A Clinical, Searing Memoir Of Abuse in 'Tiger, Tiger'
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.
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.
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