In June 1991 an 11-year-old was kidnapped by two strangers and subsequently held captive by them as a sex slave (and slave labor) for 18 years. The victim’s subsequent release at age 29 (along with the two daughters she gave birth to while a teenage captive) led to a $20 million damage settlement from the state of California and a book by the victim that became an instant bestseller. The victim’s book “A Stolen Life” is a priceless record of her unusual experience (1).
Despite the extreme rarity of stranger abductions, many people believe that such a thing is likely to happen often unless hysterical measures are taken to “protect” all children from a similar fate. As I and others have pointed out, statistically the average child is 300 times more likely to die as a result of physical abuse or neglect by his own parents than be abducted by a stranger for sex. Nonetheless, the mass hysteria over rare stranger abductions makes all children indirect victims of this and similar tragedies. California’s infamous Coalinga concentration camp for sex offenders is a testament to that hysteria. Ironically, the victim eventually realized that in their makeshift prison her daughters were safe from being kidnapped like she was.
After her long isolation and deprivation, she expresses more wisdom than many parents: “…sometimes when we shelter our children too much, we are really protecting ourselves.” Nonetheless, some reviewers claim this book justifies their over-protectiveness of their own children. Sex is worse than death. A child being repeatedly raped by an adult is an injury that should not be trivialized, but is it really worse than death? The victim who authored “A Stolen Life” doesn’t seem to think so, and neither do I. At one point during her captivity she even says she’s happy most of the time, and she hopes her mom and half-sister are as happy as she is most of the time. At another point she says “I’m actually happy to see him [her captor].” He makes her “laugh with all his jokes and antics.” After her second child is born she wishes he would stay home more. After one of her outings when her purse is stolen, she wonders if she’s safer in her makeshift prison. “At least I know what to expect here.”
Rare stranger abductions and child sex abuse seem clear-cut issues of right and wrong, but some difficult questions remain. Before the kidnapping the victim seemed to be happy, but she was hardly living an ideal life. She never knew her real father, didn’t like her step-father very much, had been in four different schools by age 11, and felt she “needed” a dog – as many children in less than ideal families do. In school she had to write an essay on “If I had one wish.” She doesn’t wish her absent father loved her and came to see her. She wishes she had a dog. She was apparently led to believe that her biological father had abandoned her at birth, but he denies that and has now made public attempts to contact her. She seemed to worship her mother and never says a critical word about her, except that the parent forgot her promise to kiss the child that fateful morning of the tragic abduction. Little girls are famous for writing about their rage against their mothers in their dairies. But there is no rage expressed against the smoking mother in this book.
Most girls today don’t realize they are mentally castrated by their mothers and become sexually dysfunctional because of their mother’s misguided anti-sex indoctrination. Sexual dysfunction in women is hidden because Western culture calls such dysfunction “normal.” Healthy sexual function (clitoral erection, easy orgasm) isn’t necessary to live and be reasonably happy, but that doesn’t justify mothers mentally castrating their daughters. Misled by the cultural belief that “good girls” and women simply have no sexual desire or less desire than boys and men, misguided castrating mothers go unrecognized and uncorrected. Many adults are absolutely convinced the worst possible thing that can happen to a child is sexual “overstimulation,” even though nobody has ever defined what that mysterious word is supposed to refer to, let alone ever given a coherent explanation of why it is so indescribably dangerous. Many mothers are actively destructive and even fervent in the mental castration of daughters – keeping girls prisoners in their own home. Some mothers are guilty of openly or secretly terrorizing daughters against sex, while other parents are merely guilty of sexual neglect and omission.
Was that the case in this victim’s background? When a new mother is abandoned by her partner it’s not surprising if she regrets the sexual experience that conceived the child and is then overly restrictive of her daughter’s sexual development. The victim in this case said she didn’t know anything about sex by the time she was eleven. Was she deliberately kept ignorant? The victim says she misses her little half-sister dearly, but she seems unaware that many sisters have violent physical fights and when some sisters grow up and are no longer under their parents’ control they stop speaking to each other. I’m not suggesting that the victim should be coldly philosophical, and I don’t mean to point a finger at the victim’s family of origin in this case, but we must not assume that before the kidnapping the victim was living in a fairy tale and her youth would have been blissful if it were not for the abduction. Fairy tales of normal life are what people tend to assume. It’s what we would like to believe. But reason calls for a balanced perspective.
Nor do I deny that the kidnappers’ behavior was monstrous, but we don’t have their side of the story. Considering the circumstances, even if we do hear the kidnappers’ story we can’t believe them. Anybody who kidnaps an 11-year-old for sex has lost all credibility (unless what the kidnappers say incriminates themselves and/or is corroborated by reliable and impartial witnesses). The kidnapper was reportedly taking psychotropic drugs to treat mental problems, but there is now suspicion that such drugs themselves may cause erratic, violent, or suicidal behavior in some cases. The kidnapper assaulted the child with a stun-gun and then kept her handcuffed in a state of sensory deprivation. He deprived the victim (and eventually her daughters) prenatal and pediatric care. Was that the behavior of a sane human being? He was willing to risk losing his freedom for the chance to have sex with an 11-year-old. What kind of sanity is that?
In any case, nobody asks to be born a monster, and sometimes other people play a large part in turning someone into a monster. The kidnapper had previously been sentenced to 50 years in prison for the brief kidnapping and rape of a woman. Was that punishment just? He probably spent the first 10 years of his confinement wondering if he might be released on parole after 10 years, or maybe after 20 years, or maybe after 30 years. Was that humane confinement, or was it torture? Was he raped in prison without protection and without any retribution for the perpetrators? I don’t think a mentally balanced person kidnaps and rapes anybody. Did the state “punish” an individual who was already very sick?
I feel great sympathy for the young victim and her family of origin, and I’m not questioning her sincerity, but many factors may have contributed to some important details about the experience being left out of the narrative. The very title of the book is an exaggeration. The victim’s youth was stolen, not her life. Although youth is a very important part of our time in this world, youth isn’t your whole life. There are many possible details before, during and after the victim’s captivity that we will never know. Here are a few interesting things the victim does tell us.
Unsurprisingly, the victim laments being coerced to have sex. She says she hated it so much. “Each and every time. There is no enjoyment for me…” I believe that coercion is always negative, even if orgasm results. On the other hand, Western culture promotes the belief that “good girls” have no sexual desire – only bad girls do. So we don’t expect any 11-year-old girl to voluntarily confess she wanted to have sex or enjoyed it, even under ideal (non-coercive) conditions. Most 11-year-old girls are not allowed the opportunity to express sexual desire and experience sexual pleasure. Conventional ideals of the “good girl” do not give them permission. She says “He did disgusting things to me.” But whether or not sex is perceived as “disgusting” is a value often imposed on people in early childhood before they are mature enough to chose their own values. In this book the kidnap victim never has anything positive to say about sex. There is not one single positive word written about sex in the whole book – before, during, or after her captivity.
The victim only admits that being isolated and deprived of social contact, she was naturally glad to get occasional visits from her captors. Is that the whole story? Considering the cultural context of political correctness that prohibits acknowledgement of sexual desire and sexual pleasure early in life (especially in girls), it would be surprising to hear otherwise. On the other hand if a rape victim is already sexually dysfunctional, as most women are today (2), then we should not be surprised if the sex was not pleasurable. Nor should we be surprised if a sexually dysfunctional woman who is raped blames her lack of pleasure on the coercion rather than her pre-existing sexual dysfunction.
At one point in the narrative the victim says she had the childish hope that if she “thinks really hard” about something it won’t happen, so during her long hours alone she thought really hard about all the things her captor might do when he comes to visit. Typical magical thinking in childhood, perhaps. But the practical effect of that belief in this case was to give the young girl a perfect excuse to “think really hard” about the man having sex with her. Very interesting indeed. In reality, thinking about sex is nothing for anybody to feel ashamed of, not even a victim of coercion, unless we buy into the traditional myth that “good girls” have no sexual desire – only “bad girls” do.
A disturbing aspect of stranger kidnappings is so-called Stockholm Syndrome, in which the victim comes to have positive feelings and an emotional bond with her aggressors. The principle is simple: If you can’t beat them, then join them. The victim in this case eventually referred to her prison as her home, and the people around her as her family. Unless I’m mistaken, that included her captors, since the man is the father of her children, and she depended on him to take care of her and her daughters. When she became a young woman she ignored multiple chances to escape, and even feared the thought of other people rescuing her. “I don’t want to get them in trouble [referring to her captors].” She went to the beach with her captors, the nail salon, etc. She eventually says “…it doesn’t bother me that much when he hugs me anymore.” She says she thought he loved her. It’s difficult for the average person to imagine what it’s like to be held captive for over 10 years, and sometimes Stockholm Syndrome happens after only a very short time. When she was rescued, she had known her captors almost twice as long as she had known her mother. At age 22 she wrote in her journal “I don’t even remember what she looks like.”
One of the kidnappers reportedly behaved like a psychotic, e.g. hearing voices, and other classic symptoms. It’s convenient to consider him responsible for his actions rather than insane, especially if we want an excuse to hate and hurt (“punish”) somebody. The other kidnapper was an older, barren woman, and both the male kidnapper and the young victim say the woman was jealous of her husband’s attention to the young victim and her beautiful daughters. The two children born into the makeshift prison were eventually encouraged to call the pathetic older woman “mom,” and the very young (real) mother who had breastfed them their “sister.” A sad and bizarre situation that is difficult for the rest of us to imagine. In a TV interview the victim plainly called the woman’s jealousy “sick.” I agree. In my opinion a mentally balanced person – man or woman – would never have participated in such a despicable tragedy in the first place.
The two beautiful, healthy children born as a result of the rapes is a positive factor that complicates the tragedy. In the end, the victim admits she’s glad she had her daughters; who wouldn’t be glad about that? “I would do it all again. The most precious thing in the world came out of it…my two daughters.” She might have remained childless otherwise, as many women today do. The traditional romantic fantasy is that children should be the product of love, so children of rape may even be aborted in some states that otherwise prohibit abortion. How absurd and pedophobic an idea is that! Children deserve to be loved unconditionally because they are children, not because they were produced by you or because they were supposedly the products of true romance.
Toward the end of the book she says she doesn’t hate her captors even though what they did to her and her family was unforgivable. Then she mentions how much her original family and friends suffered, rather than how much she and her daughters suffered. I agree that her family had probably been the ones who suffered the most, not the kidnap victim and her two daughters born during the captivity. When a child cancer patient dies, it is understandable if someone says the surviving family suffered more than the patient. I’ve met some cancer survivors who don’t even remember their childhood cancer, although their parents certainly remember. The 18 years of captivity weren’t as bad for the abduction victim as for the friends and relatives living free and wondering if she was still alive and how much she was suffering. Not knowing anything was a worse nightmare. Would her mother and other relatives wish they (or the abduction victim) were never born? Of course not. In the end, they were all happy to have been born. This case illustrates that even under the worst conditions, having healthy children is usually worth it.
What about the two daughters? Do they have the free choice to visit their father in prison now (if not for him then for them)? Are they free to pity their father or are they forced to reject him? He could be harmful to even talk to, but I think pre-screened letters and photos should be possible if the girls want that. Are the girls free to see their grandfather? Their mother seems to be wiser than most people in that she realizes a person is not fully alive without free choice. But I wonder if like most women she doesn’t realize that without a body that functions sexually a woman is not fully alive either – an injury committed by millions of mothers against their daughters every day. Beyond the incentive of physical pleasure, sex can be an excellent way to communicate positive emotion and feel close to another human being. Talk is cheap; women spend so much time talking about love, but their bodies are silent.
The victim’s separation from her family for 18 years was a tragedy, but some individuals never have a family from the day they are born until the day they die. Jaycee Dugard eventually started a foundation to help other victims of abduction overcome their experience. The foundation’s image is a pinecone, which symbolizes that life can always be restarted: www.thejaycfoundation.org I’m glad her life restarted and I hope other victims of abduction can restart their lives. But in reality life cannot always be restarted for everybody. According to the web site the victim recently spoke at a conference on Stockholm Syndrome at Harvard. I haven’t read or listened to the presentations, but the speakers reportedly criticized calling the phenomenon a “syndrome.” Even more perplexing to me is the immense popularity of the victim’s story. There are 2,500 reviews on Amazon – more than any other book I know of – mostly brief and superficial comments by women. Why are so many women eager to read the details? I’m reminded of the popularity of the old “True Confessions” magazines, and wonder if some readers get secret, erotic enjoyment in reading about sex crimes.
Recently a five-year-old boy in Arizona was found dead after he wandered away from his family campsite. There was no abduction, just a lack of parental supervision. That’s the typical cause of serious injury or death in childhood – not abduction by strangers. Not only are such tragedies statistically much more frequent than stranger abduction, in qualitative terms that boy’s life can never be restarted. His parents can’t hope for his future. Despite the coerced sex that Jaycee Dugard suffered, in relative terms she was one of the lucky ones. “A Stolen Life” is a short book about a very long period of time. Hopefully, someday she will reflect more on her early life and write a more detailed and balanced description of her early sexual education (or lack thereof) and how that might relate to her reaction to her coerced sexual experience and current sex life (or lack thereof).
There is good reason to believe that some mothers set the stage for a negative reaction to even minor sexual abuse. As an idealistic young woman the victim wrote in her journal “I want to change the world, make it a better place to live. A place where I want the kids to live.” Ironically, this abduction victim’s unique experience could actually contribute much to dispel the ridiculous myth that early sexual experience is worse than death. Some drama queens promote the belief that even a single experience of minor sex abuse should be an international scandal, but here is a person who experienced multiple rapes over a period of years and not only survived but is glad she did and glad she had two children as a result – and with good reason. There is evidence that throughout most of human history children learned about sex by watching their parents enjoying the act (3), but today normal sexual behavior is not only hidden from most children, some parents don’t even talk about sexual desire and sexual pleasure with their kids. Isn’t the anti-sex crusade in modern culture to blame for pathetic sexual fixations and widespread female sexual dysfunction?
1) Dugard, Jaycee. A Stolen Life: a memoir. Simon and Shuster, 2011.
2) Sammy Elsamra, Michael Nazmy, David Shin, Harry Fisch, Ihor Sawczuk, Debra Fromer. Female sexual dysfunction in urological patients: findings from a major metropolitan area in the USA. BJU International, 2010; DOI: 10.1111/j.1464-410X.2009.09091.x. Another survey: 60% of women never or almost never experience orgasm during intercourse. Cited in: Kamisaruk, Barry R. et al. 2006. The Science of Orgasm. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 17. See also: Laumann E, Paik A, Rosen R . Sexual dysfunction in the United States: prevalence and predictors. JAMA 1999;281: 537–544