real life

Before she was even conceived Maude's father had just one purpose for her existence.

Warning: This post contains details of domestic abuse some may find triggering.

In 1936, Louis Didier was thirty-four and financially well-off. A man from humble origins, he had risen remarkably quickly through the ranks of French society and he now ran a company in Lille. Initiated into an esoteric lodge of Freemasonry, he adhered to an extremely dark spiritual vision of a fallen world governed by grim forces.

That year he met a man, a miner from the town of Fives, who was struggling to feed his many children. Louis Didier suggested the miner ‘entrust’ to him his youngest child, a flaxen-haired six-year-old girl. ‘Jeannine will never want for anything; she will have a brilliant education and enjoy a very comfortable life. My only condition is that you will no longer see her.’ It’s unclear whether there was a financial transaction.

The miner agreed. Jeannine left to live under Louis Didier’s protection and never saw her family again. Louis Didier kept his promise. Jeannine was sent to boarding school and received an excellent education. When she reached the age of consent, she came back to live with her guardian. He had her study philosophy and Latin at university in Lille, and made sure she earned her degree.

I don’t know when Louis Didier revealed his grand project to Jeannine. Did he talk about it when she was still a little girl who spent only holidays with him? Or did he wait until she’d grown up and become his wife? I think that deep down Jeannine ‘always knew’ what her mission was: to give him a daughter as blonde as she was, and then to take charge of the child’s education.

Louis believed that the child Jeannine brought into the world would be, like her father, ‘chosen’—and that later in life she would be called upon to ‘raise up humanity’. Thanks to her mother’s qualifications, this child would be raised away from the polluting influences of the outside world. Louis Didier would be responsible for training her physically and mentally to become a ‘superior being’, equipped to undertake the difficult and momentous task he had assigned her. Twenty-two years after he took possession of Jeannine, Louis Didier decided the time had come for her to bring his daughter into the world and that the date of birth should be November 23rd, 1957.

On November 23rd, 1957, Jeannine gave birth to a very blonde little girl. Three years later, aged fifty-nine, Louis Didier liquidated his assets, bought a house near Cassel, between Lille and Dunkirk, and withdrew to live there with Jeannine in order to devote himself entirely to carrying out the project he had devised back in 1936: to make his child a superhuman being. That child was me.

***

The upkeep of the garden takes a lot of work: digging, planting vegetables, picking fruit, repainting fences. My mother and I devote many hours to it. The most monotonous chore is weeding. My mother has special gloves ordered from the Manufrance mail-order catalogue so, in theory, she’s the one who is supposed to pull out the thistles. But, depending on my father’s mood, I am sometimes told to do it. I work with my bare hands. I make every effort to grip the thistles right down at the root, but I’m not very good at it and my hands often get covered in prickles.

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My father never lifts so much as his little finger. He ‘directs’ and ‘monitors’ our labours, presiding from his crate, a wooden box with the word ‘Libourne’ stamped on it, once used for transporting wine. When he feels we’re too far away from him, he cries, ‘Maude, the crate!’ I have to hurry back, pick up the crate and move forward until he says: ‘Stop!’ Then he sits back down. Over time, the instruction has become increasingly clipped. Now he simply says, ‘Crate!’ But his voice still strikes me like a lightning bolt.

As a child, Maude experienced years of abuse at the hands of her father to turn her into a 'super human'. (Image: Supplied)

My father is very keen on the electric fence erected around Arthur’s grave to prevent Linda from trying to dig up the pony. He has electric fences put along all the walkways, aiming to ‘discipline everyone’. I think his main aim is to stop ‘outsider’ animals coming and frolicking freely in the grounds, particularly stray cats, which he loathes. My father thinks cats are traitors, evil creatures that rob us of our energies. He tells me that any cats venturing onto our land will get caught because, even though they can pass freely under the fencing, their tails will inevitably touch the electric wires and they’ll get a decent shock. Soon the whole estate is crisscrossed with these wires. In certain places, the fences have up to three rungs of wire, one above the other.

In order to make them a more effective trap for intruders, my father gets us to paint the posts with green Ripolin paint, as camouflage. When I pick up fallen branches I now have to work around these fences. Any branches that touch both the fence and the ground give off an annoying tsit-tsit-tsit-tsit. One day, while pulling up weeds near a stand of trees, I am not careful enough and get an electric shock. I scream. My father jumps in surprise, almost falling off his crate. ‘Idiot, moron, good-for-nothing, sissy!’ he bellows furiously. He orders me to grab the wire in both hands and hold it until he allows me to let go. I brush my fingers over the wire but snatch them back straightaway, terrified by the steely taste in my mouth and by my racing heartbeat. I try again several times without success.

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Beside himself, my father works himself into such a towering rage that I end up grasping the wire in my fist. I don’t know how many seconds go by. All I know is the shocks are unbearable. My father snaps at me that from now on I’ll have a new ‘electric fence’ test as part of my tests of willpower. Every day, or at least twice a week, I’ll have to hold the electric fence for ten minutes without betraying any feeling, no twitching or grimacing, not even a blink. I soon find I actually cope quite well. It’s just a question of tolerating what is, of course, an unpleasant feeling but at least it is a known quantity. I would willingly swap a whole day on the electric fence for a single session of meditating on death in the cellar—a test that still leaves me just as devastated as the first time.

My progress on the will-strengthening front is too slow, so my father bolsters my training with other exercises. Like the ‘spinning’ test which takes place near the swimming pool, in the ‘rotunda’, a raised pergola built where two cement paths meet. I have to stand in the middle, close my eyes and, on my father’s order, start turning on the spot, faster and faster like a spinning top. I have to make sure I stay right in the centre of the circle. As soon as I hear ‘Stop! Exit to the right’ or ‘Exit to the left’ I have to walk steadily down the appropriate path. My efforts are hopeless. I feel giddy, my temples pound frantically, my legs give way, I start to shake with anxiety.

Maude was made to tolerate holding onto an electric fence for minutes at a time to toughen her up. (Image: Getty)
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When the order to stop comes, I try to walk straight but usually stagger and knock into the balustrade. Then I know I’ve failed and I’m overwhelmed with panic. I can’t even look around to establish right from left. My father is very displeased. ‘Don’t go thinking you’ll get away with this,’ he says. ‘We’ll keep going till you get it right, it’s just a question of willpower.’ I feel terribly ashamed. It’s not exactly rocket science. Maybe I have something wrong with my brain and my father is trying to cure it. The spinning test is one of the tests that leave me feeling extra sad. In my bed at night I picture myself succeeding at it; I concentrate and manage the perfect exit. But however hard I try in reality, I fail, and it becomes more and more distressing.

This year my father introduces a new anti-celebration ritual for my ninth birthday. On the morning of my birthday, he summons me to the largest room, a place so cold this time of year that we rarely set foot in it. He makes me sit down in front of an orange mathematics book, gives me a list of problems to solve and leaves me there on my own. No getting up until I’ve finished. Just reading the first one makes my head spin: ‘Town A and town B are 20 km apart. At 10 a.m. Monsieur X sets off by train from A to B. The train travels at a constant speed of 60 km/h. At 10:10 Monsieur Y sets off by bicycle from B towards A and travels at a constant speed of 15 km/h. At what time do Monsieur X and Monsieur Y pass each other?’

In 1936, a 34-year-old Louis Didier adopted a little girl with blonde hair for the sole purpose of birthing him his daughter, Maude. (Image: Getty)

There’s also a question about a cyclist who changes speed for part of the journey, another about a leaking tap and a basin filling up… Hard as I try, I can’t find even the beginnings of a solution. I’m not allowed to cry, not allowed to leave and not allowed to ask for explanations. I can feel myself growing more stupid by the minute. Hours go by; I try different operations and scribble various figures. I move on to the next question, thinking I’ll come back to this one later, but the second gives me an equally hard time.

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I’m starting to get thirsty, but I know I won’t be allowed to eat or drink until I’ve finished. Mealtimes come and go. It’s getting late in the evening. It’s 10 p.m. already. I make up my mind to submit my work to my father. He glances at it then turns his steely eyes on me. ‘Do you really think this is right?’ he asks. ‘If you think it’s right leave it with me. But if you’ve made any mistakes, you’ll have three extra problems to solve for each mistake. It’s up to you.’ I quickly take back the sheet of paper and go back to work.

Around midnight my mother says, ‘Go to bed. You can finish in the morning. Your father will let you have some breakfast, but that’s all.’ I have a feverish night’s sleep, haunted by trains and bicycles barrelling towards each other. The next morning, I sit down to the orange book again. The only interruption I’m granted is the forty minutes during which I attend to my father. I rack my brain, scour it, spur it on. At the end of the day, when I’ve written the exercises out neatly, I agonise about handing them to my father. I know he’s going to ask, ‘Do you think it’s right?’

And do I think it’s right? No, I really don’t… I have another night of torment and wake feeling terrible, forced to face the orange book again in my zombie-like state. After an interminable length of time, my father finally decides to suspend the test. He closes the orange book and says, ‘We’ll come back to this next year. We’ll see whether between now and then you can learn to use your brain.’

(Image: Supplied)

This is an extract from Maude Julien’s The Only Girl In The World, an inspiring, heartbreaking and harrowing story that will undoubtedly be the most astonishing and uplifting memoir you’ll read this year. You can grab a copy here and at all good bookstores.