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How Two Animals Helped Me Survive an Abusive Childhood

5 minute read

Maude Julien’s parents raised her in complete isolation on their estate near Dunkirk, France, after World War II, subjecting her to abuse they called “survival training.” She was forced to endure unthinkable things like sitting still all night in a rat-infested basement, gripping an electric fence without flinching and swimming in freezing water. Julien is now a psychotherapist specializing in manipulation and psychological control. In her new memoir, The Only Girl in the World, she shares the story of her childhood more than 50 years after escaping it.

After learning to ride a bike and to swim, I now have to learn to ride a horse. My father insists I be as accomplished a horsewoman as Will Scarlet’s Maude.

Of course, there’s no question of my joining a riding club. I’ll learn under my mother’s instruction on the estate, where there is already a small stable near the duck pond. My father has just bought a horse from a man in the village. He’s a darling piebald pony named Arthur. For Arthur and me, it’s love at first sight. When he sees me, his eyes light up. He nudges me, then drops his head so I can get onto his back. I climb up his neck by holding onto his mane, and end up facing the wrong way. He waits for me to turn around, and then off we go along the pathways on the grounds.

I ride him bareback, grasping his mane in my hands. I couldn’t be happier. I love the way Arthur smells; I love the sound of his hooves clopping on the red gravel. When we get to the lawn he goes faster, but not too fast: he is careful not to make me fall. I bounce on his back in time to his little trot, and my heart leaps for joy.

Sometime later a package arrives in the mail: a glossy brown saddle that gives off a strong smell of leather and costs 20,000 francs. My parents keep reminding me how expensive it was. All I can think is that it’s a bit heavy for a pint-sized mount like Arthur. My mother wants to show me how to tack up. She slips on a bridle, then puts the saddle on his back and starts fastening the girth, without realizing that Arthur is puffing out his stomach. Next she puts one foot in the stirrup and pushes herself off the ground to swing her other leg over his hindquarters. That’s when the cheeky pony quickly sucks in his stomach, which makes the saddle slip and… Crash! Now she is sprawled on the ground between Arthur’s legs, looking very put out. Her hair has come undone and there are bobby pins scattered all over the gravel. Meanwhile, Arthur is looking very regal, holding his head high as if the episode doesn’t warrant any attention at all.

My mother gets to her feet and kicks Arthur in the stomach. His unshakeable composure, his refusal to be annoyed, to rear up or bite, makes me throw my head back and laugh uncontrollably. She storms off, leaving us to it. Even the slap she gives me on her way past only makes me laugh harder. I’m hiccupping by the time I release the girth and take off the saddle, which is so heavy I stumble under its weight. Then I undo the noseband and take out the bit. My father watches this scene without a word. I can feel his disapproving eyes on my back, but I try not to think about it — I might burst out laughing again.

Two weeks later a whip arrives in another parcel. My mother saddles up Arthur again. But this time a few cracks of the whip persuade him to hold in his stomach, so she manages to tighten the girth properly and mount him. Arthur sets off, but at a slow walk, his head held low, refusing to break into a trot. “Watch closely,” my mother says. “This is how to ride, not the way you do, like a little feral child.” I don’t know exactly what “feral” means, but it sounds quite nice. I’m happy to be feral, especially if it includes all the fun Arthur and I have together.

Arthur has another love: Linda, our dog. At various times during the day I see him standing right outside her metal gate. When I have to shut her in at ten to eight in the morning, Arthur tries to get into the kennel too. It’s impossible, of course. But I know they catch up with each other during the night: Linda goes to join him in his stable. Before I go to sleep I picture them curled up together. I imagine myself snuggled in their warmth.

Can an animal teach a person about happiness? In the depth of my despair, I am fortunate to have this incredible source of joy. My heart swells with affection at the thought of spending time with Arthur. Or just the thought of walking past him, of catching the adoring look he gives me as I pass. At night I remember the way he looked, unperturbed, patiently taking those kicks. And I laugh quietly under the covers. I love Arthur. I love Linda. Linda loves Arthur, Arthur loves Linda. Together we’re strong and beautiful, even if things are difficult. If only for our fleeting moments of love, everything else is worth putting up with.

Excerpted from THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WORLD. Copyright © 2014 by Maude Julien and Ursula Gauthier. English translation copyright © 2017 by Adriana Hunter. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

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