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From Prostitution To Geneva’s Parliament

I first met Nicole Castioni at the International Book Fair in Geneva, Switzerland. She was signing copies of her bestseller, Le Soleil Au Bout De La Nuit (The Sun at the End of the Night) – ed. Albin Michel. My first thought was that she looked like a film star of the 1930s. She had a kind of grace and naturalness to her beauty that seemed to belong to another age.

She chatted easily with her audience, most of whom were touched by the sheer drama of her tale, and she talked with an air of understated courage that comes only to those who have been to hell and back. The people who had come to talk to her tried to put on their most understanding look, the kind those who had it easy feel they owe to those less fortunate than themselves. Nicole spoke calmlyd not use the vociferous and fanatic tone of the usual militant. She expressed the need for more stringent anti-exploitative measures in a matter of fact manner, as an undisputed necessity to ensure that others can be spared the injustice she had once suffered.

I presented my copy of the book for her signature. Her dedication to me read simply: “Beaucoup de force pour vous” (a lot of strength for you). Nicole Castioni knows a lot about strength – strength of character and will. Without it, not only would she not have achieved all that she had achieved, she would have probably been long dead from a drug overdose or violence. Nicole’s story can be stated succinctly, as follows: she was sexually abused as a child, later fell in love with the wrong man who threatened her with death to work as a prostitute in Paris for three years, became addicted to cocaine in that same period, and then somehow found the will to run away and reconstitute her life from scratch. This recovery process was excruciatingly difficult, but she made it. She made it big, managing a successful professional career and climbing the political ladder to become a deputy in Geneva’s parliament, where she has been busy fighting the causes that lead to the suffering she endured earlier in life.

I arrived for the interview early in the evening. Nicole was preparing dinner. Her younger daughter rushed through the room, playfully refusing to say hello, and then succumbing with a smile. Nicole’s eldest daughter sat on her godmother’s lap, joking and playing. Nicole joined a bit later and spoke happily about a new, interesting committee she had been assigned to as part of her parliamentary duties. There was nothing in that setting that alluded to the extraordinary life Nicole has lived in her still young forty years.
After dinner we sat down for the interview. The hapless godmother served as translator, my French and Nicole’s English being far from perfect. We went through Nicole’s journey.

Memoirs of a Geisha movie

Nicole comes from an affluent family, her father having been an engineer in Geneva. Her parents raised their children in the old school: academic achievement and a profession were for Nicole’s two brothers, and only marriage and children were for their daughter. Nicole was made to feel that intelligence and intellectual pursuits were not for her; she could hope only to meet the right guy, get married, and raise the children borne from that marriage. What she happened to have between her ears was a mere ornament. She says she had two possibilities: to be the mother or the prostitute. There didn’t seem to be another alternative.

At the age of eight, Nicole became the victim of sexual abuse by a family friend. He began regularly and systematically abusing her over a period of several years. Her book starts with the image of Nicole, aged ten, pushing furniture in front of her bedroom door in a vain attempt to ward off her persistent attacker. In her very early adolescence, another friend of the family asked to take pictures of her. She agreed with excitement, thinking this would be the first step on her road to becoming a star model. The friend took the photos, overly explicit ones. Little by little, he got the unsuspecting girl to take off her clothes. The improper photos were discovered by the photographer’s wife. She complained to Nicole’s parents. Nicole expected her parents to be outraged at the exploitative behaviour of their photographer friend. Not only was there no outrage, but her parents spent their subsequent holidays with the photographer.

I asked Nicole whether she felt the abuse she suffered as a child is the key to understanding the dark world she let herself be dragged into as an adult. “I don’t know if it is the base. I know it’s one if the causes of what happened later. Nothing happens by chance. If there was a whole story afterwards, it is partially due to the lack of references at the start. I didn’t have good images when I was a child. Later, I simply transferred my bad images to my life as a young adult,” she responded.

She also explained that her extreme descent into marginality, as she put it, was her way of taking revenge on the apathy to her childhood ordeals. If people were indifferent to the abuse she suffered, she subconsciously wished to show them how much abuse she could take. She wanted to demonstrate that she was able to go all the way to the end of the track set for her as a child. “When we are adults,” she said, “we often want to show our parents how effectively we can rise or fall. I fell. I do everything well. I don’t do things in halves. I’ve always gone to the end of my stories.”

She insisted repeatedly that she does not blame anyone for her descent. She takes full responsibility for the paths she took in her life. “I search for an explanation,” she said. “Writing this book is a way to understand things. I don’t search for excuses. It’s my life, and it’s me who lived it.”

Given her parents’ attitude to the woman’s role in society, it comes as no surprise that, upon finishing school, Nicole started a career in modelling. It seemed only natural to earn money in an arena where the body and appearance are of primary importance. Nicole delved earnestly into this profession, working very hard and showing potential at her modelling agency. During that period, she also competed in one of the Miss Switzerland contests, coming fourth.

At the age of 21, she met Jean Michel at “Club 58” in Geneva, and fell head over heels. He was the perfect charmer, and before she knew it she was living with him in Paris. She says it was “passion” that made her follow that man, and changed her life forever. “There’s a fundamental difference between falling in love and living a passion. Passion is an irrational way of looking at a relationship. You don’t think – it’s a need.”

Jean Michel lived a decadent life: continuous parties in Paris, a Ferrari, an endless supply of cocaine, and wild summers in St. Tropez. Nicole immersed herself completely in that scene and she loved it, including the cocaine. “Cocaine was part of this whole ambiance,” she explains.

“At that time, I didn’t regret it; I felt like doing it, I could, and I did.” Jean Michel had told Nicole that he was working for a reputable fashion magazine. Nicole wanted to believe him, despite his lack of office hours and many irregular periods of unexplained absences. Reading this part of the book, one can’t help feeling that Nicole must have known at the time that his kind of work was not as proper as he portrayed it to be. Nicole agrees. “I was naïve, but I was far from being completely blind. I was conscious of what must have been happening, but without giving it a name. I imagined, but I couldn’t give it a name. I was doing very well. It was a way of not seeing reality.”

Soon, though, reality started creeping in. Ensuring the supply of cocaine and the maintenance of their lifestyle was not financially easy. The money started to run out. They left for Brussels to visit some of Jean Michel’s friends who ran a bar in which, among other things, escort girls sought out rich clients for the night. One of these girls, Laure, was Jean Michel’s friend. After many nights in which Jean Michel tried to earn money by playing poker with his friends, he turned to Nicole one evening in that same bar, and said: “You must help me darling.” Nicole wanted to help, but did not know how. He told her that Laure would show her what to do. That night, Nicole went with Laure, met an architect, danced and drank through the night, and then sold her body. While Jean Michel had pushed her in that direction, she acknowledges that she was not forced to do what she did that night.

Two weeks later they returned to Paris. She then realized that it was all a trap. Jean Michel had seduced her from the start with the aim of turning her into a prostitute who would work for him. Having felt disgusted after the incident in Brussels, she decided to leave. Jean Michel held a pistol to her face and made it very clear that he would kill her should she try to escape. The rest of this part of the story is simple: Jean Michel put her up in a studio in the Rue St. Denis, one of the roads in Paris known for soliciting prostitutes, in which she received clients on a daily basis. He gave her a new name – Gilda. Gilda worked for more than three years. In that time, among many other things, she made lots of money, was assaulted, raped, and watched one of her friends die in her arms. One of the most vivid images in the book is the description of the night in which Nicole’s fellow prostitute and friend, Michele, was killed. Michele was only 18 years old. She had no family, nobody who would miss her. She was an easy target. She wanted to run away the night a man chased her with an ice pick and stabbed her countless times. Nicole ran to her as she lay bleeding on the road and took her in her arms. Michele looked at the woman in whose arms she would die and said simply, “I feel cold.”

Commenting on the differences between the prostitution experience she had in Brussels and the life of a prostitute she was forced to live in Paris, Nicole said: “In Brussels, I let myself go easily. I reacted later and without as much violence as in Paris. In Brussels, it was a return to childhood, a fatalism. OK, I’m here – why not? I’m made for that anyway. I remember it well. How much I felt sick. How I thought afterwards, what have I done? I was extremely sick, enough to throw up. On the other hand, in Paris, not only did I feel that I was in a place where I shouldn’t have been, it was that I couldn’t go out.” Paris was a prison, whereas in Brussels, she had the choice to leave.

This contrast lies at the heart of Nicole’s story. “The most terrible thing in my story is that I was forced against my will. The day I no longer had the choice – that was absolutely unacceptable. That was the terror in my life – not the prostitution, not the coke, not Jean Michel. It was the fact that I was forced.” I tried to discern how Nicole felt towards Jean Michel in those years when he was her jailer. Did she still feel any sort of love or affection towards him? “No. Passion is excessive. You love with passion, you hate with passion. I lived this passion to the maximum. When I realized that I was screwed, I felt like a commodity. Then it turned to hate, passionate hate.”

Nicole would have ended up dead, like her friend Michele, sooner or later. Life only degenerated in those years. The drug-taking intensified, with Nicole suffering at least two overdoses, and Jean Michel’s character got worse and worse. Going through endless nights of what he called partying, without a single moment of sleep, living only on the artificial sensation of energy that cocaine induces, Jean Michel started to suffer from acute attacks of paranoia and hallucination. He became increasingly violent. Nicole was on the verge of collapse. She got sick and the doctors diagnosed her with Hepatitis B. She stared death in the eye, and decided that she did not want to die.

The instinct to survive saved her. One day, exhausted both physically and mentally, she decided to run away. While Jean Michel was out of the house, she left all her belongings, went to the Gare de Lyon and took the first train to Geneva. She returned to her parents. Jean Michel kept calling and threatening that his gangster friends would come and kill her and the members of her family if she didn’t return to Paris. His threats came to nothing, and so did his life – he died a few years later of an overdose after a three-day marathon celebrating someone’s birthday.

Nicole’s parents acted as though nothing had happened. They were upset that their daughter had just come out of a failed relationship, but that was it. There is still a big question mark in Nicole’s head about whether her parents knew what had become of her in those years in Paris. When asked, she expresses bewilderment at the fact that, after she published this book and revealed her story, all her neighbours and friends of her family did not express shock. Some of them even admitted that they knew what had become of her, but decided that there was nothing that they could do about it. As in childhood, Nicole’s adult ordeal seems to have been ignored.

Nicole started the long recovery process. While fighting Hepatitis B was a challenge, the real fight was against drug addiction. She enrolled in a rehabilitation centre and did defeat the habit. Soon, she found a job as a receptionist. In the next ten years, she climbed the professional ladder with staggering speed. Among other things, Nicole worked as Juge Assessor (an assessor judge) at a Geneva tribunal, which involved assisting the President of the tribunal in deciding landlord-tenant disputes.

But Nicole’s greatest success was in politics, which she entered as a member of the socialist party. Her success in politics was extremely swift, advancing within the ranks of the socialist party to become one of the party’s deputies in Geneva’s parliament. She is a focused politician with set priorities stemming from the realities of her experience. She has introduced several measures aimed at providing greater protection against exploitation and child abuse. Her first motion called for providing police with the “necessary means to fight against the exploitation of prostitution.” Her success in politics seems so natural, so effortless that I wanted to know the secret formula that sped her up the echelons of political power. She was taciturn on this one, only attributing her success to the collective effort of her colleagues in the socialist party. She said that the Swiss political system is such that success is only commensurate with the work of the party members as a group.

But there was no reticence when I asked Nicole about the power that enabled her to succeed overall and lift her so high above the misery of prostitution and drug addiction. She was unequivocal: “It is passion. It is paradoxical. The same passion that in fact led me to the shit, took me out of it.”

In a telling episode that might engender our own passionate response, Nicole recounts watching TV one day with her mother, just after her escape from Paris. Nicole sat sick, haggard, and barely able to move, as together they watched a program about drug addicts. Her mother suddenly turned to her and said: “How lucky your father and I have been not to have problems with our children. Look at them, those unfortunate people.”

Nicole Castioni’s book, Le Soleil Au Bout De La Nuit (The Sun at the End of the Night) – ed. Albin Michel, rue Huyghens 22, 75014 Paris, France, tel.: +33 1 42791000, is currently available in French.


Nasser Ali Khasawneh

Nasser Ali Khasawneh graduated in law from Oxford University, and holds a Masters in Law (LL.M) degree from University College at the University of London. He is a lawyer and writer.