Five years on, a Charlie Hebdo shooting survivor is still trying to heal

Michael Cavna

WASHINGTON (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Philippe Lançon is billed on his memoir as the survivor of a massacre, but he will tell you that is not entirely true.

Because the Philippe Lançon who was soon to be shot one morning in Paris was a different man on a different path, and try as he might, the author said, “I can’t go back.”

Five years ago this month, Lançon physically survived a workplace attack that left him lying amid the blood and blown-out body parts of friends.

And when he speaks now, while sitting in a K Street hotel lobby on a grey Washington day, his lasting wounds are evident in his poignant words spoken through surgically repaired lips.

Lançon was a contributor to the Paris newspapers Liberation and Charlie Hebdo in 2015 when two terrorism-pledging gunmen entered Hebdo’s editorial offices and killed 12 people, including several well-known artists, after the satirical weekly published controversial cartoons.

Philippe Lançon survived the Charlie Hebdo attack and has written a book about his experience. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Eleven people were wounded including Lançon, a culture critic who was shot in the face and arm. Lançon played dead on the floor, opening his eyes only to glimpse the legs of the gunman who had just been hovering over him.

Lançon said the attack, unfolding over a couple of minutes, overwhelmed his senses.

“Everything was simultaneously foggy, precise and detached,” he wrote in his award-winning book Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo, newly translated for the American market.

The French title is Le Lambeau, which refers to a “fragment,” and the book tells of shattered teeth and shredded flesh, as well as fragments of time and memory and a tattered life.

One minute that Wednesday morning, Lançon was in an upbeat staff meeting, as cartoonist Georges Wolinski drew bawdy sketches, the artist known as Cabu marvelled at a ‘60s photograph of jazz drummer Elvin Jones, and writer Bernard Maris and editor-cartoonist Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier teased Lançon about his next assignment.

The next minute, Lancon heard sharp firecracker-like sounds from the hallway – “not at all [like] the noisy detonations in movies,” he wrote.

All four of those colleagues would die in the attack.

Immediately afterward, Lançon, 56, felt that “I was alive but almost already dead,” he recounts in Disturbance, adding: “What remained of me?”

Five years later, Lançon is describing how it took many people to bring him back from almost already dead.

Lean and alert, his hair and beard close-cropped, he looks directly at you with dark placid eyes. A short time later, while heading to a bookstore appearance, he dons a navy-blue pea coat like the pierced one he was wearing during the massacre.

The most visible trace of the attack is the lower right side of Lançon’s face; his beard partially covers where his jaw had to be rebuilt with a leg bone.

The shooting left one-fourth of his face like “a crater of torn, hanging flesh,” as if applied as a gouache blob “by the hand of a childish painter,” he wrote, adding that the wound “had turned me into a monster.”

Less immediately apparent is how the attack has affected Lançon’s mind. As he speaks, his words do not convey intense feelings, be it rage or sorrow.

He attributes such emotional equanimity partly to being a reporter trained in detachment since his days decades ago dropping into hot spots like Iraq. Yet it also reflects his sense of acceptance.

“Before, I used to be more angry,” Lançon said, “but now it’s very difficult for me to get angry. You have to let it go.”

He even harbours no fury toward the two gunmen, saying their actions were symptomatic of larger social sicknesses.