In 2002, Catherine Millet, editor of the French magazine Art Press, created quite a stir with THE SEXUAL LIFE OF CATHERINE M., in which she revealed that for decades she had been having sexual affairs with men other than her long-term partner, writer and photographer Jacques Henric. An honest and freewheeling account of a woman’s sexual liberation, it was an important work of feminist literature in that Millet destroyed the double standard that had existed forever: men could have mistresses on the side as long as they stayed emotionally committed to their wives. In effect, she was doing the same thing: carrying on a “sexual nomadism” outside her home but finding love with Henric.
JEALOUSY: The Other Life of Catherine M. explores what happened to Millet when she accidentally discovered photos that seemed to indicate that Henric was doing the same thing. “Whether the notebook had been open or closed, my attention probably would not have been drawn to it if the photos had been of a different nature.” This discovery exploded Millet’s world. “Equally,” she writes, “it never occurred to me that other people might be pursuing their own storylines elsewhere.” Millet and Henric started living together when she was 24. They are married now and have been a couple for a total of 37 years. By the time she found the proof of his infidelity in the 1990s, they had been together for decades.
Millet was always honest with Henric, much as she was in her first memoir. She writes, “Just as I loved living between two cities, I loved going from one man to another.” She makes her living as an art critic and “...I was not only in contact with artists, but where the avant-garde freedom in life and thought seemed to open up limitless possibilities…” Her world precluded even the idea of such a bourgeois concept as jealousy. She loved Henric and always returned home to him. After finding the photos, she says, “I came back to him empty of all feeling, pregnant with suspense. And it would be true to say that over the next few days this suspense unleashed a cascade of tearful questions, and went on over a period of months and years to asphyxiate our relationship.”
JEALOUSY is a powerful story of a woman falling apart. The initial discovery drove Millet to rifle through her partner’s things for further proof, and she became suspicious of every woman they knew. Furthermore, she created elaborate sexual scenarios and masturbatory fantasies involving Henric and other women. She says, “I sank deeper into the shifting sands of mutual incomprehension.” Her memory began playing tricks on her. She turned to tranquilizers and analysis, but the “crisis,” which included periodic physical breakdowns, dragged on for three years. She stopped her “nocturnal expeditions” but was still tortured by the emotional role other women might be playing in Henric’s life. After all, when she did it, it was just for the sex. Her most devastating discovery is that “…he had a life, in the margin of which was his life with me.”
Millet writes eloquently and intelligently about the most painful of topics. What makes this book exceptional is that she does not venture into cheap sentiment or easy moralizing. Her relationship with Henric ultimately survives, but she does not take the easy way out of repudiating either his past or her own. They are, after all, both human. Nor is this a mea culpa, a plea for forgiveness from the sexually righteous. Instead, Millet and Henric love and support and talk to each other throughout the ordeal. Neither of them went screaming towards the exit or searching for the lawyer’s phone number, even when it might have been the easiest and perhaps most justifiable solution at the moment.
Despite the subject matter, there is little here that is salacious. Those who come expecting either gossip or soft porn will be deeply disappointed. Hardly grist for the ubiquitous American gossip mill, this is a French intellectual documenting her intimate life and seeking her truth. Millet concludes, “We become the reader of a novel which we were once the unconscious author, and before embarking on the final chapter, the skillful author may hand us a key which suddenly allows us to link together all the clues scattered throughout the story, giving meaning where once there appeared to be none.”
That is what a memoir is supposed to do: discover the truth about a human being in crisis and shine a light into the darkness of a soul. In that light we just might find some truth and salvation in our own lives. Millet has done that once again in JEALOUSY, a brave and wise little book.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 22, 2011