‘I was my fa­ther’s pris­oner for 18 years’

Raised in iso­la­tion and forced to un­dergo trau­matic ‘tests’ by a fa­ther who be­lieved it was his duty to turn her into the ul­ti­mate sur­vivor, Maude Julien en­dured a child­hood with­out heat, ad­e­quate food, friend­ship or any af­fec­tion


IN 1936, my fa­ther Louis Di­dier was 34 and fi­nan­cially well off when he met a miner who was strug­gling to feed his chil­dren. Louis sug­gested the miner ‘en­trust’ to him his youngest child Jean­nine, a flaxen-haired six-year-old. He would ed­u­cate her at board­ing school with the con­di­tion that her fam­ily no longer saw her. His ul­ti­mate mis­sion was for Jean­nine, once grown-up, to give him a child as blonde as her, who would be raised away from the pol­lut­ing in­flu­ences of the out­side world. On 23 Novem­ber 1957, 22 years af­ter Louis took on Jean­nine, she gave birth to a blonde baby girl. Three years later, Louis bought a house be­tween Lille and Dunkirk in the north of France and with­drew there so that the cou­ple could de­vote them­selves to car­ry­ing out his project of turn­ing their child into a su­per­hu­man be­ing. That child was me.

* * * * My fa­ther doesn’t like me do­ing noth­ing. When I was very lit­tle I was al­lowed to play in the gar­den once I’d fin­ished study­ing with my mother. But now that I’m al­most five, I have less free time. ‘Fo­cus on your du­ties,’ he says.

I must prove my­self wor­thy of the tasks he will set for me but I’m afraid I won’t match up to his vi­sion. I feel too fee­ble, too clumsy, too stupid. And I’m so fright­ened of him. The sheer heft of him, his big head and steely eyes – I’m so ter­ri­fied my legs give way when I come close to him. And I don’t ex­pect any pro­tec­tion from my mother. ‘Mon­sieur Di­dier’ is a demigod to her, one she both adores and loathes, but would never op­pose.

My fa­ther is con­vinced that the mind can achieve any­thing. It can over­come every dan­ger and con­quer every ob­sta­cle. But to do this re­quires long, rig­or­ous train­ing away from the ‘im­pu­ri­ties’ of this dirty world. He tells me that I should never leave the house, even af­ter he’s dead. At other times he in­forms me that later I’ll be able to do what­ever I want, that I could be pres­i­dent of France and that when I leave the house it won’t be to live a point­less life as ‘Mrs No­body’. It will be to con­quer the world and ‘achieve great­ness’.

My fa­ther, who joined the Re­sis­tance dur­ing the Sec­ond World War and dug tun­nels to help Jews flee to Bel­gium, be­lieves mu­sic is the most im­por­tant sub­ject. One day he rings the bell to sum­mon me to the ve­ran­dah. ‘You’ll be seven soon, so you can un­der­stand what I am about to ex­plain. When you ar­rive at a con­cen­tra­tion camp ev­ery­thing is taken from you. Whether you’re rich and beau­ti­ful or poor and ugly, they put you in the same py­ja­mas and shave your head. The only peo­ple who make it out alive are mu­si­cians, so you need to know every type of mu­sic, but you will have a bet­ter chance of es­cap­ing with a musette waltz than a con­certo. As ➤

for in­stru­ments, it’s hard to pre­dict what will be most in de­mand so you will study sev­eral. We’re go­ing to change your school­ing sched­ule so you have ex­tra time to prac­tise. Off you go.’

My fa­ther makes lit­tle con­ver­sa­tion. He gives his ‘teach­ings’ or is­sues or­ders. Often I don’t un­der­stand a word he is say­ing and panic in­side. If I find the courage to ask a ques­tion dur­ing a meal he roars, ‘Only speak if you have some­thing in­tel­li­gent to say.’

I don’t un­der­stand the con­cept of in­tel­li­gent so I stay silent. My mother talks about me though, start­ing her sen­tences with ‘she’.

I’ve found a glo­ri­ous con­so­la­tion to counter the empti­ness of this si­lence: the con­ver­sa­tion of an­i­mals. Whether I’m hunched over my home­work or busy with chores, I se­cretly lend an ear to the chat­ter of birds in the gar­den. One asks a ques­tion, an­other replies, a third in­ter­venes, then they all chat to­gether.

When study­ing Bach’s Two and Three Part In­ven­tions on the pi­ano, I make an even more ex­cit­ing dis­cov­ery: mu­sic has con­ver­sa­tions of its own. The right hand starts with a phrase, the left re­sponds, the right picks it up again, the left fol­lows. And the two hands end up play­ing to­gether. I’m thrilled by these di­a­logues. I play them over and over, never tir­ing of them.

* * * * It’s the mid­dle of the night. The three of us are go­ing down to the cel­lar. I’m bare­foot, wear­ing a sweater over my py­ja­mas. I shiver as I climb down the stairs. In front of me is my fa­ther’s im­pos­ing sil­hou­ette. Behind me, my mother, lock­ing the door. I don’t un­der­stand what’s go­ing on and start shak­ing. With every step we go a lit­tle deeper into the cel­lar, the stench of damp and mould turns my stom­ach.

My fa­ther sits me on a chair in the mid­dle of the room. I look around sur­rep­ti­tiously to see if there are any mice. The coal heap isn’t far away and there may be rats hid­ing behind it. I nearly faint at the thought.

‘You’re go­ing to stay here with­out mov­ing,’ my fa­ther says. ‘You’re go­ing to med­i­tate on death. Open up your brain.’ I have no idea what that means. They’re not go­ing to leave me here, are they? And then my worst fear is re­alised: they walk away and the cel­lar light goes out. There’s a faint glow com­ing from the stairs. Then dark­ness.

Only my ears can make any­thing out – a host of sin­is­ter noises, lit­tle an­i­mals scur­ry­ing, run­ning, rum­mag­ing.

I’m scream­ing in­side but no sound comes out be­cause my lips are clamped shut and quiv­er­ing. My fa­ther told me that if I open my mouth, mice, even rats, will sense it, climb into it and eat me from the in­side. He’s seen sev­eral peo­ple die like that in cel­lars when he was tak­ing shel­ter from air raids dur­ing the war. I worry that the mice might be able to get in through my ears, but if I cover them with my hands I won’t hear any­thing, I’ll be blind and deaf.

I’m a pa­thetic pud­dle of fear. I move and breathe as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. Some­times the pat­ter­ing comes closer. It makes my in­sides liq­uefy. I hold my feet up but it’s painful. Every now and then I have to lower them. I do it care­fully to avoid putting them down on to a ro­dent’s back or teeth.

At last the light comes back on; my mother has come to get me. I fly up the stairs as fast as I can. I went to such a far­away place in­side my head that night; a fear so great that I don’t feel re­lief when it ends. The next day there is no com­pen­sa­tion for the hours of sleep missed or the emo­tional tor­ture. ‘Oth­er­wise, how would it be a test?’ my fa­ther says.

A month later my par­ents wake me in the mid­dle of the night again and I know that this isn’t a one-off test. It is the first in a se­ries of monthly train­ing ses­sions. I go down those stairs like an au­tom­a­ton, not even try­ing to es­cape. I’m soon over­whelmed by the smell, suf­fo­cat­ing all over again in the hor­ror of ab­so­lute dark­ness and si­lence. I pray with all my might for it to end. I ask for death. I beg it to come and take me. Is that what ‘med­i­tat­ing on death’ means?

And there’s more to bear. ‘Tough ped­a­gogy’ means I have to get used to spar­tan liv­ing con­di­tions. All dis­trac­tions must be lim­ited. I have to learn to sleep as lit­tle as pos­si­ble, be­cause it is a waste of time. I also have to cope with­out any of life’s plea­sures, start­ing with my taste­buds – the surest route to weak­ness. We are never al­lowed fruit, yo­ghurt, choco­late or treats – and I never eat fresh bread. My por­tion of the loaf we bake every two weeks is set aside to go stale.

In my fa­ther’s view, com­fort is one of the per­ni­cious plea­sures that must be sup­pressed. Beds must not be cosy, sheets not soft to the touch. Given the long hours I spend at the pi­ano, my teacher Madame Descombes, one of the few out­siders al­lowed into the house, sug­gests my stool be swapped for a chair with a back rest. To no avail, of course.

De­spite the icy win­ters the house is rarely heated and my bed­room is not heated at all. Some­times, it is so cold that my win­dows freeze on the in­side. I have to wash in cold wa­ter. ‘Hot wa­ter is for wimps. If you’re ever in prison you need to show that you’re not afraid of ice-cold wa­ter.’ But my par­ents are al­lowed hot wa­ter, es­pe­cially my fa­ther, who – be­cause he’s ‘the very pic­ture of strong will’ – has noth­ing left to prove. Al­co­hol is an im­por­tant part of train­ing my willpower. Since I was aged seven or eight my fa­ther has in­sisted I have an aper­i­tif and that I drink wine with meals. Dif­fi­cult ne­go­ti­a­tions in life often go hand in hand with con­sum­ing large quan­ti­ties of al­co­hol, he says, so those who can take their drink will pre­vail.

I also have to be able to han­dle a gun in case I get into a duel. I won­der how I could be dragged into a duel but daren’t ask him. Du­els may be the sort of thing I’ll have to face later, when I’m a knight.

* * * * The in­side of the house never changes. An or­na­ment on top of a piece of fur­ni­ture might as well be glued there for all eternity. But one day, dur­ing one of our lessons on the sec­ond floor, my mother stops dead in front of the Per­sian rug. In a


flash of in­spi­ra­tion she says, ‘It would look bet­ter down on the first-floor land­ing.’ Ever since I was very young I’ve liked this rug, with its lithe ma­jes­tic tigers on a red back­ground. It re­minds me of when we lived in Lille, be­fore we were shut away in this prison.

The rug is in­cred­i­bly heavy. When my mother tries rolling it up, she top­ples over sev­eral times. I sup­press the urge to laugh. My fa­ther – sit­ting in the din­ing room as usual – mustn’t hear us. But we both suc­cumb to hys­ter­i­cal laugh­ter.

It takes us a ridicu­lously long time to get the rug as far as the stair­case. Then we have to get it round the half land­ing. ‘Let’s tip it over the ban­nis­ter,’ my mother whis­pers. We hurl it over and then scurry down, nar­rowly avoid­ing a dis­as­ter – the rug nearly knocked over the bronze statue stand­ing in pride of place at the foot of the stairs. That statue is my fa­ther’s mas­cot: Athena with the sphere of knowl­edge in her left hand.

My mother and I po­si­tion the rug on the first floor and hurry back up­stairs to study for what lit­tle time is left. We agree that the rug looks bet­ter down­stairs but are ap­pre­hen­sive about how my fa­ther will re­act when he sees it. Day af­ter day we wait for him to rep­ri­mand us but he fails to no­tice. Then, a week later, my mother cracks and be­gins to tell him. She doesn’t have time to fin­ish her sen­tence. My fa­ther flies into a tow­er­ing rage: ‘This is unac­cept­able! Put things back as they were im­me­di­ately.’

The next day he de­cides to do an in­spec­tion of the house to check we haven’t moved any­thing else. He storms from room to room and we fol­low in si­lence. He seems to find ob­jects that have been moved and in­ter­ro­gates us ag­gres­sively. Luck­ily, the thick layer of dust cor­rob­o­rates our an­swers, but in the end, he pun­ishes us with new chores. My mother has ex­tra ac­count­ing ex­er­cises to com­plete and I have to copy out the whole of Dan­de­lot Prac­ti­cal Guide to the Mu­si­cal Keys.

This seems to me a light pun­ish­ment for the week of com­plic­ity I’ve had with my mother. We have done some­thing to heighten our hum­drum ex­is­tence – we shared a se­cret – and my mother doesn’t hold me re­spon­si­ble for the fail­ure of our ven­ture, which makes me feel light­hearted. Now I feel like mov­ing ev­ery­thing around, turn­ing ev­ery­thing up­side down. If the door of change has been opened and I’ve worked out how to stop our fates be­ing sealed, how won­der­ful life would be if my mother and I were to be­come friends and we could defy my fa­ther’s author­ity with more lit­tle schemes.

This is an edited ex­tract from The Only Girl in The World: A Mem­oir by Maude Julien, trans­lated by Adri­ana Hunter, pub­lished by Oneworld, price €20.99.

Maude in front of the house in north­ern France where she grew up, and, op­po­site, as a tod­dler with her fa­ther

Clock­wise, from top: in­side the house that Maude was rarely al­lowed to leave; her fa­ther’s pass­port, and Maude to­day

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