On the night of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, journalist Antoine Leiris was at home with his toddler son while his wife attended a concert. When news of the attacks started sparking across the city, Leiris began receiving text messages from friends asking if he and his wife were okay. With the TV reports filling him with dread, he tried to phone his wife, to no avail. His wife was one of 89 people killed at the Bataclan theatre that night.
In the days after, Leiris became something of a Facebook phenomenon for posting a letter, from which this book gets its title, addressing his wife’s murderers and describing not only his grief, but also his determination to not let them ruin his and his son’s lives. He wrote that he and his son would not be cowed; that, in effect, their living well would be their revenge, and that he would not waste time thinking further about the terrorists.
Leiris wrote more about the aftermath of his wife’s death; this book is the end product. It is, unsurprisingly, heart-wrenching, because of Leiris’s need to both grieve and keep a toddler’s life on track. It is an act of catharsis, narrated with the stabbing shortness of breath that comes with grief. He says that sentences of more than three words are difficult and describes his heart trying to burst out of his chest. Leiris gropes for metaphors—earthquakes, jigsaw puzzles—inadequate descriptors for his plod through the fog of grief.
Leiris’s attempt at indifference towards the terrorists is entirely understandable, as would be raging against them. But rather than make his wife some kind of martyr, he refuses to succumb to what he calls the escapism of hatred. He’s determined to get on with life; the life that, apparently, the terrorists hate.
Unfortunately this attitude of indifference, which pervades Western culture more widely, is part of the problem, not the solution. It has been shown repeatedly that terrorists don’t just hate a Western lifestyle out of blind ideology. Islamist extremism is cultivated by the exclusion and domination that is a necessary foundation of our Western lifestyle, and by the West’s repeated intervention in the Middle East, particularly the killing of innocent parents and children that is written off by Western governments as “collateral damage”. Leiris’s loss is tragic, just as thousands of families in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria experience similar tragedy, but without the chance to share their grief on Facebook or in best-selling books. Much suffering remains voiceless. And when we in the West do hear about it, there’s a danger that we see it as necessary, unavoidable or less profound, which encourages indifference and a focus on our own wellbeing.
The message of Christianity is not “ignore your enemies” but “love your enemies”, a sentiment that seems absurd in Leiris’s case. To ask Leiris to understand and love his wife’s killers, rather than just to try to get on with life, looks like madness to most people. But a radically broken world needs radical solutions. Jesus tells those who choose to follow Him to pray for those who persecute them. He practised what He preached during the agony of His execution, praying for the forgiveness of His torturers. In the face of cruelty He says, “You will have my love.”
* Published by David Lovell Publishing, Victoria (2016). If this article has triggered difficult memories or feelings for you, please speak to a trusted friend, family member or helping professional. Alternatively, contact an online or phone help service such as Lifeline or beyondblue.