His wife was murdered at the Bataclan, but Antoine Leiris vowed that the terrorists would never have the satisfaction of feeling his hate. Cathy Rentzenbrink meets him.
“On Friday night, you stole the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hate. I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know. You are dead souls. If that God for whom you so blindly kill made us in his image, each bullet in my wife’s body will have been a wound in his heart.’”
This is the start of a letter Antoine Leiris posted on Facebook addressed directly to the killers of his wife, Hélène, when he came back from seeing her body at the mortuary. The post went viral and then grew into a book, You Will Not Have my Hate, a starkly beautiful account of what happened to one Parisian family on November 13 last year.
Antoine was at home reading a not particularly good novel on the night his life changed forever. Hélène, was out at a rock concert and their son, Melvil, slept soundly. When Antoine’s phone beeped with a succession of seemingly pointless texts asking if he was OK, his irritation at being interrupted grew quickly into a realisation that something was wrong. As he rushed to turn on the TV, he was still careful not to wake the baby.
On the box of horrors, Antoine saw appalled faces and his innocence ended as the news ticker on the bottom on the screen read: Terrorist attack at the Bataclan. Hélène was there. All he could hear was the noise of his heart trying to burst out of his chest. He looked at the words on the screen as the news networks competed to find words to describe the events: massacre, carnage, bloodbath. He wanted to scream, but couldn’t because of Melvil. He wanted to run into the night to find Helene, but he had to think of Melvil and to wait until his brother and sister arrived.
When I meet Antoine Leiris in London he looks bone tired, his face etched with almost a year’s worth of grief. He is friendly, courteous and repeatedly apologises for his English. He worries that he won’t find enough words to explain what is in his head. He tells me of the time between knowing the attack had happened and finding out that Helene was dead, when he experienced simultaneous hope and fear as he raced around Paris going to all the hospitals.
“It was both feelings at the same time. It’s a powerful paradox. You have the strongest hope – if there is any chance that she is still alive it’s 100 per cent, and if she is dead it’s 100 per cent. I was totally lost in that feeling at that moment.”
All night long he failed to find Hélène, but people gave him reasons to keep going; not all the wounded had been identified, some survivors had been taken to the suburbs. By 7am, Antoine knew that there was a strong possibility he was going to have to be a sole parent and was convinced that he must go home to be there when Melvil woke and to give him his first bottle.
“If I avoided the first one by saying I was too tired, too sad, that I had to stay out searching for Hélène, then I knew I would continue to avoid it. I had to be there for Melvil and to embrace it totally. I didn’t leave him alone for many, many days after that because it was important for me to be there and for him to feel secure with me.”
The book takes place over a short time frame, partly because Antoine didn’t want to enter into the authorial over-thinking that would come with a longer, more complex structure; he just wanted to write things as they were.
“I wanted it to be meaningful, but I didn’t want to let time go by and fantasise the events. People thought I would write about peace in the world, and terrorism, but there is nothing of that in the book. I wanted to stay true. I’m not a writer, I’m just a guy who wrote something. I need the words to communicate and to live a bigger life.”
Also, there were many things he wanted to keep to himself. He writes little of life before, except that it was happy and that he and Hélène fitted together like two pieces of Lego. He intentionally doesn’t share with us how he finally found out that Hélène was dead, though he takes us into the mortuary and explains the thought process that led to the Facebook post.
“I hadn’t eaten for two days. My brother wanted me to eat. I typed the words on Facebook thinking of talking to our friends, how Hélène would want it to be. I posted it and went to eat the lunch my brother had made me.”
The post struck a chord and people all around the world contacted Antoine, seeing him as totem, a beacon of hope in a dark world. Antoine remained fairly protected from the flashing notification lights as he has a rule of not using devices around Melvil.
Still, sometimes, he feels dwarfed by his own words, frightened that he must in some way live up to them. He is a discreet and private person, he says, and never wanted to be hailed as a hero or appear on the cover of magazines. He wants to retain the right to make mistakes.
“At first I thought it was a burden because I don’t want to be a public figure but now I see the words, this feeling of being a totem, can stay with November 13, but I can go somewhere else. The words are there and I can continue my life.”
I met a girl who was pregnant at the time and who lost her husband at the Bataclan. She opened the door and I felt I knew her and had known her for many years, and it was the same for her
Hélène was one of 89 people killed during the terrorist attack at the Bataclan. Initially resistant to spending time with fellow mourners, Antoine discovered that there is a kind of brotherhood, a feeling of recognition, that can provide consolation: “I agreed to co-direct a documentary for French television and went to talk to people who experienced the attacks of November 13. The first interview was with a girl who was pregnant at the time and who lost her husband at the Bataclan. She opened the door and I felt I knew her and had known her for many years, and it was the same for her.”
They can talk about the big things but also the little things: “You feel everything is about you and your grief. People cannot talk about anything else. But together we can talk of other things, the daily worries of everyday life. And with her, I can say Mevil didn’t sleep well last night, and he took his plate and threw it, so I had to punish him…the little things that other people don’t understand you want to talk about. It’s comforting.”
Melvil is ever present in this story. Antoine had a feeling of profound connection with him from the moment he came into the world with his eyes already open, born, as the French say, looking at the stars.
“People had told us that newborn babies were just about sleeping and feeding and pooping, but I realised from the very first second of his first day on earth that he already had a personality, a character, and it was my job to go with him and help him become a man.”
He accepts that Melvil has kept him committed to this life: “Sometimes I’m out on the balcony and I imagine…” He twirls his finger in a downwards spiral then shrugs, “But, of course, I can’t.”
They are it in together, two adventurers. The first time Antoine cut Melvil’s nails – one of the few parenting tasks he hadn’t shared with Hélène – he nicked a bit of thumb. In this moment of feeling desolate, useless and alone, he sensed that Melvil was encouraging him and knew he was doing his best.
“I need to look after him. That feeling, for a child, of being secure is very important. You can give it to him by taking good care of him, setting rules, and by loving him. I need to be there because if there is one of the three who is not there everything can fall apart.”
There are no big messages about terrorism or world peace in this little book, just a simple story of a family that went from three people down to two on one brutal night. Antoine is intent on raising Melvil without hatred and fear but can’t think to much about the details of their future.
“Like any parent I am anxious and confident, probably at the same time. Life has told me that anything can happen. It will decide and I have to accept that as a fact. So now I accept it more and do everything I can. What I can change I try to change, and what I can’t, I just don’t think about it.
“I don’t know about the future.” He pauses for a moment, looks troubled, and then shakes his head as though pushing away all the unwelcome thoughts, ‘I am looking forward to going home to Melvil, to walking in the forest with him. I can think about that.”