Review: A Stolen Life, by Jaycee Dugard

I blame Room for my newfound obsession with abduction cases, and for the work productivity lost somewhere in the abyss of the Elisabeth Fritzl and Elizabeth Smart Wikipedia pages. But while Room centered around a young woman confined entirely to an 11-by-11 soundproofed and steel-reinforced garden shed for seven years, who was kidnapped at the age of 19, thoroughly despised her captor and initiated a daring escape (the story is consistently revealed through the eyes of her five-year-old son, Jack), Jaycee Lee Dugard’s story is fundamentally different and, in turn, actually all the more frightening. She was abducted at the age of eleven, during her walk to school and within sight of her house, by Philip and Nancy Garrido, the former of whom was a convicted sex offender on parole. (The couple met in prison, where Phillip was serving time for kidnapping and raping a thirteen-year-old and Nancy was visiting her brother for God knows what. Talk about the foundations for a lasting union.)  

Jaycee was held captive for eighteen years, gave birth to two daughters, and was forced to masquerade as the girls’ sister Allissa in order to keep Nancy happy and feeling “needed.” Parole officers actually visited the Garrido house a few times and I guess believed Phillip’s flimsy story that the three young girls living with them were his brother’s kids. The Garridos’ crimes were finally uncovered almost by accident—Phillip was handing out Christian flyers at Berkeley and campus security noticed he was acting a bit “off.” They notified his parole officer, and when Phillip for whatever reason brought the girls with him to his meeting with the officer the next day, somebody pulled Jaycee aside, questioned her, and finally got her to tell them who she really was. She hadn’t said her real name aloud in eighteen years. Jaycee was later paid a $20 million settlement by the state of California for neglect, and I think we can all agree she’s entitled to it.

Jaycee’s story is captivating; needless to say, she suffered from severe Stockholm syndrome, which helps explain why she never attempted to “escape” in the traditional sense of the word. As for the memoir itself, if you’re thinking, oh, it’s not worth my time because there are so many other books in the world, you can get through it in a few hours; think more “extended magazine article” than book. I feel guilty saying the memoir is poorly written, and yes, it is, but that’s also a big part of its power. The prose isn’t fancy, but it’s exceedingly honest, and for a case like Jaycee Dugard’s, that’s far more important than literary merit. The first third of the book, be forewarned, is gut-wrenching: Jaycee describes every detail of her abduction and the sexual abuse she was forced to suffer at the hands of Phillip Garrido. The mental images aren’t pleasant, but they’re necessary to provide a complete picture of exactly what she endured and how incredible it is that she managed to come out the other side as well-adjusted as she seems to be. I do wish she’d forsaken some of the positive-thinking affirmations and diary entries for details on the Garridos’ capture and trial (during which Jaycee declined to testify), but I guess her point is that for 18 years everything was about Phillip, and now, for the first time, Jaycee’s life—including her book—can finally be focused on her. The book is not about vengeance, though one can be forgiven for wanting to see the Garridos hanged; it’s about survival, and recovery, and even the possibility of redemption. Jaycee serves as kind of a latter-day Anne Frank, still believing that people are fundamentally decent despite the copious evidence to the contrary, and you close the book believing that this used, abused woman has got a long and happy life ahead of her.

All that said, I do think the nature half of the debate has been given short shrift amidst all the focus on nurture. In Room, for example, any mention at all of the fact that Jack was the biological son of a sociopath was conspicuously absent, and Jaycee Dugard (probably wisely) neglects to remind readers that her two brave, adorable daughters are one-half Garrido. I don’t wholly buy into the “criminal gene” thing, and I am certainly not suggesting that children of monsters are destined to become monsters themselves, but they’re certainly at far greater risk, and yes, it’s a concern worth considering. This lapse is more understandable in A Stolen Life, of course, since the last thing Jaycee Dugard would want to do is to draw more attention to her children (who I think we can all agree have been punished enough), but in a novel like Room, you do want to ask: What will become of this five-year-old child? He’s developmentally delayed, yes, and that engenders its own host of problems, but he’s also genealogically bound to a man who kidnapped a young woman, raped her consistently and brutally, and kept her locked in a garden shed for seven years. That may not have been Jack’s “fault,” but there’s a better-than-average chance that it might end up becoming his legacy.
Regardless, A Stolen Life is inspiring. How could it not be? Jaycee’s spirit in the face of her trials is remarkable, as is her kindness toward and genuine empathy with the animals that became her saving graces while in captivity. And—it has to be said—if she can get up and face the world every day with fortitude, the rest of us have no excuse not to do the same.

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