Maude Julien relays her traumatic childhood with poignancy and literary finesse
In what’s been an intense, difficult year for many, the sheer volume of harrowing memoirs — the stories that’d be too agonizing to believe were they not based in fact — has felt dispiritingly fitting. No less fitting, to ring out the year, is the arrival of Maude Julien’s exceptionally disturbing The Only Girl in the World. Landing on bookshelves just in time for celebrations of 2017’s long-awaited end, it might be the year’s most harrowing memoir of all.
Julien, a therapist specializing in psychological control, makes her creative nonfiction debut by telling her childhood story. The challenge, on the face of it, is to turn what amounts to a horror tale of abuse and captivity into something readable and literary. Julien grew up in an isolated estate where her father raised her to become a “superior being.” He and her similarly deranged mother locked her in a cellar, treated her with cruel indifference, subjected her to physical and sexual assault, and even forbade her from moving. Her eventual escape, coordinated by a music teacher as she aged into her teens, marked the culmination of an unfathomable ordeal. The triumph of her survival is undeniable, but hardly in a raise-your-fists-in-the-air type of way; it’s triumphant in that you feel permitted to blink, take a deep breath, and sigh with a level of relief you probably never thought possible.
Without taking away from Julien’s actual experiences, what she accomplishes as an author and storyteller is impressive. Her present-tense prose is concise; compact but clear descriptions of torture are unshakable, and brilliantly build on one another as you keep turning the pages in disbelief. It’s hard to overstate the achievement, of relaying years of real trauma with poetic immediacy. She effectively brings you inside her profoundly paranoid father’s mind, both as she simplistically understands it as a child — “Meanwhile my father is still convinced I’m opening my mind to the knowledge of the Initiates,” she narrates with no particular context needed — and as she comes to terms with it as she grows. The first half is especially stunning: Her writing ferociously juxtaposes childlike innocence with the increasingly unhinged. At times the book, in form, resembles the beginnings of Emma Donoghue’s Room, but this text is necessarily more graphic and frightening.
Julien’s care for telling her story in a lucid way is evident, and strangely empowering. My multiple audible gasps while working through The Only Girl in the World were partly a result of its author’s ability to so artfully capture the meaning and depth of her survival. You wonder how anyone who went through what she did could come out functioning on the other side. Julien convinces you not with the details of the story, but with the way they’re presented — with the book itself. That The Only Girl in the World exists as it does is a most persuasive argument for Julien’s remarkable willpower.
You can feel the weight of the story catch up with Julien in the book’s climax; there’s an awkward, overwhelming balance of resolution, summary, and continued terror that lacks the cogency of what preceded it. It damages the book’s addictively blistering flow, but at the same time, she expands the story’s bounds of emotional intelligence. She locates new methods of digging into her parents’ psyches, and again, the in-the-moment nature of the writing proves enormously successful. The way Julien, in real time, traces her father’s decay, or how music goes from a tool for survival to a mode for expression, creates poignant character and motif arcs that elevate the material. We experience the exhausted, pained release of the book’s final line right along with her. “I got out of my parents’ house,” Julien writes. “I got out.” B+