The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman (Harper Collins, 2018)

Who would have thought that the “nymphet” of Humbert Humbert’s perverted fantasies in the famous Vladimir Nabokov novel, Lolita, published in the United States in 1958, was influenced greatly by an infamous kidnapping case that took place in Camden, New Jersey? Sarah Weinman explores the tragic story of Sally Horner, a ten year old girl who was abducted by pedophile Frank LaSalle in 1948, and the similarities in the Nabokov novel in her book, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World.

The comparison between a classic work of literature and a heinous kidnapping story is a dicey topic for an author to research, dissect, and comment on, and crime writer, Sarah Weinman has done so in a compelling, tightly constructed book that is a compelling read.

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The story of Sally Homer differs from that of Nabokov’s heroine in ways that Weinman is able to detail through her careful research into the kidnapping case. Sally was spotted shoplifting a notebook by Frank LaSalle, who frightened the girl badly by telling her that he was an FBI agent and could send her to a reformatory. However, she was lucky and he was going to let her off the hook. Relieved, Sally went home and for months continued on as if nothing had happened.

However, months later, in mid-June of 1948, LaSalle popped back into Sally’s life and told her that she had to comply with his wishes or he would send her to a reformatory. He concocted a plan in which she was to say that she was invited to go to the Jersey shore with a friend for a week and he would call her mother and pretend to be the father of Sally’s friend, and extend the invitation formally.When he did call Mrs. Horner, “his manner seemed affable, polite. He was courteous and charming.” Sally’s mother felt that her child deserved a nice vacation with friends, and so put her on a bus to Atlantic City to stay with a family she had never met. Thus, Ella Horner unwittingly consigned her daughter, Sally, to two years of physical and emotional abuse by a man who dragged her daughter to the other side of the country, pretending to be her father so that others would not question their relationship. Truly, this is the stuff that nightmares are made of for parents who mean well, but don’t think of the consequences that are potentially out there, planned by predators of the most evil devices.

Vladimir Nabokov, a poet, author, and professor of Russian literature at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell, had conceived of the idea of writing about a pedophile and his victim before reading about Sally Horner’s disappearance. Influenced by a book entitled Studies in the Psychology of Sex by Havelock Ellis, the character of Humbert Humbert began to take form in Nabokov’s mind, but was still a long way from being the fully charged monster that he became.

Nabokov’s novel opens in 1935, when Dolores Haze is not quite twelve years old. Humbert has sets his heart on her when he first sees her and “describes Dolores in poetic terms: ‘frail, honey-hued shoulders . . . silky supple bareback . . . chestnut head of hair’ and wearing ‘a polka-dotted black kerchief tied around her chest’ that shields her breasts from Humbert’s ‘aging ape eyes.’” Humbert confides to the reader that he had met a girl at nine, with whom he had fallen in love. Sadly, she died prematurely, and from that point, Humbert’s taste in women was stuck on adolescent girls between the ages of nine and fourteen. “Girls whose ‘true nature,’ according to Humbert, bore little resemblance to real life. Girls he characterized as ‘little deadly demons.’ Girls immortalized, forevermore, by him as well as his creator, as nymphets.’’

Through Humbert Humbert Nabokov was attempting to create an “archetype,” Weinman informs us, but sadly, the little girls like Sally Horner, who are kidnapped, raped, and held against their wills, tend to be “lost in the need for artistic license.” In the case of the real victim, Sally, when she was returned to her home, instead of being hailed as a victim and shown compassion by her friends from school and the neighborhood, she was labeled a “slut,” and shunned from society. Although her mother was overjoyed at her return, she also seemed to react as if her child was tainted from the experience of being kidnapped and tortured.

Having read Nabokov’s Lolita many years ago, I feel compelled to revisit the novel after studying Weinman’s work. I didn’t much like Lolita when I read it because Humbert Humbert is a loathsome turd, in my estimation. However, having now completed Weinman’s treatise, Nabokov demands another look, not only to see the Horner story explored, but also to look at the character of Humbert in a more mature way than I did when I read the novel before. Weinman points out the subtleties depicted in his characterization by Nabokov, and I believe I would find the character more fascinating than I had when I was simply repulsed by his sexual predilection.