Catherine Millet: A Sentimental Education
In a new book, swinger Catherine Millet confronts an unexpected demon: jealousy.
Catherine Millet doesn’t seem like the jealous type. The 61-year-old art critic and author is perhaps France’s most high-profile sexual adventuress, thanks to her 2001 best-seller The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a graphic, unsentimental account of her escapades with dozens of lovers and countless anonymous men at orgies and sex clubs and in parks and train stations. Given that Millet was living with writer-photographer Jacques Henric (who’s now her husband) while she was gangbanging her way around Paris, you wouldn’t think she’d be fazed by the discovery that Henric was indulging in a few flings of his own.
Mais non. One day in the mid-Nineties, after Millet found evidence of Henric’s love affairs among the papers on his desk, she fell apart. She recounts her subsequent three-year crisis in her latest memoir, Jealousy (Grove Press), out in the U.S. in February.
“When I realized my husband had a sexual life apart from me, I found myself in conflict with my philosophy of sexual liberation,” says Millet, sitting in her light-filled apartment in southeastern Paris. “And I suffered terribly because suddenly I had to face myself and my contradictions.”
There’s no shortage of contradictions in the life of Catherine Millet. Surrounded by shelves of art books and dressed in a no-nonsense cardigan, Millet, who is executive editor of the highbrow magazine Art Press, looks and talks like the French intellectual that she is. Glance at the living room wall, however, and you’ll see more than a dozen of Henric’s explicit nude photos of her. While Millet has never had trouble reconciling her role as an authority on Jackson Pollock with her penchant for exhibitionism or public group sex, she was horrified to find herself stooping to the banal acts of a jealous lover: riffling through Henric’s letters and diaries, spying on him. “Jealousy can become a horrible paranoia—anything can feed it,” she says. In the book she discusses her various coping mechanisms, including tranquilizers and psychoanalysis; she also details her obsessively masochistic masturbation sessions, in which she fantasized about her husband copulating with his girlfriends.
Millet has become something of a literary celebrity in France, but she insists her bare-it-all memoirs haven’t changed her private relationships. Walking into her office each morning, she says, she’s not disconcerted knowing that her staff is familiar with every detail of her erotic fantasies. “No one dares bring it up,” she says. “Not even my friends.” If her previous book offered a clinical, cold-eyed take on the habits of a sexual libertine, Jealousy explores some of the attendant emotional pitfalls. But Millet still maintains a strict divide between what she reveals on the page and what she discusses with friends and colleagues. She says she told none of her close friends about her crisis while she was going through it, and “after Jealousy came out, not one of them said, ‘Catherine, I had no idea you were suffering like that.’” She admits she cultivates a certain distance from others, even though she’s a very open and engaging interviewee. “I suppose I have put myself in this position of authority with people,” she says. “I’ve sought that out, and I don’t want to give it up.”
Her husband, meanwhile, recalls being mildly surprised when Millet revealed how distraught she was about his affairs—“considering what she herself was doing,” he says wryly. Far more stunning to him was Millet’s assumption that he had remained faithful. “She knew I had a lot of female friends and that I was going out with them in the evenings,” says Henric, a small, white-haired 71-year-old. He wonders if his wife may sometimes see him as a father figure. Millet acknowledges she had a tendency to idealize Henric, which may have contributed to her state of denial.
Today you won’t find Millet cruising the Bois de Boulogne; she says she’s currently monogamous and satisfied. “Frankly, I’ve gotten older, and I’m not searching as much for new sensations,” she says. Asked what she misses about promiscuous sex, she laughs and says, “Oh là là, I don’t really think about it, so if you ask me to, it’s going to be unsettling!” Since her book was published in France last year, Millet has often been approached by strangers asking for advice about their own struggles with jealousy. She tells them about a realization that came to her toward the end of her ordeal.
“In a sense, I’ve come back around to what I used to think,” she says. “Sexual liberty can be handled with discretion—each partner has to respect the private life of the other. If I suffered, it’s because I went looking [for the truth]. I could have just closed my eyes.”
While Millet is ruminating on married life, Henric passes through the room. He smiles, says hello, puts on a jacket and walks out the door. He doesn’t mention where he’s going, and Millet doesn’t ask.