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Review: Memoir: A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard


Free at last: Jaycee pictured last year

Free at last: Jaycee pictured last year

Free at last: Jaycee pictured last year

This is an extraordinary book, but not for the reasons that immediately come to mind. We already know that Jaycee Dugard's story is horrific. There is a natural curiosity, having seen the images of the back-garden sheds and tents where she was held for 18 years, in wanting to read her account of the ordeal she endured.

She spares neither herself nor the reader, hiding none of the squalid details of the abuse she suffered (including being spreadeagled and tied to a wall to maintain a desired sexual position and then forgotten and left there for hours).

In that sense, this book is far from an ordinary read. But it's not the abuse or the squalor or isolation or the twisted minds of the couple who held her for so long that make this book extraordinary. It is, very simply, the voice of Jaycee herself: a voice that is calm, wise, mature, balanced rather than bitter, and full of the joy of being alive and being free.

She says herself several times that "you can survive tough situations" no matter how difficult they are. Her book is a testament to the power of the human spirit to endure and for that reason it becomes an uplifting read.

It is also a convincing answer to the question that puzzled some people when they learned that in the later part of her incarceration she was working in the home print business with her captors, answering the phone, even going on shopping trips with them: why did she not escape when she had the chance?

The answer lies in the dependency built up inside her over the years since she was taken at the age of 11 while walking to school. Like any young child, she desperately needed a family. And even though she feared and hated them, Phillip Garrido and his wife Nancy slowly became that family. The mind-bending effect of what they did to her, the warped view of the outside world they instilled in her, and her concern for the two children who had resulted from Garrido's abuse, all disabled her.

Even at the end, when some of his parole officers had finally realised that there was something amiss in the situation, Allissa (as Jaycee then called herself) continued to lie desperately to divert them. "I still could not crash through the wall he had built inside of me," she says. Eventually, when a female officer convinced her to let go, she had to write her real name down because she was too blocked to say it.

Garrido was already a drug addict with a 10-year prison record for rape and kidnap when he and Nancy took Jaycee, bundling her into their car after using an electric stun gun on her.

As soon as they got her to their home 100 miles away in the town of Antioch, a suburb of San Francisco, Jaycee was stripped and forced to shower with Garrido. Locked in a shed and handcuffed, she was left alone for hours on end over the following weeks, punctuated only by intense abuse which started immediately and, in spite of her age, included full sex.

He kept the stun gun near him to scare her into compliance. Her description of the physical pain, terror and desolation she felt is heartbreaking.

The conditions she was kept in during the early months were primitive, with a bucket for a toilet, few clothes and fast-food meals -- when they remembered to feed her. She was moved between a couple of garden buildings in the enclosed back lot behind Garrido's house.

The worst part was when Garrido went on what he called "runs"-- drug-fuelled sex binges with her lasting a couple of days at a time. These were often followed by crying fits in which he tried to explain himself to her, babbling about hearing voices, the Bible and his "problem" (manic depression, which had been diagnosed when he was in custody). He chattered away at her, justifying what he was doing and telling her that her "help" meant that he didn't have to go out to rape other girls.

Eventually, as her resistance faded, Garrido dispensed with the cuffs, although she was always locked in. Loneliness and boredom made her desperate and she began to become part of the "family". She had also learned that the way to avoid even more pain was to give in and not to cry.

The mouse-like Nancy advised her that crying and resisting would make Phillip depressed. Phillip told her to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts -- he encouraged her, like him, to make lists of affirmations about becoming a better person.

Surrounded by this lunacy it's amazing that she managed to stay sane. But the effect on her at 11 and 12 and into her early teens distorted her view of normal relationships and of the outside world, which she was told was a highly dangerous place.

By her late teens, after her children had been born, she was showing all the signs of Stockholm Syndrome, seeing things from Phillip's point of view and thinking he wasn't so bad when he was off the drugs.

Through all of this, however, she never completely lost hope. Sometimes she thought of her mother and wondered how she was. She wrote down her dreams about the future in her journal, pages of which are reproduced in the book.

She knew that what had happened to her was wrong. But she had grown up in this situation and it had become her reality. Most chapters in the book are followed by a page or two of Reflections in which the Jaycee of today comments on what was happening in her head during the different phases of her captivity.

Her portrait of the manipulative Garrido -- self-pitying, self-deluding and extremely selfish behind the generous facade he liked to present -- captures him perfectly. Her writing in general is measured, almost to the point of being dispassionate. She does not dodge describing exactly what happened to her, but the restraint makes it even more effective.

This begs the question of how she managed to write a book which, despite the occasional childlike phrase, is impressively analytical. She is clearly very bright and also, after the first couple of years, she had access to TV and books. That, with some input from the Garridos, was her school. In turn, she used home schooling websites to teach her own daughters.

It was Garrido's increasingly unhinged behaviour that was his undoing in the end. He had made a black box through which he claimed he could speak using telepathy. He insisted on bringing Jaycee's daughters with him when he went to a local college to demonstrate it and suspicions were aroused.

The police and the parole officers who had called to Garrido's house regularly over the years and failed to find anything unusual became involved and eventually the truth was uncovered.

That was over two years ago and since then Jaycee (now 31) has handled her freedom with maturity and dignity, controlling media access to herself and preventing any contact with her daughters.

She sued the state of California for failing to protect her and was awarded $20m, so she can afford a privileged life, although all she really wants is an ordinary life.

She describes the healing process she has been through very well and there are moments of great poignancy, like when she watched one of her daughters on her first day at high school last year and wonders what it would have been like if she had been able to do the same.

Also ironic and a little sad is her comparison between how she is now and how conflicted she was during her years of captivity.

When the Garridos started bringing her out, she wanted to be recognised, yet was terrified of it happening. She was taught to be invisible, to dye her hair, to wear hats and glasses. "Now it's mostly the same," she says. She still has to hide, given the media fascination with her since her release.

Indo Review