Deuteronomy: The Life and Death of Pierre Rivière, Murderer

pierre riviere

Photo credit: David Martínez

When Pierre Rivière was questioned about why he killed his mother, sister, and younger brother, the twenty-year-old accused explained to the examining judge, Exupère Legrain, that it was God who told him to do it. However, when confronted with the proposition that if he truly believed in God he should know that “God never orders a crime,” Rivière rebutted with the assertion, “God ordered Moses to slay the adorers of the golden calf, sparing neither friends nor father nor sons.” When asked how he learned such things, Rivière claimed, “I read them in Deuteronomy,” in addition to the Book of Numbers. “Neither monster nor martyr,” as one of the medical authorities would say, Pierre Rivière is a case study of how insanity and the rule of law collided in the 1830s French judicial system, as reexamined by Michel Foucault, Jean-Pierre Peter, Jeanne Favret, Patricia Moulin, Blandine Barret-Kriegel, Philippe Riot, Robert Castel, and Alexandre Fontana.

For many readers, I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother (Editions Gallimard, 1973; Pantheon Books, 1975) is something that one soon discovers after reading Foucault’s more celebrated works, namely The Order of Things, Madness and Civilization, and Discipline and Punish. However, if you’re like me, you may take a longtime—in my case, a very longtime—before getting around to actually reading I, Pierre Rivière. This may happen, not because of the inherently repulsive nature of the crime, but rather because there’s very little of Foucault in the text. Once the reader delves into the dossier and a cantonal judge gives his report of the arraignment of Rivière, the absence of Foucault matters less and the drama of this 19th century mass murder matters more.  Appearing just before Discipline and Punish (Editions Gallimard, 1975; Pantheon Books, 1978), I, Pierre Rivière appeals to one’s intellect like Umberto Eco’s medieval crime saga The Name of the Rose (1980) or Daniel Vigne’s tale of stolen identity The Return of Martin Guerre (1982).

At the center of I, Pierre Rivière is the testimony that Rivière composed in his own hand, in which his motivation for killing his mother and siblings had nothing to do with God, which he admits was just a ploy, and more to do with freeing his father from what he regarded as a life of endless torment at the hands of his mother. The siblings, in turn, were killed because they sided with a woman that Rivière thought of as  wholly loathsome. At the same time, while Rivière willingly admits his crime, even wanting the ultimate penalty, there is a question of his sanity at the time he committed these murders. Although Rivière never pleads for mercy, least of all because he’s mentally sick, multiple witnesses portray Rivière as intellectually and socially deficient, a condition going back to childhood. He’s remembered as having a “furtive” expression and engaging in a variety of “bizarre” behaviors, most notably the torture of frogs and birds under the pretense of reenacting “Christ’s passion.” Yet, he reads a great deal, especially religious and philosophical texts, all the while maintaining an encyclopedic recollection of the tribulations through which his mother put his father. Indeed, the summary of the mother’s martial offenses make up the bulk of Rivière’s written deposition.

While Rivière’s narration of his mother’s reproachable behavior is longwinded and a bit repetitive, the account of his justification of his attitude toward his mother, his plans for liberating his father from her, the suddenness of the triple slayings, and the events leading to his arrest are utterly compelling in their truthfulness, not to mention being a remarkable example of the cold rationality of a deeply disturbed and traumatized mind.

The court transcripts are also quite captivating as they reveal a society caught between medieval notions of evil and Enlightenment ideas about abnormal behavior. In the end, what Foucault and his collaborators uncover in their analyses is the way in which the law, which is meant to punish crimes and protect the social order, often conflicts with the behavioral sciences, which increasingly claims to understand the origin of madness and criminality. It is a dilemma, of course, with which we are still struggling today.

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