Orphans and without income, they had no choice. Roman Malo is the eldest of three children and therefore has two little sisters, the last of whom is only 14 years old. A year ago, at the end of the summer of 2021, these three orphans moved the whole of France by telling their story to the Journal du Pays Yonnais. They then remembered their arrival in Vendée – from their native Belgium – the discovery of wide open spaces, rural life, but above all the moment when the whole family fell into poverty… Until the cancer that took away their two parents. .
In the early 2010s, the small family was to take over an already well-established dog breeder, which never happened. It was actually a scam, which his mother was slow to accept, unlike his father. Without income, without help from anyone, they slowly fall into poverty, while their mother goes on temporary assignments and fixed-term contracts, often from dawn to nightfall, to feed the four mouths of the family. The years go by, always more difficult, with the death of their father some time later, the odd jobs that Roman Malo starts at 14 and the need to get by to ensure a future for his sisters.
From his 14 to his 24 years, Roman Malo will have only one objective in mind: to succeed in school, then in his studies, to be able to get out of precariousness. A dream come true now, but which has experienced many shocks, especially after the death of their mother last August. If the two eldest are adults, their little sister is still a minor and no one can take care of her except them. Problem, they must justify sufficient resources to be able to raise it, which is not the case for these two students who already have a lot of trouble making ends meet. A kitty, opened to pay for the funeral of their mother, met with national and unexpected success, which enabled them to financially ensure the custody of the youngest… Which they obtained in March 2022.
This story, Roman Malo has decided to tell it in the first person in a book that has just been released, written with Catherine Siguret. Entitled We Didn’t Have Money, But We Had Love (Albin Michel), the book looks back at his parents’ disappointments, his sisters’ joys and his own dreams. Throughout the pages, he also draws up an unfiltered, sometimes brutal observation of precariousness and of those who have fallen into it. We met him.
You have done everything to hide your situation for half your life. Why write this book now and reveal everything?
Roman Malo. Looking back, I can say that there are two main reasons. First, I wanted to write this book as a kind of thank you to all the people who helped us, thanks to the kitty. They did it without really knowing why: most understood that we were going to become orphans, that we were going to be in great financial precariousness, but people have the right to know how we got there, in front of them.
There is also a reason that has driven me for a long time. What allowed me to be where I am today is the encounter with books, authors. Some kept me from going crazy as a teenager. However, I did not find what corresponded to my reality: either it was fictionalized, or there was too much disdain on the part of those who had come out of precariousness. I hope my book can help those who, in the same situation, are lost. In fact, I wrote what I wish I had read a few years ago.
You depict a sometimes very brutal facet of precariousness and of the “poor” who “make poor”…
Roman Malo. For a very long time, I thought it was my parents’ fault. When you have no money, every choice you make has big consequences, especially when things don’t quite go as planned. I wanted to show that my mother always fought, never taking a vacation, never accepting once to be unemployed, never stopping working. She was not a victim, as one can sometimes say of those who have fallen into poverty. On the contrary, she did everything to prevent this pattern from being reproduced, in particular thanks to the school.
You don’t spare your family either at times, we also feel very angry…
Roman Malo. In many cases of precariousness that I have encountered, the parents do not dare to be demanding of their children, because they apologize for the life they have given them. It was the same for my mother: she was afraid to put a frame to Morgane [the oldest of the two sisters, editor’s note] because she thought she had to apologize for this life. With my book, I wanted to show that, regardless of where you come from, you have the right to have ambition and to give yourself the means to do so. My mother always insisted on hygiene, trying to have clothes that fit us and rejecting the stereotype of the poor: he doesn’t smell good, he eats badly, he doesn’t play sports… It’s not at all reality! I tried to be very hard on this, with my sister, to tell her: “We wake up, you’re going to have to take charge of yourself, either you agree to sink in, or you take charge of yourself”. To change you have to accept criticism.
You devote many pages to the descent of your father, who didn’t want to see anything, until his death and who was spending money that you didn’t have?
Roman Malo. My father experienced this downgrading, but he remained clinging to an ideal of life, to the idea of him with money – as was the case before – of him in Belgium… He refused this change. I caused this change, but I still live haunted by this question of money, while I earn my living properly. I have a lot going on in my life, but I always feel like I’m not legit, while my journey shows me the opposite. It left quite a strong imprint.
Another strong passage in your book concerns your orientation after high school. In front of the advisor, you explain that you have to work to meet your needs, which she does not seem to understand?
Roman Malo. This passage haunted me for a very long time. She did not understand that I was “difficult”, because with my file I could go where I wanted. Yes, but I had no money! I couldn’t do a preparatory class, I had to free up time so that I could earn a living. I thought about short studies, then finally I went to university, because my courses easily allowed me to work on the side, which I did during all my studies, like since the age of 14.
When your mother dies, you know that your sister cannot go to a foster home, because it is the only way for her to get out. How long did it take you to get his guardianship?
Roman Malo. With my sister, we picked up Yonah at the end of August and we had the official decision in March, so there are seven to eight months. In families where there is money, a network, this question would not even have arisen, because an uncle or an aunt would have offered immediately. Morgane and I were the one and only solution. Today, there is the Family Council which oversees Yonah’s guardianship, but you see, there is my partner’s mother in it. There are no members of my father’s family, for example, which still shows a certain abandonment.
A year after the media coverage of your story and the opening of the kitty, how are you all three?
Roman Malo. We are fine ! Our mother is no longer there, but we still have the same fusion with my two sisters, the same complicity. Life has changed in many aspects, because there are new projects and we are all at pivotal times in our lives. Today I am a temporary teacher at the University of Nantes, I am finishing my thesis and I have a small activity as a liberal psychologist. The priority now is to finish my thesis and try to recover a slightly more normal lifestyle. We also have several projects with our Pré-care association. We would like to communicate in high schools or on social networks, to prevent lost high school students, brilliant but having to work, from ruining their future as it almost happened to me.