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A horrible incident leads to a life transformed in ‘The Jaguar Man’

Some facts: One night on a trip to Belize to visit a gentleman with whom she was falling in love, Lara Naughton was kidnapped by a man posing as a taxi driver. He held her for about a day and a half and raped her twice at knifepoint. After conversing with Naughton — after praying with her, in fact — he returned her to her beachfront cabana.

She told the gentleman with whom she had a relationship. She did not report the crime to the police. In shock, she returned to Los Angeles as quickly as possible and began to put her life back together.

These are the facts, but they are not nearly the whole story, as Naughton shows again and again over the 155 pages of “The Jaguar Man,” her powerful, often brutal, often inspiring memoir of this incident.

Her style mixes fact and myth, cutting and weaving together the totality of her experience from hideous fragments: “Myth: the angry man wears a jaguar tooth necklace so that some of the jaguar’s power will rest on his chest.” From far later: “Fact: In trauma, mammals tremble and shake until they regain their balance and neutralize their response.”

Proper names are never used, which gives the story a hallucinatory and, well, mythic feel. The man she is visiting is “the diver.” The rapist is “the angry man” or “the jaguar man.” Later she sees “the priest,” whose politics she loves but who botches his attempt at counseling; “the therapist” doesn’t do much better.

She approached the trip with the most profound optimism. She met a diver on a previous trip and is returning to visit him. A lapsed Catholic exploring her faith, she asks God for “an experience of love so big, (she would) have to change (her) life to comprehend it.” The irony is devastating but ultimately more complex than base irony can encompass.

She is not an inexperienced traveler, realizing very quickly that she has made a horrible mistake getting into this fake cab: “He closes the door of the van and I hear a click from the outside. Click. If there is one dominant sound I will always associate with the angry man, it’s that click.”

The account of her assault is worth a whole host of trigger warnings; the assault itself, the act, noun or verb, is given the letter X (“You know the jaguar man will X.” Later: “Question: How did X becomes a women’s issue?” and “The jaguar man will press against you, force you to carry some of his pain, (and it will affect you profoundly), but X is not your issue.”)

(For those seeking a slightly different perspective from the author on this incident, Naughton addressed the crime last year in an essay for Salon, “My rapist asked me to pray for him; I did what it took to stay alive.”)

During the incident, Naughton finds herself feeling no small part of compassion for the jaguar man — “You want X to be over but you don’t want him to die. You want him to heal. I want him to heal.” Which is how she allows herself to heal.

“You don’t realize it yet, but this turn towards compassion changes you forever,” Naughton writes. “While the jaguar man hammers at your flesh, your unthinkable love for him carves a gash much deeper in your core.” This is not a romantic love, nor familial or agape. It is something different.

Naughton spends the balance of “The Jaguar Man” unpacking this extraordinary turn. She struggles with talking about it with friends, struggles with guilt of not reporting him, struggles with the judgment of others. “Later people will analyze me,” she writes. “Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe, I think. Maybe. But I will always maintain that my right as a victim is that I get treated and he get treated.”

She eventually finds a counselor who understands the totality of the experience, and has an argument with God — at whom she is, with good reason, furious. She finds a clergyman who doesn’t flinch at X. She returns to Belize. It is the start of a new life. Not the same one as before, clearly, but a new one.

Page to page, Naughton walks a tightrope. Not content with just facts, she seeks to create something far greater than the base hideousness of her experience, something that can make something larger out of both the hideousness and the extraordinary courage that is a decision for compassion. “The Jaguar Man” explores a personal victory that seems impossibly hard won that Naughton undertook because she had to, to become whole.

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