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Jaycee Dugard’s Memoir, An Acclaimed Novel, and the Art of Writing About Captivity

“A Captivity No Novelist Could Invent” is the headline on Janet Maslin’s recent review of Jaycee Dugard’s new memoir, A Stolen Life. Dugard, as many will know, is the California girl who was kidnapped at age eleven on her way to school in June 1991. For the next eighteen years, she was imprisoned in a backyard by Phillip and Nancy Garrido, forced to act as Phillip’s sex slave; she bore him two daughters, the first when she was only fourteen. Her story is horrific almost beyond imagination.

Almost. Because, as Maslin knows well, last year the Irish novelist Emma Donoghue published her remarkable novel Room, which in fact imagines just such a situation. (Donoghue has said that she had finished her novel before Dugard was found.) Some of the details are different: The kidnapping victim in Room is in college; she has only one child, a son, by her captor; and she is imprisoned for a shorter period of time. But others, such as the soundproof backyard shed in which the victim and her offspring are kept, are uncannily similar. I can’t think of another instance in which fiction mimics life so closely, so presciently.

And yet a look at the two books side by side shows that they’re not at all similar. This has to do with the authorial choices made by Dugard and Donoghue, in terms of the way they decided to tell their stories and the emphasis they placed on certain elements. But it also has to do with the fundamental differences between novel and memoir—two forms that, especially in recent years, have often been confused, but which have essentially different aims.

EVEN IF JAYCEE Dugard’s shocking kidnapping and release had not made her into a household name, no one could mistake A Stolen Life for a novel. Dugard’s book is the work of a traumatized woman. The story proceeds in fits and starts as the author forces herself to recount memories that are often fragmentary. Many of the chapters end with a section headed “Reflection” in which Dugard, speaking in the present, adds new thoughts that she’s developed in therapy.

Dugard’s account is paradoxically simple. She was kept in one of two backyard sheds (depending on whether there were other visitors to the property) outside the house where Phillip Garrido’s mother lived. Phillip and Nancy exist on the margins: Nancy worked for a long time at a nursing home, but Phillip was too deranged to hold down a steady job. (In later years, the three of them ran a successful printing business together after Dugard showed an aptitude for graphic design.) Phillip raped Dugard regularly, often high on methamphetamines, which he used for days at a time. A pedophile who used his wife as an accomplice to film girls at a local playground, he told Dugard that he was using her to exorcise his sexual demons so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone else.

Through it all, Dugard maintains a kind of devastated innocence. “The word ‘rape’ was not in my vocabulary,” she writes early on. The years of forced intimacy with her captors—the Garridos seem to have often slept in the same room with her, and the three of them would eat fast food and watch videos together—have left her unable to see them clearly. Although she writes of Phillip’s belief that “angels” were controlling his actions and reports on the strange experiments that he had her perform, she stops short of calling him insane, which he clearly is. (At one point he made her stare for hours at an air conditioner, trying to train her to hear his voice coming out of it.) The most vivid passages are the ones in which Dugard allows herself to reflect on her former life—the world she lived in up to age eleven, with her mother and later a stepfather (who seems to have been quite unkind to her) and a baby half-sister whom she adored. But much of what happened afterward is hazy.

The book moves from trauma to trauma: Phillip’s meth-and-sex binges, the birth of Dugard’s children (which she delivered in her shed, with only the assistance of Phillip and Nancy, who gave her codeine for the pain), the arrival and subsequent removal of pets that she adored. (The Garridos allowed her to have numerous cats and also a bird, though they would also take the animals away from her for apparently no reason other than to punish her.) But the moments in between are hard to grasp. The most gaping omission is her daughters, born when she was 14 and 17. Dugard, fiercely protective of their privacy, is understandably reluctant to share details about their lives or even their names. But other than a glimpse of Phillip complaining about the cost of diapers and the names of websites Dugard visited to download homeschooling materials, we get little sense of what, for most outsiders, will be the greatest mystery: How did she manage, assisted only by her captors, to bring up two children who were always kept hidden from the outside world? How did she cope with being solely responsible for them, day in and day out? And how on earth did she explain their situation to them?

This is where Room comes in. The protagonist—her name is only given as “Ma”—is a woman imprisoned in an eleven-by-eleven-foot shed. The book is narrated by her five-year-old son, Jack, for whom the place he calls “Room” is the only life he has ever known. Donoghue’s genius is to treat him not as a wild thing or a Kaspar Hauser figure, but as a normal little boy, with a chatty, questioning voice. (According to news reports, Dugard’s children also appear to be normal and well-adjusted.) In some ways “Room” is every child’s fantasy: Jack has his mother’s complete attention virtually all day long. All five-year-olds think the world revolves around them; for this one, it actually does. In this way, Room is a reflection less on the exigencies of life in captivity—which Donoghue can only imagine, though she does so very effectively—than, more poignantly, on the mother-child relationship and where its boundaries ought, and ought not, to be. For Jack’s mother, “Room” is a prison; for him, it is a cocoon in which she guards him with her devotion.

In A Stolen Life, the children are ciphers, by Dugard’s design. In Room, it’s the mother who is unnervingly inaccessible: All we know about her is what Jack reveals. From what he says abut their daily life, it’s clear she’s making the most of their situation. They spend structured time each day in educational activities, even making a track to run around in their tiny space for “phys ed.” She makes games out of everything, including the time they spend punching in random numbers on the electronic keypad that controls the door in an attempt to discover the code. (Donoghue’s “Room” is a little more high-tech than Dugard’s shack.) But we can feel her pain only indirectly, through the comments she makes to Jack or his observations of her actions.

Room, in many ways, makes more sense than A Stolen Life. It’s a complete world, fully imagined down to the last detail, as its genre demands: A novel must be internally cohesive or the illusion of reality will disintegrate. Dugard, naturally, doesn’t have the privilege of the novelist’s bird’s-eye view of her own situation—she is still stuck in the middle of it, trying to make sense of it, as she may well be for the rest of her life. (The parts of her book that describe her captivity are usually narrated in the present tense, as is characteristic of trauma memoirs.) If her book were a novel, it would have to investigate more deeply all the things she’s not quite ready to look at: namely, the weird domesticity she shared with the Garridos for so many years. Dugard leaves questions unanswered; the novelist doesn’t have that luxury.

READING ROOM PRIOR to Dugard’s memoir, I thought that Donoghue’s decision to leave the thoughts of the protagonist inaccessible was the only possible one. To imagine one’s way into the mind of Jaycee Dugard, or any other woman in such a situation—Donoghue has said she was inspired by the case of Elisabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman imprisoned in a basement dungeon by her father for 24 years—felt as if it could only be a presumption. What could anyone else know about an experience like this, so far beyond the normal realm as to be unapproachable? But a child reared in captivity—that is somehow simpler, perhaps because all children grow up in a kind of bubble that gradually expands to take in the world. “That notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth: it seized me,” Donoghue told The Guardian.

And yet A Stolen Life only convinced me further of Donoghue’s insight. Not because she got her protagonist “right,” but because she didn’t. Jack’s viewpoint is distorted by his youth and his innocence of the world, but his mother comes through clearly. And she’s nothing like Jaycee Dugard: acerbic where Dugard is naive, angry where Dugard is resigned. Most of all, she’s creatively desperate to escape, willing to take risks that Dugard never dared. In short, she’s her own distinct personality, a true literary character rather than a newspaper knock-off. Donoghue’s achievement is to have imagined the world of Jack and his mother so completely that the details of the real-life cases no longer feel relevant. As Donoghue said in an interview, “Writers should be applauded for their ability to make things up.”

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.