The Upside

A Memoir (Movie Tie-In Edition)


By Abdel Sellou

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$11.99 CAD

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You Saved My Life tells the extraordinary true story of the charming Algerian con-man whose friendship with a disabled French aristocrat inspired the record-breaking hit film, The Intouchables (the American remake starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston coming in 2018).

Sellou’s fictional reincarnation, Driss, played to critical acclaim by French comedian Omar Sy in the movie Les Intouchables, captured the hearts of millions. Already a bestseller in France and Germany, You Changed My Life shows us the real man behind Sy’s edgy charm. The book takes us from his childhood spent stealing candy from the local grocery store, to his career as a pickpocket and scam artist, to his unexpected employment as a companion for a quadriplegic.

Sellou has never before divulged the details of his past. In many interviews and documentaries, he has evaded or shrugged off the question of his childhood and his stay in prison, until now. He tells his story with a stunning amount of talent, with humor, style, and-though he denies that he has any-humility.

Sellou’s idiosyncratic and candidly charming voice is magnificently captured in this memoir, a fact to which his friend Philippe Pozzo di Borgo testifies in his touching preface for the book.


For Philippe Pozzo di Borgo,
For Amal,
For my children, who will find their own way

When Éric Tolédano and Olivier Nakache were writing the script for the hit French film Intouchables, they wanted to interview my special friend Abdel Sellou. He answered: "Ask Pozzo, I trust him." When I was writing the new edition of my memoir, Le Second Souffle, Suivi par Le Diable Gardien ("Second Wind, followed by Guardian Demon"), I asked Abdel to help me remember a few of our shared adventures, but he also declined. Abdel doesn't talk about himself. He acts.
With incredible energy, generosity and impertinence, he was by my side for ten years. And in that time he supported me through each painful phase of my existence. First, he helped me with my wife, Béatrice, who was dying, then he pulled me out of the depression that followed her death. He basically helped me find the desire to live again . . .
Throughout the course of these years we've had many things in common: never revisiting the past, never projecting ourselves in the future, and most important, living, or surviving, in the moment. The suffering that was consuming me destroys memory; Abdel didn't want to look back on a youth that I could only guess was turbulent. We were both worn clean of any memory. During all of that time, I only got a few snippets of his story that he was willing to reveal to me. I have always respected his reserve. He quickly became a part of the family, but I have never met his parents.
In 2003, Abdel and I and our unusual relationship were featured on an episode of Mireille Dumas's French television program Vie privée, vie publique ("Private Life, Public Life"). Later Mireille decided to make a one-hour documentary about our adventure, which was broadcast as À la vie, à la mort (meaning, roughly, "Come what may"). Two journalists followed us for several weeks. Abdel let them know, in no uncertain terms, that probing anyone from his entourage about his past was out of the question. However, they didn't respect his wishes, and as a result, were subjected to an impressive fit of rage. Not only did Abdel not want to talk about himself—he didn't want others to talk about him either!
Everything seemed to change last year. What a surprise it was to hear him answering, with genuine sincerity, all the questions asked by Mathieu Vadepied, the artistic director who filmed the bonus feature for the Intouchables DVD. I learned more about him during the three days spent together in my home in Essaouira, Morocco, than I had in our fifteen-year friendship. He was ready to tell his story, all of it, from before, during, and after our meeting.
What an accomplishment to come from the silence of his twenties to the pleasure he gets today in recounting his escapades and sharing his thoughts! Abdel, you will never cease to amaze me . . . What a pleasure to read You Changed My Life. In it, I recognize Abdel's humor, his sense of provocation, his thirst for life, his kindness, and now, his wisdom.
According to the title of his book, I have changed his life . . . That may be true, but in any case, what I am certain of is that he changed mine. I will say it again: he supported me after Béatrice's death and helped me find the desire to live again with joyful determination and rare emotional intelligence.
And then one day, he took me to Morocco . . . where he met his wife, Amal, and where I met my companion, Khadija. Since then, we see each other with our children regularly. The "Untouchables" have become the "Uncles."
Philippe Pozzo di Borgo

I ran as fast as I could. I was in good shape back then. The chase started on the rue de la Grande Truanderie—Big Cheat Street. You can't make that stuff up. With two friends, I had just relieved some rich kid of a slightly outdated Sony Walkman. I was going to explain to him how we'd actually done him a favor, since, as soon as he got home, his daddy would rush right out and buy him the latest model with better sound, easier functions, longer battery life . . . but I didn't have the time.
"Code twenty-two!" yelled a voice.
"Don't move!" shouted another.
We took off.
Flying down rue Pierre-Lescot, I slalomed between passersby with impressive agility. It was easy—classy, really. Like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Or like that ferret in the children's song, only bigger: he went this way, he went that way . . . Turning right onto rue Berger, I was planning to disappear into Les Halles. Bad idea—too many people blocking the stair entrance, so I cut a hard left onto rue des Bourdonnais. The rain had made the pavement slick and I wasn't sure who had better soles—me or the cops. Luckily, mine didn't let me down. I was like Speedy Gonzales racing at high speed, chased by two mean Sylvesters, ready to gobble me up. I really hoped this would end like in the cartoon. Now on the Quai de la Mégisserie, I caught up with one of my buddies who'd taken off a split second before me and was a much better sprinter. I raced behind him onto the Pont Neuf, closing the distance between us. The shouts from the cops were growing fainter behind us—it seemed like they were already giving up. Of course they were—we were the heroes . . . still, I didn't risk looking back to check.
I ran as fast as I could, until I was almost out of breath. My feet were killing me so badly I didn't think I could keep it up all the way to Denfert-Rochereau station. To cut it short, I hopped over the short wall meant to keep pedestrians from falling into the river. I knew there was about a twenty-inch ledge on the other side that I'd be able to walk along. Twenty inches was enough for me. I was slim back then. I crouched, looking at the muddy waters of the Seine rushing powerfully toward the Pont des Arts—the pounding of the cops' cheap shoes on the pavement getting louder—and held my breath, hoping the noise would reach its climax, continue on and fade away. Completely oblivious to the danger, I wasn't afraid of falling. I had no idea where my two friends had gone, but I trusted them to find a good hiding place. As the cops ran past, I snorted oink oink, snickering into the collar of my sweatshirt. A barge shot out from under me and I almost jumped from the shock. I stayed there a minute to catch my breath. I was thirsty. I would have loved a Coke about then.
I wasn't a hero. I knew that already, but I was fifteen and had always lived like a wild animal. If I'd had to talk about myself, define myself in complete sentences with adjectives, names, and all the grammar they'd tried to hammer into me at school, I would have had a hard time. Not because I didn't know how to express myself—I was always good at talking—but because I'd have had to stop and think. Look in a mirror and shut up for a minute—something that's tough for me even now at forty—and wait for something to come to me. An idea, my own self-appraisal, which, if it were an honest one, would have been uncomfortable. Why would I put myself through that? No one was asking me to, not at home or at school. Incidentally, I was great at handling interrogation. If someone even thought of asking me a question, I took off without blinking. As a teen, I ran fast; I had good legs and the best reasons for running.
Every day, I was on the street. Every day, I gave the cops a new reason to come after me. Every day, I sped from one neighborhood of the city to the next, like in some fantastic theme park where anything goes. The object of the game: take as much as possible without getting caught. I needed nothing. I wanted everything. I was growing up in a giant department store where everything was free. If there were any rules, I wasn't aware of them. No one told me about them when they could have, and after that, I didn't give them the chance. That suited me just fine.
One October day in 1997, I was run over by an eighteen-wheeler. The result: a fractured hip, smashed left leg, intensive surgery, and weeks of rehabilitation in the suburb of Garches. I stopped running and started gaining a little weight. Three years before that, I'd met a man stuck in a wheelchair after a paragliding accident—Philippe Pozzo di Borgo. For a short time, we were equals. Invalides—invalids. As a kid, that word only meant a metro station to me, an esplanade wide enough to steal stuff while keeping an eye on the guys in uniform—an ideal playground. I had been benched temporarily, but Pozzo was permanently out of the game. Last year we both became the heroes of a hit film, Intouchables. Now suddenly everyone wants to touch us! The thing is, even I'm a good guy in the story. I have perfectly straight teeth, I smile all of the time, have a spontaneous laugh, and I bravely care for the guy in the wheelchair. And I dance like a god. Everything the two characters do in the film—the high-speed freeway chase in a luxury sports car, the paragliding, the nighttime walks through Paris—Pozzo and I really lived it. I didn't do that much for him—at least not as much as he did for me. I pushed him around, acted as his companion, eased his pain as much as possible, and I was present.
I'd never known a man that rich. He came from a long line of aristocrats and had done well on top of that: multiple college degrees and the presidency of Pommery champagnes. I used him. He changed my life but I didn't change his, not very much, anyway. The film made the truth prettier to make you believe in a better world.
I might as well say it straight off—I'm not really like the character from the movie. I'm short, an Arab, and not particularly endearing. I've done a lot of bad things in my life and I'm not looking for any excuses to justify them. I can talk about them today thanks to the statute of limitations. I have nothing in common with the real untouchables, those Indians condemned to a life of misery . . . If I belong to any caste, it's the Uncon-trollables, and I am their uncontested leader. It's my true nature, independent, rebellious to any discipline, established order or morals. I'm not looking for excuses, and I'm not bragging, either. A person can change. I'm living proof . . .
The other day, I was walking on the Pont Neuf—it was just about the same kind of day as it had been back when I had that chase with the cops. An annoying, icy drizzle trickled down my balding scalp and a cold wind blew into my jacket. I thought it was magnificent—this bridge in two sections linking the Ile de la Cité to the Right and Left Banks of Paris. I was impressed by its dimensions, its width—almost one hundred feet—and its luxurious sidewalks with circular overhangs on the Seine to let pedestrians stop and admire the panorama . . . at no risk. What an idea! I leaned over the edge. The river ran through Paris like a galloping horse, its color like a stormy sky, and looked like it would swallow everything up. As a kid, I didn't realize that even an expert swimmer would have trouble making it out. I also didn't realize that exactly ten years before I was born, the French had tossed dozens of Algerians into these waters. And they did it knowing full well how dangerous the river was.
I looked at the stone ledge where I had hidden from the cops and shuddered at my former audacity. I thought that, now, I'd never dare climb over the edge. I thought above all that now, I had no reason to hide or to run.

Unsupervised Freedom

I don't remember the town in Algeria where I was born. I have forgotten everything about its odors, colors, and sounds. I only know that when I got to Paris in 1975, at the age of four, I didn't feel homesick.
My parents told me, "This is your uncle Belkacem. This is your aunt Amina. You are their son now. You stay here."
The kitchen of their tiny two-bedroom smelled like couscous and spices, like it did at home. We were just a little more crowded, especially since my brother—one year older than me—also came with the package. The oldest of the children, a girl, had stayed back home. A girl is too useful to give up. She would help our mother take care of the two other children born after me. That way, there'd be three Sellou kids in Algeria, and that was enough.
A new life and the first news flash: Maman is no longer Maman. You can't call her that. Don't even think about it anymore. Now Amina is Maman. She's so happy to suddenly have two sons because she had long worried that their marriage produced no children. She caresses our hair, pulls us onto her lap, kisses our fingertips, and promises us we'll never want for love. Except that we don't even know what love is. We'd always been sheltered, fed, cared for, and held on nights when we were sick, sure, but no big deal—it was just natural. I decide that it'll be the same way here.
Second news flash: Algeria no longer exists. We live in Paris now, on boulevard Saint-Michel, in the heart of the French capital and, yes, just like back home, we can go and play. Apparently it's a little chillier downstairs. What's that smell? Does the sun beat down on the paving stones like it does on the asphalt in my hometown? Do the cars honk with as much enthusiasm? I go to find out, with my brother tagging along. I only notice one thing in the pitifully small park at the Abbaye de Cluny: the other children don't talk like we do. My brother, the oaf, stays glued to me like he's afraid of them. My uncle, the new father, reassures us in our native language. We'll learn French soon enough at school. Our school bags are ready.
"You're getting up early tomorrow, kids. But that doesn't mean you have to go to bed when the hens do. At home, the hens never go to bed!"
"At home, Uncle? But where is home? In Algeria? In Algeria the hens don't go to bed, right, Uncle?"
"Well, they don't go to bed as early as they do in France."
"What are we now, Uncle? Where is our home?"
"You're chicks from Algeria on a French farm!"
Third news flash: from now on, we'll grow up in a country and learn the local language, but we're still, and will continue to be, what we have been since our first breath. All of this is a little complicated for kids, and I've already closed myself off to any intellectual effort. My brother puts his head in his hands and huddles more closely behind me. Man he's annoying . . . as for me, I don't know what French school is like, but I quickly adopt the motto that I'll use for years to come: we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
I was far from imagining, then, what kind of ruckus I was going to cause in the barnyard. I didn't have bad intentions. There was no kid more innocent than me. Put simply, if I hadn't been Muslim, I would've had a halo.
It was 1975. The cars driving up and down the boulevard Saint-Michel were called Renault Alpine, Peugeot 304, Citroën 2CV "Deux Cheveaux," Peugeot Talbot. The R12s were already old-fashioned and, if I'd had to choose, I would have preferred the 4L, which at least wasn't pretentious. A kid could cross the street unaccompanied without a cop automatically taking him into custody. The city, the outdoors, freedom weren't considered dangerous. Of course we'd run into a drunk from time to time, but we assumed he'd chosen to live that way and so we left him alone. Nobody felt the slightest bit guilty. Even the less fortunate didn't hesitate to toss him a few coins.
In the living room of our apartment, which doubled as my parents' bedroom since we arrived, my brother and I took up all the space, two princes in bell-bottoms and high-collared shirts. On the black-and-white TV screen, a little puny bald guy shook with anger because he couldn't catch Fantômas. In another show, he danced on the rue des Rosiers dressed up as a rabbi. I had absolutely no idea what a rabbi was or what the irony of his situation was, but I still loved the show. The two adults watched their new children laughing in loud spurts. That made them much happier than Louis de Funès's gags and funny faces did. Back in that same time, Jean-Paul Belmondo was running across rooftops in a white suit. He thought he was "Le magnifique"—I thought he was nuts. I much preferred Sean Connery in his gray turtleneck. At least his hair never got messed up—he'd pull amazing gadgets from his pockets that got him out of every sticky situation and with exemplary discretion. James Bond was true class. Spread out on the Oriental couch, I savored each and every moment without worrying about the next one and never thinking about the past. Life was as easy as 1-2-3.
In Paris, as in Algiers, my name has stayed the same: Abdel Yamine. In Arabic, the root abd means "to revere" and el means "the." Revere the Yamine. I nibbled on dates, and Amina picked up the pits.

Giving children to a brother or sister who doesn't have any was—and still is—common practice in African cultures, whether they're black or North African. In those families, you're born to a father and mother, of course, but you easily become the child of the entire family, and the family is big. When you decide to give away a son or daughter, you don't really ask yourself whether or not they'll suffer. For the child and adult alike, changing parents is supposed to be something that is simple, natural. There's nothing to discuss, no reason to whine. African people cut the umbilical cord earlier than Europeans do. As soon as we learn to walk, we dive into the unknown and go see what's happening elsewhere. We don't waste time hiding in our mothers' skirts. And if she says so, we adopt another kid.
There must have been two or three undershirts included in the package, but the instructions on how to educate us weren't included. How do you raise kids, talk to them? What do you let them do and what do you forbid them to do? Belkacem and Amina had no idea. So they tried to imitate other Parisian families. What did those people do on a Sunday afternoon back in the seventies, just like they do today? They go walking in the Tuileries gardens. So at the age of five, I walked across the Pont des Arts to hang on to the sides of a murky fountain. A few carp struggled miserably in that two-foot deep swamp—I'd see them come to the surface, open their mouths to suck in some air, and then go right back in for another trip around their bathtub. We rented a little wooden sailboat that I pushed toward the center with a pole. Carried by the current, and provided the wind was blowing in the right direction, the boat could reach the other side of the fountain in just ten seconds. I took off in the direction of the estimated destination, maneuvered the ship's bow, and launched the sailboat again with gusto. From time to time, I looked up and marveled. A gigantic stone arch towered over the garden entrance.
"What is that thing, papa?"
"Uh . . . a very old door."
A door that served no purpose since there was no wall or anything on either side of it. Beyond the garden, I could see enormous buildings.
"Papa, what is that?"
"The Louvre, son."
The Louvre . . . that's as much information as I got. I figured you obviously had to be very rich to live in a house so vast and beautiful with such large windows and statues hanging from its façade. The garden was as big as all the stadiums in Africa put together. Scattered throughout the alleys and on the lawns were tens of petrified men staring at us from on top of their pedestals. They all wore coats and had long, curly hair. I wondered how long they'd been there. Then I went back to my business. With no wind, my boat might get stuck in the middle of the fountain. So I had to convince the other sailors to assemble and launch a fleet so as to create a current and free my vessel. Sometimes Belkacem ended up rolling up his pant legs.
When the weather was really nice, Amina made a picnic and we went to eat on the lawn of the Champs-de-Mars. In the afternoon, the parents laid on blankets. The kids quickly formed groups and started a game of ball. I didn't have enough vocabulary at first and so went unnoticed. I was very nice and well behaved. No different, in appearances, from the little French kids in velvet shorts and suspenders. In the evening, just like them, we went home completely worn out. But no one refused to let my brother and me watch the celebrated Sunday night movie. Westerns kept us awake more easily than the others, but we didn't make it to the end very often. Belkacem carried us to our bed one after the other. For love and devotion, you don't need instructions.
In Algiers, my father went to work wearing cotton slacks and a suit jacket. He wore a short-sleeved button-down shirt and tie and polished his leather shoes every night. I guessed that he must have had an intellectual job that didn't get him dirty, but I didn't know which one and I didn't ask: I truly didn't care what he did. In Paris, my father put on a blue jumpsuit, and a heavy cap on his bald head, every morning. As an electrician, he never experienced unemployment. There was always work, he was often tired, he didn't complain—he joined the daily grind. In both Algiers and Paris, my mother stayed at home to take care of the cooking, the cleaning and, theoretically, the children. But having never set foot in a typical French household, Amina was at a loss to imitate anyone at all. So she opted for doing what they do in her native country: she made us delicious meals and left the door wide open. I didn't ask for permission to go outside, and she wouldn't have thought of demanding any explanations. With Arabs, unsupervised freedom is granted without restrictions.

There's a statue in my new neighborhood. The same exact one as in New York—I saw it on television. Okay, so maybe it's a little smaller, but anyway I'm six, I'm tiny, so to me it's enormous. It's a woman, standing, wearing only a sheet, she's lifting a flame to the sky and she's got a strange crown of thorns on her head. I now live in project housing in the XVth district. No more cramped apartment in old, boring central Paris—we're now citizens of Beaugrenelle, a brand-new district bristling with high-rises just like in America! The Sellou family has acquired a first-floor apartment in a seven-story building with no elevator, made of that red brick they call pierre de Paris. Life here is like in any other project in Saint-Denis, Montfermeil, or Créteil. Except we have a view of the Eiffel Tower. And by the way, I consider myself to be from the suburbs.
At the base of the tower, they built us an enormous shopping center with everything you need inside—you just have to go down and serve yourself. I don't think I can say it enough: everyone bends over backward to make my life easier.
At the checkout in Prisunic, just within the reach of my little hand, are little plastic bags. And just next to that are shelves stuffed with all kinds of things and candies. I love the Pez candy dispensers, a kind of lighter topped with a plastic head: you push on the lever, the square piece of sugar comes up, and all you have to do is slide it onto your tongue. I quickly get myself an impressive collection. In the evening, I line up my favorite cartoon heroes in order of preference. My brother, that big buzzkill, interrogates me.


On Sale
Jun 11, 2012
Page Count
224 pages
Hachette Books

Abdel Sellou

About the Author

Abdel Sellou now lives in Algeria with his wife and three children, where he runs a chicken farm. He remains close to Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, who lives in Morocco with his second wife and two children.

Learn more about this author