Jaycee Dugard tells story of captivity and survival

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 29, 2011

“A Stolen Life,” by Jaycee Dugard. Simon & Schuster. 273 pages. $24.95.
By Elizabeth Cook
Morbid curiosity may make you want to read about Jaycee Dugard’s 18 years of captivity and abuse at the hands of a sexual predator. But don’t expect her to play whining victim in “A Stolen Life.”
Phillip Garrido stole 18 years of her life, but he could not steal her resilience.
Despite her ordeal, including giving birth to two children by her rapist, Dugard emerges as an amazingly strong and inspiring young woman.
Jaycee Dugard is a survivor.
By now her story is well known. Dugard was kidnapped at the age of 11 as she was walking to her school bus stop in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., in 1991. Phillip Garrido held her prisoner in outbuildings and tents behind his house to be his sex slave. Probation officers occasionally checked on Garrido, already a convicted sex offender, and neighbors lived mere yards away. But fences kept activities there hidden, and years passed before anyone knew what the Garridos were up to.
Dugard describes her first rape and many of the ordeals that followed, including the drug-fueled sex binges Garrido subjected her to for days at a time. She reveals enough to help readers understand the scope of her abuse, but not enough to appeal (one hopes) to prurient interests. She no doubt is sparing her readers the worst details.
Still, your heart breaks for this girl time after time as she grows up in the psychological grip of this monster.
The book includes whole pages from a journal she kept in 1993, two years into her captivity. Stuck alone between Garrido’s visits at that point, she dedicated the journal to Eclipse, one of the many kittens he occasionally gave her.
“Eclipse is very special to me because she is always with me for me to talk to, even if she doesn’t listen I know she cares,” writes the young Dugard, starved for warmth and affection.
She finds comfort in Eclipse. “She knows when I’m happy or sad. It’s almost like she has a happy meter inside of her that lets her know what I’m feeling and she always makes me feel better.”
Garrido gets rid of the kitten after a month.
In the early years, Dugard has only books, television and the occasional kitten to keep her company. Gradually Garrido and wife/enabler Nancy befriend Dugard, and she accepts that friendship to survive and ease the loneliness. As her daughters are born and grow up, they are told Dugard is their sister, and they and the Garridos become a family of sorts. Dugard runs a printing business with Garrido from her backyard prison, helping to keep food on the table, and even ventures out in public. Garrido has convinced her the world outside their compound is too dangerous for her and her daughters, so she does not try to run away, and at some points she is not sure she wants to. He no longer needs to lock her door; he has a lock on her brain.
Even before her kidnapping, Dugard was anxious about being accepted and loved, largely because of a stepfather who comes off as uncaring and harsh. The isolation, abuse and manipulation the Garridos subject her to compound that insecurity. She doubts herself, having lost so many clashes with Garrido. But Dugard never loses her grip on right and wrong.
“Sometimes I don’t want to live on a planet that lets such horrible things happen,” she writes in a diary in 2007. “I will not give up, though.”
Even in this twisted arrangement, Dugard’s concerns are much like any other young woman’s. In a 2004 diary entry, she makes a list of things she wants to do, such as lose weight, do yoga and write more.
However, her ability to lift herself above her circumstances and persevere is anything but ordinary. One day in 2007, she writes in her diary that she’s feeling very pressured, and she copes by writing out a list: “Affirmation to counteract the negative feelings I have inside.” First on the list is “I am a creative, positive, successful and happy person.”
On a list of dreams for the future she compiles at one point, the first item is “See Mom.” The powerful love she feels toward her mother drives her determination to someday be free. That longing — longing to be with her mother and be held by her — seems as strong in the 18th year of her captivity as it was in the first.
The Garridos’ arrangement finally unravels in August 2009 after Phillip takes Dugard’s daughters with him to a college campus, and the girls’ strange behavior sparks an investigation. In a matter of days, the entire world was looking at new photos of the Garrido compound, a secret no more. Just last month, Garrido was sentenced to 431 years in prison, and Nancy received 36 years to life.
Dugard’s level-headed tone in the book could be attributed to good therapy — and she has been in therapy. But the journal and diary excerpts show that she developed strong coping skills long before she tasted freedom again. Now she has to cope with the memories.
“I’m healing from the physical and verbal abuse I endured so long,” she writes. “It has not been an easy road.”
“A Stolen Life” is a fascinating story, told in a straightforward way — a quick read. It is both disturbing and triumphant. Jaycee Dugard went through things no one should have to endure, but she did not allow the experience to destroy her. How in the world did she live like this for 18 years? Read the book and you’ll understand.