Tom O’Carroll


Review of

Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir,
by Margaux Fragoso (Penguin, London, 2011)

Reproduced here by permission of the author.

Seven-year-old Margaux sees a grey-haired old man at the local swimming pool. Two little boys are frolicking with him in the water. The three of them are having great fun, whereas she has no playmates. Her mentally ill mother is sitting at the poolside; her father, an emotionally abusive alcoholic, is not around.

Quickly sensing the man must be an exceptionally friendly adult, she approaches.

“Can I play with you?” she asks.

“Of course,” he answers, playfully splashing her face.

It is the start of a relationship that almost immediately becomes sexual, in ways graphically described; it continues as romantic through her teens and ends only when his death parts them after fifteen years. She tells of being in love, “addicted” to her elderly lover’s company; of her lover, she says, “I was his religion”.

The echo of Nabokov’s Lolita is clear, with its famously rapturous opening paean to a beloved “nymphet”; but Tiger, Tiger is billed as a memoir, not fiction – and certainly not a work of paedophilic pornography, or propaganda, as might otherwise be suspected from my introduction. Even though it reads like a novel, author Margaux Fragoso has been at pains to insist, in the face of reviewers’ scepticism, that it is a faithful record of a well documented relationship with Peter Curran, a hard-up, long-term unemployed invalid and girl-oriented paedophile, who committed suicide at age 66, when she was 22. He had not been sexually interested in the boys at the pool, who were the sons of his landlady-cum-not-quite-girlfriend: he was just good with them anyway.

Although a whole clutch of memoirs, especially in the “misery lit” genre, have been exposed as fake in recent years, Tiger, Tiger strikes me as the real thing. It is clearly not written as pornography, because the sexual descriptions are utterly unsexy: while Fragoso portrays herself as a willing, and at times even a demanding, participant in under-age sexual acts, her own lively sexuality is always at odds with the sense of grossness and disgust she feels towards the wrinkled, decrepit body of her aging lover and the whore’s repertoire of tricks and role plays he nags her into performing.

Nor can she be accused of propagandising in favour of a child’s ability to consent to sex with an adult. Ultimately, the author is plainly of the opinion that the relationship was harmful to her in many ways, and that men like Peter need treatment.

As a paedophile myself, throughout my adult life I have resisted all the conventional arguments against children’s willing participation in sexual contacts with adults, especially when the older party is affectionate and loving. None of these arguments, or the evidence adduced in their support, has ever made much impression on me. I have even written books saying exactly why they are unconvincing.

But I find Fragoso’s work is strikingly more effective than all the usual moralising, with vastly more persuasive clout than the endless plethora of one-sided and even dishonest victim narratives so beloved of our cultural media, from tabloid yarns to TV documentaries, to films and novels. Tiger, Tiger is an immensely powerful testament. I am in my mid-sixties, with a typical old dog’s shortcomings over learning new tricks; but Fragoso is making me think again.

How so? What is the source of this extraordinary power? It is simply that Fragoso’s account is not one-sided. Tiger, Tiger comes across as a determined attempt by the author to examine all aspects of her relationship with Peter with the utmost candour, and calm honesty. Rather than simply vilifying and demonising him, “letting out the anger”, as “survivors” are often encouraged to do, she strives for an objective, almost scientific, description of how things came to pass, her feelings at the time and what they led to. In an Afterword, she speaks of having “learned through my writing”: through pondering, and describing, she leads both herself and the reader towards a reasoned assessment.

It is also a balanced and fair one. We are told, for instance, not just that Peter could be violent and was often “pushy” in his sexual demands. No, we are additionally told that far from being “innocent”, little Margaux as a child could be calculating and manipulative, and she spells out exactly how. Ultimately, of course, there is no moral equivalence: the adult must take responsibility.

The author’s judicious even-handedness is what makes Tiger, Tiger such a stand-out from the many hundreds of learned journal articles and books I have read on adult-child sexual encounters. For me, this is one of the most impressive and important of the lot. As a set text for reading and discussion by participants in sex offender treatment programmes I suspect it would be more successful in helping reduce recidivism than the crude brain-washing usually served up.

The only caveat to my recommendation – but it is an important one – is that there are severe constraints on what can reasonably be concluded from any one account. Fragoso herself makes two major mistakes: she over-interprets what can be learned from her own experience, and then over-generalises these questionable conclusions, seeking to apply them invalidly to all child-adult sexual contacts. To take the second point first, a properly scientific account demands the investigation of hundreds, indeed preferably thousands, of cases before general statements can be made with any confidence, and even then effects associated with the data do not necessarily reveal a particular cause. I suspect Fragoso would be surprised to learn that the most rigorous statistical studies of the available evidence do not support the conventional view that such contacts are in general very harmful.  

On the first point, there are many ways in which the book leads the reader towards the view that the relationship with Peter was deeply traumatic: to take the most serious of these, the sexual side compromised her, making her feel she was “corrupted” and that others would regard her as worthless. Even the “romantic” aspect was awful because it locked her for year after year into emotional dependency on a partner who had no future, and whose attentions kept her unhealthily alienated from her peers – which may have been why, in a belated act of redemption, Peter ultimately killed himself, setting her free at last.

While these terrible facts are undeniable, what the author’s own conclusions ignore is the serious possibility that without Peter’s love and support her life might well have been even worse. It was her father, after all, not Peter, who would habitually rant and scream at her, telling her she was a worthless burden, before she had even met Peter. Her response as a small child had understandably been one of aggressive “acting out”: she would randomly kick other people in the street. After meeting Peter, she transferred that aggression to him, lying and playing mean tricks on him. His reaction, by contrast, was generally one of patient, almost saintly restraint: Margaux’s admittedly delusional mother even thought he might be a reincarnation of Jesus, “so wise” was he, “and pure of heart”. The presumably non-delusional author would commend his consistent support for her creative side, and the praise he habitually lavished on her, boosting the self-worth so sapped by her father.

So, as one feminist reviewer grudgingly conceded, “it’s complicated”. In terms of what caused the bad outcomes in her life, a scientist would have to note that there were “confounds”: in other words, there were other factors apart from having an early sexual relationship that could account, wholly or in part, for all that went wrong.

And, hey, despite the extremely unpromising start of having two massively unsatisfactory parents, a lot eventually went right for Fragoso. She is now a best-selling writer, after all, as well as being in a stable adult partnership which has seen her become a mother. These successes might have come despite Peter’s role in her life or thanks to it: those confounded confounds make it hard to tell which.

Ultimately, though, Tiger, Tiger should be judged not as a failed work of “scientific” self-observation, nor in literary terms as an inferior imitation of Nabokov, as some critics have maintained. Her style and subject matter admittedly invite comparisons with the celebrated novelist, but we must remember that this work is a memoir, not a novel. As such, it is simply an apparently honest account that does far more justice to the complexity of the issues than most of the “child sexual abuse” literature.