A truant? Schools were closed for summer. An escapee? Many children run away from home in a huff, get lost, and are glad to be restored to their worried parents. But this boy did not know his own address: 'I was locked up in a cupboard . . . I have never been to school . . . I don't know how to read and write,' he said in a thin, halting voice. They called the police.
The boy's story seemed too horrific to be true. Although he had the body of a six-year-old, he told them he was 12, and had been imprisoned by his mother for eight years, first chained to a pipe in the bathroom, then under her bed, and for the last year locked in a small cupboard. His mother subjected him to a routine of appalling 'punishments' - one day he was brutally beaten, another burnt with cigarettes, or forced to eat his own vomit if he could not keep his food down. At best he was fed scraps, at worst deprived of food for days at a time.
At first the police were incredulous. Then a young policeman decided to conduct some discreet investigations, and found that David Bisson 'did not exist'. No one had seen him in the neighbourhood. Even close neighbours talked of a family of three - David's parents and his younger half-brother. David had been annule, crossed out, for eight years. The day he escaped, his mother had forgotten to lock the cupboard, and he had wandered through the streets until finding an open garden gate and hidden under a bush.
According to the latest statistics (1991) there are 30,000 to 50,000 victims of child abuse in France each year, of whom some 300 die of their injuries. From this number, one occasionally strikes a particular chord in the community. The story of l'enfant du placard - the cupboard boy - hit the headlines in France and unleashed a storm of indignation. Even Georgina Dufoix, then France's Secretary of State for the Family, wrote articles about it.
David's mother and stepfather were sent to prison for seven years, and he was entrusted to childcare experts. Dr Tony Laine, an eminent psychiatrist, took David under his wing, and worked at rebuilding his shattered psyche. When, after eight years, he became almost whole, Laine suggested that David write a book, whose surreal truth would 'guide us to the limits of the human condition . . . and show the extent to which a child's desire to live and understand can bring salvation'.
L'Enfant Derriere La Porte - 'The Boy Behind the Door' - was published in France last year and came out here last week. It is written with the help of a psychotherapist, Evangeline de Schonen: 'I listened to him talk and recorded him for nearly a year, then after a period of gestation, wrote it simply in chronological order.'
David Bisson is small and thin, with deep blue eyes, a gentle smile and dignified manners. He speaks hesitatingly, at an almost inaudible volume: 'Dr Laine helped me to get rid of my hatred, and to understand the reasons for my mother's behaviour. The physical pain goes, but mental pain . . . I could not have done it without him.'
David's mother was herself illegitimate and grew up without a father. She ran away from home and worked as a stewardess on an inter-city train. During a stop in Angers she gave birth to David, the fruit of a short affair with a singer. She handed him over to a foster mother, and he has happy memories of a loving woman, the seaside, games. Miss Schonen believes that those early years are responsible for David's survival.
When he was four his mother, living with another man whom he took to be his father, and with a new baby boy, came to take him away: 'I had a premonition and put up a big struggle, refused to go. It must have been hard for her,' he remembers.
From then on it was war between them - silence and rejection on David's part, cruelty and madness on his mother's: 'It was at night that the terror started . . . with fire and water. She burnt my hair with a lighter, held my head in the water until I nearly drowned, beat me with her stiletto heel until I bled, my skull open . . .' On one occasion she forced his hands into boiling water, causing third-degree burns, and he had to be taken to hospital. She registered him under his half-brother's name. That injury was the basis of her criminal conviction.
All along his stepfather watched passively, 'too weak to intervene', and his brother was 'treated like a king' with toys and foam baths, love and freedom: 'I had a sense of injustice compared to him. Why me?'
When David's stepfather became the manager of a supermarket in Bretigny and the family moved to a new flat, his mother locked him in the cupboard and apparently forgot him. 'I stayed in touch with the world by listening to children playing in the playground below, and seeing the light through the chink in the door. I often thought of death, but I didn't want to die.'
After his escape, David settled happily in a children's home. 'People sent me toys, clothes, a watch. Everybody was kind to me . . . I had never experienced anything like that before, and I was overwhelmed.' At school he caught up quickly, learning to read and write, swim and ride, but he was self-conscious about his disfigured hands and felt isolated. 'The teachers pampered me, but I had the impression that the children avoided me. Perhaps I was wrong and they were just shy.'
By the time his parents' trial took place, David was nearly 16. 'French justice is slow,' says Miss Schonen, making a weary gesture. Meanwhile, his mother's lawyer had taken David to see her in prison. In his book he describes the painful scene when they met for the first time. 'She came forward and kissed me,' he remembers. 'It was as if she herself had woken up from a nightmare . . . She didn't want to talk about the past.' At the request of his half-brother, David wrote to the judge pleading for leniency, and he believes that his parents received relatively light sentences as a result.
When his mother was released, after five years, David went to see her, and for the first time they were alone. 'I first asked her about my real father, who and where he was, but she didn't want to tell me. Afterwards she disappeared, leaving her lodgings without a forwarding address, and I lost touch with her.' His stepfather was reunited with a childhood sweetheart whom he later married.
'I have no contact with him. In a way I blame him more than my mother, because he was the head of the family and should have stopped her. But I think they had a tacit agreement that they did not interfere with each other's children. I'm sure that if my mother had maltreated my half-brother, his son, he would have intervened'.
David does not see his brother either, as he lives in the provinces: 'But I feel no resentment towards him. At first I longed for us all to be together, like a normal family, but I realised that it was impossible. Too much had happened . . . it was too late'.
Recently David has re-established contact with his mother, but he is not particularly anxious to see her. 'She didn't want me to write my book, and she refuses to see a therapist.'
After his initial progress, David stopped working at school. 'I couldn't concentrate. I thought I was mentally retarded. All my energy had gone into staying alive.' Since leaving school he has had a series of unskilled jobs, but would now like to learn to be a designer and work in the fashion industry. The success of his book will give him the means of professional training, he hopes. He is now 24.
Amazingly his mother's behaviour has not put him off women, and he wants to get married and have children, though he does not currently have a girlfriend. It is often said that abused children are likely to become abusing parents, and I wondered if he was afraid this would happen to him: 'Oh no. I want to have children to be nice to them . . . . No point otherwise, is there?
'One or two years were enough to placate my hatred. In its place I found forgiveness, without realising it,' writes David Bisson in his book. I asked him what he meant by forgiveness: 'When I think of them I no longer feel any resentment. In fact I don't think of them that often. I have moved on. I have no desire for vengeance.'
Oscar Wilde said that we may grow to love our parents, but we can never forgive them. It seems that David Bisson has achieved the opposite, realising, instead Goethe's idea, quoted by Dr Laine in his preface, that 'one can never become an adult without understanding one's parents and forgiving them'.
'The Boy Behind the Door' is published by Mandarin at pounds 4.99.Reuse content