In general, I don’t read memoirs or biographies. On the odd occasion that I do, I find that I really enjoy them, mainly for the depth of insight that you get into someone’s life. For someone who makes up fictional characters, to delve into someone’s life in such detail, especially when they are a famous person who you might have built up a picture of who they are in your mind, it is particularly fascinating.
On 10 June 1991, eleven-year-old Jaycee Dugard was abducted from a school bus stop within sight of her home in Tahoe, California. It was the last her family and friends saw of her for over eighteen years. On 26 August 2009, Dugard, her daughters, and Phillip Craig Garrido appeared in the office of her kidnapper’s parole officer in California. Their unusual behaviour sparked an investigation that led to the positive identification of Jaycee Lee Dugard, living in a tent behind Garrido’s home. During her time in captivity, at the age of fourteen and seventeen, she gave birth to two daughters, both fathered by Garrido. Dugard’s memoir covers the period from the time of her abduction in 1991 up until the present. In her stark, compelling narrative, Jaycee opens up about what she experienced, including how she feels now and the struggle to re-build her life after eighteen years in captivity. Garrido and his wife Nancy have since pleaded guilty to their crimes.
I came across this book at a friend’s house – as I’ve said before, it is not something I would have looked at in my normal book searches. I picked it up, just to scan the blurb and when I did, I remembered the young girl on the front from when she was found after eighteen years of captivity and appeared on the news all over the world. After flicking through the first couple of chapters when I was there, I had to take it home with me to finish – partly for the story of the author’s life, and partly because the writing was in itself, intriguing.
As you might expect, in some ways there is an almost child-like feel to the events recounted in the book: Jaycee was kept out of school from age eleven, educating herself where she could with internet access and the odd few books she was given. There is an immaturity to her understanding of feelings in the chapters that cover her early time in captivity and I don’t mean that in a negative way; just that her ‘normal’ emotional development was stopped where it was at age eleven – the absence of her mother and sister are the strongest emotional bonds she holds to, even as she gets to an age when most people are moving into close relationships with partners. Her range of experience of the world – for someone living through the time period she did – also shows just how limiting life became for her.
Most of the chapters close with a short piece entitled ‘Reflection’ where you get the author’s thoughts on what she experienced at the time and how she dealt with it at the time. There is a more developed, reflective adult voice in these pieces, perhaps a result of the counselling and support she and her family received when she came home. One of the biggest questions I think you ask with a story such as Jaycee Dugard’s is ‘how does someone actually survive something like this happening to them?’ The final part of the book cover this really well and talk about the media, the psychological support and how she put her family back together to move on and reclaim her life.
One thing that struck me repeatedly as I read A Stolen Life was that we were a similar age. At every stage of life that she describes in her memoir, I would have been doing very different things to her – things that a twelve year old, a fifteen year old and a twenty-six year old should be doing – not the life that these disturbing people forced upon her. Imagine everything in your childhood from age eleven being taken away – coming out the other end at nearly thirty…it’s impossible to really get your head around. Teenage years, your first job, finishing school – maybe university… All that time was taken, in exchange for a strange, warped half-life.
This is a book that makes you marvel at human nature: the highs it can take in hope, real love and family; and the lows of evil and selfish monsters. The most amazing thing in reading this, was that I found the author’s pragmatism and hope to be the main enduring elements of the book. She did not shy away from telling the most difficult truths, but the real Jaycee exists in every page – after eighteen years of captivity, where she literally had her life taken away from her, she held it all inside her, ready to reclaim it when she got the opportunity. I don’t think I’ve come across a stronger person in a book before – fact or fiction.