17-Oct, 20:14

08:18, February 16 406 0

2018-02-16 08:18:04
Modern Love: How ‘Lolita’ Freed Me From My Own Humbert

It was my uncle who gave me my first copy of “Lolita.” My father had refused to buy it for me at the bookstore we often visited together.

“Why that book?” my father said as he and I arrived home.

“I just want it.” We removed our shoes at the door, where religious superstition required all things unclean to be left. “I wanted to read it.”

I was 15, a sophomore in high school, and had learned of “Lolita” from an English teacher who had summarized the plot, citing it as an example of unreliable narration.

My uncle knew the basics — the trope of the precocious girl, the Japanese fashion subculture, the heart-shape glasses — but he had not actually read the novel when he gave it to me as a gift a few weeks later, after I told him my father wouldn’t buy it.

My uncle liked to buy me gifts both little and lavish: what my parents could not afford, what they forbade me to have. The benefactor role made him feel as if he were filling gaps that my parents’ conservatism had left in my life.

So in whichever hotel room we were staying that night (with me tucked into bed, conned out of clothes), he tossed me the forbidden paperback and said, “You’d better hide this. Your mother will have a fit if she sees you reading it. You know she doesn’t trust you like I do.”

He issued this warning even though I hid everything from my mother, as he had trained me to do. He knew that to groom girls you must erase mothers. I knew he had groomed girls before me from the tragic stories he told of Indian girls he had been with in England, stories in which he remembered himself as more savior than predator. I didn’t know their names, but across his years of abuse we formed a tight-lipped sisterhood, our silence keeping him out of jail.

I wanted to read “Lolita” because I believed it would mitigate my sexual shame. The similarity between the novel’s plot and my day-to-day life had sent me on a Google search, where I read excerpts and watched trailers of both film adaptations, categorized under “crime,” “drama” and “romance.” Until then it had never occurred to me to consider my relationship with my uncle under any of those genres. That anyone could think us a romance nauseated me, while crime and drama seemed overblown.

He came into my life when I was 12 and he was 53, a close family friend in a country — the United States — where my family had few relations. Childless himself, married to a mystery woman, he became my uncle in the routine way I was taught to call Indian men “uncle” and Indian women “auntie.”

He was also a progressive voice in my conservative household, sympathetic to the “Americanness” in me that my mother viewed as dangerous, especially regarding sex. While my friends were getting birds-and-bees talks, my mother prohibited tampons. I did not know what a menstrual period was until I got mine. Womanhood was far-off, a state of emergency that befell other people. We operated as if men did not exist.

But I had curiosities and crushes, and I came to confide these to my uncle over the handful of day trips and conversations it took him to secure my trust, and for me to love him, as briefly I did, as a girl can come to love a man who is like a father to her.

Under the false pretense of his wife joining us, he turned our day trips into overnights. On weekends he drove us into Manhattan, delivering me to acting classes and then picking me up for dinners and Broadway plays.

Although I was taught to accept nothing from anyone, he bought me a wardrobe of risqué women’s clothing and warned that rejecting his gifts would be ungrateful. At an age when I considered myself invisible to men, he found gratification in pointing out when a man on the street looked at me. I gazed at myself in the mirrors of the ritzy hotels where we stayed in rooms so extravagant that I was self-conscious about taking up space. Manhattan hotel rooms became Boston hotel rooms became Connecticut hotel rooms became seaside resorts and other locations I have worked diligently to forget.

I did not acknowledge that the cost of his care was molestation. To acknowledge that would make it true, so I accepted his explanations that what he did to me was either universal or imaginary, and that my pain was a product of my own tearful hysterics.

“Calm down,” he would say, his large, damp hand resting on my thigh. “Everyone is taught how to do this, how to kiss. I don’t get any pleasure from it. You’re mischaracterizing things.”

I ran with this theory, of myself as an unreliable narrator.

When I began attending a Catholic girls high school, a world of women materialized. My parents believed an all-girls education would put me on the path to an Ivy League college without the distraction of boys and their gazes.

To function as a schoolgirl, I cordoned off the memories of the other life I led, a life dictated by the gaze of a middle-age man. Instead, I dreamed of growing up and getting away from him. When, during a car ride, I spoke about my hopes for college, he promised to get an apartment wherever I attended. He dreamed I would come home to him after class and live with him like a surrogate wife.

I wept, devastated by the prospect of a future without exit. At the intersection he kissed my forehead, apparently mistaking my tears for joy.

Over time it became harder to deny the reality of the abuse, but still I felt I could tell no one. Exposing my uncle would ruin him, and I considered myself too unimportant to upend a grown man’s life. So I endured, pushing my family away and pulling my uncle close, and, I hoped, past suspicion.

I felt as if I were growing into two identities, the woman I was and the woman-as-object eclipsing her. And in “Lolita” I found a strange validation: that there was glamour to be had as an object of desire. If a pedophile’s gaze could be normalized and even beautified, then perhaps I could normalize and beautify my own situation. It was easier to digest an image of myself as a nymphet than to confront the reality of my victimhood.

Over time, the novel became more than a coping mechanism; it became a guide. I came to see how Lolita uses Humbert’s obsession with her as a means to gain power over him. In the blue kidnapping car in which the two travel cross-country, she uses this power to accuse him of rape, of being a “dirty man.” While Humbert fumbles to justify booking one hotel room for them both, she names their situation for the incest it is. She knows she is Humbert’s vulnerability and learns how to use herself against him.

Eventually, so did I.

The winter I first read “Lolita,” my uncle was trying to remain in my mother’s good graces, hoping he could convince her to appoint him as my legal guardian if tragedy ever struck. He was thrilled by the growing friction between my mother and me, fights precipitated by the sexy way I had started to dress and by her suspicion that I sneaked around with college men after school, which I did. His abuse had made me promiscuous to the point of recklessness, grateful for the simple fact that my body could still want. And I found that the more I wanted other men, the less I was willing to tolerate him.

When he surprised me with an apartment he had rented for us near my school, I told him, for the first time, that I hated him, that he was as much a pervert as the man in the book. And once the accusations began, I could not stop. Although he already helped to finance my school fees, I also demanded envelopes of money, determined to be ungrateful, to exact collateral. Over dinners I told him about men I had been with and what we had done, at which point he would set aside his plate and moan that he had lost his appetite.

It would be a few months before I reached my breaking point and exposed him to a schoolteacher, someone I knew would be legally bound to report him.

Soon after, at the police station, I supplied an affidavit. I sat in a roomful of officers who prompted and recorded me through an incriminating phone call with my uncle, the contents of which were then played back to him after his arrest, after he had dismissed the molestation charges as my “mischaracterizing things.”

I had not mischaracterized. The story I told was neither unreliable nor glamorous, and it didn’t belong to him. It was, and is, mine.