They came from a single egg; they were quintuplets; they were unique; uniquely abused, too - both by the world, which turned the Dionne Quints into a freak show; and, they now claim, by their father. Sixty years on, they have yet to recover. Two are dead, and the three who remain are still struggling to come to terms with the traumas of their exploitation

Ian Parker
Sunday 05 November 1995 01:02 GMT

BETWEEN 1934 and 1943, about 3 million people visited a Canadian tourist attraction called Quintland, in the middle of nowhere. They made great journeys to get there, on poor roads, through a landscape of forest, swamp and wilderness, to a point near the village of Corbeil, in Northern Ontario. On arrival: a dusty, frenzied knot of cars and commerce - bumper stickers, "fertility stones", and refreshments. And, to one side, a low modern building with a garden and a high fence - and a public spectacle that today seems uprooted from another century, from fiction. Along the edge of the garden was a raised corridor whose windows were covered by a fine gauze - like a bird hide. In groups of 100 or so, tourists made their way down the corridor, and through the gauze they could look down on to the garden, on to the freak show. And on the grass were the most famous people in North America: five identical girls, dressed identically, hair curled identically, playing adorably, having their lives ruined.

CECILE DIONNE, a "Quint", grew up in Quintland. She is one-fifth of this great legend of the Canadian Depression era, and she is now 61. I met her in a publisher's office in Montreal, a few miles from where she lives with the two other surviving Dionne quintuplets. She had been driven in by her son, on a dazzling autumn day, across a city where by law drivers keep their headlights on even in sunshine; Montreal was giving out the false air of being in the immediate aftermath of a summer storm.

It was very strange to see her. Although Cecile Dionne and her sisters were once inescapable in newspapers and on newsreels - grouped at Christmas, birthday and Thanksgiving, or cutting their first teeth, or taking their first steps - they were unavailable to the press in the decades that followed. They chose to disappear, as if stepping out from childhood into nothing - as would befit the dark, fairy-tale nature of their story. But here she was: sounding like a Frenchwoman, and looking like a normal, likeable, middle-class urban North American woman. She was wearing something fairly smart in dark green (which was the colour by which she was identified as a baby, and by which - before she could read her name - she knew her place setting, and could find her own coat, her own boots and hat from the impossibly charming little five rows). She is quite small - a fact she was never aware of until she was an adult (she never went anywhere; she was never allowed to go anywhere; there was no one to compare herself to). She spoke quietly, and seemed shy, but not freakishly so. When a woman from the publishing company sought her help in captioning a photograph of the young quintuplets, Cecile pretended to scold her: "You should know! Guess!" she said, and then led the woman through the picture, like a good teacher, identifying first Marie, the smallest, then Yvonne, the largest, and the rest, using some system or other. Eventually the woman had it - "Annette, Yvonne, Emilie, Marie, Cecile?" - and was properly praised.

We sat on facing sofas, and I heard about her life today: friends, shops, renting movies, near- telepathic communication with her sister room-mates. She has children, she likes birdwatching... But the conversation never left her childhood for long: a period in her life when exclusive rights to her image were worth $25,000 a year; when it was not thought necessary to bring the Second World War to her attention; when church, state and family seemed to take it in turns to do her harm. Here she spoke with frequent pauses. This was partly to do with lack of confidence in English (French is her first language), and partly to do with miserable memories; while sometimes cheery, at other moments she was close to tears. "It would have been easier if I'd been a single child," she said at one point.

Interestingly, she does not seem mad. You might have expected dramatic, visible neuroses. "I know," she said, smiling, "but I work on myself." She has had therapy, on and off, since the Sixties: her sanity is rather impressive, and so too is her desire (and capacity) to explain the motives of those who took such hopeless charge of her. There is still a fierce streak of resentment in her - and when it shows, it is rather shocking. But when I asked her, who does she blame?, she said: "I think nobody was bad, or a villain. They all had sufferings inside."

CECILE DIONNE'S story has been told many times, in different ways, with different crooks and different victims, different prisons and paradises, but all versions could probably agree, at least on these brief facts: the Dionne quintuplets were born from a single egg on 28 May 1934 to poor, French-speaking, Catholic parents. At least two months premature, together they weighed fewer than 14lb. An arm looked like an adult finger; each baby could be held in an adult palm. They were put by the open stove to keep warm, and brought breast milk from mothers in surrounding villages. Against all precedent and expectation, they survived their first weeks.

News spread far and fast. Soon, to protect the quintuplets from the alleged dangers of germs, kidnappers and a destitute father who was known to have considered exhibiting them for money, they were removed from their family, and placed under the enforced guardianship of the (Protestant and Anglophone) Ontario government. A hospital was built for their exclusive use across the road from the family's farmhouse. For years after their health was truly at risk, the Quints - as they tended to be called in Canada - continued to live in this hospital, which also came to serve as a kind of theme park. The siblings and parents of the quintuplets were made unwelcome, and became irregular visitors. From a stall outside Quintland's gates, Oliva Dionne, the quintuplets' father, sold his autograph at 25 cents a time.

Being both cute and (in their abundance) freakish, the Quints generated unimaginable levels of attention from around the world: from the press, from fellow celebrities, from royalty, from advertisers ("Canada's Loveliest Children, like the Dionne Quins, Keep that schoolgirl complexion with Palmolive!"). Cars drove around North America with "We Have Seen The Dionne Quintuplets" bumper stickers. "The whole family," claimed tourist leaflets, "will be happy in Quintland this summer." Over nine years, they remained a self- contained community in the midst of this extraordinary attention, living away from other children and utterly ignorant of the world. They saw their doctor, Allan Dafoe, and their nurses, and the shadowy visitors behind the gauze.

At the age of nine, following a bitter battle between their father and Dr Dafoe, the five sisters returned to live with their parents and six siblings: moving from a near-royal culture of disinfectant and press photography, into the rural, Catholic culture they had left at birth. They were not happy; they were hopelessly out of place. They lived at home until they were 18, after which they broke off almost all contact with their parents. Two quintuplets, Emilie and Marie Dionne, died in 1954 and 1970 respectively. Both parents have also died.

This story, and parts of this story, have been told many times, in different ways: one can look at a skip-load of press cuttings and photographs; three Hollywood films in the Thirties (The Country Doctor, Reunion, Five of a Kind); a recent US-Canadian mini-series (Million-Dollar Babies); many medical research papers; any number of biographies; a Sixties ghosted joint autobiography; a fictionalised "tragedy"; a paperback "melodrama"... Some of these texts sit together on the shelves of McGill University's library in Montreal in a kind of freaks section, between Very Peculiar People, and a study of Louis Cyr: L'homme le plus fort du monde. In the margin of one Quints book, alongside a photograph of its infant subjects, a student has written: "I hope you bastards [authors? readers?] will look closely into the fear in these people's eyes."

Who were the bastards? Over time, good guys have become bad guys, bad guys good. The doctor who kept the quintuplets alive, but also kept them from their family, was once a national hero, and now is not. The father, Oliva Dionne, was once a ludicrous peasant; then a wronged man from an ethnic minority in heroic conflict with the Establishment. Inevitably, the material rearranges itself according to its period and prejudice; and what started as a fairly simple tale of Depression-busting good cheer - plenty amidst want - very quickly became encrusted with texts or subtexts that promoted, say, child-rearing liberalism or conservatism; Francophone criticism of Ontario arrogance; Protestant distrust of Catholic fecundity; antipathy towards the medical profession, the media, the advertising industry, the church, the USA. You could probably write a half-workable social history of modern Canada using only the Quints files.

Today, there are two new parts to the story; again, they are of their time. One concerns money: the surviving quintuplets are claiming $10m (pounds 5m) from the Ontario government by way of damages and compensation. The state of Ontario is estimated to have benefited from the Quints - through tourism - by at least $500m, even without charging an entrance fee for Quintland. The Quints themselves - on whose behalf the profits from advertising, films and photography were invested in their youth - each received about $170,000 after turning 21, which they regard as an inadequate share of total Quint income. A settlement of some kind is expected soon, probably without the intervention of any court.

The other new element in the Dionne story is parental abuse: a new book, Secrets de Famille (available only in Canada, only in French), includes the charges that, following the Quints' return to their parents - from Quintland - in 1943, they were sexually harassed by their father, and beaten by their mother. The father rubbed ointment into their breasts, liked to manufacture a crush of bodies in the car, made specific - unsuccessful - sexual advances. Their mother treated them like dirt. When the quintuplets reported their alarm to a local priest, they were given no help - rather, they were advised to wrap up.

Secrets de Famille was written by Jean-Yves Soucy, at the instruction of the surviving Quints, who share half of the royalties between them. Soucy has opted for the style of a romantic novel ("When he looked at her, she could no longer believe he had the innocent gaze of a father..." and so on) - an approach, he says, that is designed to widen its readership to include "near-illiterates". You might wonder about the wisdom of this technique, and about how well advised the sisters are in their dealings with the media. (Last year, they gave - or sold - their blessing to Million- Dollar Babies, which had a significantly more positive take on the parents; and they provided the National Enquirer with an exclusive 60th birthday photograph.) But they have only their story to sell, and they say they need the money; Cecile Dionne is ready to acknowledge cash as the primary, if not exclusive, purpose of Secrets de Famille. (There is, too, a therapeutic ambition.) And despite some murmurings in Montreal, the tales of abuse do not arrive from nowhere, whipped up to draw a fresh, Oprah-viewing, abuse-sensitive audience to a flagging old story. In We Were Five, their 1965 autobiography, it's already there, between the lines. (On rides with their father in the car: "A sense of shyness was deeply rooted in all five of us. Sitting on laps, having arms around our shoulders and elbows in our ribs offended our susceptibilities. No matter if the evening was warm or chilly, we wrapped ourselves in topcoats for protection on those outings...") The Dionnes may be the least expert children in the world to judge the proper limits of physical parental contact (for nine years they had almost none), but they are telling a story that has clearly preyed on them for a long time. Cecile Dionne told me: "Dad asked me to be his mistress and I refused, so after that I didn't have any bad things..." With Yvonne he was more insistent: "He wanted her to go inside and to lie on the bed. But Yvonne didn't want to go inside..." (And she did not.)

Cecile Dionne is glad now to have unburdened herself of all this. "Now I feel strong," she said, "and comfortable." Cecile's adult son, Bertrand Dionne (whose twin brother died in infancy), told me: "It's a good thing that she liberates those things. I see her face every day. She's more happy. And there's a difference with Annette and Yvonne. It's remarkable. It's part of the healing therapy."

CECILE DIONNE had a childhood in two distinct halves. Secrets de Famille starts with the return of the Dionne quintuplets to their parents, in 1943: they carried little suitcases a few yards "home". But by 1943, Cecile Dionne had already lived one life. She had spent nine years in the Quintland nursery - a place easy to see into, hard to see out of. "It wasn't human, I think," she said to me. "It was a circus".

Or it was a boarding school that starts at the age of nought, or a laboratory: "The whole thing was quite severe for babies and young children. Starting at six o'clock, until six o'clock at night, we had 21 items to accomplish. A time to go to the toilet, all of that." A time to eat, to play - and to meet one's public. In the early days, the various nurses who catered for the quintuplets would take them on to the nursery balcony and show them, one at a time, to the crowds below, with an accompanying card carrying their name. (In fact, it was usually simpler and safer to lift the same baby five times and change only the card.) Later, the Quints were viewed three times a day from the gauze- covered corridor. Cecile says: "We saw moving. We heard sounds."

With the blessing of the all-powerful doctor in charge of the nursery - Dafoe - the quintuplets' early routine was set by the St George's School for Child Study at the University of Toronto. The Toronto findings, published in 1937, are odd. (If it is hard to understand Quintland today, it seems also to have been hard then.) The picture captions alone reveal an uncertain agenda. A walking Quint is captioned with anthropological sobriety - "Progress in locomotion" - but an eating Quint is given a kind of Pathe newsreel puff: "Cafeteria service - and Annette has her eye on the dessert." The scientists seem not to have known quite what to do, perhaps because they had to negotiate their way round two unacknowledgeable facts. One: although these children were being kept in a "hospital", they were not sick - their health clearly did not depend on isolation, even if that of the Ontario economy did. Two: the isolation of the Quints must have skewed any behavioural study. It was never said loudly, but any observed variation from infant norms was as likely to be caused by separate development as by the amazing fact that the Quints had developed from a single egg. They did not leave their compound for their first five years, they hardly met anyone except their official photographer. They were two before they had any contact with their siblings. Among other results of this, the Dionne quintuplets were very slow to learn language; and had very limited immunity to disease when they at last went out into the world. According to the joint narrators of We Were Five, "We were a club, a society, a civilisation all our own."

Apparently untroubled by any ambiguity in purpose, the scientists pressed on, X-raying, cataloguing episodes of "anger and fear", food intake, incidents of dissent. An example: "Non-compliance episode. Time: 4.45. Activity: Play. Description of request: To stay in playroom. Description of child's behaviour: Ran out, cried for 1 minute. Adult treatment: Isolated 5 minutes, brought back. Result: Co-operation." There are mountains of this: should she need, Cecile Dionne could discover how many bowel evacuations she achieved each month, on average, as a two-year-old. (Seventy-five.) The study also draws attention to one significant detail: a sixth embryo miscarried early in the mother's pregnancy. This sixth child would have been Cecile's twin - a fact that made sense to her when she learnt of it later in life.

In a way, this early regime was rather forward-thinking: it encouraged play, rejected bribery and violent punishment. Its fixedness of routine was intended to be reassuring. Indeed, although she calls it a "circus", and argues that she should have been returned to her family as soon as she was out of any medical danger, Cecile has happy memories of Quintland; it certainly compares well to what eventually followed. (And she was entirely unaware of - unoppressed by - her fame; if very young children are inclined to imagine they are the centre of the universe, it simply happened to be true in Cecile's case.) But Quintland had a blind spot: it seemed to have no regard for relations between children and their parents, or children and parent-figures. To Dr Dafoe and his associates, the Dionne parents were at best a nuisance, at worst a real danger. (Dafoe was a man unhealthily preoccupied by the idea of germs.) It seems never to have been suggested that the entire Dionne family should be rehoused in the alleged safety of the hospital. Instead, from the start, the non-Quint Dionnes were made to feel unwelcome. This bred resentment, and in turn the resentment threatened to poison the visits that were made. To the baby quintuplets, their mother, Elzire, was not only an unfamiliar figure, she was also - Cecile remembers - the bringer of stress and disagreement. "She came quite often in the nursery, and there was always some dispute and the nurses didn't want to let her come in and touch us ..." According to her daughter, Elzire Dionne was "afraid we loved the nurse more than her ..." Cecile learnt the word "Doctor" ahead of "Mother."

Was she able to touch you?

"For the first two years, I don't think. She was prevented to touch us."

Do you think that she began to think of you as less her children than the other children?

"I think so."

The nurses too were discouraged from physical contact, and they tended to stay only for a year or so, and to leave without saying goodbye. "I didn't tell them I was leaving them," a nurse, Cecile Michaud, is quoted as saying in The Dionne Years, by Pierre Berton, "because one nurse... when she left there was an awful reaction. They cried for days. That's why I didn't tell them. They thought I was coming back." When a nurse left, Cecile Dionne told me, "it was like a mother we lost."

Cecile was sitting forward on her sofa, answering questions very briefly, rarely saying more than a sentence before seeking another question - as if being cross-examined in court. She was not without emotion, but there sometimes seemed a great distance between her and her past - as if she was merely the representative of her former self, the spokeswoman for her childhood, not the child itself, grown up.

When you were young, did you know who your mother was?

"No!" (stupid question).

Did you think that your mother was another nurse?

"Not another nurse, no, but... maybe a neighbour."

BECAUSE THE RIGHTS had been sold, Oliva Dionne was not allowed to photograph his daughters. According to We Were Five, "Dad once tried to take a picture of us through a window for himself. He was rebuked for his efforts, was reminded they infringed the legal documents and was told never to attempt such a thing again."

Public opinion slowly turned against Dr Dafoe, and wartime petrol and tyre rationing - and a general decline in Dionne cuteness - damaged attendances at Quintland. And so Oliva Dionne eventually won his fight to have his daughters returned to him. Using Quint-generated money, a big brick house was built close to Quintland, and for the first time the family slept together under the same roof. "I knew we were being taken to live with our parents," says Cecile, "but why, I didn't know. When I arrived in the big house, I felt almost immediately that it wouldn't work." For the first time ever, the quintuplets did not all sleep in one room. They have described the new house as "the saddest home we ever knew".

Long deprived of power over their daughters, the parents now misused it, as recorded in Secrets De Famille. It was too late to construct the longed-for, unified family - and for this, it seems that the quintuplets had to take the blame. Their six siblings (later seven) resented these famous newcomers. (Cecile understands the resentment: "We each had a nurse, we lived in a cocoon, you know.") The quintuplets were told that they were responsible for ruining the lives of their parents. "You are a family by yourselves," the Quints were told, "and we are another one." Cecile remembers wishing herself a non-Quint.

There is still a rift. Shortly after the publication of Secrets de Famille last month, a statement was released on behalf of five of the siblings disputing the accusations of abuse: "We assert that we had good parents, and that to our knowledge our father was certainly not a sexual abuser..." Cecile says: "I think they protect their image of the parents, especially Dad. And I think it's normal. But it was not the same relations between the parents and them and the parents and us. It was completely different."

The quintuplets were expected to be far more obedient, work harder in the house, not venture outside. Aged 16, they were still made to dress alike. And while their brothers and sisters were sent away to school, the quintuplets were educated in the old Quintland nursery, which was converted on their behalf into a small private convent school. A few fellow students, carefully chosen from the neighbourhood, joined them there, and were pounced on by the Quints for tales of real life. (These girls are still in the Quints' limited circle of friends.)

Annette used to have a recurring dream that she scaled the high fence around the "big house" and made off up the road. But the dream always had to stop there, because she had no idea what was round the corner. Between their birth and the age of 18, the Dionne quintuplets made only a handful of (much-publicised) excursions; once to New York; once to launch a ship; once to meet Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh ("She was indifferent... Her husband was more pleasing and more warm.").

At 18, their father sent the Quints to continue their studies at the convent of the Sisters of the Assumption at Nicolet, in Quebec. Here, they were still carefully supervised, and given almost no money. Emilie and Marie both decided to become nuns: Emilie moved to a convent near Montreal, Marie to Quebec City. It was hard to think of an alternative career move: the Quints' various guardians had never quite taken the idea of adulthood seriously, although it had always been impressed on the girls, with no justification, that they would be unable to have children. (When pregnant, Cecile was in no doubt that she would die in childbirth.) In 1954, unattended in her convent, Emilie suffocated and died during a epileptic seizure; she had been epileptic since the age of 12. At Emilie's funeral, Cecile remembers thinking "I will never suffer like I was suffering that moment."

Emilie's death seems to have marked a new stage in the independence of the quintuplets. "I remember feeling that it was a sort of release," Cecile said to me, "being that one was dead. For all of us. It's hard to be five, you know... I just felt loosening up." Yvonne and Cecile began training to be nurses in Montreal - stunned by city life and by the social ease of new acquaintances. Marie left her convent, Annette began to study music. At their 2lst birthdays, the Quints had their first access to their inheritance, and for all his efforts, their father (who had been providing them just a few dollars a week of their own money), lost yet more of the control he had fought so hard to gain. (There are accusations that, around this time, he set private detectives on his daughters.)

Cecile married her first boyfriend - her first ever date. "Yes," she said laughing, "it's awful!" A man unknown to her, Philippe Langlois, left a message at the nursing home for either Cecile or Yvonne. In one of her first ever acts of daring, Cecile rang back, and agreed to meet him. Later, she fell for him: "I realised that I was not happy, so I thought by having children it would have been all erased. Foolish thing... He promised to help me to forget all my past, so that helped a lot. And I was really in love with him, you know, and too much in love." She grew, eventually, to doubt his sincerity. She now calls him a "fortune hunter" - he was a lavish spender of her money - and she sees the possible significance of the fact that, before they were properly attached, he also went out with Annette, and Marie.

Cecile was married in November 1957, a month after Annette had married. Marie married the following year. These three marriages all failed. Cecile was separated from her husband in 1963. Marie died alone in 1970; her body remained undiscovered for three or four days. She was known to drink quite heavily, and in the words of her sisters, she "neglected" herself. A blood clot was found on her brain.

The three surviving Quints regrouped in Montreal. Relations with their parents were never restored, although Oliva would try to communicate with them through the newspapers. (He once called a press conference to complain that they had not sent him a Christmas card - and the story was reported around the world.) Cecile told me that she saw her father "around five times" between the mid-Fifties and his death in 1979.

"I wished they had asked to see us before their deaths, and they didn't. I thought that before dying they would have asked us to go and see them. I thought it was not my..." Cecile paused at this point. "... duty to go and see them." She wanted them to "recognise that they had been wrong. I know that's difficult." There is a hardness here in her character: she is talking of a father who lost his daughters, and was made Canada's laughing stock (jokes about bulls and so on: he would be followed into public lavatories, for a glimpse of the legendary penis); and of a mother who was worried she would be thought to have given birth to a litter of "pigs", and who later wrote a pitiful letter to Edward VIII: "I simply beg of you to restore to me my five little babies as a 'coronation gift'. Can't your Majesty understand how I feel without them?"

In the years before her parents' death, did Cecile try to make it easier, meet them halfway? "No." Does she regret that? "I don't regret that." At their father's funeral, the three Quints saw their mother for the first time in many years, and their mother told them they had killed their father. Elzire Dionne died in 1986.

OVER THE last year and a half, as he prepared Secrets de Famille, Jean- Yves Soucy watched the surviving Quints "getting more and more relaxed. When we started, Cecile was really, really down. She was still resentful towards her father." He thinks they are beginning to "turn the page". (He told me the Quints were keen to "start looking" for boyfriends.) A new life is forcing its way through. But a legacy of estrangement survives. The quintuplets were media children, lottery children, and pyschological recovery seems hopelessly bound up with financial recovery. There was some unpleasantness last year over money received for Million-Dollar Babies. As a result, Cecile and the others now have no contact with Marie's two daughters. At the time I interviewed Cecile Dionne, the elder of these daughters had had a baby the week before: Cecile had only learnt of this second-hand - which is how she also hears news of the non-Quint brothers and sisters.

It's not quite over for the Dionnes, nor for Canada. Their new book is selling very well; and as ever, Canadians are sending fan letters and old cuttings and letters of solidarity to their post office box number in great bulk. "They're still a freak show," one Montreal journalist told me. Fertility drugs have made multiple births a relative commonplace, and Quintland has been pulled down, but the Dionne Quints story continues to resonate: like a particularly comprehensive fairy-tale, exaggerating every childhood longing, disappointment and fear. I asked Cecile Dionne: what should have happened to them? How should they have been brought up? She shrugged and said, "We should have been raised like normal children." !

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