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On the morning of January 9, 1993, Jean-Claude Romand, a respected physician and researcher at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, bludgeoned his wife to death and shot his two small children. Then he drove to his elderly parents’ home, had lunch with them, and soon afterwards shot them, too. He returned home the following night, set fire to the house, and tried to take his own life by swallowing twenty Nembutal tablets. Unfortunately for Romand, he was more proficient at murder than suicide. He survived because firefighters arrived and pulled him from the burning house.

At first the fire appeared to be a tragic accident, but then it was discovered that Romand’s parents had been murdered and the victims of the fire must have been dead before the fire began. Next, a note was discovered in Romand’s hand, admitting to the murders. It soon emerged that this was more than a case of multiple murder. Romand’s friends and neighbors were astonished to discover that Romand had been living a colossal lie for a period of eighteen years. He was not employed by the WHO, and never had been. He was not and never had been a doctor. He had never done any of the things he had claimed to have done. He did not hobnob with famous international humanitarians and government ministers, as he claimed. He did not travel to international conferences. He was not an astute financial investor who could be entrusted with his relatives’ life savings. The truth was that Jean-Claude Romand had no job at all. For years he had lived off his parents’ money, and when that no longer became possible, he resorted to swindling his in-laws, who, incredibly, did not seem to notice. When he finally began to run out of money, he realized that his long deception was about to be exposed. Unable to bear the thought of his close family discovering his secret, he killed them.

The Adversary attempts to explain how Romand managed to pull off such a huge deception, and for so long, as well as how it all began. Carrère, who tells the story with masterly skill (he attended Romand’s trial and corresponded with him in prison), finds clues in Romand’s early upbringing. The future liar and mass murderer was a quiet, well-behaved only child. His father never showed his feelings, and Romand tried to emulate him. His mother was a worrier and Romand learned to conceal his own problems for fear that confiding in her would make her worry more. The family ethic contained a paradox: The boy was taught always to tell the truth, but he also learned that there were some things that were not to be spoken of, even if they were true. The important thing was not to upset people. Secretly unhappy, the boy had no one to confide in except his dog.

His parents wanted him to become a forester, like his father, but Romand chose to attend medical school in Lyon instead. There he developed a relationship with his distant cousin Florence. In their group of friends, Romand was known as the bookworm; his lifelong friend Luc Ladmiral was the natural leader. All appeared well until the end of the second year, when he got up too late to take one of the final exams. He rescheduled it for September, but this time deliberately chose to lie in bed rather than take the exam. The reason he did this is unclear, since he was a competent student and could have passed the exam. At this time Romand took his first serious wrong turn. Instead of consulting with the university and constructing a plan to get his studies back on track, when the test results were posted, he announced to parents and friends that he had passed. Astonishingly, no one noticed that his name did not appear on the list of successful candidates.

For Romand, that was the fateful decision. From then on, one lie led easily to another. The next trimester he shut himself away in an apartment, then lied to his best friend Ladmiral that he had cancer. Then he returned to the university and reregistered as a second-year student, which he continued to do for twelve successive years, until 1985. It was not until 1986 that the university barred him from reregistering. Romand attended classes, studied, used the library; his friends assumed he was getting along fine.

Romand married Florence and they produced a son and daughter. It appears that Romand genuinely loved his family. Later he would insist that, although the social part of his life was false, the emotional part was true.

After Romand claimed to have a job at the WHO, this was his typical routine: He would drive his children to school and then drive to the WHO offices. Entering with a visitor’s pass, he would use WHO services such as the library, post office, bank, and travel office. From the publication office he would collect anything that was printed and free, so his house and car always had plenty of papers with the WHO letterhead or stamp. When he got bored with going to WHO, he would drive to towns where he would not be recognized, buy newspapers and magazines, and spend hours reading in cafés or rest stops. Sometimes he would go walking in the Jura Mountains. On Tuesdays, when he supposedly taught at Dijon, he would visit his parents. They were proud of him for always finding the time to visit, even though he was such a busy man.

Then there were the trips, supposedly to conferences and seminars all over the world. Romand never actually went very far. He would buy a guide to the country he was supposed to be visiting, just so he could add a little local color to his travel stories when he returned. Then he would drive to a hotel near the Geneva airport and hole up for a few days watching television and reading. After a few days he would return with gifts from the country he had visited (he bought these in the airport gift shop), and complain that he was tired from jet lag.

No one suspected anything. Romand kept his personal and professional life separate. Hiding behind a cloak of modesty, he never spoke of his work at the WHO. He conveyed the idea that it was not appropriate to discuss his professional achievements, so people learned not to raise the subject with him. No one had his office phone number. Even his wife would have to leave messages in a voice mailbox, and he would call her back. His wife once commented that her husband’s life was very compartmentalized, but apparently she saw nothing strange in his behavior.

Financially, Romand survived by exploiting and swindling. For a while he continued to live off his parents’ money. He had legal access to their bank account, and they apparently expressed no concern at their steadily diminishing savings. Romand also convinced his relatives that because he was a high-level international civil servant, he was in a position to make investments at 18 percent interest. His uncle and father-in-law took advantage of this hard-to-resist offer, handing over large sums of money to their well-connected relative. All went well for Romand until his father-in-law asked to withdraw some of his capital. A few weeks later, the older man fell on the stairs at his home and died. There was only one person with him at the time: Jean-Claude Romand. (Romand has repeatedly denied that his father-in-law’s death was anything other than an accident.)

It was when Romand embarked on an affair with a woman named Corrine, the wife of a friend, that the final chapter of this strange tragedy began. He would visit Corrine in Paris, bringing expensive gifts. They spent three days together in Rome, where she tried to break away from him, saying she found him too sad.

Back with his family, Romand lied that he had Hodgkin’s disease. Pretending to be tired from the treatment, he did not go to work every day. Then the affair with Corrine flared up again, in Paris, and the couple also spent five days together in Leningrad. Desperate for money, Romand persuaded Corrine to allow him to invest 900,000 francs for her (at 18 percent interest, of course). However, Romand knew he was taking a huge risk: Corrine was not naïve and would expect a quick return on her money. Sure enough, Corrine soon got worried about having lent her money, for which she had no receipts, to a man who had cancer. She tried to get it back. He stalled.

Then Romand made another mistake. A scandal had broken out in Prévessin about the local school principal, who was having an affair with one of the teachers. The school’s administration board asked the principal to resign. Romand, who was a member of the board, went along with the decision at first, but later spoke out against it. This attracted a lot of attention to him, something he had always scrupulously avoided, and much of the attention was hostile. The president of the school board, who also worked in Geneva, tried to call Romand at WHO, but could not find him listed.

Romand knew that the net was closing in on him. His incredible luck was about to run out. With people asking questions about him and Corrine demanding her money back, public exposure could not be long in coming. It was then that Romand made the fateful decision to kill his family; he also tried to kill Corrine later that same Saturday, when his family was already lying dead. Romand took Corrine on a bizarre road trip to Fontainebleau on the premise that they were going to have dinner at the home of a good friend, Bernard Kouchner, one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders. (Kouchner had never heard of Romand.) Stopping at a picnic area with the excuse that he had to search for Kouchner’s telephone number, Romand attacked Corrine so violently she thought he was going to kill her. She fought him off, and he blamed everything on his illness: It was driving him mad.

Romand was convicted of multiple murders and sentenced to life in prison. In prison, he claimed to have found peace in the Christian faith. He felt that even though he had committed terrible crimes, he was on a hard road to a mystical redemption through Christ. Skeptics claimed that this was simply another carefully constructed persona that helped him to avoid the depression that he had been skirting all his life. For Jean-Claude Romand, who lived a huge lie for eighteen years, authenticity is hard to establish. Psychiatrists concluded that he had no access to his own truth about who he really was; he relied on the psychiatrists and the media to construct that truth for him.

Carrère, who does his best to understand this very strange man, concludes of Romand’s jailhouse religiosity: “He is not putting on an act, of that I’m sure, but isn’t the liar inside him putting one over on him? When Christ enters his heart, when the certainty of being loved in spite of everything makes tears of joy run down his cheeks, isn’t it the adversary deceiving him yet again?”

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (January 1, 2001): 882.

Library Journal 125 (November 15, 2000): 83.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (May 6, 2001): 38.

Publishers Weekly 247 (November 27, 2000): 63.