Puerto Rican-American Margaux Fragoso, author of searing memoir of childhood sexual abuse, dies at 38


An obituary by Matt Schudel for the Washington Post.

Margaux Fragoso, the author of a controversial memoir that provided an intimate and often disturbing look at her 15-year involvement with a pedophile starting when she was 7, died June 23 at a hospital in Mandeville, La. She was 38.

The cause was ovarian cancer, said her husband, Tom O’Connor.

Ms. Fragoso’s book “Tiger, Tiger,” published in 2011 and translated into more than 20 languages, was widely praised for its literary style and its sensitive treatment of a forbidden topic: the long-term sexual abuse of a child.

“Picture a girl of seven or so,” she wrote, “who loves red gumballs that come from gumball machines but leaves behind the blues and the greens; a child whose sneakers are the kind with Velcro, not laces.”

“Tiger, Tiger” — the title is drawn from a poem by William Blake — focused on Ms. Fragoso’s complex experiences with a man who was 51 when they met at a public swimming pool in New Jersey. In the book, he is called Peter Curran (not his real name) and is depicted as someone possessing a perverse charisma.

She detailed the pain and coercion she received from her abuser, but she also described an affection that she could not find from her troubled parents.

“Written without self-pity, rancor or even judgment,” author Kathryn Harrison wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “ ‘Tiger, Tiger’ is the portrait of a man who will disgust and alienate readers by a writer too honest to repudiate her love for him.”

The book elicited an angry outcry from readers and advocates for sex-abuse survivors who said it was tantamount to child pornography and should never have been published.

“It is at once beautiful and appalling, a true-life ‘Lolita,’ ” journalist Wesley Yang wrote in New York magazine, “recollected in tranquillity by the victim ­herself.”

A graphic description of a sexual act, Yang wrote, “is perhaps the most indecent thing published in any major book of the last decade. It is executed with a remorseless candor that cannot fail to sear itself into the memory of whoever reads it.”

Much of Ms. Fragoso’s book revolves around her difficult home life as a child, divided between the twin poles of an angry, alcoholic father and a mentally disturbed mother who was sometimes institutionalized. When Curran entered 7-year-old Margaux’s life, she relished the attention of an adult who inhabited something of a child’s dream world: a house filled with animals, Christmas ornaments and an indoor swing.

“Hoping to make sense of what happened,” she wrote, “I began drafting my life story.”

She originally wrote “Tiger, Tiger” as a novel before reworking it as a memoir, drawing on journals she kept as a child and on letters from Curran.

“There was very little reflection in the voice,” Edvige Giunta, a teacher of Ms. Fragoso’s at New Jersey City University, said in an interview. “A reflective voice would have diminished the brutal reality. It was a literary choice . . . I would hate for Margaux Fragoso to be remembered just as a survivor of childhood molestation. She was a writer.”

Margaux Artemia Fragoso was born April 15, 1979, in West New York, N.J., and grew up in Union City, N.J. Her Puerto Rican-born father was a jeweler.

Her mother “was a mix of Norwegian, Swedish, and Japanese,” Ms. Fragoso wrote in “Tiger, Tiger,” who obsessively compiled scrapbooks about disasters. Her mother had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child, Ms. Fragoso wrote, and “had no idea how to recognize trouble, or to shield me from it.”

Ms. Fragoso graduated from New Jersey City University in 2002 and received a master’s degree in English in 2005 and a doctorate in literature and creative writing in 2009, both from the State University of New York at Binghamton. In addition to her memoir, she published poetry and fiction and had recently completed a novel.

Her first marriage, to Steve McGowan, ended in divorce. Survivors include her husband since 2010, Tom O’Connor, an English professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, and a daughter from her first marriage, Alicia McGowan, both of Mandeville, La.

In “Tiger, Tiger,” Ms. Fragoso wrote that Curran remained a part of her life until she was 22. She later learned that he had been arrested for sexual abuse of a foster daughter. When he killed himself in 2001 by jumping off a cliff, he left several suicide notes for Ms. Fragoso, including one urging her to write a memoir.

“The unabridged truth is naturally just very upsetting because people aren’t used to it,” Ms. Fragoso told the online Tottenville Review in 2011. “Some critics have thought I wasn’t openly judgmental enough of the people in the book, especially Peter. But I’m an artist, not a prosecutor. I’m not writing a manifesto; memoir is subjective.”

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