This is one of the most visceral and heartfelt books I have ever read. It is a brave and painful book, difficult to read but beautifully wrought. From the time she was eight years old, Maugaux Fragoso was sexually abused by a man named Peter who is 51 years old when he meets her. The abuse lasts for years and years. Peter grooms Margaux, enchanting her with his home that is filled with animals like hamsters, iguanas, a dog and rabbits. He plays with her as if he was a child. He charms her, acts like a father and pretends to give her unconditional love. However, all this time he is truly a predator, attempting to begin the sexual abuse that is initiated in earnest when Margaux is eight years old.
Margaux becomes completely dependent on Peter and believes that he is the only one in the world that loves her. At times, however, she acts out in ways that indicate she has been abused but the adults in her life do not take notice. She has fugue states, terrible anger issues, spends the nights with Peter. Margaux’s mother is seriously mentally ill and encourages her relationship with Peter. Her father is physically and emotionally abusive to Margaux and to her mother. Her father, at one point, suspects that Margaux is being sexually abused, but shows no empathy. In fact, if she were to admit her abuse, he’d put her on the street. When Margaux is in high school, a social worker is called in because people in the neighborhood are suspicious of Margaux’s relationship with Peter but she defends him. It is not that different from Stockholm Syndrome.
I understood the trauma that Margaux was experiencing and her need to believe that Peter was her love. “I was Peter’s religion” she says. She would put on alter-personalities to please Peter and also to believe she had some control over him. One of these personalities is a “bad girl” named Nina. Nina acts rough and tough and streetwise with a foul mouth. She punishes Peter. At times their relationship becomes physical and Peter tries to choke Margaux, gives her a black eye and punches her in the face. “I like being Nina”. “It seemed as though Peter’s other self Mr. Nasty was dependent on Nina and that he needed her to survive. The favors she gave him made him feel guilty and caused him to owe favors in return. This all amounted to me being in charge” Margaux needed to feel some element of control because in reality she was under Peter’s control entirely.
Peter tells her that “all men like young girls whether they admit it or not. Most guys are just dishonest about it”. “If you were to openly admit, yes, I find young girls attractive, you’d be burned at the stake.” Peter also tries to get Margaux to believe that she is his only ‘love’ but she finds out that, like other pedophiles, this is not the case. There have been others, he has been in jail, and is chock-filled with secrets that gradually come out. He brainwashes her over and over again with lies and twisted love.
Margaux begins to believe that only someone like Peter – old, without teeth, perverted – could love someone like her. She is an outcast at school and doesn’t know how to interact with young people her age. All of her life is spent trying to please Peter. “What did kids my own age talk about? If they’d seen me with Peter, who would I say he was? My father? He was so old he could have been my grandfather.”
As to the subject matter, it’s very difficult to stomach. Very. If my circumstances were different, I’m not sure that I would have been able to handle it. I had wanted to read it because I thought it might be an insightful portrait of how a child molester truly preys on his victims (which it is). Having worked in the past with many, many victims of sexual abuse, I was already very aware of the grave misconceptions that abound about child molesters. After reading the review from NPR, I wasn’t sure if this book was going to have what I was looking for but it was Kathryn Harrison’s much more favorable and less ambivalent review in the NY Times that prompted me to try it.
I was concerned about the number of reviews I saw that mentioned that the book “humanizes a pedophile,” including Alice Sebold’s, as I didn’t want to feel pity and forgiveness for a warm and cuddly child molester. I was already aware that vast numbers of abusers come from very traumatic backgrounds and I had already had many experiences seeing the humanity in monsters who had committed truly deplorable crimes. That was not what I was looking for. I consider it a great success of the book that the reader remains consistently aware and disgusted by the despicable behavior of the abuser while simultaneously understanding the perspective of the narrator who felt charmed by and loved by him, who felt sympathy, love and desperation for him. He was humanized in the sense that he was a fleshed out, embodied being that was comprehensible to the reader, and not the one-dimensional caricature of a monster that is typically portrayed. For this reason I think this book is an excellent work. It does no one much good to only perceive pedophiles as the latter description. It certainly makes it easier for us to keep them at arm’s length but it does nothing to help us “see” them. Of course, knowing that they are all around us, people whom we know and interact with everyday, makes it incredibly difficult for any of us to want to come to grips with actually “seeing” them. Yet it is so important that we do so.
I encourage anyone who is in the field of trauma or sexual abuse to read this book. If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, read this book. If you want to read a beautiful memoir written by a brave and courageous woman, read this book. It is without comparison in its forthrightness, pain and hope.