I was twelve years old and I took my bike
From out of the book cover an attractive young woman regards readers with unwavering blue eyes. She is fair with a sprinkling of freckles over her cheeks and a tiny stud in her nose. Her name is Sabine Dardenne and she is about to tell you her story.
On 28 May 1996 Sabine Dardenne put her satchel on her back and strapped the little zip-up bag where she kept her swimming things onto the carrier shelf behind the saddle of her bike. Her father watched her leave, she gave him a little wave, and then set off towards school. Minutes later she was grabbed off her bike, bundled into a dilapidated camper van and trussed up in a blanket. She had become the fifth victim of Marc Dutroux, the Monster of Charleroi, and the most hated psychopath in Belgium.
One of only two survivors of Dutroux’s reign of terror, the twelve year old girl was drugged, folded into a rusty metal trunk, and later chained by the neck to a bunk bed in the notorious child molester’s hideout. After three days she was concealed in his “secret place”, a dank and dirty cellar measuring about three feet wide and nine feet long, containing bare light bulbs and a mattress which was falling apart. Here Sabine would spend another seventy-seven days and nights while being repeatedly raped and psychologically abused.
A paedophile with a previous record, Dutroux assured Sabine that her parents knew exactly what had happened but that they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – come up with the money to pay her ransom. “This monster had somehow succeeded in convincing me, little by little, that I had been abandoned, and that I was lucky to have him to watch over me, like some kind of hideous guardian angel, and that my parents knew full well what the situation was, and that the ball was now entirely in their court.”
During her nightmarish incarceration, the young girl was allowed to write letters to her parents which Dutroux led her to believe had been posted. In August 1996, when the gendarmes discovered Sabine and Laetitia Delhez, a fellow abductee, the letters were found too. A number of these letters are included in the book and form some of its most distressing pages.
In June 2004, almost eight years after his arrest for the murders of Julie Lejeune, Melissa Russo, An Marchal and Eefje Lambrecks, and the abduction and rape of Sabine Dardenne and Laetitia Delhez, Marc Dutroux was sentenced to life imprisonment. His wife, Michèle Martin, was sentenced to thirty years, and another accomplice, Michel Lelièvre, received a twenty-five year prison term.
If there is little in the way of sordid detail in this review, it is because I Choose to Live is a work of extraordinary dignity. Refusing to spend the rest of her life beating a path through a world of voyeurs, twenty-one year old Dardenne made a decision to publish her story “so that people should understand, that there should be an end to all the strange looks, an end to the questions once and for all and for ever”. She writes further: “But if I have found the courage to retrace my stations of the cross, it has been, above all, so that lawyers should never again under-estimate the damage paedophiles do …”
It is clear from the book that Sabine Dardenne is a strong-willed and private individual who has chosen to deal with what happened to her on her own terms. When the investigating judge wanted her to see a psychiatrist, she went once and refused to go again, describing a vague memory of having to look at some stupid drawings she was supposed to react to. “You can’t rewrite history,” she states. “I know I can never wipe out what happened, but the best medicine is just to get on with your life and sort it out yourself.”
Her mother had been ill with cancer and had just come through a heavy course of chemotherapy when Sabine made the decision not to let her read the letters written in desperation and loneliness during her imprisonment in the cellar. The letters detail the depraved sexual acts Dutroux forced her to perform. Although they had been addressed to her mother, Sabine writes, “I really didn’t think I’d ever see her again. I believed honestly – and still do – that they would be too painful for her to read … my suffering was my suffering and nobody else’s.”
In a similar vein, paragraphs have been excised from the letters reproduced in I Choose to Live. The author understandably prefers not to go into the various abuses she was forced to suffer at the hands of the infamous paedophile; nevertheless, it is impossible to diminish the horrors of nights Dardenne spent chained by the foot to her captor, while she endured dangerous haemorrhaging and unimaginable pain.
Dardenne’s writing is direct, unadorned, yet conversational and, in places,
pithily humorous. There is no need for pretentiousness or embellishment: the
facts stand for themselves. Published in French in 2004, J'avais 12 ans,
j'ai pris mon vélo et je suis partie à l'école …
was the book of the year in Belgium and sold very well in France. The English
translation, I Choose to Live, should be read, if not for its content,
then for its inspirational value. There are no traces of self-pity in the author’s
account, no “poor me” or even “why me?” Her fiercely
independent spirit and matter-of-fact courage prevail above all else. Sabine
Dardenne is a survivor, not a victim. She is a young woman who takes a commuter
train to and from her office job every day, despite the sidelong glances and
requests for autographs she receives. She has put the past behind her, the future
is waiting and she is determined it will be normal.
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