Man who allegedly stabbed pregnant woman to death headed for trial

Woman held captive for 18 years connects with literature class

Denise Crosby
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

AURORA, Ill. — They came to see the survivor, of course.

Jaycee Dugard signs autographs for East Aurora High School students after her 90-minute question and answer session with students Tuesday afternoon. (Denise Crosby/The Beacon-News/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The Little Theatre at East Aurora High School on Tuesday afternoon was overflowing with students from the Survivor Literature classes who wanted to hear firsthand how Jaycee Dugard lived for 18 years as a prisoner in the backyard of her kidnapper and rapist.

Of how she gave birth to two daughters — not only managing to live through almost two decades of imprisonment and, at times, unimaginable sexual torture, but to later find forgiveness and normalcy.

First, however, Dugard wanted to hear from the East Aurora kids.

After flashing a dazzling smile and waving shyly to her audience, Dugard admitted she was nervous, having never before spoken to a high school group that made her best-selling memoir, “A Stolen Life,” the focus of its annual class project.

“Tell me about your night,” she requested, referring to the 18-hour lock-in these students took part in over the weekend that not only helped raise more than $7,000 for Dugard’s JAYC Foundation, but also gave these teens a chance to focus intently on the subject of sexual abuse.

The young audience responded to her inquiry, tentatively at first, describing their personal discussions during the overnight gathering that took place Saturday evening through noon Sunday. They talked about the emails they wrote to survivors and the T-shirts they made. They told their guest about the various stations that were set up in the gymnasium that allowed them to discuss issues relevant to her book.

And they detailed some of the more memorable activities, such as having to sit on their hands for 15-minute-intervals throughout the long and sleepless night as a reminder of the many hours Dugard was handcuffed by Phillip Garrido after he kidnapped her in 1991 while she was on her way to the school bus in Lake Tahoe.

East Aurora High School student Ana Jimenez presents Jaycee Dugard with a T-shirt she designed as a gift from the Survivor Literature class, which used Dugard's best-selling book, "A Stolen Life," as the focus of their project this year. (Denise Crosby/The Beacon-News/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

“It was scary … agonizing,” is how one East Aurora girl described the hand-sitting exercise. “I don’t know how you did it.”

It was a statement, no doubt, that was rolling around in everyone’s mind as Dugard gradually began answering questions about her 18 years in captivity. The hardest part, she said, “was being lonely,” especially the first three years when she was by herself.

Following the births of her daughters — they were 15 and 11 when Garrido and his wife Nancy were arrested in 2009 — she never felt alone again. Her children provided that much more incentive to fight hard for survival, and that meant she had no choice but to go along with whatever her captors demanded of her.

Man who had heart attack in Aurora thrift store meets hero who saved his life

Man who had heart attack in Aurora thrift store meets hero who saved his life

After so many years of living in a tent and shed and scared to disobey any orders directed at her, it became her new normal, Dugard said.

“I had no idea how to ask for the help I needed,” she said, describing Garrido as a master manipulator who thoroughly convinced her he had so many supporters on the outside that if she dared to run, no one would believe her story and her daughters would be taken from her.

Still, despite the horrors she described, Dugard insisted she has no regrets about anything in her life. “If this had not happened to me,” she said, “I would not have my kids.”

Just as surprising, Dugard holds no anger.

No matter what questions the inquisitive audience tossed her way, she did not hesitate in her answers. And as hard as I tried to find it, I could not detect even a trace of hatred or bitterness. Certainly there was none in her beautiful smile.

“We all have a story,” she said. “This just happens to be mine.”

And for those in the audience who might have been able to identify with any part of her story, she also had a message: If abuse is going on somewhere around you, don’t pretend you don’t see it. And if it’s happening to you, speak up; find a trusted adult.

“Don’t,” she insisted, “let it be your shame.”