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.


Friday, 21 September 2007

Scourging the sewer of my mind

It hasn't all been bad. A lovely life-long friend came to stay which meant taking a week out visiting and doing the touristy things. Catching up, laughing, smiling or having poignant moments. Then we (Mr Doris and I) attended a fascinating weekend conference.

However, after all the fun, one returns to the usual issues of life and over the briefest possible time it feels that one's life has been systematically dismantled but without any visible signs. Everyone here is alive and reasonably healthy; we have food on the table and my Mr Doris obviously loves me. So to add to the inner turmoil comes the guilt for feeling like this when others in the world are struggling to live; to eat; or even think.

I feel like a Jekkyl and Hyde character because there are people in my life who know nothing of this. In some areas I still function and say nothing. What is there to say and in any case, as much as I can be a bleeding heart there is no need for me to haemorrhage all over the joint, so I don't! I am fortunate to have some more than lovely friends who listen to me but a lot of the time I really do feel the need to hide in my shell and say nothing.

In my shell I need to scream and wail and on the whole, it is best to leave me to do that. But sometimes that shell breaks and I lose it altogether, almost. Like this week the kitchen was scrubbed like a shiny pin as the tears kept flowing amidst the occasional audible sob. Something good came of it I suppose!

And who are these beasts that need to be slain? Just the usual ones that rear their heads at times when things are a bit tough. The multi-headed dragon of failure: as a person; professionally; and most painful of all, as a parent. Now that I am "sober" again I can say that this is the most mythical of the beasts and yet the hardest to fight. There are the practical beasts of finance; house selling and buying; education of son; house-cleaning; damage and repairs; car repairs; and so on. None of these are slain but it is possible some are mortally wounded.

Speaking of death (which I do not think is such a great analogy to use above) yesterday I was driving back from an errand when a pigeon was in the middle of the road pecking at something. As they do. I slowed to give the bird a chance to fly up. As they do. But this one didn't move fast enough and as a result my car thwacked it. I felt sick to my stomach to see in my rear-view mirror the bird, a mass of feathers across the road, fluttering its last. What an awful thing I had done. If only.

Then I think of myself as that pigeon. If I don't pick myself up and get moving, instead of scrabbling around in the sewers, then maybe life will come along and deal the final thwack.

Or maybe, sometimes it is out of my control and the cards are up when they are up and that's that.

(Youtube clip removed as it was stopping page from loading properly!)