Sabine Dardenne's Story: Surviving Marc Dutroux

Part 2: Living at the center of a national crisis

Sabine Dardenne arrives at the courthouse in Arlon, Belgium, to testify during the Dutroux trial.
AFP

Sabine Dardenne arrives at the courthouse in Arlon, Belgium, to testify during the Dutroux trial.

She disappeared from the public eye for eight years, becoming an adult, surviving with "my own little form of therapy." She calls it zapping. Just zapping out the pictures she doesn't want to see. Eight years, in which Belgium was consumed by a national crisis, an endless dispute over the testimony of dubious witnesses, witnesses who talked about networks of pedophiles, eight years of intrigues and conspiracy theories that would have the entire state involved in the Dutroux affair. In the middle of it all, in the eye of the storm, a storm she preferred to ignore, was the silent witness, Sabine Dardenne.

They were bad for Belgium, those eight years, but good for Sabine Dardenne. She had the opportunity to grow up in peace and quiet, go to school, find a job and a boyfriend. Then, this spring, she decided to confront the process, to confront the parents whose children, also Dutroux's victims, didn't have the chance to grow up. For Gino Russo, it's almost unbearable that people now address her as "Mademoiselle Dardenne." His Melissa never made it to become "Mademoiselle Russo."

She tries not to, but sometimes she suffers from survivor's guilt. She feels guilty vis-a-vis Laetitia, because when she was being held by Dutroux, she told him "I want a girlfriend," and then he showed up with the kidnapped Laetitia and said: "Look what I've done for you."

Believing the Captor

She's ashamed to have believed Dutroux the manipulator. To have believed him when he told her that her parents didn't want her back. That he would protect her from a big, bad, murderous boss. She even believed that Dutroux went to the police voluntarily to release her and Laetitia. She saw her tormentor standing in front of the door to his cell, surrounded by police officers, and she gave him a kiss and said: "merci."

"I find it difficult to forgive myself for that 'merci'," she says.

A young woman, half-smiling, sits in the darkening office in the Montparnasse Tower. Her composure through the years has stunned many -- almost everyone expected her to fall apart.

She didn't. Why not?

"Resilient" is a word she's been hearing a lot of these days. Psychologists use it to describe people who are better able to withstand traumatic events than others, and who are better able to forget and move on. Now she's being analyzed after all, but from a distance. Now a Belgian youth psychiatrist named Jean-Yves Hayez reads her books and says he's discovered a "very strong character," a person who refuses to be subjugated and who protests, protests, protests. That's exactly what she does, and she's very proud of it. She complains about the food and the filth. When he has his way with her, she yells: "No! You disgust me!" When she's chained to him at night, she refuses to fall asleep, so that he can't abuse her while she's sleeping, robbing her of the opportunity to yell: "No!"

He has power over her body, but not the power to define who she is.

Letters From Imprisonment

Therapists say that in order to survive a trauma, people have to turn their experiences into a story, to name things, to report what really happened. "Not to be able to talk about things," says psychologist James Pennebaker, "is usually even more traumatic than the incident itself." And as if she already knew this, the child Sabine instinctively resorted to the only survival technique she had left: writing. Sabine wrote letters to her family: "Mom, he says I have to 'make love' with him. I have to kiss him. You know how."

It's a horrible irony of history that she wrote these letters for her rapist. He didn't mail them to anyone, but just used them to manipulate his victim. The second irony is that some of the letters were later used as proof of the crimes Dutroux had committed.

The cover of the German translation of Dardenne's memoir.

The cover of the German translation of Dardenne's memoir.

Reporters wrote that her testimony in court was "courageous, composed and strong," and that she was "quite satisfied" with the case. She saw him in his glass cage, and he was the one who had to avert his eyes. Once she yelled at him, calling him a "dirty pig!" to his face, to make up for the horrible "merci."

He received a life sentence and will never be released, "one hopes."

But not everything has been said. There was too little time in court. Oh! Editions contacted her and sent her a ghost writer, who "talked and talked and talked" about her story, leaving just enough unsaid to preserve her dignity. And now she has this book.

There are still people who believe the whole thing was just a big conspiracy. For Sabine Dardenne, the perpetrator was a repulsive excuse for a human being, saying that "everything else doesn't fit to what I experienced." But there are parents of victims for whom the crime was too enormous to have been committed by a single, miserable person. There are people who believe that she was drugged for 80 days and didn't notice who, other than Dutroux, had access to her body. Now they can read all about it: Look, everyone, I still remember everything. Look, I'm absolutely clear about the whole thing.

Sabine Dardenne is 21 and looks down at the world from her tower in Paris. She's famous, but no longer as just a victim. Now she's an author, and her publisher is hoping that her book will be a huge success. She is "incredibly proud" of her book, her interpretation, her closing remarks on the Dutroux affair.

Her parents can read it, the parents who didn't know what to do with a daughter who refused to talk about the horrors she'd experienced, who wanted to keep her out of the trial, who refused to hand over the letters. She feels regret about these parents, who have since separated, which "has nothing to do with me and my story," she says. She still feels guilty. "They paid too much attention to me and not enough to themselves. I believe that I dealt with the whole thing better than they did."

BARBARA SUPP

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

* Sabine Dardenne with Marie-Therese Cuny: I Choose To Live. Virago Press, London. To be published in English in June 2005.

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