Margaux Fragoso met Peter Curran when she was 7 and he was 51. For the next 15 years, until his suicide, they shared a relationship that was violent, sexually abusive and, above all, private. The two spent most days in Peter's bedroom, closed off from the world — or in his car, watching Union City, N.J., fly by at 50 mph. Margaux lied to her family, her friends and a state social worker about what went on between them. "Our world had been permitted only by the secrecy surrounding it," Fragoso writes in her hair-raising memoir Tiger, Tiger. "Had you taken away the lies and codes and looks and symbols and haunts, you would have taken everything."
Curran systematically eroded Fragoso's sense of self until there was nearly nothing left of her, creating, in her mind and his, a love affair out of a horrific abuse of power. "Without Peter to see me, to adore me, how could I exist?" she asks. Tiger, Tiger is an attempt to answer that question, and as such is a difficult book to read and a perilous one to discuss.
It's difficult to read, of course, because of the awful nature of the story Fragoso has to tell. The explicit scenes of child sexual abuse are just the beginning; at times, reading Fragoso's pitiless depictions of her own desolate, blasted emotional landscape can be just as difficult. She describes her revulsion, while in third grade, at Peter's attempts to French-kiss her, then explains that, to cope, she turned the feeling off like a lamp: "Whenever I lost an emotion like this, I couldn't feel much of anything for the rest of the day."
But it's perilous to discuss Tiger, Tiger, because when an author asserts her moral right to reclaim her abuse and recast it as story, it's easy to seem churlish when you wish that she were a better writer — or that she'd had a more careful editor. While Fragoso's publisher, FSG, is selling the book as a cautionary tale for parents and an act of bearing witness for victims of abuse, it's also positioning Tiger, Tiger, albeit uneasily, as a literary breakthrough. But though Fragoso can write with terrible beauty, often her memoir is hampered by awkward sentences, sloppy storytelling and the kind of unbelievably detailed description and dialogue that makes you distrust a memoir's voice.
In particular, Fragoso has a real weakness for long speeches of the sort that beggar a reader's belief. Even if, as it seems, she was working from diaries kept at the time, it seems impossible that she could remember, for example, a soliloquy of almost a thousand words delivered by her father when she was 7, right down to the moments when he sips his beer. You can make the argument that Fragoso is just recapturing the spirit of hundreds of conversations she had with her boisterous father — or with her depressed mother, or with Peter himself — but Fragoso doesn't make that argument. She puts those speeches in quotation marks, which soon begin to feel less like punctuation and more like a red flag.
Margaux Fragoso recently completed a Ph.D. in English and creative writing at Binghamton University. Her short stories and poems have appeared in The Literary Review and Barrow Street, among other literary journals.
Many readers might feel concerned about whether Tiger, Tiger eroticizes pedophilia. But scenes of Peter's actual abuse, unlike much of the rest of the book, are written clinically, often in numbed prose that effectively dramatizes the detachment Peter caused in his victim. Fragoso's description of their climactic dalliance — her first actual act of intercourse, at 16 — is in fact so bizarrely unpleasant, right down to the Nirvana blasting on the stereo, that it might qualify as comic, if it weren't so hideously damaging.
As the memoir goes on, Fragoso's writing gets substantially more confident (and less dependent on these unbelievable monologues). She seems much more at home re-creating the voice of a teenager than she does the voice of an elementary-schooler, and as the relationship between Peter and Margaux becomes more and more fraught, weird and awful, the book's strength makes itself clear. Fragoso clearly evokes the absurd curlicues of logic she put herself through to justify her relationship with Peter, even when, toward the end of his life, he was so weakened by infirmity and guilt that the relationship's power dynamic seemed completely inverted.
It wasn't, of course; even in his decrepitude, Peter exercised control over Margaux, as this raw and vivid memoir makes clear. Tiger, Tiger will fascinate some readers even as it repels others, but there's no denying its fearsome power.
Dan Kois is the author of "Facing Future," about the Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. He lives in Arlington, Virginia, and writes for the New York Times, New York magazine, Slate, the Washington Post, and other publications.
Tiger, Tiger By Margaux Fragoso Hardcover, 336 pages Farrar, Straus and Giroux List Price: $26
I started writing this book the summer after the death of Peter Curran, whom I met when I was seven and had a relationship with for fifteen years, right up until he committed suicide at the age of sixty-six.
Hoping to make sense of what happened, I began drafting my life story. And even during times I haven't worked on it, when it sat on a shelf in my closet, I felt its presence in the despair that comes precisely at two in the afternoon, which was the time Peter would pick me up and take me for rides; in the despair again at five p.m., when I would read to him, head on his chest; at seven p.m., when he would hold me; in the despair again at nine p.m., when we would go for our night ride, starting at Boulevard East in Weehawken, to River Road, down to the Royal Cliffs Diner, where I would buy a cup of coffee with precisely seven sugars and a lot of cream, and a bread pudding with whipped cream and raisins, or rice pudding if he wanted a change. When I came back, he'd turn the car (Granada or Cimarron or Escort or black Mazda) back to River Road, back to Boulevard East, and we'd head past the expensive Queen Anne, Victorian, and Gothic Revival houses, gazing beyond the Hudson River to the skyscrapers' lights ignited like a thousand mirrors, where we would sometimes park and watch thunderstorms.
In one of his suicide notes to me, Peter suggested that I write a memoir about our lives together, which was ironic. Our world had been permitted only by the secrecy surrounding it; had you taken away our lies and codes and looks and symbols and haunts, you would have taken everything; and had you done that when I was twenty or fifteen or twelve, I might have killed myself and then you wouldn't get to look into this tiny island that existed only through its lies and codes and looks and symbols and haunts. All these secret things together built a supreme master key, and if you ask a locksmith whether there is a master key in existence that will open any lock in the world, he will tell you no, but you can make a key that will open all the locks in one particular building. You can configure the locks beforehand to match the grooves of the key in question, but it is impossible to design a key that will open any preexisting lock. Peter knew this because he once created a master key for a whole hospital; he was a self-taught locksmith, learning the trade in libraries at night and on the job after bluffing his way in.
Picture a girl of seven or so, who loves red gumballs that come from gumball machines but leaves behind the blues and greens; a child whose sneakers are the kind with Velcro, not laces; a child whose legs grip metal ponies activated by a quarter at Pathmark Super Center; a child who is afraid of the jokers in a card deck and insists that they be taken out before a game; a child who fears her father and dislikes puzzles (boring!); a child who likes dogs and rabbits and iguanas and Italian ices; a child who likes riding on the back of a motorcycle because what other seven-year-old gets to ride on a motorcycle; a child who hates to go home (ever) because Peter's house is like a zoo, and most of all because Peter is fun, Peter is just like her, only bigger and can do things she can't.
Perhaps he knew that human cells regenerate every seven years, that after each of these cycles, a different person rises up from the old nest of atoms. Let's say over the next seven years, this man, Peter, reprogrammed this child's fizzing cells. That he cleverly memorized her pathways to joy and followed her easy trails of desire, her cravings for Creamsicles, going shirtless like a boy, loving the lap of a dog's sweet pink tongue on her face and the sight of a rabbit crunching something crisp and green. Later, he assiduously learned Madonna's lyrics and, still later, the names of twenty Nirvana songs.
Four months after Peter died I interviewed a corrections officer while working as a feature writer for my college newspaper. At her apartment, a studio in the Journal Square area of downtown Jersey City, we drank chamomile tea and chatted. I mentioned that I was writing a book. She wanted to know what kind, and I said it was about a pedophile and that it was only a first draft — very rough so far. I asked her if she knew any pedophiles in her line of work.
"Pedophiles. Sure. They're the nicest inmates."
"Sure. Nice, polite, don't cause any trouble. Always call you miss, always say no ma'am, yes ma'am."
Something in her calmness compelled me to talk. "I was reading that pedophiles rationalize what they do by thinking of it as consensual even if they use coercion." That particular fact, something I'd seen in my abnormal-psychology textbook, shocked me by how perfectly it fit Peter's thinking. My next insight, though, wasn't gleaned from a book, but I pretended it was: "I also read that spending time with a pedophile can be like a drug high. There was this girl who said it's as if the pedophile lives in a fantastic kind of reality, and that fantasticness infects everything. Kind of like they're children themselves, only full of the knowledge that children don't have. Their imaginations are stronger than kids' and they can build realities that small kids would never be able to dream up. They can make the child's world ... ecstatic somehow. And when it's over, for people who've been through this, it's like coming off of heroin and, for years, they can't stop chasing the ghost of how it felt. One girl said that it's like the earth is scorched and the grass won't grow back. And the ground looks black and barren but inside it's still burning."
"How sad," said Olivia, and she looked like she meant it.
After an awkward pause, the conversation shifted to other types of inmates and the general experience of working in a prison. During our talk, I began to feel nauseated, as though my surroundings, the warm kitchen that had felt so inviting at first, had become menacing. My perceptions were always devastatingly acute, a side effect of years of very little social contact with the world outside of the one I'd shared with Peter.
In Olivia's kitchen that day, I felt as though something in me was at a high pitch, as if the world were turned up, and roaring at me.
Excerpted from Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso, to be published in March 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2011 by Margaux Fragoso. All rights reserved.