Saturday, January 12, 2013

Review of A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

There’s something about these types of stories that draws me in, and I don’t always want to be drawn in. Actually, I generally try to stay away. I’m a father of 2 young kids, and I can’t invest too much emotional capital worrying about ‘the worst.’ Books like A Child Called It, Columbine, and Road Out Of Hell  I’ve purposely avoided because I’m afraid I will obsess and mentally try to relive the atrocities perpetuated on the pure-in-heart, mostly in an attempt to vicariously help shoulder their sorrow. But I caved this time, and I’m glad I did; and though this story was quite disturbing at points, there was an overriding tone of triumph to it. Freud had his own theory of why we contemplate suffering and death, which he named the ‘death drive’ (later psychologists dubbed it ‘thanatos’), though this contemplation may at times only produce more suffering in the form of premature worry. In Freud’s view, this contemplation of suffering is an attempt of the psyche to neutralize a potential threat by desensitizing itself through overexposure. Not bad, but I would also like to think that people are not so disjoined and isolated as we appear physically, and our empathy for each other may not be entirely superfluous. Our awareness of a deeper human solidarity, or a spiritual unity as some might call it, might be an intuitive defiance against the apparent quarantine of bodily separation . Or maybe I’m the type of person who, in the words of Dickens’ character, Fred, from A Christmas Carol, likes “to think of people…as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Jaycee Dugard endured for 18 years some of the worst life has to offer. And what did she have to say about it? She said she wants people to know that there is hope in the darkest places. She said she does not hate her torturers, for hate would be a waste of precious life. In her later years of captivity she audaciously affirmed in one of her journal entries, “I would never turn back the clock and change the way things worked out. I love my kids.” Also, while still in captivity, she literally wrote down affirmations for herself: “Only I can make it happen…Every day I become the person I want to be. I have the strength to do everything I set my mind to.” Dugard survived what for many might be thought of as unsurvivable, yet still came out with a spirit strong as a lion, calling out her encouragement to all, “You can endure tough situations and survive. Not just survive, but be okay even on the inside, too.”

And survive she did. I have always wondered about the state of mind a person has to be in to be so committed to surviving that you turn down a myriad opportunities to escape. I understand someone being afraid of trying to escape only to get recaptured under penalty of death, but Jaycee stated in her journals that some doors to freedom would have been relatively easy to walk through, but she feared they would land her in a world where she wouldn’t know how to conduct herself and take care of her children. She even lied several times to law enforcement officers about her identity while she and her children were in protected custody and being asked about who she really was. According to Jaycee’s own account, it took her captor’s own confession before she broke down to confirm the truth of who she was; and even then, she initially couldn’t speak her own name after 18 years of being forced to conceal it. She had to write her name down on paper before she began to feel a sense of freedom return.

One of the saddest parts of the story, aside from descriptions of sexual torture, was when Dugard questioned her feelings of loneliness during the later years of her captivity. On some days, walking laps in her backyard confinement for exercise, she journaled her confused thoughts about why she was so depressed and unhappy. Get that—she was wondering why she was feeling sad! Her journal reads: “I don’t understand why I’m not happy. I am happy…I mean I should be happy.” Another day: “Oh God, I feel awful. I hurt so badly. Why do I feel this way?” Such a disturbing example of cognitive dissonance, and the denial combined with confabulation that helps guard us against our fear of danger and shame. Psychologists say there are some neuroses in our lives that are actually healthy modes of functioning given the circumstances. I’m guessing this is one of those circumstances. It makes me wonder: how many of the rest of us are wondering what is wrong with our lives, when ‘what is wrong’ is so unavoidable that part of the haze we can’t see through comes directly from ourselves as we try to blur the problem and therefore solutions we’re not ready for. Jaycee suppressed some hazardous ideas to save her own life, and ultimately her kids’ lives; and, although her level of self-awareness and optimism was still off the charts, she had to bury quite a bit within her until she was better equipped and the time was right to dredge it all up when she was finally free. I truly hope she and her family are finally able to find the peace she longed for.

After reading the book, I watched the video of Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 interview with Jaycee a year after her discovery and release. It was so nice to see her radiant smile, even when recounting the evil that took so much from her. Jaycee is now a celebrity and a millionaire. Of course, concomitant with that celebrity status comes the celeb-parasites and paparazzi, which immediately began harassing her family. She mentions in her memoir that she felt taken hostage again by the press as soon as she was free from the suffocating loneliness of anonymity. However, she has her family in a safe place, and now she has friends, support, and love from around the world. She has also become a big voice in victim rights. The state of California has already paid $20 million to Dugard and her 2 children (born in captivity) because of the lapses in responsibilities of parole officers who otherwise may have found her earlier; and I imagine Dugard has used these funds to keep her family’s whereabouts in California a secret, as well as to found and support the JAYC Foundation—a family reunification program for abduction/trauma victims and their families.

Jaycee is a hero. I could understand how a person coming out of this type of trauma might become reclusive and antisocial due to fear of people in general, but Jaycee has never stopped providing for her daughters while still seeking out ways to reach out to others who are helpless. Writing this book was one of those ways she chose to help, as painful as I know it was. I wonder if her love for her daughters and for others, in a very real way, is what saved her (and is saving her) from completely turning inward to wall herself off from the outside world and live in an insulated world of her own. Love kept her alive, and I have no doubt it will continue to do so. I’m grateful to her for sharing her story.

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