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Lolita, only real

In artful debut, Fragoso chillingly details a childhood of abuse

Margaux Fragoso met her abuser when she was 7 years old, and their relationship continued until she was 22. Margaux Fragoso met her abuser when she was 7 years old, and their relationship continued until she was 22. (Sara Essex)
By Alice Gregory
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2011

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The molestation memoir is a much treaded upon genre, a favorite of Oprah and teen readers primed on V.C. Andrews. It’s a genre whose sharpness is wilted by all of its fictionalized versions, with despicable storylines and inevitable grotesqueries that put it always at risk of melodrama. Good literature so often relies on moral ambiguity, and the sexual violation of children is hardly a topic that inspires equivocating sympathy. But “Tiger, Tiger,’’ the debut memoir by Margaux Fragoso, is saved from schmaltz. It reads like a revised “Lolita,’’ told from the point of view of Dolores Haze rather than Humbert Humbert — a Dolores who chooses a PhD over a trailer park pregnancy. In “Tiger, Tiger,’’ Fragoso has given us the definitive portrait of both ruined innocence and misplaced empathy. The book is so powerful because it’s a work of verified truth, authored by the victim under her own name. Fragoso forces us to confront the dark world that exists just barely behind the bright one.

With virtuosic verbal precision, Fragoso summons a past peopled by friends and family who sickeningly seem to only half-know that from the age of 7 she is being continuously molested by a neighbor, Peter, who is almost six decades her senior. Margaux’s mentally ill mother is incapable of protecting her, and her abusive father is the very reason she’s compelled toward Peter in the first place. It all starts one summer day at the public pool when she asks him if he wants to play. He does, and her life is changed forever. The majority of Fragoso’s childhood and adolescence is spent in Peter’s bedroom, where she plays with dolls and writes fantasy fiction, where they watch porn and profess their love. Though the material is presented with first-person immediacy, it’s the later incarnation of Margaux who serves as the book’s omniscient narrator. From her, we learn about Peter’s previous arrests, his estranged family, and all the abused foster children.

“My perceptions were always devastatingly acute,’’ Fragoso explains, “a side effect of years of very little social contact with the world outside the one I shared with Peter.’’ With the help of diary entries she co-wrote with him, Fragoso is able to recall entire conversations and startlingly specific facts. The juxtaposition between childish innocence and sinister sex acts gives the story its awful pull. Some of Margaux’s first confrontations with male anatomy are followed by the Velcroing of pink sneakers. Margaux knows that when Peter asks, “How’s your belly’’ in a soft, sweet voice, it’s really code for him imagining her, at 8, pregnant. Peter’s preferences (chipped nail polish and cotton underwear) are symbolic of his arrested development, and the “clotted’’ ivy that veils his house foreshadows her tangled interior life.

Like Nabokov’s masterpiece with which it shares a theme, “Tiger, Tiger’’ draws its aesthetic success from the precise register of its prosaicness. In both books, squalid details accumulate. In “Lolita,’’ we’re meant to make judgments about Charlotte Haze based on her tendency to snore and the rush of genteel self-regard she gets after excusing herself for a burp. Her “bronze-brown bun,’’ taste for “preprandial sherry,’’ and pronunciation of envelope (ahnvelope) are meant to repulse us. Similarly, Margaux’s childhood traumas are tinted with ineffably foul, Nabokovian details: Mazdas, a friend named Rocco, a too-short haircut.

Fragoso is able to explain Peter in a way that makes him believably appealing to a young girl. “He didn’t even seem adult in the sense of that natural separateness adults have from children,’’ she observes. Before he commits suicide when Margaux is 22, Peter lives in a decaying old house, which he restores for its owner in exchange for room and board. He has a “strange fixation with Christmas ornaments,’’ and keeps a menagerie of elaborately caged reptiles and rodents. Peter holds Margaux to her idiomatic promises, taking her up on an innocent offer to do “anything’’ for him if he buys her some green beans at the grocery store. He persuades Margaux to perform oral sex on him for his birthday, reminding her of a vow she has already forgotten. But despite the countless citations of flagrant abuse, Fragoso makes no attempt to stifle Peter’s charisma, and she never shies away from confessing her own efforts at preserving the relationship’s secrecy.

Margaux grows up in a state of dusky comprehension, shadowed away in Peter’s dim room and only anticipating complex emotions, never quite feeling their pangs in real time. When Peter tells her, almost a decade after their first encounter, that for years certain people have suspected them — “They know, of course they know’’ — Margaux relays her visceral reaction: “I felt a burst of shame so strong it was like sickness. I was aware that they knew but I couldn’t stand to think about it.’’ Peter’s presence in Margaux’s life is too pervasive for her to confront directly until decades later; he came too early and stayed too long for it to be anything other than normal. And this is where the hideousness lies: that outside evil and illness can so thoroughly weave its way into a consciousness.

There are some experiences that come laced with a sense of indelible influence — certain train rides that you know you’ll remember forever even as they’re happening, a babysitter’s outfit that will remain a prototype of cool for years to come. Reading “Tiger, Tiger’’ produces one of those sensations. Line-by-line, the horror imprints itself; the book’s veracity can be easy to forget at times, since it reads so much like finessed fiction. But then you remember, and the factuality really stings.

In the afterword, Fragoso writes: “Pedophiles are masters of deception because they also excel at self-deception: they fool themselves into believing what they do isn’t harmful.’’ Operating under a crippled moral code, or changing lives while unaware of your false intentions, is the greatest threat for a writer, a person who transmits emotions with words. It’s why “Tiger, Tiger’’ is such a feat: Its details are not devices; it’s a work of recollection not rhetoric.

Alice Gregory is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in New York, The Poetry Foundation, NPR.org, and The New York Observer, among other publications. She can be reached at aliceagregory@gmail.com.

TIGER, TIGER
By Margaux Fragoso
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp., $26