Monday, March 07, 2011

If You Are Considering Writing A Memoir About Your Childhood Sexual Abuse....

...Don't.  At least, not unless you have a story to tell that pushes us beyond the horror of it all.

The Daily Mail, which reviewed Margaux Fragoso's Tiger, Tiger in the United Kingdom, says it is "shocking the literary world." Why? Because Fragoso references her love for the man who abused her for fifteen years, and because it is so graphic about the sexual fantasies they shared that some critics call the book itself pornographic.  The NPR review, which suckered me into buying this ghastly memoir (oh had I only clicked "read more") comes closer to why I am shocked by it:  it is such a poorly written book.  As Dan Koies writes delicately,

But it's perilous to discuss Tiger, Tiger, because when an author asserts her moral right to reclaim her abuse and recast it as story, it's easy to seem churlish when you wish that she were a better writer — or that she'd had a more careful editor. While Fragoso's publisher, FSG, is selling the book as a cautionary tale for parents and an act of bearing witness for victims of abuse, it's also positioning Tiger, Tiger, albeit uneasily, as a literary breakthrough. But though Fragoso can write with terrible beauty, often her memoir is hampered by awkward sentences, sloppy storytelling and the kind of unbelievably detailed description and dialogue that makes you distrust a memoir's voice.

No kidding.  I can add to that.  There not a single likable, compelling or interesting character in the book, including Fragoso.  Furthermore, the "big secret" which she hints at throughout -- that she was one of many children, boys and girls, who were sexually abused by this man -- is patently obvious by the time we get the reveal in the last ten pages.  Really? You mean he lied and you weren't the special one after all? 

Understanding that child sexual abuse is a truly terrible experience, and a vicious crime, why any press would publish a memoir that doesn't compel a more passionate response by the reader is a mystery.  In fact, the chapters consist of four dreary (and mostly predictable) scenarios that are repeated over and over.  Those scenarios are:
  • Schizophrenic mother repeatedly turns her child over to abuser, sitting there watching TV and writing obsessively in her notebook while the abuser sneaks off to kiss and cuddle her daughter; 
  • Narcissistic, OCD, misogynistic father too self-absorbed to raise his own child repeatedly turns daughter over to abuser.  Fearing his own attraction to Fragoso, he pushes her away, making her receptive to the overtures from the abuser and sending confused messages about "fatherly" love that abuser capitalizes on; 
  • Abuser's girlfriend creates safe space for abuser to abuse Fragoso, her own sons, and numerous foster children, despite repeated accusations by the entire neighborhood and social workers that the abuser is, in fact, an abuser;
  • Long, self-justifying speeches by abuser about what a caring person he is and how special and unique his relationship with Fragoso is.
Yuck, yuck, and yuck.  What a good memoir on this topic would look like isn't clear to me, but none of the people who ought to read such a book -- in other words, people who match the description of any of the people in Tiger, Tiger -- could easily learn much from it beyond the fact that they are not alone.  It's important, perhaps, but it's not enough.

Really, the best advice I have ever gotten on this topic was from a friend who said to me once:  "Always watch out for Mama's boyfriend. "  Which is kind of what you learn from Tiger, Tiger, but it takes over 300 pages to get there.

25 comments:

Clarissa said...

"Really, the best advice I have ever gotten on this topic was from a friend who said to me once: "Always watch out for Mama's boyfriend."

-Yes, let's marginalize all single mothers who dare to have a personal life after a divorce.

Tenured Radical said...

Clarissa, not the point at all.

fred lapides said...

Sorry Prof Rascal, but Clarissa's point is correct. If what you say to Clarrisa is not the point of the remark than what does it mean?
Some clarity for Clalrissa, please.

Evan said...

I haven't finished this book, but to counter the claim of bogus specificity, doesn't Fragoso admit to keeping a diary, that she often co-wrote with her abuser? The startling specificity with which Fragoso presents sex in the language of her 8,12, 13 et al year old selves is the most striking achievement of the book to me. And so I read "Tiger, Tiger" as though it is Nabokov's Lolita's photographic negative. A familiar story, focalized now through Dolores, with Fragoso's great talent to recall, and then translate these events--whether from her diary or memory--in details that refuse to accumulate into a sententious and sentimental aggregate we might find in a Lifetime Original Movie.

Writing about sex, "graphic" especially, is difficult. So as I hasten to finish the book, I will probably treat it as fiction, remarkable because of its aesthetic accomplishments made in the beautiful details, not as argument about how to avoid or endure sexual abuse.

Tenured Radical said...

Clarity: I do not disbelieve Fragoso's account of her abuse. But her "diary" is a more complex document, as I understand it, of the various fantasies, stories and narratives she and her abuser invented together to create euphemistic and romantic accounts of what they did together that falsely enhanced her agency in these sexual transactions.

Lapides: Clarissa's comment -- "let's marginalize all single mothers who dare to have a personal life after a divorce" -- is a reference to the central theme of the book. The adult women who were infatuated with the abuser gave him cover for his crimes; and he sought out women who neglected their children (in Fragoso's case, the mother was mentally disabled) to woo as a way of getting to available children. This is, in fact, a typical scenario in the abuse of both boys and girls.

Furthermore, there is nothing in my review of this book that suggests the mysogyny that Clarissa is implying in this off the cuff remark.

And btw? The only divorced person in the book is hte abuser.

Anonymous said...

Why title your review in such a fashion? You're talking about a group of people who have been repeatedly silenced as well as abused. I can understand that you didn't like this particular book, and indeed in the post you go on to explain some specific reasons why. But your title is frankly offensive. Based on your posts on the 'tiger mama' book as well as this one, I'd say: "TR, if you're thinking about writing a blog post about child abuse ... don't." At least until you can do so with a great deal more knowledge, sensitivity and compassion.

--a reader.

Tenured Radical said...

Reader: Probably things I need to think about, and you are right, the title is snarky, and ought to be more directed at the publishing industry than Fragoso. But do we have to validate everyone's choice about how to tell their story of abuse -- or accept it that they want to make money from it and call it politics? It's one thing to talk to your family, the police, your friends, your shrink -- but does mental health require a big advance and a national audience?

And aren't you a little sick of every person publishing their tell-all experience to a salacious public? The constant sexual fantasies were a disturbing choice, one that seems so ill-considered that the book's publication seems cynical and designed to capitalize on shock value and enticing readers who themselves are drawn to paedophilic fantasies. Fragoso offers testimony, but offers little or no insight about her own experiences, nor does she contextualize her personal narrative in any sense of how our knowledge about and prosecution of child molestation has been advanced by similar revelations made during the period she was being abused and after.

Anonymous said...

TR: Thanks for taking my criticism seriously. I agree that the questions you raise are worth talking about, particularly how to balance the need for honesty about shocking things, on the one hand, and a publishing industry that caters to unreflective & ultimately useless voyeurism, on the other. The conclusion that *this* memoir about childhood sexual abuse would have been better unpublished is one that I might (or might not) disagree with, but not one I'd object to: my quarrel was limited to the second-person singular injunction that 'you' shouldn't publish 'your' story. In my opinion we need many more stories of the sort that, as your second sentence hints at, can move us forward on this issue as a society.

--a reader.

Tenured Radical said...

Agreed reader. And I guess, I would also say what I think this memoir needs is *feminism* -- because without that, it offers us no systematic insight or plan for action.

tubbs said...

why is everyone so quick to believe the author's claims? While they are of course horrible if true,the reflexive acceptance of such declarations and allegations gives me pause.

Professor, is there material in the book, or elsewhere, that lends credence to these claims?


Tangential: wtf is "terrible beauty" (see excerpt of review in post)? That kind of writing makes my ears bleed.

Anonymous said...

is her photo as fake as her name?

Tenured Radical said...

Honestly? I think if it were fake it would be better written. My read is that she does not actually know what she thinks about it yet. Given that she would be a little more than ten years distant from being abused for fifteen years and almost completely isolated in a multi-layered fantasy world, would make sense.

Her investment in the stories that I object to -- the endless, two dimensional portraits of her parents and the pornographic fantasies -- also strikes me as reflecting the social experience she describes herself constructing with Peter.

But who knows? If it isn't true, it's just a vile thing to publish, and I'm not prepared to go there, given the number of awful memoirs no one ever questions.

flotson said...

The tone of your article suggests that you are not a particularly likable character yourself. Specifically, you seem to lack empathy. Your criticisms could have been made without denigrating the author (and the "you" whom you patronizingly advise not to write about experiences of sexual abuse). The sarcasm in these lines--"Really? You mean he lied and you weren't the special one after all?"--is particularly chilling. Aside from the rather obvious remark (which does little to illuminate this particular book) that the publishing industry can be exploitive, the rest of your critique is rather muddled, confused. Really? You found the characters in a memoir about child sexual abuse unlikeable? Your bulleted capsule summaries of mother, father, et. al are particularly callous. Dreary? Seriously? You found mental illness and serial abuse and parental neglect to be dreary? As in, ho-hum, yawn? Yuck, indeed. You seem to have contempt for these people. This is all very weirdly gratuitous, and it certainly comes across as misogyny to me.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear flotson: You have mistaken Tenured Radical for the Bottomless House of Empathy. You may be thinking about *that* blog, over there, on the left. Please, be my guest.

Seriously, this is a bad book. Read it if you don't believe me. I have admitted to snarkery -- it's a quality in myself I don't particularly admire, but it doesn't mean I lack empathy, or that I am wrong about the quality of the book. (That you, a complete stranger, do not like me I can accept.)

Dorothy Parker was a snark too, and like her, I believe that literature matters, and bad literature should be criticized. This book is bad. It has flaws of plot, character construction, and narrative. It does not, in my view, have "terrible beauty" (I agree w/ previous comment -- what *does* that mean? A throwaway compliment since he obviously hated the book too?)

I think people who have suffered sexual abuse deserve all our sympathy, and Fragoso is no exception: I think I made that clear. But people who write and publish mass market books, at great profit to themselves, should be subject to scrutiny about the quality of what they write, regardless of the topic. If you cannot handle criticism, you shouldn't put your most personal history out there for a million or so people to talk about. The public is not your shrink.

Book reviewers, in my view, have the obligation to say what they think, and part of what is wrong with this book is that it is written in a way that induces suspicions about fakery. Because women and men are so often accused of lying about sexual abuse, this is a political problem as well as an aesthetic issue.

The other serious issue is that Fragoso has no coherent point of view about what happened to her. Granting that child sexual abuse is a difficult (perhaps impossible) subject to write about, like anything else, an author should have a point of view before she publishes. Feminism could have helped her here, because what she seems most confused about still is power -- who had it? Why? What did her "love" for her abuser mean? At the end of the book she has a quick and facile explanation for her mother's abandonment of her: she never explains her father's inability to act decisively, or to care for his wife and daughter in a way that might have actually helped them.

Feminism also would have helped her with a serious flaw in the book: what happened to her is not new or unique, an experience that the public knows nothing about. In fact, we know a great deal about it

The problem with identity politics is that all experiences convey an identity now, and then people who you aren't writing about take everything so personally

Anonymous said...

obviously many people like "the horror of it all"--on the front page of newspapers, nancy grace or other cable true crime stories--people never tire of "little red ridinghood got raped".

Ralph Luker said...

TR, I was wondering if you've read Bettina Aptheker's Intimate Politics and if you think the same of its revelation of her father's child sexual abuse.

Historiann said...

The hostility to this post is just amazing. I guess it means that we're never permitted to criticize the writing or aesthetic choices of authors who write memoirs of their own abuse.

This reminds me of the time about a decade ago when that movie "Life is Beautiful" came out and everyone raved and raved about it. I went to see it, and found it cloying and pretty dumb. But that opinion wasn't permitted either, because it was about the Holocaust! And Nazis! And we have to respect any artistic treatment of such a serious, serious subject.

Rather than berating the critics, one might ask why the hacks don't respect the seriousness of their own subjects.

Science Lurker said...

@fred lapides and @Clarissa

I think ignoring the statistics that say that a male in the house that is not related to the minor is a significant risk to the minor . . . is in itself a significant risk to the minor. We are not talking about incoming male lions or certain apes, who routinely kill off all the pre-existing young of the female to speed her going back into heat to start his new offspring. But any human parent with children in the house will pay careful attention to the effect a new partner will have on those children. To do otherwise is irresponsible.

Everyone deserves a personal life -- but not an irresponsible one.

EBoyd said...

TR, I love your blog and thought I would give you a recommendation of a good memoir about childhood sexual abuse:

"Denial: A Memoir of Terror," by Jessica Stern.

shiyo said...

TR, I agree with you that the subject of a book should not obfuscate its actual worth as literature. If the book is simply a recording of her experiences, then perhaps she should have left it as a blog or forum post.

However, I’d like to respond to your comment that she exploits her trauma for money, and your generalization of this ("Aren't you a little sick of every person publishing their tell-all experience to a salacious public?"). Your objection is to the greed, but there are always underlying implications when we say some people’s experiences shouldn’t be expressed (as opposed to, say, that society shouldn’t respond to their experiences this way). Society doesn't hear about CSA. It devours these tell-alls, yes, but they exist in a fantasy plane with those pedo-priests and fundie-kid-fiddlers, here to give us our Nancy Grace lampoonings, our periodic Luddite hand-wringings, our pop culturisms (or angstwank for the indiecrowd), our jabs at aggressively homophobic Republicans that, for once, retain our manquotient (because if a man just criticizes homophobia, then, well, he's gay).

But when it comes to survivors in real life, we don't want to hear about it. We think it happens to the few, the broken, the poor girl-women trapped in therapy after years trapped in daddy’s idyllic suburban home. It’s something dark and horrifying that can be let out in the confines of the therapy room, but after leaving we must plaster on a happy functional face again and jog on or we’re not being *strong*. It’s a secret for the therapist and the bestie, not something fit for public eyes. To let it dangle out exposed - well, what are people supposed to say? (why’d you have to make everything so *serious*?) “Oh that’s terrible, have you seen a therapist...?” (get a grip of yourself) (emotional nakedness is offensive).

I'm on a UK forum that's mainly men. They have countloads of bants about sexual adventures with ‘slags’. A few posted about their encounters with women who promptly broke down afterwards, and started crying apologetically about a rape:

“Well, fuck....how was I gonna get it up now?”

“was obviously looking for attention”

“mentalists *uhoh*”

It’s a bloody nuisance to them, that their dick won’t get wet now that the woman/hole can’t keep it together after rape.

These are strangers. But what society doesn’t talk about is how our friends don’t believe us, how our mothers don’t believe us, how the courts tear us down for not coming forward sooner. How the same people who devour those salacious tell-alls can’t accept that a loved one may be one of those abusers.

Society doesn’t talk about how so-common-it’s-almost-banal CSA is. How most of us never disclose. How desperately we try to lead kept-it-together lives in the fear that others can see our wrongness in our faces. Society sees the few people making a spectacle, not the many who agonize in secret.

We aren’t rushing forward with our tell-alls. To suggest that isn’t just wrong, it’s antithetical to the truth. Yes there are a few who’ll make shitloads of money from dramatizing their trauma; but for the vast majority of us “telling” is yet another shame, on top of so many.

Does mental health deserve a big audience? I think so. It’s not about the money. De-sensationalize it, and it won’t make money. The problem is not that so many talk about it, but that so few do. I’m sorry if it makes people
uncomfortable, but that does not outweigh the survivor’s right to speak.

I know you’re not denying her that right, but your statement that survivors shouldn’t do so, or that they’re only doing so for money, jars me. We write what we know. Sometimes this is our only story. It is one we are constantly judged for, the one we try not to tell, the one we can’t tell or we’re pitiable or attention-seeking or weak. But it builds up inside of us. Sometimes it builds up inside of us until one day we end up sobbing on the floor to a perfect stranger, who’ll sit there and feel more sorry for his dick.

Anonymous said...

"Terrible beauty" is a reference to Yeats's "Easter, 1916." (Yeats makes your ears bleed, ha! The irony.) I'm confused about why you two are confused... can't something be beautiful and terrible, i.e. arresting or disturbing, at the same time?

Anonymous said...

fatuous apple, meet loathsome orange.

tubbs said...

oh, what a glorious nightmare, leading to a horrifying tranquility. What I just wrote ain't Yeats, and neither was that pseudo-intellectual tripe referenced in the original post.

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Kim said...

I will say first, I have not read the book, I am researching about writing a book on sexual abouse of my own.
TR-I found your comment about why people write books incorrect and offensive. Personaly, I the reason I want to write a book to inform people about really happens and also, to let people know that even after 20 years, you can still press charges (depending on the state you live in). and in can bring you great closure and help in the healing process.
Like most sexually abuse victums, money that I make, I would want to help other victums and not profit off of being raped for 13 years.

However, I do want to make sure my book is well written so I am able to help more people, that is why I am try to see where I can get help in the writting process because I am not a nature writter.