On the Death of a Character and the Life of a Woman

By Sarah Braunstein

In 1996, in broad daylight, 12-year-old Leonora Marie Colter was abducted while she walked down the street in New York City. She was forced into a car by a man and a woman.

A strikingly similar abduction experience is described in Jaycee Lee Dugard’s testimony of her 1991 kidnapping by Philip and Nancy Garrido. A man and a woman. Broad daylight.

A central difference in these two stories of abducted girls?

Leonora Marie Colter is a figment of my imagination. She is a character in my first novel, The Sweet Relief of Missing Children.

A while back, I read a New York Times article describing the testimony of Jaycee Lee Dugard, kidnapped at age 11 and held in captivity for 18 years in California. I read this testimony, as I’m sure many did, feeling sheer horror.

But I also felt a weird, uncanny sort of guilt. Many details from my novel echo Jaycee Lee Dugard’s testimony, and the coincidences have left me shaken.

According to her testimony, Dugard was “thrown into the back seat and covered by a blanket. And then [she] heard voices in the front, and the man said, ‘I can’t believe we got away with it,’ and he started laughing.’”

My book’s heroine, Leonora, is also forced into the back seat of a car and covered with a blanket. “She was on the floor of the car,” I wrote. “A green sedan. She was hiding beneath a blanket that smelled like balsa wood and mud.”

According to Dugard’s testimony, she “spent most of the first year alone—except during Mr. Garrido’s sexual assaults—though Mr. Garrido gave her a cat to keep her company.”

When I read this detail, the presence of a cat, my heart picked up speed. My character Leonora also gets a cat. Her captors distract her with one, then leave it in her hands for company. It is remarkable, Leonora thinks, “How their little lives had been veering toward each other’s. The purity of the kitten, that its beauty stayed intact no matter what happened, no matter who touched it—this made her feel better.”

Likewise, Dugard was told by her captors to be a good girl, a “helper.” According to her testimony, “…Mr. Garrido told Ms. Dugard that she was simply ‘helping him’ with a ‘sex problem,’ Ms. Dugard recalls.”  In my book, Leonora’s mission is to be a “helper” too, even under extreme duress.

Philip and Nancy Garrido are criminals.

What about me?

Authors of novels are not criminals, I know this, and yet the fact remains that my imagination shares some corner of sensibility with the Garridos. I intuitively fictionalized what they actually did. What monstrous current took hold of me? How am I like these criminals?

Or perhaps a better question: What does it say that it’s so easy to anticipate the abductors’ deeds? That I could intuit the vivid details of this real-life crime?

Maybe my capacity to describe people like the Garridos just highlights the mundane, predictable, banal roots of evil. Or maybe the details in these stories have already been written a long time ago, and all of us, criminals and novelists alike, are just calling on what we’ve seen a thousand times before.

Brutalized girls take our art and media by storm. Pretty teenage corpses appear daily on television. Stoic medical examiners remove particles from beneath their fingernails; cameras pause on their delicate, bruised faces. In countless popular novels missing girls motor thrilling, sensational plots.

And yet the missing or dead girl never, or almost never, owns the story. Her consciousness is not made available to us, or else it’s rendered in the simplest, most predictable terms. The missing girl is the vehicle by which others, usually men, exhibit their toughness and valor. She whimpers beautifully, she waits to be rescued, while a hero knocks the door down to rescue her.

For 18 years, no one rescued Jaycee Lee Dugard.

In my book, Leonora encounters her fate with no more company than that of a kitten.

But the novel itself is a form of rescue, or I dreamed that it might be. I grew up watching victimized girls on TV, reading about them in books, without ever seeing a full imaginative rendering of their humanity. My work was an attempt to look squarely at the consciousness of a child in deepest peril. To show her pain, her terror, but also her grace and compassion.

I did not turn away from my character in her crisis. I remember wanting to look away as I wrote the book, wanting to skip the ugliest scenes, wanting, somehow to spare her (or, perhaps, myself).

But I felt I didn’t have the right to depict a missing girl unless I was willing to go to the darkest places with her. If I was going to put a child in a terrible situation, if I would partake in this trend our culture can’t get enough of, I would try to do it differently. I would try to be her witness.

Jaycee Lee Dugard had no witness. The amazing thing is that she lived. That in her testimony, 18 year later, she witnesses herself, and, in effect, witnesses all the missing girls whose voices are silenced. Her story is less extraordinary than the fact that she is able to share it.

So perhaps above all I feel humbled by her courage, and redundant, and grateful for that.

Sarah Braunstein is the author of The Sweet Relief of Missing Children (2011), a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, and the winner of the Maine Book Award. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Ploughshares, The Sun, Post Road, Maine Magazine, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. In 2010, she was named one of “5 Under 35” fiction writers by the National Book Foundation.


5 thoughts on “On the Death of a Character and the Life of a Woman

  1. Hi Sarah!

    Great, if disturbing, post! The bit about the Garridos is a specific instance of what I was trying to talk about in general last week. When you write “What monstrous current took hold of me? How am I like these criminals?” I get the shivers. Writers! What kind of people are we?

  2. Ah! I love your musing on masks, Jim… our posts are most definitely in conversation. What kind of people, indeed.

  3. Reading your article and your replies makes me wonder about the other end of the spectrum. You mention that you shied away at first and wanted to save either yourself or your character from the pain of the worst scenes. When we do that as authors–hesitate or shy away or just feel guilty for being so mean–is it less about having the ability to write the scene and more about us being unwilling to admit to ourselves that we can write that scene? Are we in denial about what our minds can think up? And if we are…why are we? Isn’t being good not just about doing good things, but choosing to do good things even when we can think of easier or worse things? We may be able to think this horrible things (perhaps because we are always observing life and we have an understanding of humanity?), but we still choose not to do them in real life. So we may have bad thoughts but that doesn’t make us bad people because we don’t act on them. So why be in denial that we can think these things? Why be ashamed of it? Why put up brick walls between us and an emotionally charged scene? Maybe if I can figure that out I will be able to kill off my character’s dog–or the characters themselves–without staring at a blinking cursor for long periods of time. Maybe I’ll be able to kill the dog in a manner in which it deserves…

  4. A couple of TV movies – one about the Green River killer, the other about the murder of Martha Moxley – have used the device of having the victim (or a fictionalized version of one of the victims, in the former case) narrate the story from ‘beyond the veil,’ so to speak. The response has been mixed in reviews that I’ve read, with some viewers finding the technique somewhat distasteful. I always thought it was an interesting idea, though, and at least it keeps the presence of the victims onstage – as more than just pictures on a bulletin board, or specters haunting the investigators.

    • When thinking of having the victim narrate the story…can’t forget The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Her book was actually one of the first ones that I read and really thought about the issue talked about in this post: what it must have been like to be writing those things and how they would be received by people who knew her. I write what I want to anyway, but I can’t help thinking as I write about whether or not my dad would be able to read it. Or my grandma. Or my kids. What will they think when they’ve grown up and can actually read my books and see the darker scenes within them. But like I said, I write them anyway if that is what is required for the scene. I do wonder if I can ever come up with an idea that my dad and grandmothers and more…traditional? family members can read…

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