Sunday, 23 September 2007

I choose to live

Not surprising really that a title such as "I choose to live" jumps off the shelf at me in the cut price bookshop where I am buying the remaining items for son starting at his new school.

It is sad that such books end up being thrown on a shelf in the cut price section of the already cut price bookshop but even sadder is the bundle of books, which included this one, which is supposed to be about poignant childhoods. A bundle that is supposed to raise one's spirits with a cover price of something like £56 but here for only £7.99. None of the other books in the bundle appealed anyway but I can't imagine digging a deeper hole of self-pity for myself.

Quite contrary to self-pity, is Sabine Dardenne's account of her abduction in 1996 by a rapist and murderer Marc Dutroux and her incarceration in a dank cell hidden from the world in a cellar. This happened in Belgium. Sabine was 12 years old and had been held for 80 days and 79 nights. Her poster was everywhere and large teams of people searched for her. But she didn't know that. Her captor had led her to believe that her family had given up on her and had even said there was a "big boss" who wanted to kill her because her family would not pay the ransom. So the captor played her "saviour" and gave her a choice to die or choose to live. But to live she would have to hide and he would hide her. But her choice to live is far deeper than what she was offered; it runs through the core of her. Even then, as a young child she held onto hope and certainty that she would be reunited with her family.

In the book Sabine does not talk about any of the details of the sexual abuse which I think was an excellent idea. And actually, is not necessary to know within the context of the book. Being plucked from your bicycle mid-cycle from a passing grubby van and then being drugged, whilst she is fighting taking the drugs, and then being concertina-ed up into a tool box to be taken into a house and then stripped naked and chained by the neck to a bunk bed is just the beginning of her harrowing "alternative summer holiday".

During her incarceration, Sabine quickly realised she needed routine and order. This is a twelve year old child for heaven's sake. She kept a diary and a calendar and hoped that her watch battery would hold out. She needed to tick off the days as they passed and jotted down main events such as when her abductor went away on one of his "missions". Days she spent on her own and then when he returned it was to take her upstairs to his bedroom to rape her.

Unbeknown to Sabine at the time, the year before Ductroux had two eight year olds incarcerated in the same cell but he had been imprisoned for two months for some minor offence. Ductroux was actually married and had children of his own. What's more, his wife knew of his activities and had been instructed to bring food and supplies to the girls but she said she was too scared to do so. When Ductroux returned from prison he found the girls dead (presumably from starvation) and buried them. That same year he had kidnapped two older girls (aged 17 and 19) who he had drugged and raped and then buried alive.

Usually I like to have details but I found I didn't need to know what the sexual details were, and instead found myself steaming through the book because I wanted to know what happened after she was released. It was disappointing. It wasn't a running in to the bosom of her parents and instead was a barrage of questions and not being left alone. Sabine wanted to get back her life and had to fight to get it. She wanted to do things in her way but that didn't fit in with the people around her. Her mother meant well but their relationship was not the best anyway. Her parents ended up separating but these were fault lines that were already there.

The Ductroux case had a huge impact on Belgium and its institutions. So many mistakes had been made that if they hadn't been made then a number of young women would not have been raped or murdered. Sabine's whole point of writing the book is to give her own account in order to be able to shut everyone up once and for all and to leave her alone; and to also make sure that such mistakes are not made again.

Sabine writes in a very down to earth way. She does not want to be a hero and isn't one. Her survival strategy has been to put it all behind her and not talk about what happened or the details. To anyone and especially not to any psychiatrist! Sabine went on to have a tricky adolescence but she found love at sixteen and managed to consummate her love in the apparently fumbling way that young people do. She has had a rubbish education and jobs that have not been great. Really, a quite ordinary person who deserves to be left alone and to handle things in her way.

The bits of the book that had me streaming with tears was reading her letters home during her incarceration. It is one thing reading her book written in retrospect: as an adult; but to read the words she wrote (allowing for the fact that the book has been translated into English) at the time are heartbreaking. She was told by her captor that these letters were being sent home. Incredibly, the stupid captor had allowed three of these letters to survive and had been retrieved by the police. They later became vital evidence against Dutroux at the court case in 2003 which sentenced him to life.

"I choose to live" is a great mantra.



Josephine said...

I simply could not read a book like this. Just impossible. It would upset me too much. There's a place in my mind where the shutters come down, and it's usually related to cruelty/sexual violence to children. The thought of what happened to this little girl is unbearable.

Which isn't avoiding the issue - because I am horribly aware that it goes on, and in some ghastly recess of my mind I can imagine what I need to.

You know, I could barely read your review of it Doris.

I hope the book has helped her find peace with this horrendous period of her life.

Steg said...

I think Wife has got this somewhere. I've read some of it.
I remember the case from when it was in the news and I trust that Ductroux is being made to suffer every minute of every day in whatever prison he's in.
It's rather inspiring that Mlle Dardenne has managed to be "a quite ordinary person" after what she went through. I wish her contentment.

Josephine said...

Didn't he actually escape before he came to trial, through utter incompetence by the Belgian police? Luckily he was recaptured, (wasn't he?)

Doris said...

Normally I couldn't face such a harrowing story but the title and the reviews on the back helped. For example, from The Big Issue 'Dignified, restrained and ultimately uplifting testimony'

Interestingly, the book itself was never set out to help her as such. She makes it quite clear she'd rather not be writing it and it was there to fill a void in which people were making things up. I think she said that before the trial happened in 2003 already 15 books had been written on the subject!

She is angry about what happened but doesn't blame her whole life on it. I think that is an amazing lack of self-pity and knew that I would learn a lot from it!

At one point Ductroux put forward that it was a breach of his human rights that he was being kept in solitary confinement. Baffles one beyond belief.

It is lovely that you called her Mlle Dardenne. She was so fed up with being called "little Sabine" even when she was an adult.

I managed to read it in a few hours. Very quick read which I think was serialised in a French magazine.

Doris said...

Oooo you're back whilst I was writing! Yes, he escaped for some hours only. More of the police bungling.

Anji said...

I don't know whether I could read that book. I remember hearing on the French news that the police had asked madame why they could hear screams when they were doing door to door questioning and she told them it was just children playing, they believed her.

I feel so angry writing this, it's giving me a hot flash.

As always your post leaves me with a lot to think about.

sick-of-the-circus x said...

Doris, I've escaped from Mike's blog to find yours - I really enjoy your writing.

Not sure if I would like to read this book or not. What I remember most about the Dutoux case is seeing footage of hundreds of thousands of people out on the streets of Belgium to express their concern/sadness about it and about child abuse in general. Sadly, I can't imagine the same thing happening in the UK.

Chandira said...

One of my favourite movies is Silence of the Lambs, and there's that very similar case in there, of the woman thrown in the pit in the cellar. I can't imagine how I would cope with a situation like that. I don't think many of us could.

Karma is something I think about a lot, and sometimes it is used as an excuse, sort of a "well, that person must have weird karma", but I don't think it works like that. I don't see how a 12 year old girl can have done anything in a past life to 'deserve' a thing like that, but then, what do I know? I have no answer for that. I do know that being locked up in a cell for the rest of his life is definitely the abuser's karma though.

rashbre said...

You write some high eq emotional quotient stuff here. It leaves me thinking for quite a long time after I drop by.

rashbre central has passed the nice matters award your way if you drop by to have a look.


Doris said...

Anji Just goes to show how much people can get away with. It is a difficult one - on the one hand we need to think the best of people but on the other striking that balance of being cautious and more thoughtful. Ach.

Sick of the Circus Great to see you. Sorry I have been away so long so didn't reply sooner. Sabine talks about that march and her role and the effect on her. In the end she was up on the podium and suddenly, out of the blue, burst into tears and that was the image that naturally appeared in the papers. Which really upset her - she didn't want anyone to see her like that. I try to think of any parallels with the MCs and their "composure".

Chandira The karma thing is interesting. And the other thing that says we have something to learn from our experiences. But why do some people's experiences have to be quite so bad to learn whatever that lesson was. I'm not so sure I am happy with that ideology in situations like this. Sometimes sh*t just happens.

Rashbre Swoon, I am honoured! I'm just off to my wardrobe to dig out a suitable outfit in which to receive my award :-)

jane said...

This is a book I would want to read, but most likely wouldn't have been able to. I'm glad you told us about what happened with her. It's so difficult after something like that, you want the child to live a "happily ever after" life, which is virtually impossible.
This is also the most perfect type of gem I like finding on the sales rack.

Josephine said...

Wanted to just pick up on Sick of the Circus' point there about not expecting to see crowds of people on the streets of Britain, deploring child abuse etc etc. I have to agree. I don't think it would happen here.

The chief reason it wouldn't happen here is because our society is heavily dominated by gutter press mob culture which responds to any serious, repellant cultural problem with instinct not thought, with fear, rage and a kill-the-bastards mentality. Whatever you think about the people who do this kind of abhorent thing (and let's be absolutely clear, such activities are to me hateful, almost beyond comprehension in their depravity), nothing is achieved by whipping up the lynch mob to throw rocks at anyone who might - or might not - have anything to do with it. The classic case of a frenzied pack attacking the house of a pediatrician (I'm not making this up), in Portsmouth, comes to mind. Likewise I recall a treatment centre for offenders in Surrey, which was achieving very significant success amongst its 'clients' (albeit those chosen by psychiatrists as potentially 'helpable'). It closed down after a determined campaign by the locals. Did it not occur to those people who got the place shut that everyone who was on that programme is now more likely to abuse a child than they were before the place was closed? Call me harsh, but I shouldn't think they actually thought or cared about that...they didn't want to address the problem, they just wanted it to move somewhere else.

The 'British' response is to want to kill them first, ask questions or fix the probelm properly for the future later. Hurling rocks at them doesn't stop them at all...merely drives them utterly underground, disappearing off the sex offenders register etc. It makes 'us' as a society feel better though.

I don't have the answers...of course. Can they be 'cured'? Some, many even, can't. But the level of debate about how to deal with this issue in this country is very very poor.

Anji said...

I just read with interest what Josephine said. I've always thought that this is a "backwards" problem. think back to Frederick West, I imagine that he and his brother and cousin were abused as children. They were "punished" as children. How can we protect the boys (and girls) who will be the future 'Dutroux'?

alan said...

Thank you for the kind words of welcome at Jo's. It's very nice to meet you...


Chandira said...

Yes Doris, I think you're right, sh*t does sometimes just happen. Sadly.

Robert works as a sex-offender treatment provider, which is a tough job, and although he never deals with the worst of the worst, the killers, etc, he does deal with the cases that are somewhat more borderline, should they really be in jail? There is the odd flasher, but most are just young kids, who don't know better, they never got an education in where the line is, or had a momentary bad lapse of judgement, or a drunken incident at a party with a girl who decides when she's sober that it wasn't fun, or she doesn't want to take the responsibility, etc, and they get stuck with the label for life 'sex offender', which often leaves people homeless over here, and worse. Most of his clients were abused themselves in sme way. That is usually always the case.
Robert's job is to break that vicious circle. Put people's lives back together, heal their shame. It works. In over 15 years now, he's had perhaps 4 or 5 people reoffend. He's treated more than 1,500 people in a conservative estimate. That says something for treatment, not the knee jerk reaction.

Granted, that's a whole differnt ball game than the murderers, but the label 'sex offender' doesn't always have degrees, in the public mind. It's black and white for most people, which is sad.

Xtabay said...

Hi Doris!

I hope this works... I tried to leave you a message once but it didn't post.

Been very busy (the mashed potatoes of life has thrown quite a few lumpy bits my way recently!).

Anyway, just wanted to send warm greetings!


Chandira said...

Hey! Where are you? Everything OK?

Thinking of you. :-)

Doris said...

Awwwww :-)

I shall blog.

And by the way, I really do read all comments when they come through the email and was stirred by what you wrote above Chandira.

Julie said...

Hi everyone
I'm with Josephine on this. I couldn't read this book. I'd like to know what happened to Dutroux wife though? I hope she rots in hell too. Those poor children.