Consent is the memoir of Vanessa Springora, a French writer and publisher who, at the age of 13, fell victim to one of France’s most notorious pedophiles, then-acclaimed author Gabriel Matzneff. The award-winning writer – who at the time he pursued the teenaged Springora was 50 years old – had acquired a literary reputation through his journalism, essays, and fiction. He wrote openly about his pedophilia, including accounts of sex tourism in the Philippines, where he admitted to raping young boys. He also abused girls and young women. He learned to identify vulnerable potential victims and then worked relentlessly to seduce them, making these predations the subject of his writing. And from the 1960s onward, he was a literary star.
Springora’s mother was active in intellectual circles and often took her daughter with her to parties. (She left a violently abusive husband when Springora was six years old). It was at one such party that Matzneff set eyes on Vanessa. He proceeded to pursue her with letters and carefully contrived ‘chance’ encounters, eventually pressuring her into a sexual relationship. This continued for years until she succeeded in escaping. Already preying on other young women when she left him, he continued to pursue and harass Springora for years, publishing intimate details of his abuse of her in his subsequent writing.
What’s truly striking about the situation is that nobody did anything. Talk show hosts and literary critics repeatedly invited Matzneff to public broadcasts and events and bantered jokingly about his pedophilic activities. Springora’s mother actively supported the relationship, and when Vanessa’s estranged father found out about it he did nothing beyond throw a violent temper tantrum at his daughter. Even her schoolteachers knew about it; their responses ranged from openly expressed disgust toward her, to leering and voyeuristic sexual harassment.
She recounts a heartbreaking incident when distraught following an argument with Matzneff, she wandered the streets of Paris and wound up at the house of Emil Cioran, an eminent philosopher she had met through Matzneff. He reminded her of her own kindly grandfather, and so she sought his advice. He brushed off her concerns, asserting that Matzneff was a great man, his behaviour was normal, and her role was to support him in whatever way he needed. His wife silently nodded in agreement, she recalls.
Consent is a difficult read but an important one. Springora articulates with crystal clarity not only the ways in which predatory men pursue their victims but the difficult and conflicted mindset this produces among victims. For years Springora blamed herself for the abusive situation she wound up in. In Consent, she doesn’t just explicate this mindset but shows how wrong it was, and how the blame lies both with the predators and the broader society that accommodates their behaviour.
Matzneff constitutes a singularly public demon, a man who treated his pedophilia as a political cause (while no doubt recognizing that the ensuing scandal sold books). But Springora’s account reveals that he was simply the public edge of a broader social network that made his behaviour possible. These people knew what they were doing was wrong, even though they cultivated an attitude of contrived innocence. Her mother warned her not to let her grandparents know about the relationship, as they “wouldn’t understand”. Matzneff is careful to secure his own position on the legal tightrope he walks, making sure any evidence of his culpability is stored securely out of easy reach of the police. He even seems to draw a certain thrill from the very fact that he’s doing something forbidden and taboo, and this in turn appears to fuel the admiration of some of his colleagues.
“In our bohemian world of artists and intellectuals, deviations from conventional morality were viewed with a certain level of tolerance, even admiration,” Springora writes.
She highlights a series of open letters published in some of France’s top news magazines in the 1970s, calling for the decriminalization of child-adult sexual relations and signed by a large swath of France’s leading intellectuals (including Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, and others). The letters were in response to the trials of men charged with having sexual relations with minors (which, as Springora explains, is more difficult to prosecute in France than in many other countries). What’s shocking is not just that the letters were written and signed, but that the newspapers published them. All these people and institutions were part of the network of complicity that framed sex with minors as edgy and an intellectual problem rather than a crime of power and abuse.
The abuse Springora experienced took so much away from her and her reading public as well. She observes that one of the ordeal’s outcomes was that it killed her aspirations to be a writer. Consent underscores what a talented writer she is, easily superior to the tortured sophistries of her abuser. The writing is crystal-sharp, propelling the narrative with a momentum that makes it impossible to put down. The inclusion of personal reflections and self-analysis doesn’t slow the story’s pace but lends it illumination and broader meaning.
Consent is a gripping memoir with several important messages for readers. First is its powerful indictment of the enabling culture that continues to surround sexual harassment and abuse. Artistic abusers continue to cultivate fans; media agencies continue to promote their work. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are just the most visible tip of this iceberg. The fact that their culpability is hemmed and hawed over and endlessly debated – much like Matzneff’s was for decades in France – reveals how little has actually changed.
Second, the book offers a refutation of the defence used by many abusive men that “things were different back then” and that they shouldn’t be held accountable for changing social mores. Springora emphasizes that the fundamental right or wrong of the situation hasn’t changed, only the popular and legal context. What constitutes abuse today also constituted abuse 30 or 40 years ago and left its victims just as traumatized, even if it was easier for influential men to get away with.
“What has changed today,” she writes, “is…it is now, at last, the turn of the victims to speak out.”
Finally, there is a universality to Springora’s decision to speak out that extends beyond the French context and resonates with other resistance movements against abusive men we’ve witnessed around the world, from #MeToo in the United States to the flower demos in Japan (sparked by journalist Shiori Ito’s decision to speak out), and many more iterations in other parts of the world. In fact Elsa Court, in a review of Consent published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, issued an important warning against seeing the book as reflecting a problem “about France.”
“When an account of sexual abuse makes headline news in relation to a French public figure, I brace myself for international coverage that turns a story of trauma into a story about France,” Court writes. “Beyond the trust such coverage seems to place in testing cultural clichés, I am wary of an argument that equates an act of sexual violence with a nation’s putative views about sex.”
Springora grounds her story in the French context, all the more important given an ongoing campaign to set the age of consent in that country. The French government has finally – only this year – agreed to undertake to set the age of consent at 15, in no small part due to the outcry sparked by accounts like Springora’s. While sex between adults and minors under 15 can be prosecuted, the lack of a legal age of consent creates a loophole allowing abusers like Matzneff to claim that sexual relationships were consensual.
That said, Springora’s account transcends the French context as well. The dynamics she articulates with a perceptive clarity born of traumatic experience are those of abusive men around the world, her book an important map of warning signs and gaslighting behaviour. It’s an account that is both universal and particular, and it’s important to bear that tension in mind.
There is only one point I would take issue with, and that’s Springora’s assertion that Matzneff’s abusive behaviour wouldn’t have been tolerated outside of an artistic circle. Unfortunately there’s no shortage of examples of predatory men’s success being used to excuse horrific abuse in other fields. Recent revelations around abuse in the realm of gymnastics underscores this, as does the particularly relevant case of a Bard University chemistry professor accused of toxic microaggressions and sexual harassment. In the latter case, as reported by Ken Kurson in The Observer, Bard University president Leon Botstein offered an excuse for the man’s behaviour that echoes the attitude French luminaries seemed to hold about Metzneff:
I believe the University must go to grave lengths to protect great talent,” said Botstein. “Take the example of Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein was by all accounts a chronic womanizer, right. I don’t think it’s a good thing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I don’t think it’s anything. Do you follow me? I actually probably think on balance it’s a bad thing, but it is who he was, and he…you always have to find a way… My view is that deviancy and eccentricity are not neatly packaged. You cannot expect to have a brilliant scientist or great artist or great novelist be Ozzie and Harriet. It doesn’t work that way. So we have to find a way to sustain the protection of great ability at the margins, which may come with it the unfortunate patterns of behavior which are not necessarily admirable.
Making exceptions for influential men remains a critical problem beyond the literary world. As we can see, it encompasses the athletic sphere, the scientific sphere, and the political sphere — as demonstrated across the partisan spectrum from Donald Trump to Andrew Cuomo.
The scale of the problem can seem overwhelming. Yet accounts like Springora’s are a stirring example of the power that comes with speaking the truth of one’s experience. Consent has spurred a groundswell of popular protest and legislative action in France, just as #MeToo brought a number of abusive men to account in the United States.
Michelle Goldberg, writing in the New York Times, suggests that the Democrats’ failure to censure Cuomo for his harassing behaviour is a reflection of “the diminishing power” of the #MeToo movement. Whether or not that’s the case, there’s an apt warning in her message: a truly equitable justice system is not one that relies on the energy fuelled by a protest movement to hold criminals to account.
One of the problems with this is that protest movements provoke counter-protest movements. In the US, voting for Trump was for some a reaction against decades of progress in sexual and gender equality. In similar fashion, the recent outcry that blames “Islamo-leftism” in French universities on American influence can be seen as a response to precisely the sort of accountability that books like Consent demand. While the “Islamo-leftism” bogeyman is equally wrapped up in white supremacy, it’s also fueled by a desire to reassert patriarchal gender and sex roles. The ludicrous bugbear of “Islamo-leftism” has been weaponized by the right and embraced even by moderate lawmakers – many of whom are the same cohort of people who for years celebrated the predations of men like Matzneff.
But Consent also reminds us of the long arm of justice. It took three decades for Springora’s abuser to be brought to heel. She refused to give up, and used her abuser’s own tools – the written word – to demand justice. In the struggle against seemingly insurmountable barriers, conviction and tenacity are weapons whose strength is always underestimated by the powerful.
Court, Esla. “On the Limits of Sexual Freedom: Vanessa Springora’s Consent: A Memoir.” Los Angeles Review of Books. 17 February 2021.
Freeman, Hadley. “How was Larry Nasser able to abuse so many gymnasts for so long?” The Guardian. 26 January 2018.
Goldberg, Michael. “Why Democrats Aren’t Asking Cuomo to Resign”. New York Times. 1 March 2021.
Kurson, Ken .“Bard Sanctions Star Professor”. The Observer. 23July 2015.
O’Dwyer, Shaun. “What Lies Behind Shiori Ito’s Lonely #MeToo Struggle”. The Japan Times. 26 January 2020.
Tharoor, Ishaan. “France and the Spectral Menace of ‘Islamo-Leftism’”. The Washington Post. 22 February 2021.