The vast majority of 11-year-olds who walk to the school bus stop on a crisp morning in a quiet town, especially a tiny one like mine, will not be kidnapped. They will not be turned into sex slaves, tortured in a backyard shed, repeatedly raped and impregnated by a drug addict who says his evil deeds are the bidding of the angels whispering in his head.
Jaycee Dugard assures us: “Stranger abduction is very rare.” But Dugard is part of the “1% of the population” who has been abducted. All those things happened to her.
In her book, “A Stolen Life,” Dugard gives us all the fetid horror that authors like Dean Koontz and James Pattersonhave been trying to conjure on their pages for years. Only this time, it’s real. And it’s worse than fiction.
The story of Dugard’s ordeal fuels every helicopter parent’s unreasonable Velcro parenting. See, it can happen! And now, most American children will never ride their bikes in the empty lot until dusk or kick a can on a meandering walk home.
It’s a tough read. But work through it, and you’ll find more than the stomach-churning details that make you put it down the first night. Thislittle memoir, which shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list the day before it was released, was written plainly and simply by Dugard herself, without the help of a ghostwriter. And in that, it is powerful beyond its voyeurism.
Dugard starts the book with her life in my home town, South Lake Tahoe, Calif., where her family relocated after their apartment in Anaheim, home of Disneyland, was burgled. Aside from the small grease stain that the casinos occupy in this Sierra Nevada idyll, Tahoe is a quiet place. The most frequent assaults are night raids on garbage cans by raccoons.
I walked to the bus stop throughout my childhood. I was always afraid, like Dugard was, of missing the bus and having to ask my dad — asleep after pulling a night shift in the casinos — for a ride to school. I was lucky. I made it to school just about every day and was away at college on June 10, 1991.
On that morning, my little brother did his usual trek to a bus stop just a few miles from the spot where Dugard was doing the same thing. It was the last time my brother walked alone as a kid.
A car pulled up alongside Dugard, the window rolled down, and the driver began asking for directions. This happened all the time in Tahoe, where we would delight in sending tourists on a 70-mile trip around the lake to get to the casinos that were just two miles away in the opposite direction.
But the driver, Phillip Garrido, didn’t want the casinos. He and his wife, Nancy, wanted the 11-year-old blonde in a pink windbreaker.He zapped her with a stun gun and dragged her into his car.
The voice describing all this could be straight from the pages of an 11-year-old’s diary, but the details are more likely to be found in the script of a hard-core porn flick. “The strange man tells me to look at him. I glance real quickly and want to start laughing in spite of my fearfulness. His private part looks so funny,” Dugard writes of the first night that Garrido forced her to shower with him, then handcuffed her and locked her in a shed in the back yard of his house outside Antioch, Calif.
Later, she describes the shackles and the fantasy rape scenes and the elaborate costumes and the days-long, drug-fueled “runs” of sex and torture that he often videotaped. “The ‘runs’ were some of the most horrible moments of my life,” she writes. “I always knew there’d be a next time. I could see no end in sight.”
From that, cut to the 11-year-old’s musingsabout a stuffed animal she named Nurple Bear, Barbie furniture she fashioned out of milk cartons, the Disney songs she would sing to herself in her solitude, the Highlights magazines she would read and the pets — Tigger, Snowy, Eclipse, China, Blackjack, Misty, Princess, Tucker, Lucky, Bucky, Sarge — that her captors would give to her, then snatch back, in a sadistic re-creation of her mother’s anguish.
Of course, the big question is: Why didn’t she run?
With every page you turn, you’re waiting for the moment she attacks, when the brave and angry ninja girl picks her handcuff lock with a paper clip, rips a two-by-four from the shed and whacks her captor over the head. It never comes. She didn’t claw his eyes out and kick. She heard the neighbor’s lawn mower next door, but she never screamed for help or banged on the walls.
That’s a complicated and puzzling part of her story. But reading the experience in her own words is a revelation. It allows us to understand who she was before she was snatched and how Garrido controlled her.
Little Jaycee Dugard had a stepfather who scared her. She cowered at his criticism of the way she ate her peaches-and-cream oatmeal, the way she talked, the way she did chores. She was shy and timid, a people-pleaser. The Garridos couldn’t have picked a better victim.
From the very first night when she was brought to the Garridos’ house, she tried to please them, to do what they said, to not make them mad, to comply so they would maybe let her go.
It wasn’t just Dugard’s compliant nature that ensnared her. Garrido played classic abuser mind games. He would rape her for days, then collapse and sob in her arms, begging for forgiveness. He was everything to her — food, drink, clothing, human contact. He sang to her and raped her. Made jokes in silly voices and told her that voices in his head commanded him to violate her.
Nancy Garrido enabled the abuse and torture through a mask of seething jealousy, which Dugard tried for years to break. During Nancy’s infrequent visits to the shed, Dugard tried hard to get the woman to like her, to mother her. Nancy, who in the past had lured little girls off of playgrounds to be videotaped doing acrobatics for her husband, never joined in the sex torture of Dugard. But she was one of the architects of her mental torture.
Dugard gave birth to her first daughter when she was 14, then another when she was 17. Having those babies gave her company, love and a reason to run. And a reason not to run. “I was conditioned to think the outside world was a scary place, and the only place I was safe and my girls were safe was to stay with their dad. He always took care of everything. He always had an answer for everything,” she writes. “One of the reasons I stayed was I wanted my kids to be safe. . . . I knew they were so safe in the backyard; I didn’t have to worry about anyone taking them like I was taken.”
Even when she made supervised forays to the beach, the store or the park, or searched online for lesson plans to home-school her girls, Dugard was afraid to utter her name. “I know my daughters don’t understand why I didn’t stand up for myself. It frustrates them, I know,” she writes. “That is something I am working on in therapy. My assertiveness.”
This is the part where her horror story becomes familiar. She explains the way Garrido argued down her every point, whittled her self-esteem, made her reliant and doled out minute drips of affection. And that begins to sound like all those times you stayed with that bad boyfriend or domineering frenemy or overbearing boss. And, shockingly, you can relate.
Captivity and abuse became her state of normal, and you see that in the lists she kept as she grew older, logging her goals of losing weight and doing yoga in the morning. “I want to make myself a better person,” she writes. “The first thing I want to improve is my garden.”
Parole officers visited that house at least 60 times, according to a special report by the California Office of the Inspector General. They never went out back and looked into the window of the tiny shed to see her in handcuffs cuddling Nurple Bear or hitting puberty or giving birth or teaching the two other souls who had arrived since the last few government visits.
Garrido was a convicted sex offender who did time for raping a young woman in a storage shed in Reno after kidnapping her from a Tahoe casino parking lot in 1976, the same one I walked through alone countless times after a shift as a teenage waitress. He trawled that area for years before he settled on Dugard, the little girl who kept quiet because he told her she was saving other girls from her fate by “helping him with his sexual problem.”
When she was finally discovered in 2009, she lied to the police several times to cover up for the Garridos but finally wrote her name in a shaking hand — JAYCEE LEE DUGARD — on the paper a police officer pushed toward her. She was free. “It was like breaking an evil spell,” she writes.
All it took was a couple of Berkeley police officers who finally acted on that gut feeling that something was not right, and pushed it a little further. Recognizing its failure to properly monitor a paroled sex offender, the state of California paid Dugard$20 millionfor her stolen life.
Dugard surprises, in the end, by her lack of bitterness. She says she has no room for hate and talks about reuniting with her mom and sister, the therapy she is doing with her daughters and the milestones she missed, such as learning to drive or getting a locker in high school.
“Sometimes I look at my life and what I have and think I don’t deserve it,” she writes. “Look at all I have when there are so many struggling just to get by and feed their families.”
Assertiveness, Jaycee. You deserve all of it. And then some.
Petula Dvorak is a metro columnist for The Washington Post.
A STOLEN LIFE
By Jaycee Dugard
Simon & Schuster. 273 pp. $24.99