WE DRIVE BY A CAR ACCIDENT and crane our necks. We want to see the worst: the mutilated passenger, the driver crumpled against the wheel. If a director suddenly appeared and shouted, "Cut!" — wouldn't we all feel a little disappointed? "It wasn't real," we'd say, "so it doesn't really matter." We want the truth, the more gruesome the better. We are transfixed by the image of a house blown over, crushing the inhabitants, or the spot of sidewalk where a little girl was shot, or a family photo of a father who raped and murdered twenty co-eds. We cannot get enough.
This is the tide all novelists swim against. Why would any reader choose to get their tragedy from fiction when there are so many stories of addiction, abuse, schizophrenia, widowhood, or dismemberment that really happened! Talk shows, radio hosts, and newspaper columnists are anxious to speak with the memoirist who has truly suffered. Forget the novelist who spent years researching a topic and creating a complex story and struggling to attain just the right perspective. There is nothing titillating there. Memoir is like the car accident; we experience a dollop of Schadenfreude with our measure of blood and guts. In our culture of endless self-reflection coupled with plausible deniability — my mother was crazy and my brother was handicapped and my father was gay and that's why I'm fat — the memoir reigns as queen of the genres. The more sordid the author's revelation, the better. In an interview with Sophie Roell at The Browser, Calvin Trillin agrees:
There's been an unfortunate atrocity race in memoirs in the United States. You're meant to reveal some hideous secret in your memoir if you expect it to go anywhere. Probably at least incest or bestiality or something like that.
And it's not enough to expose the dirt; the author has to have triumphed over it to become a better person, to find true love, to open a store that imports textiles from India. Women who are still being beaten by their husbands do not write memoirs. No, these are survivor stories: I endured this and now I have a house at the seaside. It is literature as catharsis, orchestrated by Oprah: publicly purge and find love, support, and success.
Of course, memoir has always been confessional. St. Augustine wrote the very first one in 398 AD and even titled it Confessions. He wrote, "The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works." Of late it seems to be the first beginning of a lucrative career as an author. St. Augustine confessed his boyhood theft of a pear that he didn't want or need, a small act of thievery that preoccupied him his entire life. Today's memoirists mostly confess their family members' evil deeds. Their tales are not of mea culpa, but of damage done to them. The memoir has become largely victim literature.
Take pedophilia, arguably the most taboo of subjects. Amazon.com reports 242 results for "child sexual abuse memoirs." There are another 600 for general childhood abuse, many of which include some component of inappropriate sexual treatment overshadowed by other atrocities. Not one of these books is written by the abuser. It turns most readers' stomachs to even think of such an author. Witness the uproar created last year by Phillip Greaves' The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover's Code of Conduct. Self-published and available only as a download, filled with personal anecdotes about where to find children and advice on how to treat them — "Pedophiles put the child in charge of the relationship" — Amazon had the Guide up on their site for less than three weeks before capitulating on their no censorship policy and making it unavailable. People were outraged about Greaves. At the same time, many of the most graphic child abuse memoirs get glowing reviews. Obviously, writing nonfiction about pedophilia is acceptable, as long as it is written from the victim's point of view.
Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso is a case in point. Fragoso was abused almost daily for fifteen years, from the age of seven until the age of 22, when Peter, her abuser (44 years her senior), finally killed himself. Her narrative is shocking, disturbing, a story we hate to read, but can't put down. Fragoso writes well, but clunky prose would never stop a reader of this story. She describes in detail body parts, oral sex, role playing, and the shaving of her pubic hair and his testicles. She also takes us deeply into the mind of an unloved little child, so desperate for acknowledgment that she acquiesces to her male tormentor rather than lose his attentions.
"Don't leave me!" I charged out from under the table, banging my head again, more painfully this time, and clawing at his clothes. "Don't ever go away from me!"
In response, Peter comforts her by telling her he will one day marry her and repeatedly professing his love: "my little baby love, my little girl." She is eight, he is 52, and it is heartbreaking.
But it is even more prurient: will she really take his "bunless hot dog" in her mouth? Will her mother, sitting upstairs in front of the TV, finally wonder what her child is up to? The reader cannot turn the pages fast enough. Tiger, Tiger is "the incandescent memoir of a real-life Lolita," Maureen Tkacik wrote in The New York Observer. "It is a meditation on love and need and alienation and attachment," she goes on to say, "and on the human capacity for adapting to subjugation against an innate biological drive for freedom and autonomy." On the other hand, Jenny Diski, writing in The Guardian, found the book "as dreary a read as soft porn. It will titillate paedophiles and fantasists, but for most people, reading it will have the dismal, lowering effect ... of reality TV."
But hasn't memoir become the reality TV of literature? In the promotional materials Fragoso's publisher claims her book has "astonishing talk-about-ability," a phrase that itself is sure to appeal to the lowest common denominator. There is, of course, a reading group guide available. Certainly a cluster of budding pedophiles could sit together and discuss this book forever. It is filled with descriptions of Peter's seductive techniques, the games he introduced Margaux to, the animals and treats he bribed her with. We learn about the places they could go and the places where they were almost caught. It is not exactly The Child-Lover's Code of Conduct but, for the curious child-lover, there is much to be learned in Tiger, Tiger.
None of this was intended by Fragoso, surely, who clearly states her reasons for writing and publishing her story in the afterword:
In addition to being my personal healing journey, this chronicle seeks to bring to light exactly how charismatic pedophiles work to entice kids; how likeable and engaging they can be.
It is memoir as therapy; the victim tales are always "healing." It had to be difficult to go public with her story, and we can hope Fragoso does feel better. Probably there are people in similar situations who also felt some release from reading this book.
Of course, the other person who definitely needed healing was Peter. He killed himself; he must have been in agony. What if he had written his own version of this story? What would the reading group guide be for him? Would that book ever have been published and wouldn't it have produced the same outcry as The Pedophile's Guide?
The pervert's point of view, a scandal when admitted into memoir, has always been fiction's domain. It is the novelist's vocation, in fact his privilege, to go as deeply as he can into his darkest dreams. From Satan in Paradise Lost to Dracula to Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me to Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, the novelist can make the depraved, egomaniacal, unsympathetic narrator palatable, and even enjoyable. The monster's opining, the murderer's methodology, the cannibal's recipe for human pancakes can all be wonderful when the reader knows nothing is true. Or when the truth is hidden behind the make believe. "That's what fiction is for. It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth," wrote Tim O'Brien in The Things They Carried.
Enter Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, one of the greatest novels of all time, whose narrator is an avowed pedophile. Poetic, lush, chilling, and obscene, Lolita is a masterpiece of craft and story. It is written in first person and sinks the reader into Humbert Humbert's twisted, nasty mind as he justifies his every move and assures us that his pre-pubescent prey, Dolores, seduced him. On the 50th anniversary of Lolita, Stephen Metcalf wrote in Slate: "Lolita is a disgusting book. Furthermore, the day will never come when it is not a disgusting book ... Public taste was never meant to catch up to Humbert Humbert." Hand jobs and rubbing and sexual acts of many kinds abound, but veiled in a web of remarkable language. Humbert writes about his arousal as she sits in his lap:
[E]very movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty — between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock...
— until finally he achieves orgasm: "I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known."
Regardless of how we feel about what is happening here, the magnificence of the language seduces us. Each word is exquisitely chosen. We fall under Nabokov's — and therefore Humbert's — spell. Humbert is a monster that is himself both beauty and beast, so devious, so entirely devoid of morality, and so damned smart. As he expounds his view that there's nothing wrong and everything right about his affair with Lolita, he almost convinces us. When she finally leaves him, the reader feels his despair. He dies of a broken heart. That must prove he really loved her — even as she grew too old for him.
Why do we still celebrate this novel of depravity? Why do we feel comfortable with Humbert Humbert? He is never "dreary" or "dismal" and the question of what he will do next, the possibilities and ambiguities, pull us along. Fragoso is writing her story; therefore, we know she has survived to tell her tale. In fiction, anything can happen. In Lolita, Humbert's survival is not a given. Lolita herself does not live a long and happy life post-Humbert. She dies "in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day, 1952." It is not a coincidence that her death is on Christmas or that her baby was a girl. Nabokov leaves nothing to chance; the novel is constructed to lead us in a particular direction toward an intensity of empathy and catharsis (as Aristotle, not Oprah, intended the word to be used). Contrary to memoir, which is bound by what really happened, this is the novelist's job: to bring the reader to an understanding, not definitive perhaps, but emotionally complete, even when we are reading about a monster.
Obviously, the primary purpose of Lolita is not to tell us about the horror of child abuse. Its function is not to relate the specifics, but to illuminate greater themes of obsession, self-deception, sexuality, cultural numbness, and innocence. Novels are meant to transcend the factual tale and expand and reflect and move beyond, to make it universal. Therefore, the protagonists do not end up with import/export businesses on La Brea. There is rarely any redemption. Humbert Humbert writes to us from jail where he continues to profess his love for Lolita, for the child she was, and deny any culpability. In American Psycho, the psychopath Patrick Bateman says:
There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone, in fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape, but even after admitting this there is no catharsis, my punishment continues to elude me and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself; no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.
Confessions that mean nothing, stories that aren't meant to heal or bring to light but simply are: isn't that more complicated, more like life, than a victim finding meaning by opening a clothing shop down the street from the fascinating broken bones and viscera of the car wreck she claims to have left behind?