I successfully passed the typing, shorthand and French exams and an appointment was made with Personnel at the Philips headquarters on Avenue Montaigne, near the Rond Point des Champs Elysées. I went there with my mother. Would the personnel employee maybe find me unfit to work at his company and release me from the indentured servitude that awaited me? Amazingly he didn’t try to find out because he only spoke to my mother. He asked her a question I still remember because I found it very odd, although it was my first job interview and I had no comparison. He asked her: “Do you know anybody at Philips?” And she answered humbly: “When we used to sell appliances in Annecy, me and my husband knew a Philips sales representative,” which meant that no, she didn’t know anybody here at the Paris headquarters.
So I started working around mid-February, riding my Solex to and from work, earning a base salary of 900+ francs per month, payable monthly. I shared an office with a woman a few years older than me, Marguerite Delalande. She wasn’t all dolled-up like many secretaries and I liked her for it. I observed her to model my behavior after hers. She seemed to love her job. She was always in a good mood, never impatient, smiling even on the phone, never swore when she made a typing error and had to erase it on the original and three carbon copies, never lost her papers and did her filing regularly. Her desk was orderly. With her boss, the sections’s sales manager, a Mr Boucher, she was good-naturedly submissive and compliant, answering everything he said to her with “D’accord, d’accord.” She wasn’t torn between her passion and the necessity to make a living because she had no passion. Her entire life was in her job. Her future was as a better paid secretary, the secretary to a boss higher in the hierarchy if she played her cards right, or to stick with Mr Boucher in the hope that HE would be promoted and keep her. Her daughters would be secretaries. There was something frightening about her handwriting: it was extremely bland, like she had no personality.
Another thing that frightened me was my disinterest for reading. I had always been a voracious reader and now that I was working as a secretary I didn’t feel like reading anymore! Was this job doing something to my very essence, like a bloodless lobotomy?
I started going to Guy Vassal’s acting school as soon as I moved to St Mandé, Sylvain urging me to join him. From then on things went so fast in my emotional and my sex life it’s hard to believe so much happened in such a short time, but everything that follows happened during the first quarter of 1972. During the first three months of my life as a single woman I had an affair with a married man, a homosexual, and in the end I was gang-raped.
When I joined the acting class as a paying student I was surprised to see that Jean-Luc no longer attended it. During class Guy happened to mention that he lived in St Mandé. It was uncanny that both of us were living in this remote neighborhood so I said I lived there too. I told him that I wanted to be a screenwriter and enter the IDHEC. He said that he had studied there too, and he suggested that I start off as a "script-girl". Another one who was suggesting an activity that didn't require any creativity. "Script-girl" was a glorified secretary, taking care of the details, in awe of the director, I imagined, at the mercy of his temperamental idiosyncrasies. Wasn't there ANY profession where a woman didn't have to reproduce the patriarchal template? I didn't want anybody who could boss me around. Guy Vassal brought me a few books from the IDHEC and I learned some from them.
He was married , he said, but we had sex at his house anyway, and then he drove me to my studio. How convenient that it was so close! Another time he took me to see a film called “Do Not Deliver Us From Evil”, about two girls in a catholic boarding school who set themselves on fire on-stage at the end of the school play, for reasons I didn’t get. Then Guy put some distance between us again and I suffered the pangs of rejection.
There was a student named
Pierre Dourlenswho wanted to learn mise en scene, stagecraft from the great master but who was studying acting at the same time. Every time I attended class I heard him recite a monologue from a play by Victor Hugo, Hernani or Ruy Blas, where the character was revolted at the venality of the powers-that-be and berated the ministers for pillaging the state’s assets:
“Bon appétit, Messieurs, ô ministres intègres,
Conseillers vertueux! Voilà votre façon de servir?
Serviteurs qui pillez la maison!”
He was quite convincing as the idealistic young man, who had integrity and expressed righteous anger and contempt at the corrupt older statesmen. At the same time and from the very beginning, Pierre was coming on to me. His courtship was blunt and offensive. Since we didn’t know each other, his attraction could only be physical and I recoiled at the thought of sex without emotional attachment. It was clear to me from the start that I wasn’t interested and I let him know it as kindly as I could but he kept pestering me like a dog in heat and I was miserable because I didn’t know how to handle the situation.
Once, while I was walking in the neighborhood waiting for the class to start, a man came to me and said that he was doing a scientific survey about sexuality. Every day on the radio I was hearing the results of opinion polls and wondered who were these people whose opinion mattered so much “Why don’t they ever ask me?” I wondered. And lo and behold, now finally someone thought that my opinion mattered. I was flattered. He asked me some questions about how old I was when I had my first period and I answered him. Little by little the questions became more intimate. He asked what made me wet and I answered as if the question were in a figurative sense, so I spoke about art, painting etc., substituting esthetic emotion to sexual excitement, until he said to me: “Do you see? Now I have a hard on!” I was shaken and told Pierre what had just happened when I found him. Instead of being nice to me like a true lover, consoling me and warning me against sex perverts, he berated me very harshly.
Then Guy admitted two more students into the class a week or two apart. They were both in stark contrast to the other students who came from the wealthy neighborhood and I was surprised that Guy took on these weird birds. The first one was a small man named René. He said that he was a waiter, that he was an opera-lover and that he was taking singing classes. He gave us a sample of his skill as a tenor. It was underwhelming but he was amazingly self-confident for a no-talent runt. The second one, Bernard Sallant, was tall and flamboyant. His dark hennaed hair was longish with corkscrew curls. His protruding eyes were pale blue. He had a narrow face, a pale complexion and a very small mouth with ugly thin lips. He said that he was studying scenography at the Rue Blanche, a renowned school. He also claimed to be a painter. If he studied scenography full time at the Rue Blanche, one has to wonder first, how he found the time to do it all and second, why he was interested in acting. But in those days I took what people said at face value. I didn’t see why they would lie on things like that.
He was working on a monologue by a playwright I had never heard of. The play’s name was “Victor, ou les Enfants au Pouvoir” Power to the children, an interesting idea, but Bernard acting the part of a child was so preposterous that I never got the gist of the play. After we started going out together we never talked about it and I never saw the book in his studio.
When he spoke, instead of blinking his eyes in a split second, Bernard closed his lids slowly and kept them closed for a second or two. He had an accent, the only accent I ever found truly offensive, plus he mispronounced the “ch” sound with a contortion of the mouth that peeved me and he was the worst acting student I ever met: he moved awkwardly on his long legs, swinging his arms emphatically when no emphasis was called for, and he didn’t have a clue about the art of speaking his lines. But Guy Vassal didn’t correct any of these defects, he smiled instead as if in appreciation, and allowed Bernard to inflict on us unimpeded this grotesquerie. Yet in spite of this very poor first impression, I soon became Bernard’s lover. We had sex at his place once or twice a week and when it was late I spent the night there instead of taking the long trip home. I spent the week-ends with him in his studio rue d’Aumale in the 9th district and discovered his art.
What he painted were pieces of torn paper that he imbricated over a surface the size of his canvas. Next he copied these abstract overlapping shapes and painted them. These presented a certain decorative interest but as works of art they lacked depth, and after seeing five of them one wanted to move on to something else. But during the eight months or so I knew him, Bernard never painted anything else. He had an exhibition, not in an art gallery but in a tourism office from his region of origin (Narbonne), thanks to kind Madame Jeantet, and the twenty or thirty paintings he showed were all based on this technique he proudly called “papier déchiré” with this irksome pronunciation mannerism. In his studio I never saw any old sketch-books or Nature studies from his past art classes. I never had proof that he could draw, that he was a true artist.
My parents asked me how I was doing at work. Instead of telling the truth, which was that I hated it, I complained only about some computer printouts, the accordion, dot-matrix pajama-type, where I had to identify by their reference numbers only, and dispatch to four sales managers the gizmos they were responsible for ordering. I didn’t have the information I needed to do the job: which sales manager was responsible for which reference numbers, but I didn’t think of asking. Besides the products the managers were responsible for didn’t correspond to the increasing order of the eight-digit reference numbers on the printout, so I had to break-up the thick printout into about twenty pieces and sort them into four piles. I got ensnarled in the unfolded sheets, didn’t know which side was up... the office version of Modern Times. I had to do this chore every single day and Marguerite couldn’t help me because she worked for the Big Boss, one step above the sales managers.
“And how about your co-worker, this nice woman you told us about last time?” mom asked, her head slightly inclined, a sweet smile on her face, after I had vented my frustration. At tea time, she asked if I wouldn’t like to invite some friends over for lunch on a Saturday. I was surprised at the offer since my parents were still living downstairs in temporary quarters. Wouldn’t it have been better to have visitors over after they moved to the main floor? And why this desire to meet my friends after dad had treated me so heinously? Besides I didn’t have any real friends. I didn’t think of Marguerite, my co-worker, as a friend. As to Bernard, he was so far removed from the middle-class look and lifestyle that it was out of the question to introduce him to my parents. I knew that my father would deny him access to his house because he had always expressed hatred for the hippie look. How would I explain to them that I was going out with a hippie? I was ashamed of him in the first place. But because I would have been humiliated to admit that I was friendless, I accepted my mother’s invitation. So I talked to Marguerite and Bernard about it and they accepted. I warned her in advance about Bernard’s look lest she had a heart attack. But how would we get there? Never mind, Marguerite’s boy-friend had a car. Would it be O.K. with mom if Marguerite came with her beau? Of course! No problem.
When we entered the driveway I remember thinking: “Oh my God! What am I doing? Why did I bring Bernard? Am I trying to provoke my father? Is it to taunt him and assert my independence that I’m bringing this hippie into his house?” And I couldn’t say that I did, so I didn’t really know why I had brought Bernard. I feared the worst when my father set his eyes on my boy-friend and was floored when he acted totally calm and welcoming, the perfect host.
I was uneasy the whole time our visit lasted because my parents were being exquisitely polite and friendly to people I didn’t really care about. I burned with shame when Bernard spoke, when he elaborated like a museum curator about the technique of papier déchiré (Irk! Irk!), which any kid could have done. Why were my parents so tolerant of my friends if they were so intolerant of me? In the end, I felt rejected because my parents were not including me in the conversation and I didn’t feel like putting my two cents in because I found it boring. I left the table without anyone protesting. Maybe that was just what they had worked toward. Now they could talk business, now money could change hands.
It was the third week of March and I was running out of money. I had to live the whole month of March on the salary I earned the second half of February, and I had felt so rejected by my parents the day I visited them with my friends that it was out of the question to ask them to help me. I’d have to tough it out.
I was returning to my studio one night in March when, arriving at the Porte Dorée, I was stopped by a whistle-blow.“Your papers,” the cop asked me. “What? What did I do wrong?” I asked. “Your front light isn’t working properly,” he said. It was true. My light was working one minute and not working the next. With all the bumps and holes on Paris pavement, it was no wonder that something had gotten loose in the light fixture. “Ha! And I see you don’t have a name-plate! Someone stole it from you, I guess,” he said, dripping with sarcasm. I didn’t know it was a violation not to have a name-plate. He fined me. “And don’t let me catch you again without a name-plate,” he said as I was leaving.
The next Saturday I brought my Solex to a garage and asked for my light to be fixed and for a name-plate. It wouldn’t be possible to do it until the end of the month, the man said, so I left him my motorbike and took the subway.
Bernard told me he had an invitation for two to the première of a film about the life of the poet Arthur Rimbaud. An invitation to a première! Wow! A free movie about a poet!. Wonderful. The date was March 25 or later, one of the very last days in March. On March 26, my mother turned forty-six.
The doors were late opening and there was a big crowd waiting in front of the movie-theater in a side street off the Champs Elysées. I observed at leisure the smartly dressed Parisiennes, their beautiful hair, their dainty shoes, and the gentlemen of the in-crowd, with their nonchalant elegance.
.I was disappointed by the film, named after Rimbaud’s book “Une Saison en Enfer”, (A Season in Hell). When you’ve been reading a poet for years, like I did with Rimbaud’s lover Verlaine, my very favorite poet, you form an idea of him which inevitably clashes with a physical representation, and any word he utters besides poetry seems unbearably trivial. Besides, poetry was only a short period in Rimbaud’s life. He turned a new leaf at age thirty or so and became an arms smuggler in Africa, so his relationship with Verlaine occupied only a fourth or a third of the movie, and I didn’t care about the rest.
When the film was over I took it for granted that I would spend the night at Bernard’s but he stopped me and said that he wanted to be alone. So I would have to take the subway home instead of walking to Bernard’s place a short distance away. I looked at my watch and saw that it was 12:30 AM. I hoped I would make the last train and walked fast to the subway station. The grills were closed. There was no more train. Living so far away, I didn’t have enough money to pay for a cab.
I started walking down the Champs Elysées in the direction of home, not knowing what else to do, and thinking that maybe men would take me for a streetwalker. I had been walking for only a very short time when a car with four young men inside stopped next to me. It was one of those souped-up cars that were very popular with the blue-collar speed fanciers in those days. One of them asked me if I needed a ride. I said I did, that I lived far away and had missed the last train. I said I lived at the Porte Dorée. “We’re going in that direction too,” one of them said. They were “loubards”, young thugs, which was not reassuring, but they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I climbed in.
On the Boulevard St Germain the driver stopped and I saw a car wheel roll at high speed by itself ahead of us on the boulevard. One of the guys ran after it and returned with it, then he got down by the left front side of the car and I assumed he was putting it back on while we waited on the sidewalk.. A police car passed. A cop got out and asked what was going on. The driver answered him, the cop looked reassured and drove off. He didn’t ask what was a young woman doing with four men at that time of the night. If such a serious incident as a wheel coming off a moving car was of no concern to the police, then my presence with the four young thugs at 12:45 AM was nothing to worry about.After the police had left, standing on the sidewalk waiting for the wheel to be re-attached again, I was aware that I was entirely at the mercy of these four men. My life was in their hands.
We started again and took the périph. I looked at the signs for the Porte Dorée exit and when I saw it I told the driver he had to take that exit. Then we passed a sign that said Next Exit Porte Dorée. We approached the exit ramp... and the driver kept going. I knew I was in trouble. “Why didn’t you take the exit?” I asked. No answer. The driver followed the direction of Maisons Alfort, a city in the south-east outer suburbs. He left the highway and drove through the deserted, dimly lit city, and then we were in an industrial area He turned right into a vacant lot. I saw rats run across the unpaved road in the headlights. Then the driver stopped the car. Nobody moved nor spoke. I opened the door, got out and started to run. One of the guys overcame me and immobilized me. “You see, here?” he asked, pointing forward. In the obscurity, I saw some light reflected on water far below, then I discerned the contours of a large excavation.
Holding my arms against my body he walked me back to the car. Someone lowered the front passenger seat, another pushed me forward. I got in a lay down. I was embarrassed because I had my period and hadn’t changed since before the film. It would smell bad when I took off my panties. But I had no other choice so I did it and lifted my dress. Then I had an out-of-body experience. I saw the scene from above, detached, and when the fourth man couldn’t get an erection I just noticed it like a piece of information.
Then they drove me home. On the way they chatted, asked me questions, and to everything they said I replied “Je m’en branle.” I had learned this expression from my brother François which was slang for “I don’t care.” Now there’s slang, and there’s slang. This was very bad slang, as I learned much later, since “branler” means “to masturbate”. So I had just been raped by four guys and on the way back I said that I masturbated about what they said! What I meant was that I knew they had done this to break my spirit but I wouldn’t let them.
I asked them to drop me off at the beginning of Avenue Sainte Marie. I didn’t want them to know where I lived. I looked at the car drive away and thought about memorizing the license plate number but forced myself not to do it and averted my eyes. It was my fault, I only had myself to blame. The next day I went to work as if nothing happened.
At least I didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant by my rapists.
copyright 2003 by Brigitte Picart