“Love is what you call a phantom pain. The poets write of it, our great art represents it, it inspires our musicians, but it does not really exist.” He took a long drag from his cigarette. “Like an ulcer you think you have but the surgeon opens you up and finds nothing there. It is a chemical reaction, Keesy. Hormones. People die for it, but no one has ever proven it exists.” (p. 130-131)
The summer she was seven, Margaux Fragoso met 51-year-old Peter Curran at the local swimming pool. Margaux is immediately drawn to Peter’s bright energy, unaware of the rabbit hole down which she is about to fall. Peter invites Margaux and her mentally ill mother to his home, filled with exotic animals and the love and attention Margaux is lacking from her own alcoholic father. These visits turn into an obsessive routine and as Margaux falls deeper and deeper under Peter’s spell, their relationship takes a heinously disturbing turn.
Tiger, Tiger is the shocking, raw, unsettling memoir of Margaux’s 15 year relationship with Peter. It begins with long hugs and small kisses but soon progresses to brutally honest details of a wildly inappropriate and disgusting sexual relationship. Peter manipulates Margaux by telling her they are “in love” and that this is what people who are in love do. Sorely lacking any healthy relationships with which to compare, Margaux feeds on Peter’s lies, all the while struggling with a sense of shame and disgust that she doesn’t quite understand. Over the years, Margaux and Peter’s relationship grows more toxic and volatile and they become so dependent on one another that any hope of a “normal” life seems impossible. When Margaux enters college and attempts to regain some control over her life, she tries to put some distance between herself and Peter. Caught in constant push-and-pull, it is only when Peter takes his own life that Margaux was finally able to break free from the vicious cycle of abuse she had endured for more than half her life.
It’s hard to say that I liked Tiger, Tiger. Was it captivating? Yes. Hard to put down? Yes. But enjoyable? Well…the subject matter made that difficult, despite the wonderfully lyrical prose. Fragoso is clearly very talented. What I did find is that I spent a lot of time being incredibly frustrated that this was able to go on as long as it did. Margaux and Peter were surrounded by people most of the time. Her father sensed there was something wrong with Peter, but never addressed it and eventually gave up trying to keep them apart. People who were close to them questioned the nature of their relationship. A freakin’ social worker was sent to investigate! And nothing. To me, that was just as disturbing as the abuse itself.
I’ve often been asked why I read such “depressing” books and it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s voyeuristic, but some part of me is deeply fascinated by the intimate details of people’s lives that are so vastly different from my own. Maybe it helps me put my own problems into perspective. Maybe it just helps me to have a better understanding of human nature (good or bad). But whatever the reason, I’m drawn to books like Tiger, Tiger. They get under my skin and may make me uncomfortable, but they make me think.