'Tiger, Tiger' by Margaux Fragoso: The Incandescent Memoir of a Real-Life Lolita

As a child, Margaux Fragoso habitually punched random women riding on the bus and was secretly unnerved when her parents’ married friends kissed each other; she thought kissing was for fathers and daughters, and middle-aged women were for punching. But she could never forgive her father for telling the hairdresser (in Spanish, which he refused to teach her or her mother) to cut her hair short like a boy’s, and as she grew older, father and daughter’s intimate moments came only when he hauled her into the kitchen for acne-removal sessions, during which he carefully used sterilized needles to disable her breakouts. The rest of the time, he was either working or drinking or drunkenly abusing Margaux and her mentally flailing mother, an obsessive-compulsive insomniac prone to nervous breakdowns who occupied her hours dialing hot lines and cataloging her neuroses in notebooks. By the time Margaux’ mother got around to querying the hot lines whether it was “healthy” for her daughter to spend so much time with Peter, a surrogate “uncle” figure 44 years her senior whose house mother and daughter visited every weekday afternoon, Margaux had been schooled in chess, basic animal husbandry, blow jobs and advanced deception.

In a courtship initially sealed over prolonged sessions of a “tickle torture” game called “Mad Scientist,” Margaux had been seduced into a deranged liaison so all-consuming that, Ms. Fragoso writes, it was as if her pedophile had “reprogrammed” her very cells, hijacking her neural “pathways to joy” and effectively enslaving her reward mechanisms to serve his own agenda.

Ultimately it would last 15 years, and then end only by virtue of Peter jumping off a cliff, suggesting in a suicide note that she write a memoir about their lives together. “Which was ironic,” she writes in Tiger, Tiger (Farrar Straus Giroux, 336 pages, $26), her memoir of their lives together. “Our world had been permitted only by the secrecy surrounding it; had you taken our lies and codes and looks and symbols and haunts you would have taken everything.” What significance could such a memoir have to anyone in the world from which distancing themselves had been the predominant preoccupation of their deluded struggle?

This may seem a gratuitous question now that Ms. Fragoso has a sizable FSG marketing budget to peddle her book, replete with a list of Oprah-ready book club discussion questions, but it is not–to Ms. Fragoso anyway. Tiger, Tiger is the story of Margaux’ (d)evolving relationship not merely with a pedophile but with reality. It is a meditation on love and need and alienation and attachment, and on the human capacity for adapting to subjugation against an innate biological drive for freedom and autonomy. There are scattered pop cultural references, too, that anchor the thing in the epoch of adolescent angst that brought the world Kids and Nirvana. Before she found herself searching for signs of genuine affection between the stars of gay porn magazines, Margaux found something unspeakably sinister about Garbage Pail Kids cards; she no doubt had more hands-on experience with the subject than any other 15-year-old who ever heard “Rape Me” and worshiped Kurt Cobain for saving her life.

Ms. Fragoso is a poet, and her prologue employs poetic economy and lyricism to introduce us first to the metaphorical structure by which she has come to make sense of the relationship she is chronicling, in which Peter is a locksmith who systematically replaced the locks to every chamber of her psyche at the tender age of 7, “cleverly memorizing” her neural circuitry and manipulating it to serve his own perverse desires, so that spending time with him was like a heroin fix. But after emphasizing the pedophile’s mystical power over victims, she tabulates the humble inventory her own left behind: barely legible suicide notes, 12 spiral notebooks of love letters written to her at various stages of her youth, 20 photo albums and a box full of loose pictures, seven videotapes of her playing as a child, several handwritten statements signing over the title to his car and a detailed handwritten map providing directions to its location–an attempt to save her the towing charges. “Peter, you couldn’t walk more than a few blocks toward the end of your life,” she writes, switching to the second person for a final paragraph that is about to get much sadder, for knowing all the miserable little details that render this depraved love story somewhat impervious to adequate summary.

Only in the afterword do we learn the clinical diagnosis for what we have just endured alongside Ms. Fragoso: complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which she assures us is perfectly described by the Sartre novel Nausea. For Ms. Fragoso, there is no distinction between extreme existential alienation and PTSD, nor between literature and therapy. The cosmic profundity of what she has experienced–the book is invariably called “harrowing” in reviews and blurbs, and this characterization certainly applies to the underlying reality, if not exactly her representation of it–is inextricable from her gift as a narrator and contemplator of her own experience.

'Tiger, Tiger' by Margaux Fragoso: The Incandescent Memoir of a Real-Life Lolita