Monday, October 20, 2014

"Tiger, Tiger", a subtle sex abuse memoir

I recently read <"Tiger, Tiger"> by Margaux Frogoso. I highly recommend it. It was published in 2011, so this isn't a "new book" review.

It is a memoir of a relationship between the author from ages 7 to 22, and the pedophile Peter as he ages from 51 to 66. Although the author clearly believes that the relationship was harmful to her and I agree, her description is remarkably nonjudgmental, as she tries to capture what it really felt like to her at the time, which included many good parts together with the bad.

Here is <one lengthy review>, which will also include the basic story line.

This review tells this as a classic tale of abuse. The reader "can see the type of grooming that can take place and the tools that perpetrators and offenders use; how they pick out a particular victim that seems vulnerable and easy to isolate ... The most powerful tool is the attention and affection. … They are exerting power over the victim."

In the Afterword to the book itself, Fragoso says, "Silence and denial are exactly the forces that all pedophiles rely on so their true motives can remain hidden. Going back over old papers and thinking carefully about my own experiences have exposed the many ways that Peter manipulated me and my family." This is written from a place that is not consistent with the tone of the book itself -- it feels tacked on -- perhaps at the urging of the publisher.

I see no evidence in the book that Peter's actions are part of a premeditated plan whose primary goal is sexual activity with the girl. His crime is more akin to manslaughter than first degree murder -- the harm may have been the same, but the difference in intention is important.

The expert David Finkelhor cited in the review comes somewhat closer with: "One of the real problems is when these pedophiles are good and able to empathize with kids at some level... Some of it is genuine..."

Peter's house has exotic pets, Christmas decorations year-round, and abundant stuff to fascinate a child. This is partly because there are children in the house already and have been others in the past, but it's emphasized because Peter is oriented to childish things himself. He makes up fantastic stories and games that Margaux can relate to so well because he's fascinated by these things too -- and then he brings the knowledge and skill of an adult to the process. True, his early games in the basement that have her playing around naked are slanted by his desire to see her that way.

But the image of the smooth groomer does not fit. Exhibit A (deficiency) is the way he makes his first sexual request. It seems stunningly inept. After telling her she promised to do anything for him (as the price of a grocery store purchase) he pulls out his penis and suggests she kiss it. Surely a smooth operator could have arranged for it to make its appearance gradually during hugs and tickle games, to ask initially for a hand rather than lips. Exhibit B (superfluity) is his endless photo albums of her and love letters that go far beyond what would be helpful if his goal was merely sexual favors. Exhibit C (integrity of a sort): He has a picture on his wall of a girl who used to mean a lot to him but is long gone from his life. He could score points with Margaux by granting her request to take it down, but he refuses.

Peter is a troubled man, sensitive in some ways but clueless in some vital ways, the sort of person who can hurt those around him. His focus is on children, who are of course more vulnerable than adults, and he causes great harm to many. But instead of scheming as part of some master plan, I see Peter as always doing what feels right to him at the moment. He abused his own daughters and at least one previous foster child because they were there and he felt like it.

It's easy to summarize the story by saying Peter was a terrible man who abused a young girl. But in evaluating outcomes, we should be comparing two things, not looking at a single one in isolation. The reason Peter is able to form a relationship with her is because her home life is so appalling. She is an only child of a mentally ill mother and an emotionally abusive, thoroughly detestable father. She is not a resourceful little girl getting along OK in a difficult situation before she meets Peter -- she is in serious trouble already. After the relationship with Peter has been underway for some time, her father keeps her from seeing him for two whole years. But the poverty of her home life is reconfirmed as nothing appears in those two years to satisfy her need for acceptance and love. As a result, she eagerly returns to the relationship at the first opportunity. So the first comparison is "life with Peter" and "life without Peter". Life with Peter includes damaging sexual abuse, but life without Peter also looks very bleak.

The second comparison I'd like to consider is "life with Peter with sex" and "life with Peter without any sex". If for some reason Margaux had the strength to thoroughly rebuff Peter's sexual advances, he would not have ended the relationship. He still would have loved her in his own perverse way. Sexual activity seemed to vanish from their relationship for long stretches at a time, but he is still emotionally attached to her and still manipulates her for his emotional needs. If the sex had been entirely absent, I can see the relationship developing much the same way, and I can see emotional harm coming Margaux's way anyway. A small part is that he sees her as deteriorating from a gorgeous and sexy girl of 7 into a sexually unappealing adult. This in itself is an unfortunate message for a girl, and while Peter can't help having that gut feeling, he doesn't hide it very well.

Peter is fascinated with Margaux and loves her in his own limited, selfish way. He manipulates her because he wants her attention and love. When he's with her, he also wants sex, and he begs for it, but it doesn't define the relationship. That sounds quite similar to a great many ordinary adult relationships -- not the most healthy ones, but ones a great many adults live.

The final comparison is between life with Peter with sex (what actually happened) and a Peter who was a pedophile but who understood what a child needs and suppressed his own desires to give her what she needed. That's what we hope foster parents will do. That kind of Peter could have given Margaux a much happier childhood than any of the other 3 alternatives. He could have spun the magic worlds that mesmerized Margaux and loved her maturely, nonsexually, and with no strings attached. He could have masturbated privately to the memories, endless pictures and memorabilia he had of her.

Peter from the beginning teaches Margaux his beliefs about how girls and men can love each other without regard to age and how sexual activity can be a natural part of it -- beliefs he seems to hold sincerely. She accepts them. But the sexual activity harms her from the beginning -- it is so upsetting that it gives rise to a dissociation reaction to protect herself as best she can.

The sex is toxic, with no benefits to her. Peter's love is toxic to her, though it also fills this tremendous need she has. But the emotional abuse from her father is also toxic.

Society is virtually powerless to stop emotional abuse from parents. It is hard to define, it is common, and there aren't enough foster homes for all the kids who suffer -- and of course foster homes exact their own terrible cost. Margaux's father is not evil, but he is very damaging.

Peter is dangerous. Society had every right and duty to keep him away from kids had it known what was going on, including locking him up. While children need parents, they do not need toxic non-parental adults in their lives. But I see no more evil lurking in Peter than in Margaux's father. Peter is a criminal who has done great harm, but not an evil or sadistic man.


  1. On the one hand...

    =This review tells this as a classic tale of abuse. The reader "can see the type of grooming that can take place and the tools that perpetrators and offenders use; how they pick out a particular victim that seems vulnerable and easy to isolate ... The most powerful tool is the attention and affection. … They are exerting power over the victim."=

    On the other, you point out yourself: "I see no evidence in the book that Peter's actions are part of a premeditated plan whose primary goal is sexual activity with the girl."

    Indeed, having read the book, my impression is that Peter genuinely loves Margaux and does not wish her harm. Altho it isn't stated, a reader might easily conclude that his suicide is a response to his realization that he may have harmed her.

    Therefore, in light of this, the 'classic tale of abuse' narrative in the review is itself a classic threadbare, pretext shot with tired dogma (ie, pure gobshite). A far more interesting analysis was provided by Tom O'Carroll on his blog at

    He says: "I find Fragoso’s work is strikingly more effective than all the usual moralising, with vastly more persuasive clout than the endless plethora of one-sided and even dishonest victim narratives so beloved of our cultural media, from tabloid yarns to TV documentaries, to films and novels. Tiger, Tiger is an immensely powerful testament. I am in my mid-sixties, with a typical old dog’s shortcomings over learning new tricks; but Fragoso is making me think again."

    Tom think again? Powerful stuff then! And he seemed genuinely moved by Fragoso's testament.

    I think any child lover worthy of the name must be similarly sobered by this story. For myself, altho I'm as contemptuous of moralizing as anyone, (I think) I've always been alert to the problematic aspects of paedophilia.

    In fact I feel rather happily constrained by my feelings for beloved children, by a sense of care that compels me to treat them as potentially vulnerable to my thoughtlessness. Submitting to these constraints is a source of satisfaction in its own right, because it is a loving act.


  2. My intention was to mention the ABC News review to disagree with it, not to endorse its conclusion.

    I had read Tom O'Carroll's review, which I thought was interesting. I realize our conclusions overlap to some extent.

  3. Hi Ethan, yes sorry, I should have made it clearer that you disagreed with the review. My intent was that one -could- disagree with it without necessarily endorsing Peter's actions. I think you and I and TOC are largely in agreement on that.

    Perhaps if you'd got in first with the word 'gobshite' ...