The Only Girl in the World

by Maude Julien

I don’t know how to rate this book- it was riveting, but also horrifying. I can’t say I enjoyed it. Several times I had to stop listening (audiobook) and come back another day. Very eerily similar to previous audiobook Educated, in that the father was paranoid and abusive, though in a completely different manner. This is also a memoir, written by a French woman whose father had survived atrocities of World War II. He had a deep-rooted conviction that he must teach his child to withstand any kind of privation or torture she would face in the future if Nazis overtook the world, so he trained her very strictly. He was also apparently a member of the Freemasons and had all kinds of weird ideas due to that- some of the strangest things I’ve ever heard. Mixed together it was just awful. Plus with the paranoia, secrecy and emotional manipulation he wreaked on his family (the mother was also controlled and brainwashed by him) I seriously think this man had mental health issues. Sadly his wife and child suffered for it. And being brought up by this severe controlling man, she believed it all from the beginning.

That she was being prepared for some special destiny. But in reality she was kept shut up in the house or on the grounds nearly all the time, sometimes even the windows were shuttered for months on end. Nobody around but her parents and workers who came to fix or build things, no other children, no school- taught at home by her parents. Endless lessons, forced to work on the grounds with the builders, laying bricks or hauling things- even as a small child. Made to sleep in an unheated room, deprived of comforts, no affection, often had her food restricted, made to do strenuous exercises, sit in the dark, abruptly thrown into a pool to learn to swim- the atrocities go on and on. Berated for the smallest things, punished by getting silent treatment for weeks on end- it was just appallingly unbelievable. And the psychological and emotional abuse even worse. Don’t get me started on the way her mother was brought into everything, or the worker who molested her for years (and her mother saw it and walked away) or the absurd psychobabble her father lectured her on for hours- really it made my head swim and I tuned out listening sometimes.

What made it bearable was the animals and her books. She loved the family dog, a pigeon she was allowed to raise, a particular duck in the flock, a pony her father got to teach her to ride. Miserably, the animals were mistreated by her father as well, but she gave them what friendship she could and took comfort in their companionship. When she was older the words of literature started to sink in, comprehension grew (at least her parents gave her a somewhat decent education, with long music lessons too) and the books really helped her withstand the horrors of her family. It’s appalling how much the father’s attitude had weighed on her- even when she figured out where she could climb over a wall to escape the grounds, she couldn’t bring herself to leave because feared his punishment, that he could really see everything she did in his mind like he told her. But then she started to practice little deceits and lies and found out he wasn’t all powerful after all. And two things happened to finally allow her to escape the place- a music teacher came who treated her kindly, encouraged her, and finally set her up with employment outside the home (previous tutors and music teachers had been harsh or unkind). Secondly, she was sent to take some exams by her parents, met other students at the testing place, began to have glimpses of what life outside could be like, and one girl even wrote to her (though her parents quickly squelched that).

She did, at last, escape by marrying. And this was disappointing- that the memoir didn’t describe much of how her life changed when she left this dismal household. (I am leaving so much out, you have no idea how bad it was unless you can bear to read this book). The story ends rather abruptly when she leaves. There is an epilogue that discusses very perceptively how much she had to learn, change and overcome to function in the real world, how at first she tried not to think of or talk about her past, but things continued to affect her. How she had to go through a string of therapists and psychoanalysts before finding someone who could actually help her, and how she became one herself. I wondered about her young husband, how her strange and torturous upbringing would have affected their relationship, but she says nothing of that. Probably it was too personal. It’s hard to believe this ever happened to someone, much less that she could overcome it and be mentally healthy and whole again- there are several parts where she describes wanting to end her life, or how she would self-harm in order to feel some modicum of control over pain- as opposed to all the pain caused by her parents which she had no escape from. Terrible that for the first time in some dim way I can comprehend that now. The mental games she played with herself in order to withstand the debilitating treatment her deranged father meted out- it’s extraordinary and very very disturbing. I don’t think I would ever want to read this in print.

Audiobook, borrowed from the public library. Read by Elisabeth Rodgers, 7.5 hours listening time.

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