Freedom, My Book of Firsts
by Jaycee Dugard
Simon & Schuster
246 pages, $25
By Barbara Sullivan
In 1991, 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard was abducted while walking to the school bus in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. For the next 18 years, her abductor and his wife held her captive in a squalid, makeshift backyard bunker of shacks and tents where she eventually gave birth to two daughters who were fathered by her captor.
After her reappearance in 2009, Dugard wrote “A Stolen Life,” a harrowing account of her nearly two decades in captivity. By most accounts, “A Stolen Life,” which sold nearly two million copies, was a compelling page-turner that revealed Dugard’s remarkable courage and resilience.
If only the same could be said for her follow-up memoir, “Freedom, My Book of Firsts.”
It feels wrong to write anything negative about this book; criticizing it feels uncomfortably like victimizing this brave young woman once again.
But there is just no way to spin “Freedom” as a gripping read. Its subject matter – Dugard’s first trip to the dentist, her first hangover, her first speeding ticket – is so ordinary it is hard to work up any emotion at all about it. Compounding this lack of import are the childishness of Dugard’s observations and her fifth grade-level writing, which render even the more meaningful events – her first glimpse of her mother, taking her daughters to school for the first time – stunningly banal.
Take, for example, this passage from a chapter about her first trip to a mall post-captivity.
“To me, a good shoe makes all the difference in an outfit. ... Wedges are so awesome because you can walk in them, unlike a spiky heel, which is the worst to walk in. Wedges make me feel taller, which I desperately need because I am vertically challenged and need help reaching the top shelf. ... Although I always go back to a comfy slip-on. Clogs are my go-to for the barn and errands, and Skechers are my favorite for exercise.”
Or this, from a chapter about a trip to Belize.
“Oh, and did I mention NO AIR CONDITIONER! It was around eighty-five degrees and with all the people stuffed in the van it felt much hotter! Plus, I get car sick. I had taken Dramamine for the plane ride, so I was okay. The road was very narrow, and although Ted was a good driver we came very close to the passing trucks. Wow, thinking about it I can’t believe we made it in one piece!”
Some readers will find this naivete charming and these wide-eyed descriptions about routine activities interesting. Others, however, will find the overwhelming evidence of Dugard’s arrested development vaguely embarrassing and not a little bit troubling.
The point of “Freedom” might well be to illustrate the contrast between Dugard’s extraordinary adolescence and her re-entry into the real world as a grown woman. There certainly is material worth mining there.
And had Dugard had a ghost writer, or even a more aggressive editor, this book might have turned out in a way that readers might have seen more of it.
Barbara Sullivan is a copy editor at The Buffalo News.