If You Are Considering Writing A Memoir About Your Childhood Sexual Abuse….

March 7, 2011, 6:02 pm

…Don’t.  At least, not unless you have a story to tell that pushes us beyond the horror of it all.

The Daily Mail, which reviewed Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger in the United Kingdom, says it is “shocking the literary world.” Why? Because Fragoso references her love for the man who abused her for fifteen years, and because it is so graphic about the sexual fantasies they shared that some critics call the book itself pornographic.  The NPR review, which suckered me into buying this ghastly memoir (oh had I only clicked “read more”) comes closer to why I am shocked by it:  it is such a poorly written book.  As Dan Koies writes delicately,

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.

No kidding.  I can add to that.  There not a single likable, compelling or interesting character in the book, including Fragoso.  Furthermore, the “big secretwhich she hints at throughout — that she was one of many children, boys and girls, who were sexually abused by this man – is patently obvious by the time we get the reveal in the last ten pages.  Really? You mean he lied and you weren’t the special one after all? 

Understanding that child sexual abuse is a truly terrible experience, and a vicious crime, why any press would publish a memoir that doesn’t compel a more passionate response by the reader is a mystery.  In fact, the chapters consist of four dreary (and mostly predictable) scenarios that are repeated over and over.  Those scenarios are:

  • Schizophrenic mother repeatedly turns her child over to abuser, sitting there watching TV and writing obsessively in her notebook while the abuser sneaks off to kiss and cuddle her daughter; 
  • Narcissistic, OCD, misogynistic father too self-absorbed to raise his own child repeatedly turns daughter over to abuser.  Fearing his own attraction to Fragoso, he pushes her away, making her receptive to the overtures from the abuser and sending confused messages about “fatherly” love that abuser capitalizes on; 
  • Abuser’s girlfriend creates safe space for abuser to abuse Fragoso, her own sons, and numerous foster children, despite repeated accusations by the entire neighborhood and social workers that the abuser is, in fact, an abuser;
  • Long, self-justifying speeches by abuser about what a caring person he is and how special and unique his relationship with Fragoso is.

Yuck, yuck, and yuck.  What a good memoir on this topic would look like isn’t clear to me, but none of the people who ought to read such a book — in other words, people who match the description of any of the people in Tiger, Tiger — could easily learn much from it beyond the fact that they are not alone.  It’s important, perhaps, but it’s not enough.

Really, the best advice I have ever gotten on this topic was from a friend who said to me once:  “Always watch out for Mama’s boyfriend. “  Which is kind of what you learn from Tiger, Tiger, but it takes over 300 pages to get there.

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