A Fascinating, Heartbreaking Memoir: Jaycee Dugard’s A Stolen Life
It’s been hard for me to organize my thoughts on A Stolen Life, the memoir by Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at age eleven by the sexual predator Phillip Garrido and his wife Nancy, remaining with them for eighteen years, and having two children by him. But you probably know the facts.
Not only has it been hard for me to organize my thoughts, it’s been hard for me to know why I’m having such trouble. It may be because Jaycee’s experience is so mind-blowing, and the book so unmitigated by time and sophistication, that, well, my mind is blown. It certainly feels that way. I’m taking the liberty of referring to Jaycee by her first name. She is still young, early thirties and she seems young in the writing. In reading the memoir, I felt I knew her personally. There is no pretense, no “art,” and very little if any distance in the telling. What there is is intelligence, honesty, searching, freshness, and goodness. The story she tells is incomprehensible and yet she lays it out straightforwardly, candidly, bravely, without self-pity and with calm sanity. I found it an amazing and fascinating book, and I’m glad I read it, though I wondered if I could or should when she describes being raped a week after she’s abducted.
If there was ever an appropriate title for a memoir, A Stolen Life is it. It’s hard to grasp just how much Garrido stole from her. Everything, one might say. And yet it is inspiring to read how she struggled not only for basic survival, but to hold on to hope, love, and growth in the direst of circumstances. And having read the book, I’m convinced she succeeded.
One of the things I found fascinating was the study of human nature her story provides. Here were these three individuals bound together: Jaycee, Phillip, and Nancy. Through them you get a glimpse of a mind-boggling range of human behavior.
Phillip is a real piece of work. He would go on what he called “runs,” staying up for long periods on “crank” and making Jaycee submit for days on end to his sexual desires. He said he struggled with his “sexual problem,” of being a pedophile, and told Jaycee that he had captured her to help him so he wouldn’t harm other girls. Some consolation. He seemed to have no conscience where she was concerned, but “after he was done fucking me, [he would] beg my forgiveness. He said it would make him feel better. For a reason I can’t name, I knew in those moments that it was important to my survival that I never truly show how much I was hurting inside.” He might have felt guilt himself, but his ability to empathize with Jaycee’s pain was breathtakingly absent.
Phillip gaveth and Phillip tooketh away, according to his whims. There are so many poignant anecdotes in the memoir, but a good number of them are about pets, cats in particular, which Jaycee adored and needed desperately for love. Early on she is given a kitten whom she names “Eclipse,” and she includes her journal entries written in her childish handwriting about Eclipse. “Eclipse and I are becoming very close. I don’t think anything can break that closeness. She knows when I’m happy or sad. It’s almost like she has a happy meter inside of her that lets her know what I’m feeling and she always makes me feel better.” After one of Phillip’s “runs,” when Jaycee is returned to her room in the backyard, Eclipse is gone. Phillip has gotten rid of her. Today animals remain a healing source of love and comfort for Jaycee.
He was certainly mentally ill (he’s now spending his life in prison), with delusions and several diagnoses, which were never adequately treated. Over the eighteen years Jaycee was with them, he saw a parole officer periodically for an earlier rape, opened a printing business, which Jaycee, so relieved to have something to do, mainly ran, believed that the angels were controlling his actions and thoughts (It’s all their fault), and moved his ailing mother with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s into the main house, where Nancy and Jaycee had to take care of her. He taught Jaycee how to use affirmations to change her thinking:“I am a creative, positive, successful, and happy person. I can achieve anything I set my mind on. I am a strong and capable person….” There’s something stupefying about the banality and depravity of their existence. The three of them, for example, lay on a mattress with no box spring in the middle of the room watching The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and eating a ham dinner that Phillip’s mother made on Easter. They gave Jaycee an Easter basket with candy and two little Easter bunnies, and then they told her they think she’s pregnant, which she was. She was fourteen years old.
Nancy is not exactly why the flesh grew tall, either. She had a weird, ambivalent (she was jealous of Jaycee because Phillip used pre-teen Jaycee for sex and had children with her; well, we all have our problems…), and ultimately empty relationship with Jaycee. After Jaycee and her daughters had been liberated, Nancy told Jaycee she was afraid to see her again, because she was afraid Jaycee would hate her. This from a woman who helped Phillip kidnap Jaycee and who had many opportunities to free her and didn’t. Nancy seemed incapable of grasping what she and Phillip were responsible for, and continued to say she loved Phillip. Jaycee set her straight at that meeting, telling her goodbye forever. But how painful it must have been to have another woman in her life for all those years, a potential nurturer and protector, and have her be completely deficit in human compassion. It is chilling to know that there are people in the world, Phillips and Nancys, who are holding down jobs (Nancy worked as an aide in nursing homes), living next door to somebody, passing somewhat in society, whose lives, actions and moral compasses are so far out in left field that it would be hard to create them as believable in fiction.
As deviant as Phillip and Nancy are, Jaycee comes across as so normal, understandable, admirable and good that she provides a great counterbalance to the evil of her captors. It’s as if no matter what they do to destroy her basic humanity, they can’t. She holds on to her sense of her mother’s love and the memories of her old life, she sucks up all the stimulation and education she can from TV in her isolation (it’s sometimes startling to see her versed in the outside world, such as reading Nora Roberts novels, and wondering if she’ll ever find love and romance. She wants to be a writer herself) and she wants to do good for people. She endures, especially in the early years, the most stultifying, mind-crushing boredom, extreme stress, cruelty, and deepest loneliness that a mind can imagine. She’s totally clear and vivid on her pain, suffering, struggles, depression, sadness and anger, and yet she emerges more or less intact. There are interjections of “Reflections” in the memoir from the present where she comments on the writing of the book, which give the reader a sense of just how hard it was to revisit her experience. For example, after Phillip has gotten rid of her first kitten, Tigger, she writes: “It hurts to write about this part. This has turned out to be a very hard book to write. Part of me does not want to continue. To reenter the state of mind I was at that age is difficult and twists my insides…[but] I want to go on and I will finish it.” It seems clear that writing the memoir was an urgent act of taking control of her experience, of not being shamed by it, of exposing Phillip and Nancy, and making her own on-going recovery more solid and real to her through writing not only the past but what she is living and processing now in the present. You go, girl!
People may wonder why she didn’t try to escape as chances presented themselves when she was older. But Phillip and Nancy had become a kind of family to her, with definite bonds there, however distorted and damaging. After Jacyee’s second child was born, Phillip stopped using her for sex, and they even began to do things as a family, like going to the beach. Nancy and Jaycee went on outings to shop at used clothing stores, get their nails done and stop at Jack in the Box for lunch. Jaycee had been so isolated from the real world for so long that she was terrified of being discovered, and removed from these people she had become totally dependent on. She was more afraid of the unknown, outer world, than the familiar one at “home.” Early on Phillip told her he was considering selling her to people who would put her in a cage, and she was so frightened by that prospect that being with Nancy and Phillip, who when he isn’t raping her tried to make her smile with silly accents and brought her treats and a TV., that she acclimates to being a grateful, albeit heartbroken hostage. “He became my entire world. I depended on him for food, water, my toilet. He was my only source of amusement. I craved human contact so much by then that I actually looked forward to his coming to see me; it felt like he was bestowing a gift on me…his presence. He was all I knew for months.”
As she is living this nightmare, something in her, let’s call it the human spirit, strives to stay alive, to stay human, to grow, to love, to get through, even as she believes her ordeal will never end. When her own daughters are born, she becomes a loving, devoted, conscientious, teen mother. She is quite candid in the memoir about her struggles now on the outside, how she is often afraid of things and how strange it is to make her own decisions, something she wasn’t allowed to do from age eleven to age twenty-nine. Life is terrifying at times. She has a lot of support in her mother, family, and helping professionals, but she missed out on so many developmental steps that the rest of us take for granted, that in many ways she seems stunted. But she is also upbeat and positive about the future, and that seems real enough: “Each day now brings a new challenge and learning experience to look forward to.” There are some wonderful moments after she is freed, such as when her sister who was a baby when Jaycee was taken teaches her to drive. “I was shaking and scared to death the first time I got into my mom’s car…I was giddy with joy, and adrenaline was pumping through my veins. I was ecstatic…To me my car is much more than just a car; to me it represents my newfound freedom.” Can you imagine!
In the end, after Phillip is arrested for parole violations, and Jaycee is being questioned as to her identity by the police, she makes up a story to protect Phillip. But fearing she’ll be separated from her girls, and figuring the facts will out, when she is asked her name by the woman officer questioning her, she finally can tell the truth:
“She asked me again for my name and asked how old I was when I was kidnapped. I felt like I had just been waiting for the right question, and I said I was eleven and that I was twenty-nine now. She was shocked. She asked for my name again. I said I couldn’t say it. I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I told her I haven’t said it in eighteen years. I told her I would write it down. And that’s what I did. Writing shakily on that small paper, the letters of my name:
It was like breaking an evil spell.”
If that doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, you have a harder heart than mine.