For decades, the writer Gabriel Matzneff used Francesca Gee's image and letters to champion his sexual pursuit of adolescents. But her own account was rejected, until now.
In her telling, Francesca Gee was out with a girlfriend, a late autumn day in Paris in 1983, when they spotted a new bookstore. As they lingered before the storefront, her friend suddenly pointed to the bottom of the window.
"Look, it's you!"
Gee's face was staring back at her from the cover of a novel, Drunk on Lost Wine, by Gabriel Matzneff, the writer and champion of paedophilia.
A decade earlier, at 15, Gee, had gotten involved in a traumatic three-year relationship with the much older Matzneff. Now, he was using her teenage face on his novel's cover, and her letters in its pages, without having asked her or even informing her, she said.
For decades, despite Gee's protests, Matzneff used her letters to justify paedophilia and what he cast as great love affairs with teenage girls, all the while supported by members of France's literary, media, business and political elite.
Matzneff's books were endorsed by some of France's most prestigious publishers, including Gallimard, which printed Drunk on Lost Wine (Ivre du vin perdu) for nearly four decades with the same cover — in effect using Gee's face to promote the kind of relationship that has scarred some of Matzneff's victims for life.
"I'm persecuted by this image of me, which is like a malevolent double," Gee said.
Hers is the story of a woman unable to tell her own story — until now.
Gee, now 62, contacted The New York Times after the publication of an article that described how Matzneff openly wrote about and engaged in sex with teenage girls and prepubescent boys for decades.
After anguishing over her decision, Gee — who had a career as a journalist and speaks fluent English, French, Italian and Spanish — broke her silence of 44 years in a series of interviews over two days in southwest France, where she lives.
That decision was facilitated by a recent cultural shift in France.
Matzneff first achieved renown in the 1970s, when some French intellectuals regarded paedophilia as a form of liberation against parental oppression. Though those views fell out of favor in the 1990s, he continued to publish and prosper until late last year.
But in the past couple of months, he was charged with promoting the sexual abuse of children, stripped of state-conferred honours and dropped by his three publishers.
Gallimard stopped selling the novel with Gee's image on the cover only in January, after the publication of Le Consentement (Consent), the first account by one of Matzneff's underage victims, Vanessa Springora.
Consent turned the widely celebrated Matzneff into a social pariah overnight. While he went into hiding in Italy, his former supporters, across France's elite, have studiously distanced themselves or jettisoned him.
When she first heard of Consent, Gee said, she was "elated" that the "Vanessa" in Matzneff's books — someone she had never met but had always considered a little sister — was speaking.
"She has done the work, I don't have to worry about it anymore," Gee remembers thinking. "But then within a week or two, I realise that I'm very much a part of this story."
In fact, nearly two decades before Consent shook up France, Gee tried — unsuccessfully — to tell her story, in 2004. She wrote a manuscript that, in detailing her involvement with Matzneff, grappled with some of the same themes and used the same vocabulary as Consent.
But no publisher accepted her manuscript.
At Albin Michel, a major house, an editor appeared receptive — but when he took Gee's manuscript to a committee, it was ultimately turned down.
In a rejection letter, the editor, Thierry Pfister, explained that some committee members had expressed reservations, noting that Matzneff, was a part of "Saint-Germain-des-Prés" — shorthand for the French publishing industry concentrated in that Paris neighbourhood.
"Back then, Matzneff wasn't the old, isolated man he is today," said Pfister, who is no longer at Albin Michel. "He was still in Paris with his network, his friends."
"We made the decision not to go cross swords with that group," he recalled. "There was more to lose than to gain. I spoke in her favor. They didn't agree with me."
Matzneff's network of supporters was surprisingly wide.
In 1973, when Gee was 15 and Matzneff was 37, a friend of the writer introduced them to a gynaecologist who agreed to prescribe contraceptive pills to underage girls without their parents' authorisation — an illegal act back then.
In his diary of the period, "Élie et Phaéton," Matzneff writes that the gynaecologist, Dr. Michèle Barzach, "at no point felt the need to lecture this man of 37 years and his lover of 15."
Gee said she saw Barzach a half-dozen times over three years, always accompanied by Matzneff.
"He calls her and makes an appointment, and we go," she recalled. "He's in the waiting room while I'm with her. And then he comes in, and they talk and he pays her."
In his other diaries, Matzneff writes that Barzach became the go-to gynaecologist to whom he took underage girls for years after he and Gee parted in 1976.
Barzach, who was also a psychoanalyst, was France's health minister from 1986 to 1988 under President François Mitterrand.
From 2012 to 2015, she was the head in France of UNICEF, the United Nation's child protection agency. Citing privacy reasons, UNICEF refused to provide contact details for Barzach, who is no longer at the agency. Barzach did not reply to an interview request that UNICEF said had been forwarded to her.
'Love'? Or a 'hostage taking'?
For decades, Matzneff claimed that his relations with underage girls had helped them for the rest of their lives. Their initiation into art, literature, love and sex, by an older man, had left them happier and freer, he claimed.
The claim — repeated by his supporters — went unchallenged until the publication in January of Consent, in which Springora writes that her involvement with Matzneff, starting at age 14, left her with psychological problems for decades.
In her unpublished manuscript of 2004, Gee described her involvement with the writer as a "cataclysm that shattered me when I was 15 years old, and that changed the course of my life" — leaving her "ashamed, bitter and confused."
The accounts by Gee and Springora are especially significant because Matzneff has often described them as two of the three great loves of his life. He devoted diaries, novels, poems and essays to each woman — material that, according to anti-paedophilia groups, provided the intellectual cover for many men to target prepubescent children or adolescent girls.
Gee recalls running into Matzneff for the first time in Paris in 1973 with her mother, who had known him years before.
David Gee, Gee's younger brother, said their parents regularly invited the writer over for dinner parties. His presence especially pleased their father, a British journalist long based in Paris who sought his place in French society.
"It was one of those very important things, socially speaking, to be established in the intelligentsia," David Gee said. "That was more important than looking at the side effects of paedophilia."
With her father's approval, Francesca Gee saw the writer over three years, unable to break away from him. Her father died in 2014.
Using the same methods he later would with Springora, Matzneff exercised a hold on the teenage girl. He isolated her, forbidding her to socialise with friends her age.
He pulled political strings to have Gee transferred to a high school near his home — and boasted about it in his diaries. Then he got into the habit of waiting for Gee outside her new high school, Lycée Montaigne, next to the Luxembourg Gardens.
"He came every day to make sure that everyone understood that no one was supposed to try anything with me," Gee recalled. "It was a very specific place where he was just standing there waiting for me."
Gee recently met with one of the detectives who began investigating Matzneff and his supporters in the aftermath of the publication of "Consent." After she detailed her involvement with Matzneff during the five-hour meeting in Paris, she said, the detective described it as a "hostage taking."
Trapped in his stories
Gee turned 18 in 1976 and, after several anguished attempts, was finally able to free herself from Matzneff's grip, having become more and more critical of him. "It was growing up, basically," she said.
Still, she would remain hostage for decades — trapped in his storytelling and his use of her letters.
Encouraged by Matzneff, Gee had written him hundreds of amorous and sexually explicit letters during their three years together.
Some of them he published in 1974, without her authorization, in his fierce defence of paedophilia, Les Moins de Seize Ans (Under 16 Years Old). He was offering those letters, he wrote in another book, "Les Passions Schismatiques," as evidence that "a relationship of love between an adult and a child could be for the latter extremely rich, and the source of a fullness of life."
Gee said the words in the letters were those of a teenager manipulated by a man the age of her parents. Her letters were also used in "Ivre du vin perdu," the novel whose cover featured an illustration of her.
"Now I consider they were extorted and used as a weapon against me," Gee said.
In her manuscript, Gee writes that "he used me to justify the sexual exploitation of children and teenagers."
For years, Gee's feelings about her experience with Matzneff were "muddied." Then in the early 1990s, her understanding became clearer.
"It was only when I was almost 35 years old that I realised this wasn't a love story," Gee recalled.
It was in 1992 that she contacted Matzneff, demanding that he stop using her letters and that he return them to her. Eventually, he sent her a photocopied stack — a carefully selected batch that excluded her negative correspondence.
A decade later, in 2002, it was Matzneff who wrote to her, asking, for the first time, her permission to use old photographs of her in a book. In the turquoise blue ink that he always used to pen his letters, Matzneff offered to identify the teenager as "the young girl who inspired the character of Angiolina in 'Ivre du vin perdu.'"
Not only did Gee refuse, but she also demanded again that his books be purged of her letters and that her face be taken off the cover of "Ivre du vin perdu." She also demanded that three old photographs of her be taken off a website devoted to Matzneff and created by an admirer, Frank Laganier. The photos were pulled only seven years later, in 2010, after Gee's continued pressure, she said.
Laganier, who is now living in Paris, declined interview requests. His lawyer, Emmanuel Pierrat — who is representing Matzneff in a paedophilia case and is a longtime supporter of the writer — declined to be interviewed.
In 2004, Gee began preparing to sue Gallimard, the publisher of "Ivre du vin perdu," and "La passion Francesca," Matzneff's diary of their relationship, but stopped because of the high legal costs. Gallimard did not respond to interview requests; Antoine Gallimard, the head of the publishing house, did not respond to an interview request sent to his email address.
Unable to stop Matzneff, Gee also could not tell her own story.
After her manuscript was rejected by Albin Michel, she took it, unsuccessfully, to several other publishing houses.
Geneviève Jurgensen, who was an editor at Bayard and met with Gee in 2004, said the manuscript's focus was not in line with Bayard, which specialised in publishing youth books, as well as works on philosophy and religion.
Jurgensen, after recently reading excerpts from the manuscript, described it as "well written" and containing "situations that seem almost word for word those described by Vanessa Springora."
"Obviously, it wasn't the quality of the book that was the issue," Jurgensen said of Gee's failure to find a publisher in 2004. "Clearly, it was 15 years too early. The world wasn't ready yet."
The final rejection came from Grasset, the very same publisher that broke a taboo by issuing Springora's "Consent" in January.
Martine Boutang, an editor at Grasset, remembers being moved by Gee's account, she said, but couldn't see a way to get it published: The subject was "too sensitive," and two members of Grasset's editorial committee were "close to Matzneff."
"The question wasn't the quality of the text," she said.
Gee recalls feeling that Boutang was trying to stall the project by asking her to rework a manuscript that she had no intention of publishing. Boutang said she did not remember asking for a rewrite.
By contrast, Matzneff had no problems continuing to get his writings published — including Under 16 Years Old, the book that used Gee's letters to justify paedophilia and sex with underage girls.
In a recent interview in the Italian Riviera, where he has been hiding, Matzneff said that if Gee "called me tomorrow, I would be delighted to see her."
Gee would be delighted if she could stop being reminded of him. In a book published last November, more than four decades after she left him, Matzneff mentioned her no fewer than a dozen times. Gee herself is now working on a new manuscript on the writer.
Over the years, unexpected incidents have sometimes reminded her that she remains a prisoner inside Matzneff's story.
A few years ago, she found herself waiting outside the Lycée Montaigne, her old high school, which her niece Lélia was now attending.
"I wait for her where Matzneff used to wait for me," Gee recalled.
Over lunch, her niece, a literature student, told her that she was "working on a contemporary author called Gabriel Matzneff."
That's how Lélia, who is now 25, learned that the books she had been reading described a "family history," she says. To this day, she says, she had talked little with her aunt about her days with Matzneff.
"Most of what I know about all of this comes from Gabriel Matzneff, and not my aunt," she said. "And that's exactly where the problem lies."
Written by: Norimitsu Onishi
Photographs by: Andrea Mantovani
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