Book review: The Adversary, by Emmanuel Carrere
It should have been warm and cozy, that family life. They thought it was warm and cozy. But he knew that it was rotten at the core, that not one moment, not one gesture, not even their slumbers had escaped this rot that had grown within him, gradually eating everything away from inside without showing anything on the outside, and now it was all that was left, nothing but the rot that would burst through the shell into broad daylight.
A fire consumed a house in eastern France in 1993, and the family of four who lived there were all dead when pulled from the remains, except for the father, Jean-Claude Romand. He was badly injured but survived. At first it was assumed to be an accident, until a responder noticed a wound on the head of Florence, the mother. So began an investigation into the murders of the Romand family that brought to light lies and deception beyond what anyone around Jean-Claude realized, beyond the boundaries of what most people would imagine was even possible in the modern age.
The story that unspools as his lies unravel is completely absorbing. Suffice to say that nearly everything about his life was untrue, beginning with his career. He claimed to be a doctor with the World Health Organization, a claim that’s easy enough to fact check, yet the amount of time he managed to maintain this deception, and others, beggars belief. He spun lies to everyone around him – his parents, family, and a best friend included, for close to twenty years. The magnitude is astonishing.
It was not to her (wife Florence’s mother) and her family that I had written but to the one who had destroyed their lives. It was to him that I felt I owed consideration because, wishing to tell this story, I saw it as his story.
Author Emmanuel Carrère became intrigued with the story – it’s hard not to be – and began corresponding with Romand. He wanted to know something more about the motivations behind the deceit and the heinous actions it culminated in. I hesitate to say “understand” because I think Romand himself is the only one who could see a logic in these choices, and there’s clearly a nasty case of narcissism at work. Even in court, when a judge questions the specifics of some of Romand’s claims, he demurs by claiming deference to his wife’s memory, that she wouldn’t have wanted certain things discussed. It couldn’t be clearer that his only concern is himself and that even with the extent of his “monstrous deception” revealed, his lies aren’t yet depleted.
Carrère wanted to delve into whatever reasoning could be sussed out, and to know more of the specifics – what exactly Romand was doing during the time he claimed to be at work and on business trips. Maybe in learning the details, the bigger picture and at least something resembling sense could emerge.
The exploration of motives is simultaneously revealing and disappointing, as can be expected when the narcissistic personality responsible is the information source (although Carrère does interview plenty of acquaintances, but they’d been successfully conned, so most are as confused and wondering as the reader.) One explanation seemed to stem from childhood within a family that’s unusually comfortable with lying frequently.
But as a psychological study it felt incomplete. As with many family annihilator cases, like that of John List, there’s often a drastic, encroaching financial element at play. Romand had somehow been living off next to nothing – mainly his wife’s small salary and money he’d tricked out of family members and his mistress under the guise of investing it.
Reality became even more nightmarish…everything people thought they knew about his career and professional activities was a sham. It had taken only a few telephone calls and elementary inquiries to tear off the mask. The World Health Organization? No one there had ever heard of him. The national registry of physicians? He wasn’t listed. The hospitals in Paris where he was said to be on the medical staff? He was not accredited there, nor was he a graduate of the medical school in Lyon where Luc himself, and several others, swore nevertheless to have been students with him. He had begun his studies, yes, but had stopped taking his exams at the end of the second year, and from then on, everything was false.
Carrère makes some projections about figures in the story, Florence in particular, based on his perceptions and imagination that bothered me and seemed inappropriate. Not offensive, but not helpful in understanding what did happen, instead of a novelistic flourish about what might’ve been, that maybe was an attempt at paying some tribute to a victim. At least that’s how I read a meandering passage about the average middle class life Florence would’ve had if she hadn’t married Romand.
The story includes perspectives from some of the advocates he’s gained since his trial and imprisonment, who see all of his deceit and the brutal murders he committed as being necessary steps on the path to the life of goodness he leads now: “To think that it should have taken all those lies, those random accidents, and that terrible tragedy so that today he might do all the good he does around him. It’s something I’ve always believed, you see, and that I see at work in Jean-Claude’s life: everything works out and finds its meaning in the end for those who love God.”
Carrère is flabbergasted at this, really the only reaction that can be expected there. The narrative has plenty of twists and turns and jaw-dropping moments, rarely a dull one. I didn’t feel by the end that I knew more about why Romand made his choices, beginning with one lie about taking an exam and snowballing into the eventually untenable state of his entire life. I didn’t really need to know, actually, as family annihilator scenarios are sadly not exactly uncommon, and seeing the increasing progression of his untruths and the sham of his life leaves little possibility for an ending that doesn’t burn everything down, as it were.
A shocking, disturbing, but compelling read, if it does feel gawky at times and somewhat unsatisfying by the end. Maybe because it’s tightly focused on Romand’s world without a great deal of context or outside research. Maybe just the unsettled feeling that comes with knowing what people are capable of without much reason. 3/5
The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception
by Emmanuel Carrère
translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
published 1999, Vintage edition 2017