At 14 Vanessa Springora was groomed by a celebrated writer who was 50 years old. Here, she tells Rosie Kinchen why her family and country turned a blind eye to his paedophilia for so long.
It is unfathomable to think that it was ever OK for a 14-year-old girl to enter into a sexual relationship with a 50-year-old man; for her own mother to know about it, for friends at school to gossip and for well-known and well-respected adults to indulge it, yet this is what happened to Vanessa Springora. Her book, Consent, is the story of the relationship she had with the celebrated author Gabriel Matzneff, whom she met in the 1980s when she was 13.
When it was published in France last year the book shot up the bestseller lists and triggered a cultural reckoning akin to the #MeToo movement. "I was completely blown away by the impact, not just in terms of sales but also the impact on French society," says Springora, 48, on the phone from her home in Paris. Now the head of the Juilliard publishing house, she is less enthusiastic about the #MeToo parallel. "While it is true that my book has become integrated in the wave around it, I try to remind people that this is first and foremost a piece of literature," she says.
Springora's relationship with Matzneff began when her mother, a press attaché for a publishing house, took her along to a dinner party where he was a guest. He groomed her, sending letters to the house and collecting her after school. Her mother, essentially a single parent after Springora's father left, was initially horrified when she learnt that the relationship was physical, but Matzneff was able to talk her round and the relationship continued on the understanding that he "never hurt" her daughter.
To comprehend how any of this was able to happen, you have to consider the social influence in France at the time, Springora says. Her mother was one of the counter-revolutionary generation of 1968, "the inheritors of a new moral code in which it was forbidden to forbid", she says. "They were reacting to their own education, which had been very restrictive, particularly when it came to the body and sexuality."
The story is not so much one of parental neglect but of a society that was complicit in the abuse and yet another example of the realities of French patriarchy. Matzneff is not the first member of the French elite to be exposed for his exploitation of young women, but he was certainly the most brazen about his taste for much younger girls and children. He wrote a pamphlet called Les moins de 16 ans, which Springora describes as a handbook for paedophiles, and discussed his predilections (including a trip to Manila to pick up eight-year-old boys) on literary panel shows. Far from being an outcast, Matzneff was an established figure who was once praised by President Mitterrand as a "hedonist inspiration".
In the book, Matzneff's disregard for the rules that bind everyone else is striking. At one point, when the police are alerted to his inappropriate relationships, he and Springora moved in a hotel — the rent allegedly paid by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé. "In France we idealise the figure of the writer; in the hierarchy of the arts, literature comes above everything else," Springora says. She grew up in the intellectual milieu of St Germain des Prés, where writers were celebrated as demigods. "Had he been a gym teacher or the parent of a friend, he would have almost certainly gone to prison." In this way the book is really about power; who we give it to and where it should be curtailed. It is also about correcting an imbalance.
It was Springora who eventually ended the relationship. By then she was 15 and had begun to read more of his work — his diaries and the titles he had studiously kept away from her. Even at that age she could see this wasn't a relationship but a pattern of behaviour that she had become caught up in. Unfortunately that wasn't the end of it. Between the ages of 16 and 24, while Springora was doing her best to forget she had ever met him, Matzneff published a series of books about their time together, including letters she had written when she was 14. He referred to her as "little V" in print and discussed their "love affair" in interviews. "For everybody else it was the beating of a butterfly's wings on a tranquil lake," she writes in the book, "but for me it was like an earthquake."
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Her intention was never vengeance or a witch-hunt, she says (she never names Matzneff in the book, referring to him simply as G), but to reclaim control over an experience he had taken from her. The literary canon is rich with tales of middle-aged men tortured by desire for young people they cannot have, but what of the victim — which now, after many years, Springora can accept she was. Nor does she shy away from asking questions of the publishers, agents and editors who enabled Matzneff's behaviour, some of whom are still working today. This was one of the reasons it took her a long time to write the book. "I was very scared of the professional consequences," she says, admitting that her relationship with certain figures who have supported Matzneff over the years is still "not simple".
She had tried many times to get her story down but was either "too young or too close to the events" and couldn't do it. Then, in 2013, Matzneff, whose work had largely fallen out of fashion in the intervening years, was awarded the Prix Renaudot, a prestigious literary prize. "It was a moment of revulsion for me," she says. "I saw that nothing had changed and it really, really shocked me." A legal case reinforced the horror; an 11-year-old girl was sexually abused by a 28-year-old man in a Paris suburb. French law dictates that a child under 15 is a minor, but the judge has leeway in determining the severity of the charge and the punishment. Though they'd had penetrative sex, the initial charge was of sexual assault, not rape, on the basis that the 11-year-old had consented. "I was horrified to realise that in 2017 they could claim consent by an 11-year-old to reduce the crimes of a paedophile — because an adult who has sex with an 11-year-old is a paedophile," Springora says.
Around the same time her son and stepdaughter were reaching the age she had been when Matzneff groomed her, and something clicked. "Sometimes it is only when you are a parent yourself that you can revisit your own adolescence and see it from a perspective where you are shocked. I had to be a mother to see that this experience was not normal," she says. For Matzneff the consequences were swift. He was dropped by three publishers, lost his column in Le Point and is now the subject of a criminal charge for actively promoting paedophilia while police try to find other victims (Springora's experiences are beyond the statute of limitations).
He has called the book "ugly" and "hostile". Springora doubts the criminal inquiries will be successful, but says that was never her intention anyway. The response from readers, however, has been overwhelming. She has received letters not just from women who have experienced abuse "but from men, either terrible cases where they themselves were abused, or from fathers of young girls and boys, thanking me for showing that it is important to be vigilant in situations like this". A more surprising outcome is a rapprochement with her mother. "Whenever I go through a period of depression or suffer an uncontrollable panic attack, I tend to take it out on my mother," she writes in the book. "Pathologically, I am constantly trying to force an apology from her, or at least an iota of contrition. But no matter how much I berate her, she never concedes." Except now she has done. The day Springora sent her mother the manuscript to read, she dreaded her reaction "more than anyone else's". But her mother wrote back: "Don't change a thing. This is your story."
"Having never been able to talk about this subject without arguing quite seriously, she can now see my point of view," Springora says. She is able to acknowledge not just the trauma of the relationship but the fact that it alienated a 14-year-old from her peers and burdened her with feelings of guilt and shame.
The book has been published in 24 languages and is now being made into a film. It has also become part of a slow social awakening in France. Allegations of sexual assault in New York forced Dominique Strauss-Kahn to resign as the head of the IMF in 2011, though the criminal proceedings were dropped and a civil claim was settled out of court. Since then a number of high-profile abuse cases have shocked the nation. Prosecutors are investigating Gérald Marie, the former boss of the Elite modelling agency, over allegations of rape and sexual assault by a number of women on his books. Last month Olivier Duhamel, a political pundit and friend of President Macron, was forced to resign when his stepdaughter published a book alleging that he had raped his stepson for a period of two years starting when he was 14. The French Senate has since approved a new draft law to give minors aged 13 and under added protection from sexual assault. These cases have also triggered uncomfortable questions for French society as a whole. For Springora, though, it has allowed her finally to close an extremely traumatic chapter of her life with "the feeling that I have done something useful with it".
Written by: Rosie Kinchen
© The Times of London