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