Indecent Exposure

Photo: Sara Essex

Margaux Fragoso has a remarkable lyric gift and no boundaries. Her first memoir, Tiger, Tiger, provides a detailed account, in prose that is highly aestheticized without failing to be anatomically correct, of the seduction and molestation of a 7-year-old girl by a serial child rapist in his fifties. It is at once beautiful and appalling, a true-life Lolita written in the high rhapsodic cadence of a Humbert Humbert, recollected in tranquillity by the victim herself. It is also a publisher’s dream, seemingly too fantastic to be true—one that could only be trumped if the molester had also been a Holocaust survivor. Fragoso brings dignity to the project through the pitiless precision of her writing, and her forthright pursuit of an ambition to write the ne plus ultra of the genre—the thing that is more like the thing that it is than any other thing can ever hope to be. For better and for worse, she mostly succeeds.

Fragoso’s account of the mutually abusive and intermittently sexual relationship in which she remained with her molester for fifteen years, until his suicide at the age of 66, is an unstable mixture of bildungsroman, dirty realism, and child pornography. Fragoso brings us into the airless cell of her home life: a mother on a shifting regimen of anti-psychotic and antidepressant medications; a violent drunk of a father; both of them devouring each other in the genteel poverty of Union City, New Jersey. She shows us how Peter Curran entices her into a house decorated in bright colors, teeming with iguanas, a turtle tank, a guinea pig, an alligator, and a big furry dog. Then follows a series of escalating tactics—first “an enhanced version of the itsy bitsy spider” and “Mad Gardener,” and then “Tickle Torture Time,” leading to passages in which she describes, with a stomach-turning mixture of whimsy and clinical detail, the way an adult man’s sexual anatomy looks to a girl of 7, 8, and 13.

It is a mixture that many readers will find too much to bear. Poetic accounts of sexual extremity tend to be anatomically vague; explicit accounts tend to deploy a traumatized flat affect. Fragoso is both explicit and poetic. A scene in which an 8-year-old Fragoso begs to be spared the oral-genital contact that Curran is urging upon her is perhaps the most indecent thing published in any major book of the last decade. It is executed with a remorseless candor that cannot fail to sear itself into the memory of whoever reads it. (She eventually acquiesces to the oral sex, comparing the motion to that of a “fangless rattlesnake devouring a live mouse.”) Many who have been thus seared will regret having witnessed what no person should have to see. Others will delight in her audacity for a range of savory and unsavory motives.

Fragoso remains with Curran through her teenage years, hiding their relationship in plain sight. A lifeguard sees a 9-year-old Fragoso kissing Curran in the pool; her father intervenes and keeps her away from him for the next two years, but her mother—whom Curran has platonically seduced—conspires with her to restore contact, which continues unabated for a decade. Fragoso grows up, has crushes on boys, even dates a college classmate while still seeing Curran. Starting at a young age, she is cruel to him and conscious of her power over him. He makes of her a religion; she mocks his toothless mouth. She unflinchingly portrays her complicity in her own victimization.

Fragoso explains, in the afterword, her motives for doing the book. They are both therapeutic and public-spirited: She has written to inform the world how pedophiles operate and how they think, so that they might be preempted by parents and the authorities before they can do harm. She has written to help herself to heal. She is married, with a daughter, though the details of exactly how she broke the cycle of madness and abuse are left (one suspects) for the sequel. But something in Fragoso’s flights of wild lyricism resists the therapeutic motive. A pedophile creates a “fantastic kind of reality” that can feel “like a drug high,” she writes. “And when it’s over, for people who’ve been through this, it’s like coming off heroin, and for years, they can’t stop chasing the ghost of how it felt … It’s like the Earth is scorched and the grass won’t grow back. And the ground looks black and barren, but inside it’s still burning.”

Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir
By Margaux Fragoso
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
March 1. $26.

Indecent Exposure