The Only Girl in the World
The Etruscan god Orcus feasted on human flesh; his name inspired the French word “ogre”. The word makes its appearance very late in Maude Julien’s harrowing, heartbreaking, and against-all-odds uplifting memoir The Only Girl in the World, but the shadow of the ogre lies heavy across all its pages. For Julien, this is no mythological beast. The ogre is her father. Delusional and manipulative, a self-proclaimed genius and Freemason, Louis Didier had one project, one aim in life, and that was to turn Maude, his only child, into a Nietzschean “superhuman”, a “Being of Light” who would one day take on the mission of “raising” humanity and saving the world.
He told her that beyond the gate of the property on which she was kept a virtual prisoner for the first 17 years of her life, the world was treacherous and cruel. People desperate to stop her from fulfilling her destiny were waiting for the opportunity to kidnap her, torture her or even put her in front of a firing squad. She had to be tough, resourceful, smart and strong. To this end, he subjected her to a regimen of extreme discipline and extraordinary physical and emotional abuse that began with the earliest memories of her childhood. She had to learn to hold on to an electric fence without screaming, to sit in a pitch-black cellar overrun with rats without moving, to drink four glasses of alcohol in the space of the regulated 15-minute mealtimes, and never to betray weakness or emotion and never to trust anyone but him. To be clear: we are talking about a child of four or five when these “lessons” begin. Pleasure, joy, tears and love were for the weak. The author cannot remember a single time when either her father or her mother hugged, kissed or otherwise showed her any kind of tenderness.
Maude’s mother was, like herself, captive to her father’s will and agenda. He had informally adopted Jeannine when she was six and he was 34. He had money, while her own father, a miner, had none, but a lot of hungry mouths to feed. The deal was that Didier would give the girl a comfortable life and a good education, but that her family must never contact her again. After Jeannine graduated university, he married her and she gave him Maude, all according to plan. Her relationship to her daughter was, not surprisingly, twisted with jealousy, resentment and anxiety, and she was a willing collaborator in Maude’s torment. There is a pivotal moment in Maude’s childhood, where Jeannine walks in on a scene of unspeakable abuse, inflicted in secret on Maude by one of her father’s hired hands, and she turns away, as though she hadn’t seen a thing. It’s uncertain whether Maude’s father was aware of what was going on there, but it’s likely that even if he was, he would not have minded: he wanted Maude to be capable of enduring any kind of torture.
In translation, and presumably the original French, Maude Julien’s voice is eloquent, composed, understated – the facts of the story are devastating enough. They require no emotive embellishment. That she recounts these experiences in the present tense, however, gives the book a gripping and visceral immediacy. She is frank about her mixed feelings towards her parents. On the one hand, she hated them, with reason. Her father in particular, who frowned on washing and forced her to hold the chamber pot he pissed in every morning, repulsed her. And yet, she acknowledges that had either her father or her mother displayed a skerrick of affection towards her, she would have melted with happiness.
As a child and young teenager, she excoriated herself for her doubts and her failures. Whether struggling to stay stock still in that rat-infested cellar, to read Das Kapital at eight as part of her father’s reading program for her, or simply to execute the almost literally backbreaking gymnastic manoeuvres he demanded of her, she lived in terror of the day when he realised she would never be a “superhuman”. Guilt and anxiety came in crushing waves, and she scratched and bit herself in punishment. And yet she also managed to find ways to defend herself, such as building mental brick walls to block her father’s intrusions into her thoughts and finding consolation in books, music and nature. She adored animals, especially the dog, Linda, and the pony, Arthur – bought so that she could learn to ride, a useful skill should she one day need to go undercover and join a circus – and whispered her sorrows into their ears. Linda especially would be punished for this intimacy. Books were her window on life outside the compound: her heroes included Edmond Dantès of The Count of Monte Cristo, an innocent man who suffered badly after being framed for a crime, and who later punished his enemies and rewarded those who had helped him, and the brave and complicated Mathilde from The Red and the Black, whom she adopted as a twin sister and invisible friend. She found beauty in the crook of a tree, a globe of the world and the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt.
Her father made her study a number of musical instruments because, he said, only musicians survived the concentration camps. This is ironic, for music – and a kind, perceptive and concerned music teacher – in the end enabled both her survival and escape. The path to freedom was far from smooth. But the same steely grit that got her through her childhood allowed her to forge a new life, marry and become a mother herself. The scars, mental and physical, remained: her liver was shot from the “alcohol training” and the dark, rat-infested dungeon of her childhood continued to drag her down in nightmares. After years of therapy, she herself became a therapist who specialises in helping others, including former cult members and people in abusive and controlling relationships, to free themselves from their own personal ogres. Maude Julien is genuinely a super human. CG
Text, 256pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "Maude Julien, The Only Girl in the World".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.