I came across a translation of Sabine Dardenne’s memoir, I chose life, on the bookshelf in the hall of the Baltic Centre, where I’m staying. The title appealed to me, at that moment, although I’d forgotten who Sabine was. When I began to read the book, I realized she was the girl who had been kidnapped by the Belgian paedophile, Marc Dutroux, and who had been rescued alive, unlike many of his other victims. My reaction initially was to put the book back on the shelf.
However, I somehow continued to read the book.
The story is terrible, of course – frightening and appalling. Sabine was twelve years old when she was snatched. She was cycling to school, at about eight in the morning, along a quiet, indeed deserted, street. A white van pulled up, two men jumped out, grabbed her and her bicycle, and bundled her into the back of the van. They told her if she screamed or made any fuss they would kill her.
She was brought to a town about two hours’ drive away from her home. There, she was incarcerated in a rat hole, as she calls it. A space in a cellar,it was two metres long and about one metre wide, and contained bags of cement, which formed her bed, a potty, her toilet, and an old TV set which functioned only for video games. She also had her schoolbag and a video game of her own.
She lived in this room for over two months. At regular – sometimes daily –intervals her captor, Marc Dutroux, brought her upstairs to a bedroom where had had sex with her. (The details are not described at all.). Sometimes she was allowed to stay upstairs for a few hours and watch television, but she never saw the news, for instance.
She had no clothes apart from a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. There were no washing facilities. She was fed on tinned foods. He also gave her bread and milk.
Dutroux told her he had kidnapped her, and he and his boss were asking her parents for a ransom. She believed this story. He was demanding three million Euro. She didn’t think her parents could get this money and gradually came to believe that they had abandoned her to her fate. Dutroux encouraged this and told her her parents thought she was dead.
He warned her never to scream or make a noise. If she did, his boss would come, torture her and kill her. He cast himself in the role of her protector, keeping her safe from ‘the boss.’
After two months, she was joined in the cellar by another child, Laetitia. Laetitia was snatched in much the same way as Sabine had been, but someone had seen the van and noted part of the registration number. Three days after Laetitia was kidnapped the hiding place was discovered and both children rescued. Soon afterwards, the remains of four other girls, who had been missing for years, were dug up in the garden of this house, and another house owned by Dutroux.
The book describes Sabine’s days in the cellar, and also the aftermath – the experience of rescue, returning home, going on with life, and of the trial. The controversy which swept Belgium is discussed – it was alleged that there had been a cover up that Marc Dutroux belonged to a network which included important powerful people and that is how he had managed to escape detection for so long. It is particularly disturbing to learn that Dutroux had already been in prison for sexual offences, had served his time and been released, before the kidnapping of Sabine Dardenne took place. Whatever the truth about the cover up, it’s clear that the police were inefficient and careless. According to this book, Dutroux’s mother had contacted the police and told them she thought he was keeping children in his house. At one point, the police were in the house where two girls were imprisoned, somebody heard the children screaming, but the police ignored the cries and left them. Those children later starved to death and were buried in the back yard.
It’s interesting to read Sabine’s account and compare it to Emma Donoghue’s wonderful novel, Room, which must have been inspired to some extent by the memoir. Although Room is different in many ways, based on an amalgam of accounts of kidnappings of this kind, and fictionalized, some aspects are strikingly similar. Sabine is younger than Ma, protagonist of Room, and she does not have a child. She was imprisoned for a few months, whereas Ma spends years in her room. But she exhibits the same self discipline and strength of character as Ma. This is what I found most remarkable about the memoir. Sabine – aged only twelve – quickly realised that she had to occupy herself with activities, in the extremely limited space and with the limited resources at her disposal. She worked at her school books, she tried to solve mathematical problems, she learnt grammar. She drew, wrote letters to her parents (never sent, of course), and drew pictures. She played with the TV console.
When she was rescued, she refused to attend a psychiatrist. She had learnt how to ‘zapp’ worries and dangerous thoughts. She insisted on going back to school in September, as if nothing had happened.
Ma too fills the day with routines, lessons, exercises, and activities. She has a little more room at her disposal, and more resources, than Sabine had. It is impossible to believe that Sabine could have survived for much longer in her tiny filthy cell. But she was remarkable in her realisation that the only way to keep her sanity was to keep as busy as she could, under the circumstances. That a child of twelve had the maturity to figure this out, and to act on it, is astonishing. Was it the instinct to survive, to live, no matter what, that inspired her not to give in to despair, not to give up, but rather to keep busy?