Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ugly truth of child abuse played out in the open

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Tiger, Tiger

A Memoir

By Margaux Fragoso

Douglas & McIntyre, 336 pages, $30

The word pedophile conjures up images of dark rooms, closed doors and shameful secrets. But in this American victim's true account of her stolen childhood at the hands of a family friend, we see that sometimes the ugliest truths are right out in the open for all to see.

Starting at age six, memoirist Margaux Fragoso spent 15 years as the mental and emotional captive of a middle-aged man named Peter Curran. He committed suicide in 2001 at age 66. Fragoso was 22 at the time, and that's when she started to record her story.

Fragoso's narrative style is stark and simple. She doesn't shy away from the uncomfortable details of her sexual abuse and she relates her story without flourishes or melodrama.

The result is a harrowing account of how Peter lures a six-year-old Margaux into his life with the promise of a magical dream world complete with toys, animals, sunny backyards and, most important, stability. In fact, Fragoso takes her title from a fairy-tale saga the two create together.

An only child, Margaux has grown up with severely dysfunctional parents. Her mother is often institutionalized with depression and her father is a cruel, erratic and vain man who only pays attention to his daughter when she is embarrassing him.

After meeting Peter in a park, Margaux and her mother begin to frequent his home, where he lives with a female companion and her two sons. He takes Margaux under his wing, showering her with love and attention.

The compelling part of this book is how Peter uses the unfortunate circumstances of Margaux's life to draw her into his world. He bides his time, starting by taking photos of her and slowly progressing to a sexual relationship.

Margaux goes along with it, never knowing what she is experiencing is wrong -- in fact, she even pities him because he is just an "ugly old man."

At points it does seem hard to believe that Fragoso remembers so many details and conversations from when she was just six years old, but to her credit, the thoughts of her younger self are childlike and largely unaffected by the hindsight of age.

Fragoso doesn't editorialize or philosophize. She simply maintains her clear, simple storytelling style throughout.

Through her teen years, Margaux keeps their encounters a secret at Peter's behest. At the same time, she is becoming a young woman and learning to test the limits of their relationship by acting out in irrational anger and withholding sexual favours.

The result is a bizarre mix of romance and friendship, where Margaux genuinely believes Peter is her boyfriend and that she will marry him one day.

As she approaches adulthood, Peter's sexual interest in her wanes and the two are now left to deal with the scarring emotional consequences of their past. It's at this point the book loses a bit of its momentum as we are brought into the constant turmoil of Peter's ramblings (in the form of letters sent to Margaux) and his eventual suicide.

Ultimately, the most shocking part of this tale isn't the abuse itself, but rather the inaction of every other adult in Margaux's life.

Margaux and Peter spend every day together. They spend time alone in his bedroom. They're even caught kissing at one point and yet, no one does anything about it.

Although Fragoso doesn't say it outright, her memoir feels partially like a warning -- the boogeyman doesn't always hide in the dark.

Nisha Tuli is the editor of Downtown Winnipeg magazine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2011 H9

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