Into the Darkness

Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir BY Margaux Fragoso. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 336 pages. $26.

The cover of Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir

A natural response to depravity or evil is to eject it from the human circle, to make of the perpetrator something inhuman. This response is understandable—we do it to protect ourselves from too painful an exposure to the unthinkable—but it doesn’t lead to any greater understanding of the issue or person at hand. Demonizing Hitler, for instance, doesn’t take away from the fact that he had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth like the rest of us. When it comes to malfeasance involving children, we are even more bent on distancing ourselves—from the mother who murders her offspring or the teacher who gropes his students. Children are supposed to be untouchable, outside the trajectory of adult impulses like unbounded aggression and sexual longing. The fact that they are not has been brought to light with ever greater frequency in recent times—although to no greater complexity of consideration.

Tiger, Tiger might just be a much-needed conversation changer on the subject of pedophilia; at the very least, it is sure to create a more nuanced discussion. It is a memoir told by a pedophile’s victim, a nightmarish journey that yet has in it glimmers of joy and intimations of something that looks like love. The author, Margaux Fragoso, was drawn as a very young girl into a fifteen-year-long sexual relationship with a charismatic older man by way of a slow, sly seduction; it began with an “enhanced version” of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and moved from there to games of hide-and-seek with a naked Margaux, on to more full-bodied violations that dispensed with childhood scenarios altogether. In a poignant afterword, Fragoso explains that her intention in writing her story is both to break the “old, deeply rooted patterns” of generational abuse in her family and to help prevent further victimization. What she has also done, wittingly or not, is to humanize the pedophile, making of him a ravaged, many-angled person rather than a one-dimensional monster. In this sense, at least, her book goes further than either therapy or public service: It becomes the stuff of art, raising a welter of conflicting responses in the reader—outrage, pity, incredulity, and empathy for victim and victimizer both—that reverberate long after the final sentence has been read.

Margaux is seven and Peter Curran is fifty-one when they meet one summer day in 1985 at the neighborhood swimming pool in bleakest Union City, New Jersey. It is an unpromising venue for an enchantment to take hold: The pool “was heavily chlorinated, had dead bugs rafting on its surface, and was only about four feet deep. Older kids called it the Piss Pool.” But Margaux spots Peter at the other end, and like the doomed lovers in West Side Story, the magic connection is as instantaneous as it is implausible: “He smiled at me, his face full of lines—on his forehead, by his eyes, and around his jaw. I knew he must be old, to have lines and graying hair and loose skin on his neck, but he had so much energy and brightness that he didn’t seem old. He didn’t even seem adult in the sense of that natural separateness adults have from children.”

Soon enough, Margaux and her loving but mentally ill mother, Cassandra (alternately diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar illness, and borderline personality disorder), are spending time with Peter and his ménage of animals—which includes a small alligator-like creature called a caiman, iguanas, and Paws, “the friendliest dog in the world”—in the ramshackle house he shares with a woman named Inès and her two sons in Weehawken. Peter practically telegraphs his secret predilection within minutes of greeting them, musing that “I think it’s important to stay close to our childhoods. Childhood is the most important time, really” and then reciting a condensed version of John Greenleaf Whittier’s classic poem about the vanished glory of childhood, “The Barefoot Boy.”

Both mother and daughter are happy to escape their tiny one-bedroom apartment and the ragingly unhappy, hard-drinking “Poppa” who dominates the household for the gentler climes of Peter’s abode. Here, as summer turns to winter, they move indoors, where Peter keeps Margaux busy with movies, board games, and chess lessons, all the while advancing his cause: “We also had a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle we worked on. He’d give me a swift kiss on the lips each time one of us found a piece, after making sure no one was looking.” Cassandra, meanwhile, scribbles in her “Fact Book” and writes letters, while doped up on Thorazine and Seroquel, ostensibly keeping an eye on things. The house’s concrete-walled basement, where “it was easy to forget the outside world,” becomes the venue for more advanced sexual exploration, with Peter kissing Margaux on her mouth and then incrementally expanding his range of activity in ways that are all the more chilling for playing to his young victim’s hothouse imagination:

As I sat playing with the kittens, Peter would begin to stroke my back, face, buttocks, neck, and between my legs. He always found ways to make me accept more touching when I was past my threshold. For instance, when I sank to the cement floor to show him I’d had enough, he’d caressingly remove my pelt, as big-game hunters do to tigers. Convinced I really was dead, I no longer felt the overwhelming sensations.”

When Margaux turns eight, which Peter deems “the most beautiful age for a girl,” he begins engaging her in conversations about sexual repression in his effort to persuade her to take part in “more mature things . . . things that will give us both great pleasure.” To this end, he strips off his pants, revealing what to Margaux looks like nothing more than “a bunless hot dog with two partly deflated balloons attached.” When she balks at providing him with oral sex, instinctively reacting against what sounds to her like a distasteful suggestion—“I’m going to be licking pee. That’s really gross”—Peter erupts in a choked, reproachful, guilt-inducing fury: “You think my body is disgusting. You don’t like me because I’m an old man. You think I’m ugly.” Margaux gets over her antipathy in time for his fifty-second birthday, after Peter declares his consuming need for her while in the basement, having left her mother upstairs watching E.T. with Karen, a new foster child he has taken in: “I love you unconditionally. You have great power, unbelievable power over me and I trust you. I trust you with my life.”

Outside the sealed-off world of Peter and Margaux’s enacted fantasies, the real world begins to impinge. Poppa, suspicious of the arrangement with Peter from the start, finally meets him over dinner at Benihana and determines there is something radically amiss: “I do not trust that man,” he tells his wife. “I do not.” He forbids Margaux and her mother from seeing Peter anymore, but this two-year hiatus, during which Margaux develops acne as well as several friendships with girls her own age, does nothing to dim Peter’s glow. When the two take up again, they do so with a greater intensity than ever, despite the fact that they’ve begun to get strange looks when they walk hand in hand. “People stared and turned away. I noticed whispering.” They return to “doing sex stuff” in the basement, but the balance of power has started to shift, with Margaux demanding payment for her services and the two of them getting into physical fights.

As Margaux enters adolescence, she takes up some of the normal passions of her age set, such as a love for all things Madonna and crushes on boys. After her mother has a nervous breakdown, Margaux sees Peter without the semblance of a chaperone and invents an alter ego named Nina, a “masterwork of womanness” whose only wish is to make Peter happy. “To be happy, he needed a lot of intimacy. Intimacy meant hand jobs (which he called massages) or blow jobs.” Peter confides in Margaux about his difficult past, his marriage, and the fact that he has molested his daughters. They read Lolita together and watch movies like Baby Doll and Pretty Baby; Margaux realizes that she is “fast reaching the end of my nymphdom. And still their perverted relationship endures, past Margaux’s suicide attempt and her obsession with Kurt Cobain, past Peter’s admission that he has done time in connection with two of his foster children, past the intervention of a social worker, past the final frontier of sexual intercourse (which Margaux pushes for over Peter’s resistance). It ends, finally and irrevocably but not entirely surprisingly—this is a man in whom Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata invokes a feeling of “sublime hopelessness”—with Peter’s jumping off a cliff when Margaux is twenty-two. He bequeaths her his car and ten suicide notes, as well as his twelve spiral notebooks of love letters, twenty albums crammed full of photos, seven videos with titles such as “Margaux on Roller Skates” and “Margaux Sitting on the Back of the Motorcycle, Waving,” and “two locks of hair, braided together, brown and gray, laminated so they would always last.”

And, of course, there is this terrible story of violation, which Fragoso has rendered into a lyric but also extremely graphic testament to the derangements of desire and the outer limits of love. Tiger, Tiger is a fever dream of a book, one that manipulates its material—leaving out vital pieces of information while lavishing details elsewhere—so as to exert a trancelike effect on the reader. One reads it with held breath, waiting for the spell to break, for the secret to get out, for the bad guy to be led away, and for order to be restored. It is, perhaps, to the credit of the writer and her adherence to an unspeakable reality that no such soothing transformation takes place. Or it is a sign that she hasn’t yet figured out how to frame her own eventual survival as a writer and as a mother herself (which detail we learn about in the afterword) within the larger context of her victimization. In any case, I’m not sure it makes sense to read this memoir in a conventional way; I’m not even sure how much of it has been fictionalized to conceal the traces—and to make a better story. Did the real Peter Curran exist as described? Did all these vividly recounted conversations take place? These questions inevitably bring us back to the truth of memoir versus the “refuge of art,” as Nabokov called it, a debate that will rage as long as writers write. Meanwhile, we have this powerful, disturbing, and oddly beautiful account to set us thinking.

Daphne Merkin is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of Dreaming of Hitler (Crown, 1997).