Review: Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso
Penguin, €12.20, Paperback
I met a person recently whose front teeth were removed when she was a child so that she could give better oral sex to her father and his friends. Now much older, she'd lived her life in abusive relationships, thinking hurt meant love.
Margaux Fragoso has tried to spare herself that fate by writing about her sexual and emotional abuse in a lurid memoir, which is her first book. Aged seven, and the only child of a fractious working class family, she was at the local pool with her mother when they met the charming Peter Curran. He entranced them, groomed the little girl and slowly, slowly persuaded Fragoso to become his secret love.
The 'secret' love lasted, with interruptions, until he died by suicide aged 66. It was such a toxic attachment that even now, Fragoso writes, "I still think about Peter, the man I loved most in the world, all the time." She compares being with him to a drug high.
Old enough to be her grandfather, he was 51 when he befriended Fragoso and her mentally ill mother in Union City, New Jersey. He played them like an arcade game, patiently waiting for the cherries to land in his lap.
Curran controlled her, body and soul. First he invited them to the home he shared with a woman, and her teenage son, who gave a family-friendly cover for his perversion. (That relationship was sexless.) The house was a child's paradise, with a big cuddly dog, weird-looking iguanas, an alligator and a turtle tank. Young Margaux was thrilled by his bunnies and fishies, by his sunny garden with swings where she could play princess, while Mom found in Curran a sympathetic ear to hear about her trials at home.
Little by little, tickling and affection developed into touching and fondling until eventually he brought Fragoso to his basement room for closer contact. She believed she was special, and tolerated his sexual demands in exchange for encouragement and attention, along with the promise that they'd marry when she grew up. Mom was so flattered by his friendship that she came to believe Peter was a positive influence in her daughter's life.
Her father tried to stop the contact when a lifeguard saw Curran kissing her at the pool, but neither Pop nor her later boyfriends were able to sever the leech-like attachment Curran built, as he had done with other victims. Curran insinuated himself into her family, defending her against her father when she refused to attend school and becoming the voice of reason as the family fell apart.
Fragoso paints a classic portrait of one paedophile, using a lyrical, seductive prose that stumbles clumsily between truth and titillation. He literally carved his name into her psyche and was able to do it because she was young and unprotected when he found her.
If Fragoso were a lesser stylist -- she is a poet, has a PhD in English and has been published in The Literary Review -- the story would be no more than another harrowing account of an abuse survivor. But as a talented writer, she is able to bring us into the world of child abuse with an intensity that is new. She lingers in detail on the premature sexualisation that gave her the erotic skills of a courtesan before she was 14 and left her heaving with a self-loathing and disgust that clings to the reader when this book is put down.
Fragoso's decision to write with the knowingness of a woman's voice, rather than the innocence of a child, is a much lesser achievement than Emma Donoghue creates in Room and worlds away from the fiction Lolita, which both she and her publishers cite. The scenes are written so graphically that they leave little space for insight or reflection. Accurate it may be, but the memoir fails to explore the corrupting power imbalance between them. She believes she is cruel to him, when more likely her actions were part of the twisted sado-masochistic behaviour he provoked.
Other than Fragoso's distaste for his wrinkled old skin, there's nothing overtly monstrous about Curran on the page. Inappropriately, I think, this lets Peter's perversion reach beyond the prose into the reader's world.
So Curran learns Nirvana songs because she loves Nirvana -- Fragoso read that as a sign of love rather than cunning. So he encourages her to read Vladimir Nabokov's classic with him? She writes it as a literary parallel, rather than realising it was a cunning way to make her feel even more special by exploiting her narcissistic desire to be a great writer. It also blurs the psychological difference between seducing a fictional teenager as against abusing a seven-year-old child.
Nabokov's book worked as literature because it trapped eroticism like a butterfly. Here, Peter is no Humbert and Fragoso is certainly no Nabokov. Curran's perversion fixated on young and pre-pubertal children. That's why he made her shave her public hair when she began to mature.
Tiger, Tiger's chief effect is to make Peter Curran famous for abusing and getting away with it, to a point where the publishers use his sick Lolita parallel in their marketing. Fragoso's postscript states that she wrote it to help society protect children from every paedophile's deviousness and perhaps it will. Yet in one of his suicide notes, Curran told her that she should write about their relationship. It's possible that this book -- which has caused a sensation in the US -- unconsciously answers his call.