Jacqueline and André Are Sister and Brother—and Mom and Dad
As for the girl, her story was not so different: similarly an orphan; raised callously by foster parents; married once but without fulfilling the gaping hole that a parentless life had left. "I didn't want to live without tenderness," she says.
When they met for the first time, he 26, she 21, they would not, could not think of romance. But for both, as never before, it was as if someone else could understand—and care. "We were bound," she says, "by the same absence of love." Out of this absence sprang love's presence, and eventually—even though many would think it wrong—even though they themselves wondered at it, they slept together, moved in together, had a child.
This happened though they knew they were brother and sister.
Incest is the oldest of taboos. Its prohibition, said Freud, is the basis for all civilization, and it is illegal in the U.S. and nearly everywhere else in the world. Certainly, the most common kind of incest—the molestation of a child by its mother or father—is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable. But what if incest takes place between two consenting adults, both very much in love, who had never known each other as brother and sister, indeed had never met until their 20s? What if, defying their Catholic upbringing, they lived together and had a healthy child?
France was confronted with these unsettling questions in dramatic style when a television program called André et Jacqueline, Les Liens du Passé (Ties of the Past) went on the air last fall. The viewing audience met André, a cabinetmaker, and Jacqueline, his lover—and sister. They live in a tiny home in a working-class section of Paris. Inside, it is warm and cozy, with old stuffed chairs and white crocheted curtains. Every morning André rises at 6 to work his trade for 10 hours. Jacqueline, who quit her secretary's job six months before giving birth last May, stays home. When the two are together, they touch continually; after eight years, they still smile lovers' smiles and pat each other affectionately. André sits on the floor and rests his head in Jacqueline's lap. And in a corner, in a handmade crib, lies Evolna, blond-haired and button-nosed, the product of their bizarre union.
"We're marginals," France heard Jacqueline say on the broadcast. "But we don't want to be. We have the same preoccupations, the same desires, the same hopes, the same life as anybody else."
It happens that incest itself is not a crime in France. But a marriage between brother and sister is not considered official, and the child of such a union may not be registered under the names of both parents. André and Jacqueline went on television to appeal to French President François Mitterrand for a dispensation that would allow them to marry and be listed together as their child's parents. The hour-long documentary ended with their plea: "Mr. President...We're 29 and 34 years old, and we love each other. We've been living together for five years, and from our love has been born a little girl..."
Their story begins in 1953, when their grandfather brought André to an orphanage. He was one of 10 children their mother would bear by the same man, but she gave up all her offspring, being too poor to raise them. (The father is dead, the mother's whereabouts unknown.) A quiet boy, André bounced from orphanage to orphanage. At 14, he was allowed to settle down at a larger institution, an all-boys home where he studied carpentry and had his own room. Nevertheless, André remembers it as a sad substitute for a real family. "They taught me to work, to say 'yes.' " he relates. "The rest, they don't teach you. And life isn't just work, it's relationships and feelings." Out on his own at 19, André scrounged a living as a carpenter and sometime actor. But emotionally, he was empty, or rather, too full of needs. "When I was 13 or 14, I would fall asleep and dream about a great big beautiful bed and a woman dressed in white," he says. "I wanted it to be just as beautiful in real life. But when I went out with girls, it wasn't like that." Frightened by his yearning for affection, women avoided him. He despaired of ever finding happiness. Then, one day, a letter arrived.
It had not been easy for Jacqueline, either. Abandoned at age 3, she was spared the succession of orphanages, but the foster family in which she grew up treated her as little more than a servant. While accepting government money for her board, they had her tend the rabbits, chickens and vegetable garden while their natural children slept late. At 18, she married the nephew of a neighbor—the first boy, she says, to show an interest in her. But she left him six months later when she discovered that marriage did not equal love. "I was back in the same situation," she says, "treated like a maid."
Jacqueline found secretarial work in a suburb of Paris, where she took a studio apartment. After three years of loneliness and depression, she began to try to locate her siblings. A brother she had learned of as a child told her of another brother in Brittany, who in turn told her of a third, who lived in Paris. It was André and Jacqueline wrote to him.
They met for the first time in 1976 in a jazz club on Rue Daunois in Paris. Something long given up for lost fell into place. "With Jacqueline, it was so simple," says André. "I could be myself and she could, too." Adds Jacqueline, "He was the first person I could really confide in, the first person who really listened to me and understood me, who loved me."
For love it was. For both, the attraction was sexual as well as emotional. Jacqueline, who points out that the idea of sleeping with any of the foster brothers she grew up with was unthinkable, explains, "I never thought of him as a brother. My love, the physical attraction I felt for him, went beyond that." André felt the same. Together, the two reconstructed their pasts, saw movies, attended concerts.
And yet, for two years there was no talk of consummation. "It was an impossible situation," says André "I thought to myself, if she doesn't want to do it, I don't want to ruin the friendship we have." Each time she visited André in Paris, Jacqueline took the train back to her apartment in the suburbs. And then one night, she didn't.
The couple told no one of their secret when they moved into the little house in Paris' 11th Arrondissement, and for three years they were happy. Then Jacqueline became pregnant. The baby was aborted. "We were afraid," says Jacqueline, "afraid of the unknown, afraid of people's reactions." But the more they thought about the abortion, the more they knew it was wrong. "These years of happiness, they're so short," she says. "I didn't see why I shouldn't have a child by André since I wanted it more than anything else. I wanted it to be his because he's the one who's making me happy, and I couldn't give him anything better than a child."
There followed a period of inquiry, always somber and sometimes embarrassing. In one doctor's office Jacqueline saw her file marked in red: "Inbreeding." Eventually, sympathetic geneticists explained the couple's chances. Whereas children of unrelated parents have a 1-in-32 probability of abnormalities, an incestuous couple's offspring would have a 1-in-8 risk. (American doctors place the risk at 1 in 4.) The couple decided to go ahead, and last spring Evolna Suzanne, a hearty, 6½-lb. girl, was born into what will no doubt be an unusual existence.
It was Evolna's birth that eventually drew her mother and father out of their secret life and into the glaring lights of the television cameras. Marriage had never seemed very important to the pair before, but the necessity of listing Evolna as Jacqueline's daughter alone raised the possibility that her mother's death might plunge her into the orphan's life the parents knew too well. When French journalist Mireille Dumas suggested that they make a documentary and a televised appeal to explain their story to the public and implore Mitterrand to permit them to marry, they agreed.
The broadcast immediately attracted wide public sympathy for Jacqueline and André. And last week the pair heard from the Elysée Palace that they would soon receive an invitation to confer with Mitterrand's judicial counselor. Of the two, Jacqueline is better at waiting: Full-cheeked and plump, she is quick to smile. André still carries the freight of the past. He chainsmokes, and when he reminisces, he cries easily. But he is confident about the future, the child lying in her crib. "I'm going to try to tell her all the things about life they hid from me," he says. "Things about love, tenderness, affection. We suffered enough when we were kids to be able to help her confront the world outside, the unknown, without being afraid. She'll call us 'Mom' and 'Dad,' it'll be a normal thing, just like any other kid."