The Lost Girls

For all its blind spots and moral squickiness, true crime is a genre in which crimes against women, particularly middle-class white women, have merited sustained attention. The nuclear family is no guarantee of safety in the world of true crime—often quite the opposite, in fact. The home is a site of potential violence, and heterosexual domesticity is frequently laced with manipulation and abuse.

The Real Lolita includes so many stories of girls and women who endured violations and tough situations that midway through reading the book I started keeping a list of them: the sixteen-year-old who escaped from a bad dad by marrying a man more than twice her age; the child fondled by the seemingly benign neighbor.

The book centers on one such account, that of Sally Horner, a lonely eleven-year-old girl from suburban New Jersey who, in 1948, was abducted by a middle-aged convicted rapist who called himself Frank La Salle. For two years, La Salle and Horner traveled around the country, living in trailer parks and low-rent apartments from Baltimore to San Jose, California. In public, La Salle claimed Horner was his daughter; in private, he repeatedly assaulted her. When Horner finally managed to escape, her story briefly became national news—and, The Real Lolita contends, was eventually “strip-mined to produce the bones of Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious novel, which was published five years later.

It’s a tempting premise. One of the frustrations of Lolita is how the titular girl is only ever glimpsed through the smoke screen of Humbert Humbert’s fancy prose style and delusional self-justifications. A number of writers have tried—unsuccessfully, I would argue—to imagine the story from Lolita’s point of view; perhaps learning about a real girl who may have influenced the novel would be more fruitful.

Sarah Weinman, the editor of two anthologies of crime writing from the 1940s and ’50s, interweaves her account of Horner’s brief life—she died only a few years after she escaped La Salle—with the story of Nabokov’s struggle to write and publish the novel that cemented his reputation. For the Nabokov sections of her book, Weinman drew from numerous biographies, literary analyses, letters, and academic archives. Horner’s life, though, was thinly documented. Weinman walks readers through the addresses where Horner lived with La Salle, the buses they took, where she attended school, and the dates of her courtroom appearances, but her inner experience—what it feltlike to be trapped in those rooms—is irretrievable. Weinman occasionally allows herself to speculate about what might have been going on in Horner’s head, but these moments make the real girl feel further away than ever: “If Sally had allowed herself to let her mind roam, she might have given in to feelings of despair, or to anger over what La Salle had taken away from her. Or perhaps she was focused on how vital it was for her to survive. After days in the car and nights in the trailer parked at a rest stop, eating at diners, one after another, the emotional toll on her must have been considerable.”

The Real Lolita makes up for the Horner-shaped lacuna in its center by a deft and thorough depiction of the mid-century suburban context of both Horner’s abduction and Nabokov’s novel. It was an atmosphere of pervasive victim-blaming, even when the victim was a child. (When Sally’s mother heard that her daughter had at last been found alive, her response was telling: “Whatever Sally has done,” she told reporters, “I can forgive her.”) It was also full of adult men—including Nabokov’s favorite chess partner—who found it perfectly acceptable to seek out barely pubescent girls as romantic partners. At the time Horner escaped, there was little awareness of the psychological mechanisms of trauma, coercion, and control that could lead a girl to remain with her captor, despite many apparent opportunities for escape.

The other girl who haunts the book is fictional: Dolores Haze, the prepubescent character whom Humbert renames Lolita and describes as a “little deadly demon among the wholesome children.” Weinman sketches Nabokov’s multiple attempts to write about an adult man fixated on young girls, the five years it took to complete Lolita, the struggle to publish the novel, and the pop-culture phenomenon it became. (In the 1960 film Let’s Make Love, Marilyn Monroe says, “My name is Lolita. And I’m not supposed to play with boys!” She then launches into the Cole Porter song “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”) Lolita was immediately subject to contested readings. Véra, Nabokov’s editor/muse/amanuensis/wife, was discomfited by how many people understood the novel as a subversive love story rather than an account of predation: “I wish, though, somebody would notice the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along,” she wrote in her diary.

Weinman argues that Nabokov “would never have fully realized the character of Dolores Haze without knowing of Sally’s real-life plight.” Despite a passing, parenthetical reference to Horner in Lolita, as well as the many parallels between what was done to Horner and Haze, Nabokov and Véra both vehemently denied that the novel was based on any real-life abduction. Weinman wonders whether Nabokov embedded clues in the novel, perhaps unconsciously, that reveal his indebtedness to Horner. Although Nabokov was famously fond of wordplay, some of the connections Weinman identifies feel like a stretch—for example, that a character’s name in an early version of the Lolita screenplay (Goff) is a reference to Sally Horner’s mother’s maiden name.

But I’m not sure it matters how closely Nabokov tracked the story of Sally Horner’s abduction and return. Like Dolores Haze, Sally Horner was important not because she was a muse or an object of fascination, but because she was a person. In The Real Lolita, Weinman hasn’t brought Horner back to life—that would be impossible—but she’s gone a long way toward making it clear what’s lost when such stories aren’t told.

Rachel Monroe’s book about women, crime, and obsession will be published by Scribner in 2019.