By Jaycee Dugard
Simon & Schuster. 288 pp. $24.99
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Reviewed by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans
What happened to Jaycee Dugard was so awful that there may be many times in the course of this compelling autobiographical account of her captivity and abuse when readers will want to race to the end, when this true-life, true-grit heroine is rescued.
Resist the temptation to skip over chunks of A Stolen Life.
Although Dugard's description of the way that her captor Phillip Garrido tormented her is almost unbearable to read at times, the narrative is also a testament to the courage, tenacity, and common sense of an ordinary girl trying to cope with extraordinary circumstances.
On June 10, 1991, Dugard was walking to catch the school bus in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., when she was knocked over by a stun gun and abducted by convicted sex offender Garrido and his wife, Nancy. They drove her to their home in the Bay Area suburb of Antioch, where for 18 years she was forced to live in sparely furnished rooms in the Garridos' backyard.
She subsisted mostly on fast food (usually one meal a day). Long periods of boredom and loneliness were punctuated by pain and fear as Garrido repeatedly raped her, to help him, he said, with his sexual problems and turn her into the "best 'sex slave' ever."
Looking back at the first sexual assault, Dugard wrote that, at the time, she had no idea what the word rape meant. "Today that makes me feel terrible for that little naïve girl. She is still a part of me and at times she comes out and makes me feel small and helpless once again. At times I feel like I'm still 11 years ago. But something inside that frightened little girl made her a survivor and she has made me the person I am today."
At 13, Dugard became pregnant with her first child by Garrido, a daughter. Another daughter was born when Dugard was 17. Her daughters were 11 and 15 when the three were identified by police and freed in 2009; in A Stolen Life they are identified only by the initials A and G, and readers learn little about them. We don't know, for instance, exactly what the pedophile Garrido's relationship was with the children, or what damage they may have suffered at his hands.
After Dugard's second daughter was born, Phillip Garrido demanded that they start to call the childless Nancy Garrido "Mom," that Jaycee act like the girls' older sister, and that she adopt another name for herself (Allisa). It wasn't until a police officer asked her name that Dugard was able to write (she couldn't yet bring herself to speak) her real name, Jaycee.
Garrido read and interpreted the Bible in his own bizarre way, sharing with Dugard his belief that he was in touch with an angelic world that influenced his behavior.
Perhaps satisfied that Dugard would not make a move to escape, the Garridos eventually began to allow her and the girls to accompany them out in public on shopping trips and errands related to the printing business they had started (and for which Dugard apparently did the lion's share of the work).
In another door on the years of captivity, Dugard shares portions of a journal she kept, including excerpts from 1998 to 2007. In them she imagines a life outside her prison, frets over her face and weight, like many teenagers, and even scolds herself for not being happy.
In a 2003 entry she chillingly describes, in an account that echoes those of many abuse victims, the passive persona she used to cope with increasing public exposure:
I guess I have turned a switch off inside of me. . . . When I'm in public I want nothing more than to be invisible. To blend in and not get noticed. That's when I feel the switch turn on and me sink into the background.
One measure of the persistent cruelty with which the narcissistic Garrido treated her was the succession of animals he brought into her life and then removed. Her love for these vulnerable creatures (mostly cats) threads the book as consistently as does her aching desire for her mother.
The book is written in what is evidently her voice - conversational, sometimes awkward, occasionally piercingly childlike. This lends A Stolen Life an immediacy and authenticity that sharpens the horror of Dugard's captivity. There are many moments when she hits the pause button and reflects on the past, and how very different her new life is - an exercise that offers some relief to readers overwhelmed with the psychological and physical effects of her confinement.
Garrido is currently serving 431 years for abducting, raping, and imprisoning Dugard. Nancy Garrido was sentenced to serve from 36 years to life.
Reunited with her mother, sister, and old friends, raising her daughters, and having begun a foundation for family members reunited after abduction, Dugard seems focused on constructing a new life for herself and her children.
Still, there is much truth in the poignant book title. Dugard was robbed of her childhood, a loss that echoes on every page of this haunting memoir. Closing the book with a thank-you to therapist Rebecca Bailey, Dugard writes: " . . . with your help, I'm growing into the adult I've always wanted to become."
The fierce determination that is so obvious in A Stolen Life may help her surmount the legacy of those lost years.
Dugard never really stopped hoping for a happy ending. If she doesn't eventually achieve it, it won't be for lack of trying.