In our household, Diane Sawyer's ABC interview with former captive Jaycee Dugard, seen by almost 15 million Americans, marked the end of an eclectic weekend of TV viewing for us. The previous night, we had watched a DVD of Luis Buñuel's 1967 film, The Exterminating Angel, a surrealistic story of people at an upper-crust dinner party who find themselves unable to leave when the party ends. (The movie is referenced briefly in Woody Allen's current film, Midnight in Paris.)
There are some odd parallels between Dugard's real-life ordeal and Buñuel's cinematic fantasy. Jaycee Dugard, snatched from her home at age 11, was held for 18 years by Philip and Nancy Garrido in a ramshackle warren of tents and sheds behind the Garrido house in Antioch, California. She was repeatedly raped by Garrido and bore two daughters by him. The big unanswered question in this case was why didn't she try to escape? Dugard comes across as an intelligent young woman so why not just scoop up the kids and flee when the opportunity presented itself?
"It wasn't something I felt I could do," Dugard told Sawyer, "There was no leaving."
The characters in Buñuel's Exterminating Angel speak in similar disjointed terms when they ponder their inability to leave the room. They have simply lost the will walk away and don't know why.
In Jaycee Dugard's case, she was repeatedly threatened by the Garridos; handcuffed and locked in a room much of the time and told that there were vicious dogs that would attack her if she tried to flee. For an eleven-year-old child, those are powerful incentives to tow the line. But as the years wore on, she also had escape opportunities. Philip Garrido was returned to prison for a month for parole violations and Dugard was left solely in Nancy Garrido's care. Later, Garrido had Dugard work in his printing business, interacting with customers who could have been told to summon the authorities.
But paralyzed by fear, Jaycee Dugard was unable even to consider the idea of freeing herself and her children from their nightmarish confinement in the Garrido compound.
Parole officers who were supposed to monitor Philip Garrido failed to notice Dugard and the children after 60 some visits to the house. They never thoroughly examined the tents and the sheds where the girls were being held captive. When a neighbor alerted the local Sheriff's department that there were children living behind the house of Garrido, a registered sex offender, and that something strange was going on, a deputy made only a cursory inspection and left.
In Exterminating Angel, the authorities are similarly impotent, unable to enter the house where the people are trapped to effect a rescue in what appears to be Buñuel taking a shot at the ineptitude of governments in general.
In real life, the ineptitude of the parole authorities netted Jaycee Dugard a $20 million settlement from the State of California. Not so in the movie, where the government never gets held accountable. After all, this is surrealism and there's some kind of spell going on here.
Jaycee Dugard's tale has a happier ending than the Buñuel story. The characters in the movie find themselves in yet another trap at the end while Dugard enjoys her freedom. Her memoir, A Stolen Life, hits bookshelves this week with predictions that it will top all the bestseller lists. And yes, there are plenty of predictions that her story will also wind up on the big screen someday.