A bottomless void

Rabeea Salem reviews The Adversary.

In movies and novels, many a time an impostor manages to successfully dupe people. Life is in fact stranger than fiction when it comes to this true crime story. The Adversary is the shocking story of a man who not only fabricated the whole edifice of his life but also sustained it for 18 years without being caught.

In January 1993, Jean-Claude Romand murdered his children, wife and parents before botching his own suicide after setting his house on fire. Relatives and acquaintances were stunned to discover that Romand, a devoted family man and a brilliant physician at WHO, was suspected of these killings. As the case developed, his motives became clear – it was discovered that he had no medical qualifications whatsoever and was never an employee at WHO. He had been supporting his family for more than a decade by swindling the funds of relatives and by pulling off various money scams.

Emmanuel Carrere, an esteemed writer known for writing autobiographies for renowned authors like Philip K. Dick, got interested in this scandalous case and began corresponding with Romand in jail. Just the act of writing a book on a murderer poses a moral dilemma for Carrere, something he battles constantly with throughout his narrative. He presents an objective yet well rounded portrait of Romand's life, often looking into his past to gather clues on what drove him to live a life of deception.

From a psychological standpoint, Romand makes for a fascinating case study. He was officially diagnosed as having narcissistic personality disorder but could he have displayed psychopathic tendencies in the way he showed no remorse over what he did? He is weirdly detached from the 'event' and even Carrere notes how unusual it is that while he is open about his life before and after that fateful day, he is unwilling to discuss the actual act and what caused his mind to unravel. While in jail, he is consumed with his grief and the fact that his family was taken away from him, ignoring that he is the one responsible for their deaths. His dissociation from his actions is unnerving and even more questionable is his new avatar as the tormented sinner who has found God. He considers his family’s massacre as a necessary rung on the ladder of religious success and even finds for himself adoring Christian prison visitors.

It is unbelievable, to the point of being ironic, how his lies went undetected for such a long period of time. It goes to show our selective attention and how the best way to hide a lie is in plain sight. Jean-Claude never went out of his way to cover his tracks or to make elaborate backstories for his lies. No one ever bothered to ask him if he was lying – it’s as simple as that.

What triggered his need to lie? The narrative does not make judgments or conjectures, leaving it open-ended for discussion. The fact that it all started with him lying about a medical exam to avoid disappointing his parents gives us some clue about his neurosis. His family and geographical background provides some hints, but none concrete enough to support this whole act of deception. What is bizarre is that impostors usually conduct such elaborate ruse to hide some devastating truth but in Romand's case, this facade conceals nothing but a bottomless void. There are no simple answers in this bizarre, headline-grabbing incident so it goes without saying that while The Adversary makes for riveting read, it does leave you wanting more.

- Reviewed by Rabeea Saleem, writer and psychology student based in Pakistan. 

The Adversary by by Emmanuel Carrere (Author), Linda Coverdale (Translator) is published by Vintage; 2017.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber