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Here’s my advice if you’re going to tackle A Stolen Life, the new memoir by Jaycee Dugard who was kidnapped at age 11 and not released for 18 years: Keep a stiff drink next to you. You’ll need it. The details of her kidnapping, sexual abuse and life as a hostage are tough reading. I had to put the book down a couple times because I was so overwhelmed, and I cried at the end. Still, somehow this powerful and moving book feels worth the effort. Dugard wrote this by herself, without a ghostwriter. The prose is spare and simple, but what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in immediacy and emotional intensity. Jaycee Dugard is a remarkable person not just because she survived but also because she’s managed to recount what happened to her in such a clear-eyed straightforward fashion. She does not shy away from acknowledging how much psychological damage she suffered, but she also shows how she’s coming to terms with it and moving forward.
“I decided to write this book for two reasons. One reason is that Phillip Garrido believes no one should find out what he did to an 11-year-old girl. … I believe I shouldn’t be ashamed for what happened to me, and I want Phillip Garrido to know that I no longer have to keep his secret. I’m also writing my story in the hopes that it will be of help to someone going through, hopefully not similar conditions, but facing a difficult situation of their own — whatever it may be.”
She goes into great detail about the first weeks and months after her June 1991 kidnapping. Her kidnapper and his wife, Nancy, keep her chained up naked in a backyard shed. Phillip repeatedly rapes her, often for days on end when he is high on meth. She is completely alone, and he makes her dependent on him for everything. Even though she hates him, she also wants his approval. Dugard is effective at conveying the psychological manipulation that made her a mental as well as a physical captive.
The chapters alternate between a first-person present-tense account of her captivity and “reflections” sections where Dugard offers commentary. These parts are particularly moving because they give a sense of how difficult it was for Dugard to relive the story. For example, a reflection on the pain of losing a kitten, her one companion in her early captivity, opens up to a larger discussion of the book project: “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 re-enter the state of mind I was that age is difficult and twists my insides. The more I write, the harder it becomes. On the one hand, I want to go on. I feel if I don’t then I continue to protect my kidnapper and rapist and I don’t have the need to do that any longer. … To get inside my head and relive all this stuff that happened back then is terribly hard for me.”
In 1994, at just 14, Dugard gave a birth to a daughter. In the backyard. With no medical care. It’s amazing that both mother and child survived. Becoming a mother changed her. It gave her a sense of purpose, the drive to go on, a companion who wasn’t the Garridos and, more importantly, someone to love. But it also made escape tougher since it made the logistics of escape — where would you go? who would you ask for help? — that much tougher. This became doubly true when Dugard gave birth to a second child three years later in 1997.
Eventually, Garrido gave Dugard more freedom, allowing her the use of more of shed space, providing her a TV, a mini fridge and a better bathroom (for the first few years she had to use a bucket that would often fill to overflowing) and fencing off part of the backyard so she could go outside some. They settled down into a weird normal routine. They ate dinner together and watched movies. Dugard started helping Garrido with a small printing business. So great was Garrido’s psychological hold on Dugard that he even let her occasionally leave, going on trips to the beach and Wal-Mart and to get her nails done. Nobody recognized her, and she was too scared to tell anyone her real name.
The most remarkable part of the story is Dugard’s determination to help her daughters. Though she herself only has a fifth-grade education, she’s determined that they get an education. She makes them go to “school” every morning for four hours and stays up late into the night designing homework lessons. The determination of a mother to take care of her kids is an awesome thing.
The details blur in the middle of the book because that’s how Dugard remembers it. Her life entered a kind of Twilight Zone version of ordinary monotony, where nothing much happened on a daily basis. Days passed into weeks, weeks into months and months into years. Dugard takes us through these years by reproducing some pages from her secret journal that alternate between normal — a list of resolutions to weed the garden and exercise more — and the heartbreaking — a passage where she wonders if her mother remembers her.
Dugard may have resigned herself to her captivity, but she never forgot who she was and never stopped dreaming of returning to her old life. But after more than a decade with the Garridos and two young daughters to care for, Dugard was a psychological captive, unable to believe that she could leave even though she had access to the Internet and a phone. She wrote in her journal: “I’ve been thinking of her [her mother] a lot lately. I know it would take just a couple of clicks, I could see her. I need to see her. So what’s stopping me? I think I’m afraid to take the first step because I know I could not go any farther with it. … Why don’t I have control of my life! I feel now I can’t even be sure my thoughts are my own.”
Dugard picks up the detail again when she tells about the days and months after she was found in August 2009 when Garrido brought Dugard and her two daughters to a meeting with parole officers. The day before, Garrido had been distributing pamphlets about his ideas on sex and religion at the University of California at Berkeley, and a campus cop thought they looked suspicious, saw that he was on parole and reported Garrido. At first, she covered for Garrido, but then she broke down and told the police her name was Jaycee Dugard. It was the first time in nearly 18 years she had said her name aloud.
The next few months were a disorienting blur for Dugard. She had a tearful reunion with her mother and aunt. She worried about what her relationship with her mother would be like and whether her mother would accept her granddaughters. Things seem to be working out OK. Dugard and her family have been in intensive therapy. It’s clear not everything is perfect, but psychologically Dugard seems to be doing pretty well, all things considered. On June 2, 2011, Phillip Garrido was sentenced to 431 years to life in prison for the kidnapping and sexual assault of Jaycee. Nancy was sentenced to 36 years to life.
A Stolen Lifeis a remarkable book. This is a must-read summer book. It takes you inside Jaycee Dugard’s story to understand what her life was like and how she survived. It can be emotionally tough going at some points, but Dugard is a remarkable woman. Her ability to describe what happened to her in straightforward terms and her efforts to not let it define the rest of her life are inspiring. At the end, she writes about how she has adopted a pinecone, the last thing she touched before being kidnapped, as her symbol: “The pinecone is my reminder that life can always be restarted. But I know I can’t heal the world. To me the best place to start the healing process is within our own families.”
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