For some context, it’s important to note that not only was the #MeToo movement in France delayed, but the backlash was formidable. In 2018, 100 prominent French women wrote an open letter claiming that #MeToo was a product of Hollywood and was restricting the rights of men to “seduce women.” The Guardian’s headline about the letter — “Catherine Deneuve says men should be ‘free to hit on’ women” — gives you an idea of the uphill battle victims of sexual assault face in France.
Vanessa Springora’s best-selling 2020 memoir, Le Consentement (Consent, 2021 — translated by Natasha Lehrer), in which the author details the sexual relationship 49-year-old writer Gabriel Matzneff initiated with her when she was 14 years old, seems to have broken some ground in swaying the French public to acknowledge the damaging effects of these nonconsensual relationships. It took until 2021 for the French legislature to change the laws of consent so that having sex with someone under 15 is now considered rape. French culture’s current struggle to define the lines separating seduction, flirting, consensual sexual behavior, and sexual violence forms the psychological backdrop for Reeling.
The novel begins one day in 1984 when a seedy middle-aged woman named Cathy (black leather jacket, whiffs of Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume) approaches 13-year-old Cléo outside a dance school. Cathy claims that she works for the “Galatea Foundation,” which awards scholarships to promising dancers. All Cléo needs to do is get her photos taken and meet the (all-male) panel of judges for the scholarship to (eventually) be hers. Cathy then proceeds to string Cléo along: the judges are very picky, they haven’t quite made their decision yet, they have to see her one more time. She buys Cléo fancy lunches in Paris, gives her 100-franc notes as “presents” (around $11 at the time), and engages in textbook grooming for abuse. The details of Ghislaine Maxwell’s tactics will give you a good idea of Cathy’s behaviors since they are virtually identical. Like Maxwell, she manipulates and, by extension, implicates Cléo’s parents in the process. The parents seem either totally naïve to the woman’s sinister intentions or simply content to look the other way.
Cléo’s lower-middle-class family lives in the suburbs of Paris, where her father has been “unemployed forever.” Her friends at the dance school are from the same class background so it’s not surprising that, when they see Cathy shower Cléo with gifts and money, they become jealous of her. Why is Cléo so special? they wonder. Who does that bitch think she is? Her dancer friends pester her to get them appointments with the Galatea Foundation so that they too can try out for this mysterious scholarship. Finally, Cléo connects her other friends with Cathy — an action that, in turn, embroils the young girl in what ultimately happens to all of them.
Eventually, on one of the trips to meet the judges, Cléo is sexually assaulted. It’s a painful scene to read, in part because Lafon writes with such detachment. But it’s made even more tragic by the fact that what happens to Cléo and her friends is so predictable. The “judge” who assaults her tells her that he thought she would “be more mature” about the whole thing, and Cléo, being a young girl, internalizes all of it. She feels disgusted, but she doesn’t know what she did wrong. If she had acted differently, she wonders, would things have gone better for her? After the incident, Cathy abandons her, preying on new girls. An embarrassed Cléo has to explain to her parents that she didn’t receive the scholarship. The girls at the dance school gossip behind Cléo’s back, calling her a slut. Cléo tries to move on, but as one can imagine, it’s incredibly difficult. She stops eating and spirals into misery.
The slow train wreck is narrated in short, postcard-like scenes that shift back and forth from a present-day #MeToo-style investigation into the Galatea affair and the murky events of what happened to these girls decades before. Lafon follows a few of the dancers, now grown, as their lives collide with the shame, guilt, and complications of their shared past. The fact that they all feel, in some measure, responsible for what happened makes it even harder for them to come forward. It was Cléo, after all, who introduced Cathy to her friends, so naturally she believes what happened is all her fault.
In the present day, the women regularly encounter an “appeal for witnesses” on the news and through email:
Between 1984 and 1994, you were between 13 and 15 years old. You were approached by a woman inviting you to apply for a grant from a “Galatea Foundation.” After an initial selection process, it was suggested that you attend a lunch to meet the members of the judging panel. We would like to hear your story. Those interested in doing so can participate in a documentary on the Galatea affair. The first meeting will take place on Sunday, January 27 (details below).
As the women struggle to decide if they should come forward, the narrative toggles between past and present, throwing into relief their inseparability.
Abuse narratives can sometimes feel narrow and strangely disconnected from larger social forces. That could be because the way these stories come to light is often through the accounts of specific individuals — a celebrity writes a series of tweets or an article breaks when a victim is “finally ready” to tell their story. There’s an aspect of personal ownership and sensationalizing that has the effect of obscuring the larger pressures at work. Lafon, however, skillfully rejects this decontextualizing approach to understanding sexual violence. Instead of imposing a framework of individualized trauma, Reeling presents abuse as a symptom of a social hierarchy that preys on the less privileged in order to maintain its power and control. Lafon’s novel highlights the impersonal aspects of abuse, with Lafon going to great lengths to convey the power dynamics of social class involved in the Galatea scandal. If Cléo had come from a wealthier family, she would have had no need for the scholarship in the first place.
The reverberations of the assault follow Cléo, not so much in the form of psychological trauma, but rather in the ways her career suffers and how she flounders in personal relationships. Above all, though, the characters just want to move on with their lives. But how can they move on when they are constantly confronted with this “appeal for witnesses”?
The great strength of Reeling is the way Lafon weaves together social failures that, on the surface, seem quite disparate. In that sense, Yonasz, a high school classmate of Cléo’s, becomes an important character. Unlike Cléo, Yonasz is Jewish and thus permanently banned from ever being a “real” citizen of French culture. Fully aware of his outsider status, he resents his Jewishness. To make matters worse, he is constantly bullied by “Sandra and her gang” for his identity. He just wants to fit in, wants to be French, but no one in school even knows how to pronounce his name.
When Cléo and Yonasz become close friends, he invites her to his house to celebrate the breaking of the fast on Yom Kippur. She doesn’t know anything about Judaism, but that doesn’t matter. Yonasz’s parents embrace her presence regardless. She is drawn to the family because they are sophisticated in ways her own family is not. When Yonasz’s father takes a platonic interest in Cléo, his son is annoyed and distances himself from her.
At school, Sandra taunts him by asking if he is still hanging out with “his servant” (i.e., Cléo). She tells Yonasz that, in middle school, Cléo slept her way into getting a dance scholarship and that she is a whore. Yonasz interprets Sandra’s jealousy, despite the fact that she has a history of bullying him, in the worst way possible: thinking that Cléo must have tried to seduce his father, he cuts off all contact with her.
Lola Lafon has a talent for demonstrating the larger ways in which society exerts its power to control and manipulate its dehumanized subjects. This is a culture intent on keeping these two people — Cléo and Yonasz — separate; if they were to actually join together and challenge their abusers, they would become formidable political subjects capable of changing society. What should have been a space of mutual understanding and connection, however, ends in rejection and betrayal.
Reeling very rightly posits that the great tragedy isn’t so much the sexual assault or the antisemitism (though, of course, both those things are terrible); it’s the insidious way this social violence keeps people in check, keeps them from fully enacting their collective power. Perhaps, then, the true message of this novel is that to overthrow existing power relations, we have to recognize and embrace our allies in that struggle.
Sandra Simonds is the author of eight books of poetry, including Triptychs, forthcoming from Wave Books.