As the battle between New York prosecutors and Dominique Strauss-Kahn continues to disintegrate into what increasingly looks like a legal paintball war using bazookas and rotten fruit (seemingly paralyzing hits of semi-gelatinous melon and fungoid kumquat being regularly scored by both sides), the French are taking closer look at the woman who has filed suit against the former International Monetary Fund director in Paris for attempted rape. Just who is 32-year old author Tristane Banon, and what might her life say about her decision and motives in speaking up at this specific point in time about an assault said to have occurred eight years ago? Several articles in the French press this week have examined her background asking similar questions, with most coming away with one common observation: that if many of the dramatic details of Banon’s life seem like the stuff of novels, it’s in large part because they are—her own.
Banon says she long hesitated to come forward to file charges with authorities that Strauss-Kahn attempted to rape her during a Feb. 2003 interview because she dreaded the invasive probing, attacks, and media attention sure to follow. Previously, however, she rarely shied away from laying other sensitive autobiographical information out on the written page for anyone interested to look over. Indeed, it’s because she’s used so much of her own past to create the anguish, deprivation, ambition, promiscuity, and psycho-drama that inhabit her novels that DSK backers will have a hard time claiming to unmask her as a flake or emotionally scarred woman, or triumphantly discover unsavory skeletons hidden in her closet. Banon’s life and emotions are, literally, open books.
“(It’s) lost, as my father is,” Banon writes in one of her novels of a birth certificate that vanished—as her father did—hours after she came into this world. “Lost, from now on, as I’ll be for the rest of my life.”
If that sounds melodramatic, it isn’t uncharacteristic of Banon’s based-on-herself fictional characters—though it would also be insensitive and unfair to claim the woman is a gratuitous whiner or wimp. Born June 17, 1979 in the posh Paris suburb (and political stronghold of current President Nicolas Sarkozy) Neuilly-sur-Seine, Marie-Caroline Banon—who later started using the name Tristane as perhaps more evocative of her existential melancholy—did not exactly fall into the protective, nurturing parental arms most children do. Father Gabriel Banon, a businessman who once advised French President Georges Pompidou and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on economic and industrial issues, left his newborn baby’s hospital bed to fetch the never-to-materialize birth certificate, and remained virtually absent from his child’s life from there. Recently, Banon was quoted as saying she wasn’t even sure he was still alive—an apparent detachment that her writing suggests was either affected or imposed. “Fatherless 27 years out of 27 implies lots of mental disorder,” the female character in Banon’s third novel, the 2008 Daddy Frenzy, laments.
Maternal support wasn’t exactly stifling either, recent biographical portraits of Banon suggest. Mother Anne Mansouret—a driven businesswoman who has since become an elected regional official from the Socialist Party—was so focused on her career, social pursuits, and male callers, Banon’s writing indicates, that she also was largely absent from her child’s life. Banon says the occupied Mansouret entrusted her daughter to a nanny that Banon describes as an alcoholic who regularly beat her ward. On one occasion, Banon writes in her first autobiographically-inspired 2004 novel, one of the nanny’s male friends wound up sexually abusing the child. Perhaps not surprisingly, that book’s title, I Forgot to Kill Her, is a dark reference to Banon’s care-taker—though she’s far from the only adult to come away looking negligent, brutally uncaring, and irresponsible.
As a young adult Banon earned a journalism degree and worked in several Paris-based media outlets, where her work led her to cross paths with the rich and famous movers of French society. That exposure increased when she shifted gears and become a book author. Some of her fictional writing reflects what she says was her own mixing and climbing in the publishing and literary world, involving numerous relationships, flings, and one-night-stands with various influential male admirers. That lifestyle and milieu was explored in her second 2006 novel, “The Trapeze Artists”. But the libertine, fast-living activities of Paris’ sophisticated and elite set that Banon details in that book had clearly caught her attention even earlier. Indeed, her 2003 essay, Avowed Errors, examines the actions of powerful or famous men whose private behavior got them into some serious public trouble—or risked doing so eventually. It was for that work that Banon found herself interviewing Strauss-Kahn in Feb. 2003, where she says he jumped her, tore at her clothing, and thrust his hands into her pants her as she fought him off. Eventually, she recounted that scene in The Trapeze Artists—a recollection that now provides the basis for Banon’s July 5 legal complaint accusing Strauss-Kahn of attempted rape.
DSK and his lawyers call the incident “imaginary,” and say they’re filing a suit against Banon for false and slanderous accusation.
That isn’t the only push-back in the works. Strauss-Kahn supporters are taking two angles in challenging Banon’s claims—though most are doing so very discreetly in the form of anonymous quotes given to journalists. Some allege Banon’s very work shows her to be an exhibitionist drama queen whose novels—and perhaps very mind—constantly blur reality and fiction. Those people tend to attack her rape charge as an extreme example of the efforts some of her protagonists go to to make their name and stake out their patch of competitive, celebrity-dense turf.
Others say Banon is on a hit mission for right-wing allies of Sarkozy, who want to be sure Strauss-Kahn—formerly favored in polls to win the 2012 presidential election—stays out of the race even if the New York case against him is dropped. A pending rape charge in Paris would certainly do the trick. Those detractors also note Banon has worked for media owned by Sarkozy’s conservative backers—including the unabashedly partisan le Figaro, and her current writing for the right-charging internet site, Atlantico. Critics also point out that online Atlantico—whose management includes a director of Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign—managed to get wind and publish news of Strauss-Kahn’s May 14 arrest far before the bigger papers. Still other skeptics gravely note Banon’s half-sister is the ex-wife of a Sarkozy ally currently serving in his cabinet.
Yet the author’s entourage also includes leftists, which could suggest she might actually have as many motives for not pressing charges. After all, Banon’s mother is a Socialist official, who—to boot—long dissuaded her daughter from speaking out about the alleged rape in deference to DSK’s rising political fortunes (and how they might impact her own political career. In the wake of Strauss-Kahn’s New York arrest, Mansouret has said she deeply regrets having convinced Banon not to file charges, and has urged DSK “to get treatment” for his sexual impulses.) Banon’s godmother, meanwhile, is no other than Strauss-Kahn’s second wife. Banon has also counted one of DSK’s daughters among her close friends.
For her part, Banon seems resigned to the idea that opinions will be split on her decision and motives, and that counter-accusations and second-guessing will be part of her effort to bring Strauss-Kahn to court.
“I know half the people will believe me, and the other (half) won’t. There is no good solution to this, except the one that will let me finally look myself in the mirror,” she said in an exclusive interview this week to the l’Express newsweekly, in which she again stressed her decision to file suit this week had not been conditioned by the crumbling case against DSK in New York. “I only want one thing, that he returns to France with his presumption of innocence so we can take this to court. I know that in this kind of case it’s one word against the other, without speaking about how some [evidently] guilty people are let off [when] they’re very powerful. But I know I’m speaking the truth.”
With Banon’s complaint now in their hands, French prosecutors must now decide whether to file its content as insufficient to pursue; open a preliminary inquiry of their own; or send it to an independent investigating magistrate to lead a full inquiry.