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In this extraordinary memoir, Margaux Fragoso describes her life in her dysfunctional family and her relationship with an older man, Peter. He was about fifty-one and she was seven. He was a pedophile and soon he was able to get her on her own. He declared his love for her, and asked her to please him sexually. She did what he asked. She grew to rely on him for love and encouragement. She needed it because her father was often threatening her and her mother, shouting at them, and expressing his disapproval, and her mother was mentally ill, with regular hospitalizations. Fragoso's relationship with Peter lasted 15 years, with some interruptions. As she got older, the power between them shifted, and although she could have notified authorities and had him arrested, she never did. She made threats, and expressed anger at him at various points, but she was distraught when he committed suicide at the age of sixty-six.
There's never any question that Peter took advantage of Fragoso and what he did was terrible. What's surprising about the memoir is that it shows Peter as a fragile person who found it difficult to cope with life. He did not see himself as a bad person, and he seemed to believe that Fragoso was willing in her sexual interactions with him, even when she was very young. When close to the end of his life, she taunted him with the idea that he was a child molester, he was horrified and pleaded with her not to use that phrase. He was always concerned to avoid physically hurting her in their sexual activity, and she was the one in her teenage years who pressured him to have sexual intercourse, because she wanted to get pregnant. Their relationship was complicated; he used her but he also worshipped her. His room in his house was practically a shrine to her, decorated with pictures of her and other girls. She would want to visit his house with her mother when she was very young, because she loved many of the things in his house, and she also had a crush on one of his sons.
Readers may be surprised that Fragoso does not express more outrage toward Peter. She does talk about some of her feelings of resentment and betrayal as she starts to understand how he manipulated her feelings and controlled her. As she gets older, she becomes more moody and has more feelings of confusion and hurt, eventually leading to a suicide attempt. There is no way to separate out how much of her despair was due to Peter and how much due to her parents. At the end of the book, she briefly discusses how writing it was part of her way she came to terms with the past. She thinks of herself as breaking a pattern of abuse in her family by speaking out about what was previously kept hidden. This places the problem particularly with her family. The style of the memoir is to recount her experiences at the time with very little commentary, and although she was at first confused about why Peter wanted to engage in sexual activities, she wasn't angry with him and she didn't find it painful, although she did not much like it either. She knew that her parents and anyone else would be very upset and angry if they found out about what was happening. She was desperate to keep on seeing Peter because he gave her love and attention that she didn't get anywhere else, and she also thought she would get into trouble if she told what was going on. The longer it went on, the more it became their secret, and so the idea of revealing what was going on became impossible. Although her mother didn't know about the sexual side of her daughter's relationship with Peter, she did see how close they were, and she encouraged it. So Fragoso had little clue that there was something profoundly wrong about what Peter was doing with her.
It is striking that Fragoso never expresses hate for Peter, either during her relationship with him or looking back on the past. Although she fought with him when she was older, both verbally and physically, and she was angry with him for some of his actions like borrowing money from her without returning it, she was much more reticent when it came to what he did with her sexually when she was younger. She says very little about what she thinks of him now, and how damaged she feels by what he did. She has since married and had a child herself, so clearly she does not feel so damaged that she can't engage in other relationships. Since Peter didn't cause her physical pain or use any physical force on her, her experience would not have been traumatic in a traditional sense. One wonders how applicable to work of Susan Clancy is to Fragoso: Clancy argued in her book The Trauma Myth that the damage caused by such inappropriate sexual relationships between adults and children emerge later on as the victim starts to grapple with their own sexuality, and comes to understand that they have been betrayed by an adult.
So although Fragoso says that writing the book was a way for her to come to terms with her past, her memoir does not tell us much about what terms she has come to. She also does not tell us whether her parents are still alive, or how they reacted to finding out Peter's sexual use of her. Yet that's all a crucial part of her story, and so we can only hope she will be ready to write more about that part of it at some point in the future.
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York