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  • The Papin Enigma
  • Christine E. Coffman* (bio)

The maid is the repressed of the mistress of the house.

—Hélène Cixous

February 1933. In the course of a dispute over housework in a small town in France, the maids Christine and Léa Papin brutally murdered Madame and Mademoiselle Lancelin, their employer and her daughter. The sisters tore out their victims’ eyes with their bare hands, methodically sliced the Lancelins’ thighs with kitchen knives, and then returned to their attic bedroom to undress and await the police. An air of mystery hung over the scene of the crime in what has come to be called “the Papin affair”: with the victims its only witnesses and the sisters reticent at their trial, the court officials and medical experts whose testimony convicted them were hard-pressed to construct a plausible account of the murders.

The trial of the “maids of Le Mans” established little about the reasons for the Papin sisters’ wrath or about the nature of their presumed psychosis; instead, as Christopher Lane argues, the trial and the resulting flurry of literary, journalistic, and psychoanalytic discussion signaled a “crisis of meaning” that “stymied accepted definitions of sanity, femininity, rebellion, and delirium.” 1 The Papin affair thus becomes important as a discursive event that can be interrogated in the service of understanding the impasses faced by the social, juridical, and intellectual institutions through which it is represented. I would like to focus on the way in which it played out, and continues to play out, as a “crisis of meaning” about sexuality and the bourgeois family.

My interest in the “murderers of Le Mans” dates from my initial encounter with a recent representation of the Papin affair, Nancy Meckler’s 1994 film, Sister My Sister. Openly figuring the maids’ relationship as lesbian and contrasting it with the repressed ties between the mother-daughter pair who employ them, the film thematizes both lesbian incest and class relations. Its strategy of juxtaposition [End Page 331] suggests the extent to which the sisters’ crime may have been not only that of murdering their employers but also that of violating taboos on lesbianism and incest. Indeed, the “crisis of meaning” brought about in the first half of this century by the murders more often than not articulated itself through a frantic discourse speculating on the sisters’ sexuality and positions as maids in the Lancelin household: two of the most sensational journalistic themes concerned the possibility of a lesbian relationship between them and of class rebellion as a motive for their crime. 2 Sister My Sister provides one perspective from which to view these early responses: its reading of the structuration of the incest taboo in bourgeois domestic life offers us both a lens through which to view and a tool with which to critique earlier representations of the murders.

Yet because my reading of the case—like previous readings of it—can only be what Jacques Derrida calls an “anachronistic projection” of contemporary obsessions, my purpose is neither to adjudicate the truth of the sisters’ sexual orientation nor to speculate on their actual motives. 3 Instead, I use Meckler’s film to read the way in which several attempts to understand the Papin affair may have been structured through the blind spots produced by cultural prohibitions on lesbianism and incest. While the film can no more claim to reveal the Papins’ motives than could earlier representations of the murders, it nonetheless enables a consideration of the class assumptions with which early assessments of the sisters were fraught. The film suggests not so much a previously inaccessible truth as a fresh understanding of the discursive, and therefore the social, conditions that obtained in the sisters’ milieu.

In using Sister My Sister to discuss the double taboo on lesbianism and incest, as well as its imbrication in class assumptions, I focus on two early discursive constructions of the Papin affair: the trial and “Motives of Paranoid Crime,” Jacques Lacan’s attempt to explain the logic of the murders. 4 Whereas the court’s interrogation of the sisters was driven by the possibility of an incest it could not bring them to speak, Lacan’s psychoanalytic speculations presupposed...