THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WORLD
By Maude Julien with Ursula Gauthier
Translated by Adriana Hunter
273 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $27.
A parent’s power is not unlike that of a ruler of a small empire, capable of dramatically shaping the fate of its inhabitants. This reality can also breed tragedy, as it does in the French psychotherapist Maude Julien’s “The Only Girl in the World” (written with her collaborator, Ursula Gauthier, and translated by Adriana Hunter). This memoir — at once fascinating, mystifying and distressing — tells the story of a father, Louis Didier, who rules his family with the brutality of a despot. Among an alarmingly long list of disturbing childhood duties, Julien must regularly bathe in her father’s dirty bath water to soak up, he says, his beneficial energies, and spend nights sitting still in a dark, rat-infested cellar — “to meditate on death” — with bells sewn into her sweater to sound an alarm if she moves. Many of these tasks are in preparation for the impending disaster her father is convinced will someday occur — when Julien will need to go undercover or escape.
Didier, as he tells it, was raised in a poor family with a father who beat him. But he went on to join the resistance in Lille, France, during World War II and, later, owned the largest Peugeot car dealership in the city. Somewhere along the way, he also became a high-ranking member of the enigmatic fraternity of Freemasons. Whatever the psychological consequences of this life and the oaths of a Mason might be, Didier emerged with a demented ideology all his own.
He was committed to, Julien recounts, “sculpting me into the superior being I’m destined to become.” This was the plan decades before she was born. Didier chose his wife under similarly dictatorial circumstances: In 1936, he persuaded a local miner to allow him to take in his youngest daughter, Jeannine. Didier promised to offer her the finest education and life — in exchange for her parents never seeing her again. He made good on the promise and then, in 1957, announced that Jeannine would bear his child. Didier eventually moved his “three-person family cult” to an isolated house near Cassel.
Here, Julien is home-schooled by her mother. Jeannine, who regards her daughter more as fellow inmate than helpless child, also shows no mercy. In the most chilling scene, Jeannine walks in on the family’s handyman abusing her daughter sexually (as he has been doing since she was 6). Julien believes this will bring the torture to an end. “Here she is. … She sees me, our eyes meet, and … she looks away.” It seems every adult who enters this realm loses all sense of humanity.