Flemish author reimagines story of Belgium’s most-hated woman

Summary

In her latest novel, Flemish author Kristien Hemmerechts revisits one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history through the eyes of Marc Dutroux’s ex-wife

Writer says reimagining Martin case was her artist's prerogative

During the summer of 1995, Julie Lejeune, Melissa Russo, An Marchal and Eefje Lambrecks went missing. The entire country was shocked, and it only intensified when, a year later, two more girls – Sabine Dardenne and Laetitia Delhez – disappeared.

In the summer of 1996, Charleroi resident Marc Dutroux and his wife, Michelle Martin, were arrested. Sabine and Laetitia were eventually rescued, but Dutroux had murdered two of the other girls. Martin became public enemy number 2 when she allowed the other two to starve to death in a secret basement room while Dutroux was in custody. The Dutroux case is considered the darkest chapter in Belgium’s recent history.

Flemish author Kristien Hemmerechts (pictured), who is known for novels that often deal with human flaws, alienation and inabilities, made a bold move when she decided to write about the accomplice of Belgium’s infamous kidnapper, rapist and child murderer. Hitting a raw nerve in the country’s collective past, De vrouw die de honden eten gaf (The Woman Who Fed the Dogs) caused a stir even before it was published.

Paul Marchal, father of the 17-year-old An, said: “Unless you’re a friend of Martin – and Hemmerechts isn’t as far as I know – I will never understand how someone would defend such a despicable woman.”

De vrouw isn’t, in the end, defending Michelle Martin or apologising for her actions. Hemmerechts, 58, says she wanted to get inside the mind of a character like Martin to explore what made her tick. She didn’t set out to write an explosive and controversial novel but one that was “credible and powerful”, she says. The rest was cunning marketing by her publisher and the echo-chamber effect of the media.

“The reactions have been emotional, irrational, extreme and contradictory,” she says. “I’ve been attacked for presenting my central character both in too positive a light, and in too negative a light. So, which will it be?”

A mix of fact and fiction

During the summer of 2012, Hemmerechts was a writer in residence at the VU University Amsterdam and was asked to write a 12,000-word text. The Belgian headlines that summer were Martin’s possible early release from prison. Hemmerechts tried to imagine what it was like for Dutroux’s accomplice to follow this debate from inside the institution.

The novel is a depiction of how she sees herself, that is, as a victim of Dutroux

- Kristien Hemmerechts

“For an author, it’s very interesting to give a voice to a woman who hasn’t been heard. But what struck me the most was that she was pregnant when those girls were abducted. What must it have been like for her to live with a man who kidnaps and locks up little girls? The novel is a depiction of how she sees herself, that is, as a victim of Dutroux. There is a lot of self-pity, a tendency to blame others and an inability to assume responsibility.”

Hemmerechts primarily based her novel on facts and testimonies. Martin is not allowed to speak to journalists or writers as part of the conditions of her release, so the author had to fill in the blanks herself. That resulted in “faction”, a mix between facts and fiction, which is often the case in historical novels.

“I believe that imagination can take over when the facts only get you so far,” she says. “A lot is unknown about the tragic events, to the utter frustration of the parents of the victims.”

Hemmerechts point out that neither Dutroux nor Martin have been forthcoming with information. “There remain many gaps in the accounts they have given,” she says, adding that she was more interested in dealing with thoughts, feelings and fantasies. “I wanted to reproduce what was going on in her head,” she explains. “As a result, I was forced to rely on imagination and presumption. Nobody says what they really think, and Martin is no exception.”

Not only An’s father, but many others have taken offence to De vrouw and said that real and horrific crimes shouldn’t be used for entertainment value. “I think it’s absurd that you shouldn’t reimagine old cases,” the writer says, adding that certain cases will always leave an imprint on people’s collective conscience. “We’re still talking about Hitler, for example. Martin still makes headlines, and I do admit it was a traumatic experience for our entire country.”

She changed the name of the title character to Odette and set it in the monastery in Wallonia where Martin, who was released in the summer of 2012, now resides.

Full of contradictions

For the most part, the novel is a monologue in which Odette sheds light on her relationship with her domineering mother and her submissive sadomasochistic relationship with M, which caused her to make choices that might seem impossible to most readers. Odette feared M but also gave in to his every whim. Ultimately, no one knows what went on in Martin’s mind or how she became “the most hated woman in Belgium”, but Hemmerechts manages to give us a plausible version of the events.

Odette is full of contradictions: She’s an egotistical woman with a low self-esteem who craves validation from others, but she also tries to be a strong and loving mother to her own children. Eight days after the real-life Martin gave birth to their third child, Dutroux was arrested for theft.

The title of the novel refers to Martin’s feeding of her husband’s dogs while he was behind bars but not feeding the girls locked up in the basement. Odette/Martin, in other words, was convicted for what she failed to do.

In the novel, Odette frequently refers to the crimes of Geneviève Lhermitte, who killed her five children in 2007. “Lhermitte’s crimes are worse than Martin’s, and yet society judges Martin far more harshly,” Hemmerechts says. “Why? This question intrigues me. Since the novel was published, people who work with prisoners have told me that prisoners typically compare themselves favourably to other criminals.”

Hemmerechts starts off her novel with a quote from German political theorist Hannah Arendt: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

De vrouw is a deconstruction of identity. Without sympathising or showing understanding for Martin, Hemmerechts shows us the inner workings of the mind of a woman with a horrific past and an uncertain future.