Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir
by Margaux Fragoso
Reviewed by Yevgeniya Traps
The trouble with reviewing a certain sort of memoir is that one feels awfully callous commenting on matters of form and style when the content is so positively devastating. The content of Margaux Fragoso's memoir Tiger, Tiger is excruciating; the book details, often quite graphically, Fragoso's fifteen-year sexual relationship with a pedophile named Peter Curran, and encompasses her mother's mental illness, her father's alcoholism, and her own bouts of despair and suicide attempts.
Fragoso meets Curran when she is seven and he is fifty-one. He showers her with attention (which transforms into obsession) and affection (with more than a few shades of exploitation). Welcoming Margaux into a home he shares with his girlfriend, Ines, her two sons, and a veritable menagerie of animals, Peter at first positions himself as a father figure, the sort of caring man who intuitively grasps a child's need for sheer delight, who takes in a series of foster children, and who wants nothing more than to offer children a safe and joyful retreat from the cold cruelties of the outside world. The young Margaux, whose home life is marked by her mother's delusions and frequent hospitalizations and her father's bitterness, heavy drinking, and menace, quickly comes to depend on Peter. Even as his kindness turns sinister ("Eight is the most beautiful age for a girl," he tells Margaux), and he begins to demand favors she can barely comprehend (shortly after her eighth birthday, he cajoles and pressures her into engaging in oral sex), Margaux persists in her need for him, increasingly convinced that he is her one chance at love. Attempts to separate them -- most of which are halfhearted anyway, for Margaux's mother trusts Peter and her father's concerns are mostly for his own reputation -- repeatedly fail, and, by the time Margaux is in the fifth grade, she is so thoroughly devoted to Peter that life without him seems to her increasingly impossible. At the same time, the relationship grows abusive and manipulative; Peter sometimes strikes Margaux, who retaliates by threatening to report him to the authorities. Bound by the secret they share, the two become more and more isolated, spending nearly all their time together -- Peter's girlfriend Ines breaks up with him after he ceases sexual relations between them; he does not, he explains to Margaux, want to be unfaithful to her -- and, as a result, the book becomes more and more claustrophobic. Locked in with Margaux and Peter, we are forced to watch the terrible tragedy of their relationship, and the spectacle fills us with discomfort and dread.
The memoir's prologue makes clear from the start that Peter is a pedophile and that Fragoso's relationship with him ended only when he committed suicide. At that point, the relationship has lasted fifteen years; its damaging legacy lasts even longer. Tiger, Tiger is an attempt to assess and process the destruction wrought, an attempt partly successful and partly not. In choosing to make Peter's proclivities unmistakable from the very start, Fragoso foregoes suspense, refusing deception; this is perhaps for the best, given just how much deception has been practiced in her own life. The art of misleading is part and parcel of the pedophile's toolkit, and, in unmistakably presenting Peter as what he is, Fragoso ensures that we are never victimized by him as she is. This is surely fitting revenge: the memoir-writer Fragoso finally repudiates the blindness that for so long afflicted the memoir-character Margaux. However, if Fragoso's aim is, as she repeatedly maintains, to convey the experience of her involvement with Peter, to make it possible for readers to understand and recognize the pedophile and his M.O., the choice to reveal all from the start is somewhat puzzling. From the moment we meet Peter, with his "bowl-cut sandy-silver hair with sixties bangs like a Beatle....full lips, a long, pointy nose that might have looked unattractive on someone else, but not on him," his aquamarine eyes, his "energy and brightness," we know he is reprehensible; we are never drawn to him as Margaux is, and as his other, earlier victims (of whom we learn in the course of the book) had been. Fragoso does not ultimately show how easy it is to fall for a pedophile, to be duped by him. Rather, she indicts the adults who fail to recognize him for what he is, while allowing readers to believe that we would never fail in this way. This has the surely unintended effects of offering us an unearned superiority and implicitly shifting the focus to the more prurient details.
But perhaps the biggest problem with Tiger, Tiger is its repeated refusal of any real reflection. Fragoso continually recounts the disturbing particulars without examining her motivations, her feelings, her interpretations. She never quite knows why she does what she does or acts the ways she acts, and she makes her self-ignorance explicit. Is this willful inability to examine her past beyond its surface trappings part of the legacy of the abuse she suffers? That explanation might make far more sense were Fragoso interested in reproducing the effect in other ways. But the self-consciously stylish prose makes this way of seeing the memoir rather difficult to accept; it is far too carefully and deliberately crafted to believe that Fragoso is simply trying to purge the past, to make her pain known.
The memoir's title obviously references the Blake poem, part of which serves as an epigraph, but it is also an allusion to a long-running story Margaux spends her time developing -- at first with Peter, later in opposition to him. In the story, she is a tiger-woman, beautiful and dangerous, hunter and hunted. "The Story," as Margaux calls it, is finally far more representative of her experience, articulating the dynamics of the relationship that threatens to consume Margaux, to destroy her or keep her caged; she triumphs, in the end, as the logic of memoir-writing dictates she must, even as she is ever marked by the past and its terrible bright burning.