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Friday 8 July 2011

The line between candour and sensationalism: a review of "Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir"

I have mixed feelings about the proliferation of tragic biographies. This newish sub-genre is a bit like the reverse of a true crime biography. Like Steve Salerno’s definition of self-help styles, empowerment and victimization, the true crime biography caters to a perverse idea about empowerment whilst the tragic
biography focuses on the victim. In one breath I have the utmost respect for an individual who can turn legitimately terrible things in their lives into something positive. However, there is something distasteful about the idea of a whole genre dedicated to stories about abused childhoods. This is coming from a fan of psychology and criminal history. Although I admit to getting a degree entertainment from reading true crime - even a grim fascination comparable to what draws many of us to fictional horror stories - there just seems to be something depressingly pornographic in the idea that a whole section an airport bookshop is dedicated to books that have titles like “Ugly” and “Cut”.

“Tiger, Tiger” doesn’t deserve to belong in this category despite what some critics have said. It transcends the genre in many ways and it does have genuine educational value. I am not going to patronize its talented author by saying how brave she was to write this book. Somehow courage really isn’t the issue here, although I would argue that strength is.  “Tiger, Tiger” is the story of a lifelong relationship between a paedophile and his victim, a little girl, Margaux Fragoso.

Margaux met her abuser when she was just seven years old and he was 51. It was a chance meeting that initially begun, in very unlikely fashion, with the child approaching her would-be abuser, Peter. Peter befriends Margaux’s mother, a woman with severe mental health problems, and invites them over to his house on a regular basis. Peter has his own children and a wife, but their estrangement from him has already begun when the Fragasos arrive. The story takes us through Peter’s grooming of Margaux and the various stages of their bizarre relationship. Meanwhile, Margaux’s family life is far from perfect. Her perfectionist and martyring father obsesses with outward appearances and becomes increasingly frustrated with his wife and daughter. They move neighbourhoods, but her mother’s fragile mental condition deteriorates and Margaux becomes a troublesome child to her father. Despite breaks in their relationship Margaux and Peter’s lives are destined to remain firmly entangled until his eventual death.

“Tiger, Tiger” is unsettling in many ways, not least than with the genuine affection Margaux regards her abuser and paints him as a three dimensional individual. Just as we find it virtually impossible to comprehend that so many individuals could have been complicit in the atrocities and the philosophy of the Nazis, the idea that a child abuser can be anything more than a shadowy beast somehow feels wrong. This is why gimmicky and inefficient ideas like “Stranger Danger” are very saleable. We want to think of paedophiles as people we don’t know despite the evidence showing that the overwhelming majority are known to the victim and good friends with the victim’s family (the majority, of course, are a parent or uncle of the victim). We also want to think of these offenders as being capable of murder and not having a conscience. Again, this is far from the truth.
Margeaux even begins her book with a discussion with a friend who tells her that paedophiles are often among the most polite and sensitive members of prison communities, despite being the most hated inmates. It’s this candour that most impresses me with her writing. You have a feel that this is really how it all happens. As a self protection coach who specializes in teaching children, I feel a heavy responsibility to have an understanding how predators operate. Recognizing that these individuals are human beings better prepares us in handling them in a mature fashion as a society.

In fact, this immature sense of collective denial is perhaps a main contributing factor to why people like Peter are able to continue to abuse. “Tiger, Tiger” describes how so many people were complicit in the abuse through their refusal to act upon their suspicions. Peter abused his victim in his own home, a place occupied by his own family and under the nose of Margaux’s own mother. He abused his victim despite the suspicions of Margaux’s father, who ended up even showing a begrudging admiration for him. He abused his victim in a community that did little more than gossip about the inappropriate nature of their public relationship. The message is clear not wishing to believe that a paedophile can be an otherwise good natured individual doesn’t help victims.

The work has been accused of sensationalizing its subject matter in order to sell copies, making it one of the most controversial books published in 2011. However, although I would agree that some of the explicit descriptions of sexual activity are unnecessary, far worse is in print. “Today I am Alice” by Alice Jamieson, for example, not only describes terrifyingly disturbing accounts of child abuse, but the psychological assumptions of the story are not backed up by mainstream science. However, it garnered little controversy despite making very controversial claims, such as referencing Satanic Ritual Abuse. There has yet to be a single proven case of SRA and many innocent adults had their entire lives ruined by unfounded accusations that were backed up by misguided Freudian ideas about repression. Somehow the fact that Jamieson paints her father as a one dimensional multiple satanic child abuser and her own condition being the highly contested yet highly intriguing multiple personality disorder makes her more disturbing descriptions of childhood rape somehow more palatable to readers.

Margaux clearly feels a need to justify the way she wrote the book and the prologue and epilogue do seem jarringly at odds with the nature of the story. However, this is possibly intentional. Margaux, a gifted debut author, spins her story with a good amount of artistic licence. She says she was an avid diary writer, but the book consists of many full-blown discussions between the book’s main protagonists. I am not against this anymore than I was with Gerald Durrel and other authors who recorded their memoirs in similar non-fiction novel style.

“Tiger, Tiger” is a very uncomfortable read, but discomfort is not always a bad thing. We need honesty and understanding if we are to better combat the evils of our society. As a children’s self protection coach I would like to advise this book to any parent. However, I would only do so with a word of caution.

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