Book Review: A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard
I’m sure most of you will remember a vague outline of the story of Jaycee Dugard. She was kidnapped one morning aged eleven on her way to school, and nothing was ever heard of her… until 18 years later, when she reappeared, the mother of two daughters. She had been held captive by a man and his wife, raped and abused.
I remember seeing a documentary about her disappearance, where they showed the road she was taken from. For a while, the police thought perhaps her step father – who claimed to have seen her being forced into a car, and to have chased on a bicycle until he lost them – had abducted her. Then they thought her real father had abducted her – but both passed a series of lie detector tests and were ruled out. Then they didn’t really know what to think, and stopped looking after a while. Her mother never gave up, though – as you wouldn’t, if your child was abducted, I am sure.
I also remember the news stories when she was found in 2009. Not much was said about what had gone on, just that she’d re-emerged with two children, that her mother was over the moon, that a convicted sex offender and his wife had been arrested.
The bare facts of the story are enough to make you a little queasy, but I have always been attracted to stories like this. I read Colleen Stan‘s book several years ago and became completely engrossed in it. When I saw this book at the library I instantly recognised the face and name on the cover, and really wanted to read it.
Jaycee Dugard (obviously) was not educated past the age of 11. She says in her introduction that the book may be a little confusing in places and hard to follow but actually I found it engaging and hard to put down. A lot of books by people in Dugard’s situation are ghost written by professionals, or there is at least some guidance. Colleen Stan’s book was written by her with the prosecution lawyer who eventually convicted her kidnapper. For me, though, either there was no ghost writer for this book, or they were so good they managed to go undetected. You can tell Dugard has been writing this herself. It’s not perfectly laid out, it mentions things she has yet to explain, and there are frequent “reflections” where she tells you things from her present day perspective. At one point she says she’s been trying to write this chapter but was distracted by a smudge on her screen that she suddenly felt the need to clean despite its having been there for a while – a clear sign that she was procrastinating because it was difficult to write. I should imagine the whole book was difficult to write.
The story jumps from writing in the present tense to past tense, sometimes from one sentence to the next. It is not written in perfect English, and there are few long words. Still, it is utterly captivating and engaging – and not just because of the subject matter. Despite not writing in the tradition, accepted way, Dugard still manages to engage and captivate entirely. The way she describes her situation is horrifying, and I cried more than once. The moment of her release saw me in floods of tears, trying desperately not to wake S as she slept next to me.
The abuse is described from her 11-year-old point of view – she has not really learned what sex is, doesn’t know why this man wants to do this, to put these clothes on her, to make her do this or sit in this way. It is utterly heartbreaking – especially when you realise she lived like this for 18 years. Her first experience of sex was with a paedophile who fathered two children by her, then had the children call his wife “mom” (Dugard was known as their sister, and not allowed to say or write her own name throughout the ordeal). He was clearly bonkers, believing angels were making people do things, and telling Dugard he had taken her to help him with his “sex problem” so that he didn’t have to hurt anyone else. She talks of knowing better than to disagree with a lot of what he said, of his sulking and moods, the way he would just “explain” away any questions she asked, baffling her with his crazy logic until she just gave in.
When Dugard was released, there was a lot of speculation; lots of questions were asked. She had internet access where she was kept; after the children were born she was regularly allowed out on shopping trips with her captor’s wife; why didn’t she say anything? Why didn’t she shout for help? This book explains why, and in a way that (hopefully) people who have not been in this sort of situation can understand.
From a technical point of view, you could say this book is “badly written” – it doesn’t follow grammatical rules, jumps between tenses and jumbles up explanations of things (half way through she book she talks about her captor freaking people out with “his Can You Hear Me” and you wonder what she’s on about – but it’s explained a few chapters later). It was a best seller because everyone wanted to know what had happened to her during her 18 year captivity. To me though, I still think it’s a good book. I still think Dugard is a good writer, and would like to see more from her in the future – not necessarily about her reintegration to society; just books. I like the way she words things, and her enthusiasm.
The subject matter of this book is nothing short of terrifying. There are so many occasions where she makes it abundantly clear just how trapped she is – handcuffed and laid on her side so that even sitting up or standing is a struggle, no toilet, no food, no drink. Not only is she unable to raise the alarm, she doesn’t even have control over her basic human needs. The ability to articulate this is not something to be sniffed at.
What I like most about Dugard is that she is not a public face. She did a photo shoot for People Magazine when she was first released, to satisfy the media. She has written this book. But she does not court public attention, and has vowed to remain in hiding until her daughters can fully understand what has happened, and who she is. Throughout the book, her children are known by first initials only. There are no photos of them. This discretion is commendable when she was faced with what must have been very tempting offers for someone who left captivity at the age of 29 with nothing but a vivarium of hermit crabs and the clothes on her back. It’s not like she could just go and get a job at her local supermarket, after all – imagine sitting on a checkout with that name badge!