Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Stolen Life

DUGARD, JAYCEE. A Stolen Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4516-2918-7. Pp. 273. $24.99.

In 1991, Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped one morning on her way to the school bus stop in Tahoe, California when she was eleven years old. She spent eighteen years living with her captives, married couple Phillip and Nancy Garrido, during which she gave birth to two daughters, the first when she was fourteen. She was discovered in 2009 during a visit with Phillip to the Berkeley police station. When her relationship to Phillip and her two daughters, who seemed too old to be hers, raised suspicions, she tried to hide her identity before finally agreeing to write her name, having been forbidden to speak it for almost two decades. When the police asked for her mother's name, she asked, incredulous, "I can see my mom?" That the authorities would reunite her with her mother had not occurred to her. Worse, she feared that her mother would reject her and her children. For an outsider, these concerns seem irrational. How could she not know the police would reunite her with her mother? How could she possibly believe her mother might not accept her and her children? Of course, Dugard's experiences lie far beyond what we would consider to be "normal", and her thoughts and assumptions can only follow suit. A Stolen Life is the result of a stunted childhood: Dugard may be over thirty now, but she is still, in more ways than one, still eleven.

I'm not sure Jaycee Dugard suffered from Stockholm syndrome. Having read her memoir and excerpts of her diary during her captivity, one does not get the sense that she was fond of her kidnappers, although she desperately wanted them to like her. The word she uses to describe her situation is "conditioned". Phillip and Nancy Garrido had conditioned her to believe that the only place in the world where she and her two daughters would be safe was in the Garrido's hidden back yard. When she was allowed to venture outside these narrow confines, always with Nancy or Phillip as chaperon, what Dugard experienced was not a sense of freedom but of fear. People, Phillip kept reminding her, were evil. What Dugard was incapable of understanding was the reality that she was, in fact, living with two people who had done one of the most evil things one human can do to another. Two adults knowingly took an eleven-year-old child from her mother and sister and used her as a sex slave. By the time Dugard had her children, whose safety was her greatest concern, staying with the Garridos seemed her only option.

A Stolen Life is not an enjoyable read. Many have found it a riveting one, of course, and it's reassuring knowing that Dugard, who has two adolescent daughters to care for, is going to make pretty good bank on this bestseller. Nevertheless, I failed to see the purpose of the book, other than as fodder for the tabloid junkies, and the prose is too poor for A Stolen Life to have any literary value. I'm not chiding Dugard; she only has a fifth-grade education. What I do find commendable is Dugard's stoicism. I was most moved when watching a interview she gave with Diane Sawyer, whose theatricality and attempts to get some kind of emotional rise out of Dugard go unrewarded. Dugard is lovely and soft-spoken and honest. Her responses to Sawyer's bait are abrupt but sincere. She rightly explains to Sawyer that no one can imagine something like this happening to them, but "you just do what you have to do to survive". End of story, Sawyer. It may not be the most exciting or insightful answer, but given that no one can know how to act in such a situation, I find it is a just one. In all, I felt I learned more about her from that one minute of conversation than throughout the whole of her book.

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