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'After Bataclan I was tempted to escape ....but I've my son and the city is our home'

It is almost a year since Antoine Leiris lost his wife, the mother to his 17-month-old child, during the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. It’s been 12 months of pain and of slow healing. Rage and hate can be so seductive, he tells Joe O’Shea, but they would not help either him or his son to continue their lives

Published 22/10/2016

Antoine Leiris with his son Melvil
Antoine Leiris with his son Melvil
His wife, Hélène, with their baby son shortly before her death
A victim’s body lies covered on the Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire, close to the Bataclan theatre in Paris following the massacre
Rescuers evacuate people following the shootings in the Bataclan

As Antoine Leiris talks about his wife Hélène, and the almost unimaginably senseless and violent way she was taken from him and their infant son, he instinctively twists the wedding band on his finger.

Sitting in the mid-morning quiet of a gracious dining room in central London, the quietly-spoken Parisian talks about trauma and loss, about private grief and public sympathy, and life since the Paris attacks of Friday, November 13, 2015.

It was two days after he lost his wife that Antoine, a journalist who worked as a cultural commentator with French radio, sat down to try and put his feelings into words, to "try and clear the fog in my head. Let my family and close friends know how I and my son were doing".

He wrote a Facebook post, originally meant only for friends and family, which became an internet sensation, shared over 200,000 times in the days after the terrible slaughter.

It began: "On Friday night, you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hate."

Those last, powerful words, now provide the title of his account of the loss of Hélène, a very intimate and often poetic testament to their life together, her death aged just 35 and the future he hopes to build for their son, Melvil.

In You Will Not Have My Hate, Antoine recounts how Hélène had always had a slightly quirky love of hard rock and heavy metal. On that Friday night, she went with friends to see the American band Eagles of Death Metal at the Bataclan Theatre in central Paris.

Antoine stayed home to look after their then 17-month-old son. Heavy metal was not exactly his thing.

It was only when, long after Melvil had gone to sleep, his phone started buzzing incessantly. Tired after a long day, he half-read the text messages: "Hey, everything okay? Are you at home?" and "Hey, are you safe?"

Something was happening. Tip-toeing past his son's cot, Antoine went into another room and turned on the TV to see solemn-faced news anchors and the words crawling across the bottom of the screen. "Terrorist attack at the Stade de France …" then "Terrorist Attack at the Bataclan ..."

His wife was not answering her phone. Antoine's brother and sister quickly arrived at his home.

While his sister looked after his sleeping son, the two brothers began a frantic drive through the eerily quiet, early-morning streets of Paris.

After visiting several hospitals, still hoping that Hélène had simply been swept up in the confusion or was maybe receiving treatment somewhere, their search ended with a man quietly saying to Antoine, "Monsieur, you should prepare yourself for the worst".

Hélène had been one of 89 people killed at the Bataclan. A series of attacks across Paris had killed 130 people and left hundreds wounded. As Antoine recounts in his book, what followed were days of tears, rage, disbelief and, in the midst of almost unbearable grief, having to care for their young son.

The book does not follow a conventional timeline, attempt to tell the wider story of the attacks or deal with issues such as radicalisation and terrorism.

The 35-year-old journalist talks about intimate moments of love and grief, how, to take one moment, he realised in the days after the attack that little Melvil needed to have his nails cut, and it had always been Hélène who dealt with this tricky operation.

Antoine remembers meeting an old friend a couple of weeks after the terrorist attacks.

At first, they struggled to find the words to talk to each other. He had deliberately retreated from the world that was talking incessantly about the slaughter.

"In the days after, I turned off the TV and radio, newspapers, everything," he says as he sips his English breakfast tea in the quiet London dining room.

"I knew it was impossible to hear that and not go, I think, crazy. I built a wall between the outside world and our world with Melvil.

"I knew I had to protect him and also to protect me. It was just me, him and the grief of Hélène. It was the three of us, at that moment."

His family and friends were, of course, anxious to help and to comfort. But Antoine says he had to establish some boundaries.

"There was a place for family, of course. But not every time, every day at my home. I wanted him to feel he could be safe and secure just with me, to be in our private world.

"It's strange. You want help. But not all the time. And people are very understanding.

"They know it is very complicated for you and when you tell them 'I need to protect my son', they understand. My reaction, how I deal with what has happened, is so important for our son. Not just in the weeks after or now, but for many years to come. I don't know how, but it came to me, an instinct, so soon after, this is my responsibility, I must do this, find a way, for him."

In the weeks after the attack and after Antoine's Facebook post had reached so many people around the world, he was flooded with offers of help, messages from people as far away as Australia and Japan offering to look after their son or asking them to come and stay. There were even many cheques from well-wishers, all of which remain uncashed.

And Antoine admits there was a huge temptation to escape, to get away from Paris and find some quiet town or remote beach, far from the big city that had been the scene of their great loss.

"Of course, it is very tempting. I thought about it every day, of finding some quiet place, an island, escaping the violence of the city," he says.

"But I am not alone. And for my son, he has his family, his kindergarten, which is very good. He has his routine and Paris is our home."

Antoine's book is short, the language is sparse and uncomplicated, often just sketches of small moments and reflections on the process and meaning of sudden shock and grief.

It is very intimate and full of love.

If Antoine refused to give his hate to the men who killed his wife and so many others, he also refuses to give them space in his life and that of his now two-year-old son.

He says he follows the news and is aware of the recent decision by the only terrorist who survived, Salah Abdeslam, to fire his legal team and end any cooperation with the French and Belgian investigators.

But he claims no great insights into radicalisation, or the threat from religious fundamentalists to the West. He has no wish to become a commentator or expert on these issues, saying whatever he offered "would just be more noise".

And while there are still moments of rage, there is no enduring hatred.

"Rage and hate, they can be so seductive, it is easy to give yourself to this. But they are corrosive. And it would not help me or my son to live our lives".

Antoine says that what he set out to do with the book is give a "sincere and intimate" account of one family's loss.

"I am not a writer, but this is the power of literature, you are telling just a little story. And this little story opens the door to the bigger picture," he says.

"This is different to newspapers, it is intimately about what happened to the people who were directly touched by this. So I think it is a part of the story that nobody had taken care of, to tell.

"If you do not read the newspaper reports, but only read my book, I think you understand quite an important part of what the attacks were."

Towards the end of the book, Antoine recounts the day of the funeral, of how Melvil was too young to attend so he wrote a letter from their son to his mother.

"Mama, I am writing you this note to tell you that I love you. I miss you. Papa is helping me because I'm still very young.

"Don't worry about him - I'll look after him. I take him for walks, we play with my little cars, we read stories, we take baths together and we have lots of hugs. It's not the same as it was when you were there, but it's okay. He tells me everything will be all right, but I can tell he is sad. I am sad too…"

Since finishing this book, Antoine has begun writing again, "little experiments" as he calls them, a mix of real life and fiction, on the themes of grief, loss and hope.

He believes that writing, although he does not claim to be a writer, has helped him find a way through the great tragedy which has profoundly changed - but not destroyed - their lives.

You Will Not Have My Hate is an extraordinary read, honest, intimate and lightly poetic. It is a testament of love, loss and grief and also the often untold story of those who are left behind and must find a way to go on.

You Will Not Have My Hate, Penguin Random House, £10

Edited extract from You Will Not Have My Hate

13 November

10.37pm

Melvil fell asleep without a murmur, as he usually does when his mama isn't there. To keep myself awake until she gets home, I read. My phone, lying on my bedside table, buzzes. I read the text:

'HEY, EVERYTHING OK? ARE YOU AT HOME'

'...'

'ARE YOU SAFE?'

What's that supposed to mean, 'safe'? I put the book down and rush to the living room on tiptoes. Do not wake the baby. I grab the remote. The box of horrors takes for ever to come on. Live: Terrorist attack at the Stade de France. The images tell me nothing. I think about Hélène. I should call her, tell her it would be a good idea to take a taxi home. But there is something else. In the corridors of the stadium, some people stand frozen in front of a screen.

At the bottom of my screen, the news on the ticker that slides past too fast suddenly stops. The end of innocence.

'Terrorist attack at the Bataclan.'

The sound cuts out. All I can hear is the noise of my heart trying to burst out of my chest. I check that that is where she went. Maybe I got it mixed up, or forgot. But the concert really is at the Bataclan. Hélène is at the Bataclan...

I grab my phone. I have to call her, talk to her, hear her voice. Contacts. 'Hélène', just Hélène. I never changed her name in my contacts list, never added 'my love' or a photo of the two of us. Neither did she. The call she never received that night was from 'Antoine L'. It rings out. Goes to voicemail. I hang up, I call again. Once, twice, a hundred times. Everything looks unfamiliar. The world around me fades. There is nothing left but her and me.

A phone call from my brother brings me back to reality.

'Hélène is there.'

My brother and sister come to our flat. No one knows what to say. There is nothing to say. There is no name for this.

I have to act, do something. I need to go outside, quickly, so I can find her, so I can escape the army of unspoken words that have invaded my living room. My brother clears the way for me. Without a word, he picks up his car keys. We confer in whispers. Close the door quietly behind us. Do not wake the baby.

The ghost hunt can begin.

We go to all the major hospitals, anywhere that might be taking in the wounded. Bichat, Saint-Louis, Salpêtrière, Georges-Pompidou... That night, death has spread to all four corners of France's capital.

The streetlights speed past by the side of the ring road. The night deepens. Each light brings me one step closer to hypnosis. My body is no longer mine.

Even when there was nothing left to look for, we kept going.

I needed to escape. To get away as far as possible, not to turn back. To keep going to the end of the road.

I saw it, the end of the road.

It shone from the screen of my mobile phone when my alarm went off. Seven o'clock in the morning.

In half an hour, Melvil will drink from his bottle. He must still be sleeping.

A baby's sleep, uncluttered by the horrors of the world. Time to go home.

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