough, but then came the true mystery, for it quickly became apparent that Mr. Romand had never actually completed medical school and had never worked for the WHO.  How had a man of nearly forty managed to pull of this enormous hoax, fooling even his family and best friends?  How had he supported himself and his family?  What had he done every day when he was supposedly at work?

Mr. Romand, despite his desultory suicide attempt, survived to stand trial and Emmanuel Carrère, a best-selling French novelist, decided that he had to cover the story :

    [W]hat I really wanted to know [was] what went on in his head during those days he supposedly spent in the office...days he spent, it was
    now thought, walking in the woods.

That is what Romand had told investigators, that he spent his days walking in the woods.  It was also revealed that he'd been living off of the money that family and friends had naively given him to invest for them, including all of his parents' savings.  Mr. Carrère tried contacting Romand, but got nowhere at first.  Then he wrote a best-selling novel, featuring a Romand type character, that apparently impressed the killer enough--he told Mr. Carrère that portions of it captured his childhood--that he "allowed" Mr. Carrère to become his Boswell.  The author expresses some reservations about this relationship, but he was intent on getting the story so he proceeded.  Unfortunately, it seems a strong possibility that he may have allowed his own preconceptions and his need to find certain themes in Romand's story to interfere with the facts of the case.

For Mr. Carrère, the entire thing seems to hinge on that one image, of Romand thoughtfully walking in the woods.  But even though he shows over the course of the book that Romand was a particularly accomplished liar and manipulator of people, Mr. Carrère never so much as contemplates the notion that these walks too are a lie.  Similarly, he concludes that Romand is telling the truth when he says that the entire deception began simply because he missed a med school exam, and that it snow-balled from there :

    When you get caught in that endless effort not to disappoint people, the first lie leads to another, and then it's your whole life.

This has the pleasingly French effect of making Romand a kind of existential anti-hero, whose one mistake traps him in an irreversible march towards doom, but it begs the question of why we should believe him on this issue, when everything else he's said for twenty years has been a lie.  And since Mr. Carrère shows the lengths that Romand had to go to in order to stay at school, despite not staying up with his class, and says that he could certainly have passed the exam, one has to wonder why Romand found the effort and the deceit worthwhile.  In one of the more fascinating asides (unfortunately unexplored), the author notes that even in high school, Romand chose as an essay topic the question : Does truth exist?  Isn't there at least a possibility that this was an early indicator that Romand was untroubled by the notion of falsehoods?  If he did eventually find himself trapped in a series of lies, it was certainly a trap that he entered eagerly enough.   By not attacking Romand self-serving "confessions"  about himself with the vigorous skepticism that they require, Mr. Carrère gets to write the tale he'd hoped for, but he loses a considerable degree of trustworthiness.

The author's thesis would seem to require that Romand be a decent person in all regards other than those which flow from the initial lie and which eventually end in the "necessary" killing of those to whom he has lied and who could otherwise expose him.  But he killed his parents dog.  A small thing you say?  Perhaps, but the dog wasn't going to talk, and if Romand's actions were totally dictated by the circumstances, wouldn't sparing the dog be a fitting touch?  Adding urgency to the question is the near breakdown that Romand is driven to at trial when a dog is merely mentioned.  What's up with dogs?  Inquiring minds want to know.

More serious, he spent several hours, after he killed his wife and children, randomly recording whatever was on television in order to overwrite a videotape that he obviously didn't want anyone to see.  Mr. Carrère tantalizes the reader with the suggestion that it could have been one of the pornographic videos that Romand claimed to sometimes watch with his wife--a claim which those who knew her protest as impossible--or even a tape of him and his wife having sex--which they find unthinkable.  Why should we believe that Romand spent his "work" days walking and reading a stack of newspapers (another of his assertions) when elsewhere in his life he is admitting frequenting sex shops and buying porno?  Mightn't he be lying to all of us about the secret daytime life he lived, just as he lied to friends and family?   But Mr. Carrère lets the matter drop, the questions unasked, the mystery unexplained.   He manifests the one unforgivable sin in a mystery writer, a lack of curiosity.

In the books closing pages, the author writes about a Catholic prayer group that Romand, who is now in prison,  has joined, and Mr. Carrère portrays the members of the group as appallingly credulous, for believing it possible that Romand has seriously been brought to God.  But what are we, the readers, to make of Mr. Carrère and his intermittent credulousness?  How is his need to believe certain things of Romand, things which serve his own literary or psychological purposes, any different than the need of these religious folk to believe that even the soul of a Romand can be saved?

The adversary of the book's title is Satan and Mr. Carrère ends with the suggestion that perhaps when Romand prays, and imagines that he can be loved despite his horrible crimes, he is being deceived by Satan.  He even goes so far as to say of Romand :

    He is not putting on an act, of that I'm sure...

But what can be the source of the author's certainty?  The crimes of people like Jean-Claude Romand are so horrifying that perhaps it is necessary for us to cling to the delusion that we can find some rational explanation for them.  But this allows them opportunities to toy with us, as Ted Bundy did when he gave an utterly disingenuous interview saying that exposure to pornography was to blame for his deviance, thereby gratifying Christian activists who grasped at his confession, before he revoked it.  There's a line of Hannibal Lecter's, in Silence of the Lambs, that we all recall, but we tend to forget the one that precedes it :

    A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

The point is not one of cuisine, but  that the mad Doctor refuses to be quantified, to be reduced to a set of facts and figures on paper, to be depicted as the result of a series of causes, as if X + Y = serial killer.  And perhaps we are foolish to try and explain these men away in this nearly arithmetical fashion.

Mightn't it be the case that what is necessary is for us to accept that there is such a thing as evil and that men like Romand are not victims of circumstance, but men who have willingly chosen to be evil.   It is somehow comforting if we can tell ourselves that the problem here was a "monstrous deception", a lie that spun out of control.  How much more difficult it is to confront the idea that there is an actual "monster" at the core of the case, that the lie was incidental to Romand's life of evil, not instrumental in causing it.  A few lines from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn seem apropos :

    If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us
    and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece
    of his own heart.

We are not "safe" now that Romand is behind bars, especially if we choose to view him as a victim himself.  The central mystery of this book, that Romand could get away with being a monster for so long, could pass so easily as one of us, is really no mystery at all : he seemed so normal because he truly is one of us.  And the capacity to be a Romand lies within each of us.  To be a human being is to face an endless series of moral choices, to decide every day and throughout each day to do good, rather than evil.  This is frightening, but it should be empowering too.  By the end of The Adversary, when  Mr. Carrère says, "I no longer saw any mystery in his [Romand's] long imposture, only a pathetic mixture of blindness, cowardice, and distress,"  it seems to me that he has completely lost control of what started as an interesting story.  It seems to me that it is he who has succumbed to blindness and cowardice, in his inability or unwillingness to hold Romand responsible for his actions, for his choices, for his embrace of evil.  The final line of the book reads :

    I thought that writing this story could only be either a crime or a prayer.

I don't think it's necessarily a crime, but it's no prayer.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

See also:

True Crime
Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception by Emmanuel Carrère (Picador USA)
    -BOOK SITE : The Adversary (FSB Associates)
    -ARCHIVES : "emmanuel carrere" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (Julie Salamon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (Harry Mount, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (JOHN DeMERS, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (Hugh Dillon, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (Brent Simon, Entertainment Today)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (PENNY HUESTON, The Age)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (Vikki Petraitis, Crime Factory)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (Jamie Allen, CNN)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary  (Josie Rawson, RainTaxi)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (Lachlan MacKintosh, FFWD)
    -REVIEW : of The Adversary (Good Reports)
    -REVIEW : of Class Trip (Mary Hawthorne, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Class Trip (Robert A. Stribley, Creative Loafing)
    -REVIEW : of Class Trip (Stephen M. Davis, Dark Planet)
    -REVIEW : of The Mustache (Rob Couteau, Arete Magazine)

FILMS :
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Carrere, Emmanuel (Imdb.com)
    -INFO :  L' Adversaire (2001)

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