Posted Friday, March 11, 2011, at 12:45 PM
Margaux Fragoso’s much-discussed debut memoir, Tiger, Tiger , is an extremely explicit, detailed account of the decades-long sexual abuse she endured at the hands of a middle-aged family friend. The abuse began when she was 8, and lasted until her abuser, Peter, killed himself when Margaux was 22. Here’s a typical scene Fragoso sets: "Sometime during the summer of ’91…Peter began to dare me to briefly kiss, lick, or suck his penis whenever my mother was out." And that’s one of the least graphic descriptions in the book. In the New York Times review of Tiger, Tiger , Kathryn Harrison asks the question, "So who-other than voyeurs looking for a sustained close-up of a pedophile in action-will want to read this book?"
After reading the book over the weekend, that’s a question I can’t shake. It is undeniably a difficult book to stomach. I had to put it aside several times because I was so repulsed. Would I recommend it to someone else?
If I’m considering the book as a work of public advocacy, the answer is undeniably yes. In an afterword to the memoir, Fragoso says that she wrote the book in order to break the cycle of sexual abuse in her own family, and also to show others the particulars of how pedophiles operate so that they, too, might protect their loved ones. "A sexual predator looks for children from troubled homes like mine, but…he can also trick average families into thinking he’s ordinary or even an upstanding member of the community," she cautions.
Fragoso’s book is particularly brave when you place it in the context of some other popular abuse memoirs from the past two decades. I am thinking of The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr and Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. Both of those memoirs soften the impact of their abuse by using black humor. This is not to cast aspersion on either of those books-they’re both excellent-but it’s worth noting that Fragoso is unwilling to temper the horror of her story in the same way.
So there’s no question that Fragoso displays tremendous gumption. However I must agree with Dan Kois, who reviewed the book for NPR -as a work of literature, the memoir is patchy. It has moments of beauty and brilliance (her description of Peter’s bedroom as having a "strange, planetary hue," is lovely), but as Kois says, at points you wish she’d had a better editor. One construction that kept bothering me was Fragoso’s repeated use of the phrase "couldn’t help but." "I couldn’t help but wonder…" "Our tongues couldn’t help but touch." Especially at the beginning of the memoir, the language in Tiger, Tiger could be more precise.
If you’re looking to Tiger, Tiger as a way to understand the intricacies of a pedophile’s tactics or as a way to support Fragoso’s smashing of a taboo, then you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re reading it in search of a literary fix, you may find it wanting.