While Dominique Strauss-Kahn broods under guard in a downtown Manhattan apartment, the housekeeper who has accused the former head of the International Monetary Fund of sexual assault remains silent until she can speak in court. Another alleged victim, Tristane Banon, a 31-year-old French novelist and journalist, isn’t speaking to reporters, either. But that hasn’t always been the case. Banon has been trying to tell her story for years—through her fiction, in her interviews, on television broadcasts, and before a live audience. What she has said—and why everyone has heard but no one has listened—reveal much about la vie privée, la vie publique in France.
At the time of the alleged attack in 2002, Banon, who was then only 22, and DSK were hardly strangers. She was the goddaughter of his second wife and one of his daughter’s best friends. Tristane herself was the result of a union between her mother and a married man she has never met, a man she later described in one of her novels as naming her as a dog would by “peeing on a wall to establish its territory.” One wonders whether DSK, whom she alleges attempted to rape her during an interview for an early collection of interviews with powerful men called Admitted Mistakes, wasn’t one of the authoritarian fathers she observed as she grew up and later described in a popular French talk show. Banon later told Agora Vox: Citizens’ Media that she removed the chapter on DSK under pressure. “In this story, I wasn’t mean, I didn’t file a complaint, I pulled the chapter, I did everything he told me to do.”
The disturbing truths at the heart of the fiction that she subsequently wrote were shaped by the author’s own life. I Forgot to Kill Her, the title of Banon’s first novel, tracks the strained relations between Tristane and her mother Anne Mansouret, a longtime politico in Normandy. The book got a lot of attention, especially in venues such as Régine, where she signed copies by the coat check from 11 to 2 in the morning. But who, exactly, would the author like to kill in a book Banon readily describes as autobiographical? Her story features an ambitious, unflinching mother who chooses politics over maternity and leaves her child in the hands of a Moroccan nanny who drinks so much that her young charge learns to recognize the difference between Irish and Scottish whisky with her eyes closed. The more alcohol the nanny consumes, the more she beats her young charge, usually favoring the child’s back. Banon narrates this personal story in such a flat, featureless tone that a reader might never have suspected that the story was real.
Mansouret describes herself as “a mother, a matriarch, not a mommy” during her first television appearance with Banon in 2008. Mansouret’s short, backswept hair and chiseled face look harsh next to her daughter’s delicate features. Sweeping aside the blond hair that tumbles into her eyes, Banon describes a mother who is “cold, square,” a woman who made it clear that she “didn’t like children.” Yet this same woman is “pragmatic,” someone her daughter claims she would call as soon as she had a problem. The camera cuts away to stunning photographs of a younger Mansouret that fill Banon’s bedroom as she reaches over to touch the picture of her mother.
Mireille Dumas, the chatty host of the show, Vie Privée, Vie Publique, does her best to deflect the discomfort between the two, but the strain is evident, especially when Banon reveals a box filled with artifacts from her father’s life that she stole from her mother’s room when she moved to Normandy, leaving her 14-year-old daughter behind in Paris. A clock, a leather folder, and a few other items are all that remain of the man who visited her only once when she was born and disappeared the next day. When Mansouret speaks of giving birth to “a person, a future adult,” rather than a child and the “social responsibility” she bore by having a child out of wedlock, her daughter stares straight ahead and, indeed, so does the viewer. What can possibly tumble out of this mother’s mouth next? This: “I have no unconditional love.” Is it any wonder that Banon says she was entranced by American television, where mothers declared they would love their children no matter what?
It’s perhaps even more shocking to watch Banon on a television program called 93, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré that aired in February 2007. She wasn’t invited to talk about her novels, but about the real event that happened when she was 22, something that appears to be as savory as un bon repas. The talk show, now defunct, takes place over an elegant candlelit table. The atmosphere is clubby, but what isn’t clear is whether Banon is a member or not. Red wine is poured. People twice her age surround a bubbly, animated woman who is disconcertingly self-assured as she tells the story of an assault by a politician whose name the show’s producers conveniently bleep out. She laughs as she tells the tale and listeners lean forward, captivated by her tale of warding off her attacker by hitting and kicking him. When she describes the would-be rapist who tore off her bra, a male voice says, “Ah, j’adore.” A battery of knowing comments follows, for this man is a joueur with an established reputation, and all at once it’s time for dessert. Viewers watch as dollops of crème are applied to tiny pastries.
Even though Banon has fallen silent, her mother is now speaking for her. In an interview with France Three in Haute Normandie, Mansouret confirms “without a doubt” that her daughter was assaulted in 2002. In carefully vetted language, not unlike la langue de bois that DSK used in his first interview with Banon for her book of essays, Mansouret states that her daughter’s attacker “lost his head,” but concedes her own error in thinking that it only was “a moment of wildness” for a man attracted to women. The reporter asks if her daughter regrets not filing a complaint. Anne Mansouret says she doesn’t think so, that she advised her daughter against this, given the friendly relations the families could have had. “I thought that for his family that must have been an extremely difficult period and complex to manage” because otherwise this man was “warm, nice, full of talent.”
What traumatized her daughter most over the course of the years, she said, was that as soon as she had a project, she was hounded by the incident and that there was an “invisible barrier” because people were afraid of what she could eventually reveal. Banon’s journalism career was aborted, her mother says, because no press group would have her, and she began to write fiction. She suffered from depression for a long time. Mansouret states that she is no psychiatrist and is unwilling to judge, but this sort of predatory behavior is a form of violence.
Banon has spent a lifetime fighting off attackers, if her charges are correct. A nagging question remains about why Mansouret didn’t listen to a young daughter with so much to tell. Once the director of a communications agency, she told La Dépêche in October 2004 that if her daughter had reported that her nanny had “beaten” her rather than “hit” her, she would perhaps have paid attention. What a shame that a child’s cry for help went unheard because of the wrong word choice.
Linda Phillips Ashour is the author of Speaking in Tongues and other novels and short fiction. She lived in France for eight years.