On 15 November 2015, two days after terrorist gunmen attacked the Bataclan theatre in Paris during a concert by the American band Eagles of Death Metal – in which 89 people died – Antoine Leiris wrote an open letter to his wife’s killers on Facebook. At the time, he had no idea of the effect his words would have: “On Friday night, you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hate. I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know. You are dead souls.” He would not, he added, give the terrorists the “satisfaction” of hating nor of fearing them: “You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have failed. I will not change.” And he added that his baby son’s happiness (Melvil was 17 months) would continue to defy them: “Because you will not have his hate either.”
It is almost a year since Hélène Muyal-Leiris died and Antoine wrote these words – which were read more than 200,000 times all over the world – and he has followed it with a book of exceptional grace, its title – You Will Not Have My Hate – taken from his original post. It is a pristine October day, windless, blue sky, bright sun, as I arrive in Paris. I meet Antoine Leiris in a serene hotel in the sixth arrondissement – so quiet we are the only people in its lounge and it is hard to believe that what happened in this city could be anything other than a bad dream. In his book, Antoine describes the face he presents to the world, the half smile – “lips closed, one corner of my mouth lifting only slightly, the other a little bit more, my eyes creased”. I recognise his smile from the description of it. At 35, he has an intense face that shows, like watermarked paper, what he has suffered. He is neatly dressed with the casual chic that comes naturally to Frenchmen. At the time the attacks happened, he was working as a cultural commentator for the radio stations France Info and France Bleu. Employed to comment, this is what – no longer working as a journalist – he, in the deepest sense, continues to do.
He orders tea and we talk in a mixture of English and French – his English excellent – and I ask whether it feels as if a year has passed. “Sometimes it seems a fraction of time,” he says, “sometimes an eternity.” He first heard of the terrorist attacks when he was at home babysitting and had turned on the television. In nightmare slow motion, he realised only as the words slid past on the ticker at the bottom of the screen “Terrorist attack at the Bataclan”: Hélène was there. She loved rock’n’roll and heavy metal – not Antoine’s thing. His brother and sister came straight round to his flat and he and his brother got into the car and searched for Hélène through the night. They drove from hospital to hospital – Bichat, Saint-Louis, Saltpêtrière, Georges-Pompidou. In the book, he describes the frantic pursuit that was also a suspended animation: “The streetlights speed past by the side of the ring road. The night deepens. Each light brings me one step closer to hypnosis. My body is no longer mine. Even when there was nothing left to look for we kept going…” The book’s frontispiece tells of the end of that search, a single line of reported speech: “Monsieur, you should prepare yourself for the worst.” But who said this? When, finally, did he know Hélène was dead?
He hesitates. It was “deliberate”, he says, that he chose to withhold some information. Even though his book could not be more intimate, circumstantial details (on the face of it, bizarrely, given what he has elected to write about) are omitted. He has walked a tightrope: this is the most extraordinary account of an emotional journey, not intended as an overexposed confessional. The book is short. Every word has been held up to the light. Yet, as he says, parts of the story are ringfenced, kept for himself and his son. What he makes me see is how the personal is a possession and that this is especially true for everyone involved in the Bataclan tragedy because the personal was – and still is – in danger of being swamped by the public story of international terrorism.
“I have a strange relationship with time,” Antoine goes on. “I live in the present because I’m just carrying on to the next day with my son – the next bath – and really, when you have the responsibility of being a father, it has to be about that.” His devotion to Melvil gives the book spirit but amplifies its sorrow. Embracing his son, uncertain how to convey the unthinkable, he writes: “He spent nine months inside his mother, listening to her live: her heartbeat was the rhythm of his days, her movements were his journey, her words the music of his nascent life, I want him to hear, his ear to my chest, my voice telling him my sorrow.”
Immediately after the attacks, there was a conflict between Antoine’s sense that the world had stopped for ever and life’s insistence on continuing. He describes his outrage when an electricity man showed up at his door to read the meter. “I thought: how dare the world continue to turn?” That feeling passed: life continuing allowed him to continue too. And besides, he solved that initial conflict with his book: it makes time stand still for ever.
In a chapter that reads like an annihilated love letter, he describes going to the morgue to identify Hélène. Through a pane of Perspex, he sees her: “Our life together flashes before my eyes. I feel as though I never had another life. Hélène was the moon. A brunette with milk-white skin, eyes that made her look like a frightened owl, a smile you could fit the whole world inside.” He wants to stay with her but, as ever, there is an official to tell him what to do: “Monsieur, it is time to leave her.”
In the same chapter, he writes about his determination to dodge the psychological support staff in their fluorescent yellow jackets. Why was he so against any form of counselling? “I was resisting the idea that everyone is the same, that a life might be summed up in a sentence. I thought: no, I’m more complicated than that. I thought they might steal my grief, feared they might say: it is that. I felt: it is mine and it is precious and I want to keep it with me.”
I am impressed by his responsiveness, the nuanced intelligence with which he speaks (even in a second language). No wonder he did not want therapists to guide him through his story. But for all his poise, when he laughs, which he thankfully does quite a bit, I can hear that it is provisional – in parenthesis. He tells me that when his Facebook post became an overnight sensation, he was surprised but could not take any interest in it. Has he ever regretted writing it? “Of course,” he pauses and rubs his hands together as if to warm them – “every day” and he explains the “paradox” of having attracted an attention he was never consciously seeking. “I’m a discreet person, I have a normal life – and I like it. I have never wanted to be on the front page of the magazines.”
After Hélène’s death, friends used to come and keep him company when Melvil had gone to bed. One evening, a friend – a journalist herself – told him he had, “written something some people can’t even think. She said I had a responsibility to embrace my words, talk to people, reassure and comfort them.” He listened to her, understood, thought perhaps it might be a “smart thing” to try to inhabit his words. But looking again at his open letter – rhetoric from the heart – I wonder what actually motivated it?
My guess is he was determined not to add to the sum of horror in the world or be more contaminated by it than necessary. He agrees: “It was a reflex – and not only mine. I have met many people affected by attacks who reacted this way. It is a protection. You have experienced something so awful – when you are plunged into shadow, you have to find some light in yourself. It is an instinct.”
Antoine’s sentiments have not found admirers everywhere. In Japan, he says, the Bataclan attacks confirm prejudices about the dangers of multicultural society; in Italy – a Catholic country – his letter raises questions about forgiveness. In France, the emphasis has been on the necessity of overcoming fear. “And for the rightwing in France, which is very powerful, it is about national identity. They see me as someone weak who accepts terrorism, who says there is no problem. That is untrue. My words were a resistance. You want to bring me to my knees? No, I will stand and not respond as you want me to respond.”
But surely, in private, he must think about the terrorists who killed his wife? “I can’t, it is too hard for me… I can’t.” Does he understand what could make a human being do what they did? “About the journey towards radicalism, I try to understand – although this is not understanding [in order] to forgive – it is understanding as a citizen. That’s important. The situation is critical now. Weakness and ignorance open the door to radicalising people. There was an interesting article in Le Monde about le proces de radicalisation. You put the idea into their heads that they are the target of oppression and they become the oppressors.”
As to whether any terrorist has read what he has written – that is unanswerable. Antoine explains that he is super-selective about the media. Whenever necessary, he has used “the magic stick” to turn off the television but has found that: “If you step back from the hysteria and search on serious sites, there are still journalists who do their job well.” He wants to keep reading good newspapers, he says, because understanding is important – even when it has its limits. In the book, he implies it was Hélène’s destiny to die that night. But does he really believe in destiny? “No – I believe in hazard – chance,” he now counters.
After her death, the kindness of strangers went into overdrive. People offered to look after Melvil, he was invited to go on holiday on every continent of the world, he received gifts – including socks, a hat and cheques he never deposited. At the same time and more unnervingly, he explains in the book: “People want to meet me, talk to me, touch me. I am a totem. Assessed, measured, quantified, as if there were a Richter sale of sadness and they felt sure that, with me, they were facing the Big One.” What can it have been like to attract so much of the world’s sympathy? “Some of the letters I received were beautiful. They made me understand I was not alone – it is important to know that deeply. One said: ‘I want to respond to blind hate with blind love.’” Another, signed simply, “Philippe”, startled him with its post-script: “You are the one who was hurt and yet it is you who gives us courage.”
There is comfort, however fleeting, in the right words – and in his son. “People sometimes ask: did your son save you? But it is not like that. He does not have to carry that burden,” he smiles. “Je me suis plongé – I dived – into fatherhood. When there are two parents, you are not aware of how much lighter the weight of parenthood is.” His book outlines his struggles as a single father (including a particularly bungled attempt at nail-cutting). His skills have improved, he laughs. “I am perfecting that – and laundry and everything… It is very important for fathers to do these things.” He also describes the more difficult matter of being a conduit for his son, of standing between Melvil and the world. The ordinarily bereaved often find death impossible to process but he never had the luxury of disbelief. He had to absorb disaster at speed, “stay clear” for his son’s sake.
At Melvil’s nursery, the mothers got together and made exquisite pots of soup for each day – edible condolences. Unfortunately, Melvil, more acquainted with off-the-shelf products, rejected their offerings. At the time, Antoine did not dare own up. “I still have the little letters that came with the soup and some origami which we keep in the living room. We threw out the soup but kept the love,” and he smiles again. Melvil is now two years and four months. He feels what has happened to him – but does not understand. “I believe his sense of it will grow and keep changing with him. And on the day of his death – which I hope will be as far away as possible – he will understand it differently.”
I want to know if there is a right way to respond to someone to whom such a catastrophe has happened. In his book he describes the mothers’ faces changing whenever they see him. He describes their sympathy, interestingly, as a mask. “I am no longer me,” he writes in the book, “I am a ghost, the ghost of Hélène.” “There is no right way to respond,” he now says. But then he mentions something (it would not have been applicable early on): “People think it is all about me and my grief. But I want to get outside my problems. ‘Talk to me about your problems!’ That would help, for sure. That, and being natural…”
There are two support groups for those affected by the terrorist attacks: “Life for Paris” and “13/11/15 Fraternity and Truth”. Antoine belongs to neither. His default position used to be that he did not want to meet anyone who had suffered comparably. But he recently twisted his own arm into taking part in a French documentary and found it a revelation: “Sometimes, you have to go beyond yourself because you don’t know everything, you have to be humble. I learned that this was not a mosaic of stories, it was one story. Whether you lost a friend, a son, a love, a leg – or just innocence – it is the same story and it is about absence. Those people will not come back and you have to live with it, live with the loss.”
A photograph on the book’s last page shows a woman of luminous beauty in a gingham shirt. She is holding a sleeping baby – tenderly supporting the back of his head. Is he still able to feel Hélène’s presence? “Of course. I will for the rest of my life. She had a place in my heart, in myself, in my spirit and, you know – this is for life. It doesn’t mean I won’t fall in love again – I don’t know – but she had her place in me.”
He no longer lives in the flat they shared. He must find a new job and begin again: “Like anyone else, I need money to live.” But he does not pretend this will be easy: “I am hurt and you know that sentence, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’? – it’s bullshit.” He laughs: “I am not stronger, I am weaker.”
It is one of the things that makes Antoine impressive, this refusal to pose as a hero, to feign strength or distort, in any way, the truth of his experience. He does not know if he can live up to his own words. In the book, he fears forfeiting “the right to feel angry. The right to be overwhelmed. The right to be tired. The right to drink too much and start smoking again. The right not to love again, ever. Not to rebuild my life and not to want a new life.” The list is long. Towards the end he mentions the fear of losing the right “not to talk about it”. On this point, at least, he can reassure me. “I have lots of time when I do not talk about it – this I can control.” The book does the talking for him. Like his blog, it reads as if it had written itself – that is his gift. But effortless prose is seldom effortless to write: “It was hard work,” he says. “I had someone from the French publishing house come and read it aloud to me. Reading it to myself, I couldn’t make sense of it, I had to hear its music to correct it, lose false notes.”
And as he talks about reading aloud, I am reminded of one of the book’s most powerful anecdotes. Melvil loved – still does – bedtime stories. Two days after Hélène’s death, he was in turmoil, he could not understand why his mother was not with him: “His pain, still speechless, shows through in every little worry of his infant life.” Melvil pulled from the shelf a picture book, his favourite, that he used to read with his mother, about a “pretty little ladybird in an enchanted garden” that lands by chance on the “hooked nose of an evil witch”. Whenever Hélène read the story, she would skip the frightening pages in which the ladybird, under a spell, turned nasty. Antoine does the same. But he knows he cannot protect his son from the world. And now he looks at me, polite but with a barely concealed restlessness; he needs to get home. He is not talking about his own story but might just as well be when he adds: “We can skip the pages but it is important that we read them too.”
Extract: You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris
16 November9.30amMelvil is at nursery. It’s Monday morning, at a bar in the 15th arrondissement. People have grey faces and broken dreams. The television is tuned to BFM, and all available eyes are glued to the screen, looking for something to talk about, now that the usual conversational topics – rising taxes, the flu – are worn out. It’s Monday, but no one can talk about anything but last Friday.
“A double espresso!”
I have to go to see Helene this morning at the police mortuary. Next to me, two men, aged between 45 and 50, with the weary eyes of those who’ve seen too much, are discussing what I don’t want to hear. There is no way to avoid a conversation when you sit at the bar, it just happens to you. This would normally be a pleasure, to sit alone and, for the time it takes to drink a coffee, to overhear these bits and pieces of other people’s lives. But today, it is my life that it is in bits and pieces.
Even though I turn away, trying not to hear, a few words reach me through the hissing steam of the espresso machine.
“…can’t let all those people die for nothing…”
Does anyone ever really die for anything?
It could have been a reckless driver who forgot to brake, a tumour that was slightly more malignant than the others, or a nuclear bomb. The only thing that matters is that she’s no longer here. Guns, bullets, violence – all of this is just background noise to the real tragedy now taking place: absence.
Not many people understand how I can so quickly get over the circumstances in which Helene was killed. People ask me if I’ve forgotten or forgiven. I forgive nothing, I forget nothing. I am not getting over anything, and certainly not so quickly. When everyone else has gone back to his or her life, we will still be living with this. This story is our story. To refuse it would be to betray it. Even if her disfigured body is corpse-cold, even if her kiss tastes like still-warm blood, and even if what she whispers into my ear has the chilling beauty of a funeral requiem, I have to hold her to me. I have to be part of this story.
Of course, having a culprit, someone to take the brunt of your anger, is an open door, a chance to temporarily escape your suffering. And the more odious the crime, the more ideal the culprit, the more legitimate your hatred. You think about him in order not to think about yourself. You hate him in order not to hate what’s left of your life. You rejoice at his death in order not to have to smile at those who remain.
Perhaps these are aggravating circumstances – to say the least. But aggravating circumstances are for trials, as a way of quantifying loss. But people do not count their tears, and they certainly don’t dry them on the sleeves of their anger. Those with no one to blame are alone with their grief. I am one of them. Alone with my son, who will soon ask me what happened that night. What would I be telling him if I placed the responsibility for the circumstances of our life at someone else’s feet? If it was to those men that he had to turn in order to make sense of things. Death awaited his mother that night; they were merely ambassadors.
With a burst of machine gun fire, they shattered our puzzle. And after we have put it back together, piece by piece, it will no longer be the same. There will be someone missing in the picture, there will be only the two of us, but we will take up the whole picture. She will be with us, invisible, but there. It is in our eyes that you will read her presence, in our joy that her flame will burn, in our veins that her tears will flow.
We will never return to our life of before. But we will not build a life against them. We will move forward in our own life.
“Another double espresso, please, and the bill!”
“Crazy, what happened, isn’t it?” one of the men says to me.
“I haven’t had time to think about it, really. My wife wasn’t around this weekend, and I had my baby with me. But I’m going to see her now.”
- You Will Not Have My Hate is translated by Sam Taylor and published by Harvill Secker (£10). Click here to order a copy for £8.20
- Antoine Leiris will be at Waterstones, Trafalgar Square, London WC2 on Wednesday 19 October, 6.30pm. For tickets call 020 7839 4411 or visit sachvui.vn