The Real Lolita


The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World


by Sarah Weinman










A Lolita de Vladimir Nabukov era um daqueles livros que antes do 25 de Abril toda a gente procurava para se deleitar a ler. Na realidade, a descoberta do livro era até bastante decepcionante, pois o autor é bastante (digamos) cirúrgico, mas enfim, era algo de novo.

Recordo o meu Comandante de Companhia em Angola, o (então) Capitão José Faria Leal que em 1962, vira o filme de Stanley Kubrick com o mesmo título na África do Sul e arregalava os olhos quando nele nos falava por volta de 1966, pela carga erótica da fita.

Acho que o consegui encontrar e ler ainda antes do 25 de Abril, mas em erotismo achei-o bastante inferior a O Amante de Lady Chaterley, de D.H. Lawrence.

Aqui, Sarah Weinman, a Autora, decidiu avançar sem dúvidas para uma tese ousada: o enredo do livro viria directamente de um acontecimento ocorrido na mesma altura em que Nabukov escrevia o livro. Para isso, partiu para uma investigação exaustiva em que fala de tudo: o rapto de Sally Horner, a vida de Nabukov, a escrita de Lolita, a prisão do molestador Frank la Salle , o julgamento,  a morte de Sally num acidente de viação, enfim, tudo! Aliás, quando lhe aparece um personagem novo, a Autora tem o cuidado de nos descrever a vida dele antes e depois do facto narrado!...

Pese embora o êxito que o livro está a ter, entendo que a tese da autora não é convincente. Aliás, nunca o poderá ser, porque enquanto vivo, Nabukov nunca aceitou dizer que fora o rapto de Sally a sugerir-lhe a ideia do livro. Galifões que se metem com jovenzinhas é o que mais há no mundo, são já episódios banais. O próprio Nabukov tinha já escrito alguns contos sobre o mesmo tema.

Do livro de Sarah Weinman, aproveita-se a história bem documentada de Sally Horner e de toda a sua família, e também algumas surpresas, como a facto de Frank la Salle na cidade de  San José ter molestado sexualmente também uma menina de 5 anos, Rachel filha de Ruth Janisch, a  senhora que convenceu Sally a telefonar a sua mãe comunicando-lhe o paradeiro do violador e levando o FBI a entrar em acção.




September 9, 2018 at 4:56 AM

To Write a Predator


Did a real-life kidnapping case inspire Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’?

The Real Lolita - The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World
by Sarah Weinman
Ecco, 306 pp.


In June 1948, 11-year-old Sally Horner was lured from her Camden, New Jersey home by a man named Frank La Salle, who claimed to be an FBI agent. She spent nearly two years as his captive, living in different places around the country. He told people she was his daughter. In March 1950, she used a neighbor’s phone to call home and was rescued.

Sarah Weinman’s new book presents Sally’s plight as the “real” tale behind Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. There are obvious similarities—the novel’s narrator, Humbert Humbert, takes 12-year-old Dolores around the country. Weinman goes down two tracks: the story of how Nabokov came to write the novel and the story of Sally’s kidnapping. We see Nabokov juggling teaching, writing, and driving around the United States to catch butterflies. At about the same time, Sally is being hauled from one part of the country to another by La Salle.

Weinman argues that Sally Horner’s fate has echoed through our culture. That seems like an overstatement—how many people have even heard her name?—but it’s true that tales of girls like her, abused and abducted, have a lurid fascination.

It’s true, too, that our culture deals awkwardly with sexuality and adolescence—a weak point that Nabokov targeted perfectly. We generally frown on grown men who leer at young women, even while companies market T-shirts saying “PORNSTAR” for children and glossy magazines encourage teen readers to experiment with sex. This cultural confusion is reflected in the law. It is possible for teenagers who have consensual sex before the age of legal consent (which varies by state from 16 to 18) to end up permanently on the sex-offender registry. Meanwhile, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and activist Fraidy Reiss have exposed in recent years, child marriage is disturbingly persistent in the United States—typically between a young girl and an older man. These include cases in which the parents of a pregnant 12-year-old see marriage to her rapist as a good outcome for their daughter. So a young teen or even pre-teen girl can, depending on how her parents feel, be treated legally as a married mother-to-be or as the victim of a child rapist. Our cultural inability to draw clear lines between childhood and adulthood is part of why we find Lolita so resonant and uncomfortable.

Weinman’s retelling of Horner’s experience is heartbreaking. It is the story of a girl made vulnerable by the social expectation that children defer to adults. In her day, before the attitude of “stranger-danger” was routinely inculcated in young people, monsters like La Salle preyed on children because they could. Weinman’s meticulous research has traced where Sally was moved to by La Salle, and she does her best to imagine what Sally went through.

But what we miss is anything from Sally herself about the experience. Today we would have an interview on 60 Minutes and commentary from psychologists about her condition. Our understanding of Stockholm syndrome has changed how we think about victims who have stayed with their abductors even when there were opportunities to flee. (Public awareness of Stockholm syndrome emerged with a later and more famous kidnapping, that of Patty Hearst.) But after Sally’s rescue, she went back to a community where she was regarded as a slut. That judgmental attitude toward a young teenager who had suffered a horrific crime today seems monstrous.

Unfortunately, Weinman only gets any of this secondhand. Sally died in a car accident when she was 15. Her family is dead, too, except for a niece too young to remember her. Weinman interviews school friends, but after seven decades their memories only give us so much.

Sally Horner’s story is tragic, but her connection to Lolita is more tenuous than Weinman suggests. The idea that Nabokov was inspired specifically by this case, an argument somewhat undercut by the fact that he had been writing stories with pedophilic themes for decades, is hardly revelatory: Authors are often inspired by true crime. That he apparently denied it when asked about the Horner case—following a magazine article in the early 1960s—tells us little one way or another.

Even if Nabokov did draw on Sally’s experience, he had only slight knowledge of the basic facts. He did have a notecard—he wrote everything on notecards—on which he had jotted down some details from a newspaper account. But the case wasn’t widely covered in the press (Sally’s rescue, Weinman acknowledges, wasn’t even reported in the New York Times), so it’s hard to see how it could have been a major inspiration.

Nabokov does explicitly mention Sally Horner’s case in an aside toward the end of the novel. At that moment, Humbert Humbert is considering whether he was no different from predators like La Salle. In a sense he is posing the question to readers, who have been led to see him somewhat sympathetically.

Lolita’s literary value is in its wit and verve—in the way Nabokov makes us forget that our narrator is a villain. Nabokov made Humbert Humbert handsome and in his late 30s, a man at whom women threw themselves. He doesn’t fit our image of a child molester (and looks nothing like Frank La Salle, to judge from the mug shots). We begin to accept Humbert’s self-justifications and hate ourselves for it. Of course, most child molesters are not suave, erudite, and handsome (any more than serial killers are opera-loving Ph.D.s engaging in cat-and-mouse games with brilliant detectives).

More interesting than whether Nabokov used Sally’s experience as some of the basis for his story is why his novel struck such a nerve. How did Lolita come to be so popular, such a subject of wide controversy, and so enduring? Nabokov’s agent told him that the publisher of the book’s 1955 first edition actually hoped Lolita would encourage a change in “social attitudes toward the kind of love described in Lolita”—that is, the publisher, who mostly published smut, not literature, hoped Nabokov’s book would make society more accepting of desires like Humbert Humbert’s. (Shades of every creepy guy who’s ever given a teenage girl a Malibu and Coke and told her that “Age is just a label” and “You’re obviously an old soul” while stroking her thigh.) In Lolita, Humbert is full of the same kind of self-justification that you find from sweaty-palmed lechers in the grimier corners of the Internet, with florid discussions on the ages at which girls reach puberty. Their defense is framed in terms of evolution and biological imperative, and anyway aren’t there countries where girls are married at 11?

The way we commodify young girls’ bodies, our social veneration of virginity—and the notion that if a child is not a virgin it’s less of a crime to rape her—all this is in the pages of Nabokov’s novel. So is the cry of pedophiles everywhere that the child somehow was the seducer. Lolita challenges the boundaries of our morality, and our fascination with sex crimes is at least as strong today as it was in the 1950s. We even have a television show devoted to them: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, about to start its 20th season. We are intrigued; we wonder about dark impulses and taboo urges; we are horrified; we cannot look away.

To call Sally the “real” Lolita is to overstate the influence of her case on Nabokov. And it’s a claim undermined by the fact that we know so little about her: We don’t know how she felt or how she understood her experience. But she deserves to be remembered—not as a literary footnote, nor even just as the victim in a tragic case, but as one who was brave enough to escape.



The Washington Post

    September 7, 2018

   Was ‘Lolita’ inspired by a true crime? A new book offers tantalizing evidence it was.

By Maureen Corrigan


Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 masterpiece "Lolita " — a staple of the American Library Association’s Banned and Challenged Books list — has only grown more infamous with age. Dazzling as it may be, “Lolita” is an especially hard sell in this age of trigger warnings and the #MeToo movement. After all, Humbert Humbert is not only the most unreliable narrator ever to slither his way through the pages of a novel, he’s also a middle-aged sexual predator who’s fantasizing about defiling 12-year-old Dolores Haze, a.k.a., “Lolita.” For those of us who admire Nabokov’s gifts, talking about “Lolita” can feel like being on a perpetual critical cartwheel of exaltation and apology: celebrating the novel’s artistry while decrying the corruption that artistry captures.


Sarah Weinman has just complicated the perception of this vexed classic in her superb new book, "The Real Lolita". Weinman, who has edited two collections of largely underappreciated 20th-century female suspense writers (“Women Crime Writers” and “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives”), has now become something of a literary detective herself, conducting an investigation into the case she says inspired “Lolita”: the 1948 abduction of 11-year-old Florence “Sally” Horner. Though Nabokov himself steadfastly denied that his magnum opus — some 20 years in the making — had roots in the foul rag-and-bone shop of true crime, Weinman assembles a substantial array of evidence that points to a horrific real-life story at the center of this novel, a life story that, she says, Nabokov “strip-mined to produce the bones of Lolita.”

Weinman begins her book with the clue that, like Poe’s purloined letter, Nabokov planted in plain sight. Toward the end of “Lolita,” Humbert asks himself in a quick aside, “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank La Salle, a 50-year-old mechanic, had done to 11-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” As Weinman poignantly describes it, Sally Horner’s ordeal began with a shoplifting stunt. A lonely junior high honor student in Camden, N.J., Sally was trying to get in with a clique of fifth-grade girls. The clique dared Sally to steal something from the local Woolworth’s and, so, she stuffed a 5-cent notebook into her bag. Before she could make it out the door, however, Sally was grabbed by a man who claimed to be an FBI agent. As Sally began crying, the “agent” relented. He told Sally that if she reported to him occasionally, he would release her.

The man was Frank La Salle, a predator who’d already served more than two years of jail time for the statutory rape of five adolescent girls. Months after he first grabbed Sally, La Salle told the girl that the government wanted her to go with him to Atlantic City. Sally (who’d guiltily kept her shoplifting attempt to herself) explained to her single mother that she’d been invited to go to the seashore with the family of some school friends. On June 14, 1948, Sally’s mother put her on a bus bound for Atlantic City. She wouldn’t see her daughter again for almost two years. During that time, La Salle took Sally on the road, living under the guise of being a widowed father and his daughter in a succession of boardinghouses and trailers, where Sally was sexually violated.


By combing through court documents and newspaper accounts and interviewing surviving friends and family members, Weinman has evocatively reconstructed Sally’s nightmare, as well as the sexual mores of mid-20th-century America. When Sally’s mother was told her daughter had been found alive in a California trailer park, she reacted by saying, “Whatever she has done, I can forgive her.” Upon her return to junior high in Camden, Sally was ostracized; the boys “looked at her as a total whore,” a friend told Weinman.

Simultaneous with Sally’s story, Weinman also traces Nabokov’s decades-long wrestling process with the novel that would make his reputation. While it remains unclear exactly when Nabokov first heard of Sally’s ordeal, a “Lolita index card” — one of many on which he scrawled notes for his novel-in-progress — attests to the fact that he knew of her death in the summer of 1952. For, in another twist of fate, Sally was killed in a car crash just two years after her deliverance from Frank La Salle.

In the wake of"Lolita's" initial publication, a couple of reporters tried to draw connections to the Sally Horner case, but Nabokov — and his fiercely protective wife, Vera — denied it; Nabokov’s biographers have generally ignored the case. “Knowing about Sally Horner,” Weinman rightly says, “does not diminish ‘Lolita’s’ brilliance, or Nabokov’s audacious inventiveness, but it does augment the horror he also captured in the novel.” In “The Real Lolita,” Weinman has compassionately given Sally Horner pride of place once more in her own life, a life that was first brutally warped by Frank La Salle, and then appropriated by one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century.


Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program, “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.





  How Lolita Seduces Us All

A new book about a terrible crime sheds light on the novel’s enduring allure



Let us now reread the old texts, examining them with a cold eye to determine what they reveal about the #MeToo transgressions of the artistic past. Even the popular entertainments must be probed for common savagery. Molly Ringwald watched her film The Breakfast Club in the company of her young daughter and realized that one scene contains within it a suggestion of offscreen physical harassment. And just like that, the movie—the Citizen Kane of 1980s teen cinema—went whistling down the memory hole, a plaintive echo of its hit song fading to silence as it plummeted: “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”

Is nothing safe? Perhaps—and at Vegas odds—only Lolita can survive the new cultural revolution. No one will ever pick up that novel and issue a shocked report about its true contents; no feminist academic will make her reputation by revealing its oppressive nature. Its explicit subject is as abhorrent today as it was upon the book’s publication 60-plus years ago.

Bored on a quiet afternoon during my first year out of college, I looked through some books I kept in a milk crate and reached for one I’d never read: Lolita. I’d spent the previous summer in Italy, where every jukebox and car radio seemed to play either a dance track called “Vamos a la Playa,” or the mesmerizing hits from the Police album Zenyatta Mondatta, including “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” which informed me of the smoldering allure of “that book by Nabokov.” With that endorsement—hadn’t Jim Morrison directed us happily to William Blake?—and with nothing else to do, I opened the book, and the room quickly faded around me, and then I faded, too, leaving behind a girl-shaped vapor.

The opening pages: a delight. O, Nabokov! O, Sting! Didn’t we speak the same language? Weren’t we sophisticates? There was the charmed, European childhood of Humbert Humbert, “a bright world of illustrated books, clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas.” There was the comically unsentimental dispatch of his lovely mother in a freak accident—“picnic, lightning”—and the fellow feeling he shared with a little girl named Annabel during a childhood romance: “The softness and fragility of baby animals caused us the same intense pain.”

But then, just a few pages later, he is an adult who is—what the hell?—cursed to live in “a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.” One had heard certain things about Lolita—but 12? Here was Humbert extolling “certain East Indian provinces [where men of] eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds.” And here he was on his habit of seeking out very young girls wherever he could find them, in orphanages and reform schools and public places: “Ah, leave me alone in my pubescent park, in my mossy garden. Let them play around me forever. Never grow up.”

And this is the exact point at which the sensible reader—the moral reader, the reader who does not leave behind a vapor when she enters the book but keeps one foot squarely planted in the corporeal world—parts company with Humbert Humbert. A sound decision. Lolita is a novel about a man who kidnaps and repeatedly rapes a 12-year-old girl, holding her captive until she escapes at 14. No one can blame the people who won’t read it.

But then there are the rest of us. The book is about obsession, and its uncanny feat is to create that very same emotional state in the successive generations of readers who defend it. Moreover, many who have loved it most ardently are young women—the ones whom we might imagine being its most furious critics. Lena Dunham has called it her favorite novel. The singers Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry have declared their passion for the character Lolita, whom they envision as both sexually knowing and deeply innocent. Countless Tumblrs and Instagram accounts show teenage girls and young women similarly inspired by this combination, picturing themselves the objects of an older man’s transfixing lust. That they are all far too old for Humbert Humbert—who cooled on girls once they hit 15, and was repelled once they hit the college years and were “buried alive” in the flesh of womanhood—is of no concern to them.

What is to be done with us, the women and girls who love Lolita? Can nothing bring us to our senses, break the spell? A new book is determined to set us straight: The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World. In it, Sarah Weinman unearths the case of Sally Horner, a schoolgirl who was kidnapped in 1948 from Camden, New Jersey, by a serial child molester. For almost two years, they traveled across the country under the guise of father and daughter; for a time she was even enrolled in school. It was a sensational news story, and Weinman argues that the road-trip and school details provided Nabokov with the scaffolding he needed to finish Lolita. Weinman is not the first to note the connection—Vladimir and Véra Nabokov both bristled when they were asked about it—but she’s essentially clinched the case: The stories are starkly similar, and Nabokov even makes direct reference to the Horner case in the novel.

But Weinman’s claim that awareness of the case “augment[s] the horror he also captured in the novel” isn’t quite right. Knowing what was done to Sally Horner is indeed ghastly. But for “horror,” little can match the mural that Humbert Humbert dreams of painting on the dining-room walls of the Enchanted Hunters motel, the site of his first sexual congress with Lolita: “There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smearing pink, a sigh, a wincing child.”

If anything, Lolita augments the horror of reading about Sally Horner. I always forget how direct the novel is about the crimes at its center. All of that ugliness was hidden, we tell ourselves each time we close its pages, covered in Nabokov’s exquisite language. But then, at some remove of years, we pick up the book once again and discover what frauds we’ve been. Here is Humbert Humbert telling himself, and us, what he’s done: “This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning.” And here she is, in the passenger seat of his car, “complaining of pains,” he tells us. She “said she could not sit, said I had torn something inside of her.”

You can rail against Lolita forever. You can maintain, as Weinman does, that “the abuse that Sally Horner, and other girls like her, endured should not be subsumed by dazzling prose, no matter how brilliant.” But these reasonable impulses will get you nowhere. Lolita does not ask us: Are you a feminist, a crusader, an upholder of morals, a defender of girls? Lolita asks us only one question: Are you a reader?

Those early pages—with the clean sand and the delicate Annabel—those are the enchantment, the incantation. Those are the words that suck us in. The book, as funny as much of it is, never pardons us for the sin of participating in it. On its most powerful level, it implicates us deeply in the project: “Imagine me,” Humbert says. “I shall not exist if you do not imagine me.” Like tiny Humberts, we are availing ourselves of morally troubling pleasure.

Nor can we say it’s just a work of fiction, unconnected from the lives and actions of real people. Surely among its more than 60 million readers are those who read it not in spite of the descriptions of sex with a 12-year-old child but because of them. Perhaps the most frightening passage in The Real Lolita is the note that Nabokov’s European agent sent him about a publisher’s response to the manuscript: “He finds the book not only admirable from the literary point of view, but he thinks that it might lead to a change in social attitudes toward the kind of love described in Lolita, provided of course that it has this authenticity, this burning and irrepressible ardor.”

Only in rare cases—in Hollywood’s prolonged insistence on viewing the child-rapist Roman Polanski as a martyr, for example—has such a change come to pass, and even in that seat of perversity some sense has finally come calling. That’s good for the girls of the world, and it’s good for the novel, too, because Lolita depends on the combination of revulsion and ecstasy that it engenders in its readers. The revulsion is why it endures—long past Story of O or Tropic of Cancer, or any other forbidden text of the past—as a book that shakes its readers, no matter how modern. Lolita will always be both ravishing and shocking, a fire opal dissolving in a ripple-ringed pool.


Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. She is the author of Girl Land and To Hell With All That.