Several years ago, I stumbled upon what happened to Sally Horner, the 11-year-old girl whose kidnapping helped inspire Vladimir Nabokov's classic and infamous 1955 novel Lolita, while looking for my next crime story idea. Sally's kidnapping, terrifying odyssey, and dramatic rescue caught my attention with particular urgency. Here was a young girl, victimized over a 21-month odyssey taking her from Camden, New Jersey to Atlantic City, then on to Baltimore, Dallas, and California, by an opportunistic child molester named Frank La Salle. Here was a girl who figured out a way to survive away from home against her will, who acted in ways that baffled her friends and relatives at the time.
Here was a girl who survived her ordeal when so many others, snatched away from their lives, do not. Then for her to die in a car accident just two and a half years after her rescue, her story then subsumed by a novel, one of the most iconic, important works of the 20th century, immortalized forever in the parenthetical “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?”
No wonder Sally Horner got under my skin in a way that few stories ever have before or since. No wonder I spent months chasing down court documents, talking to family members, visiting some of the places she had lived—and some of the places where her abductor, La Salle, took her. And even after a Canadian online magazine published my article about Sally's life and its connections to Lolita in the fall of 2014, I knew I wasn't finished with Sally. Or, more accurately, she was not finished with me.
What drove me then and galls me now is that Sally’s abduction defined her entire short life. She never had a chance to grow up, pursue a career, marry, have children, grow old, be happy. She never got to build on the fierce intelligence so evident to her best friend that, nearly seven decades later, she spoke to me of Sally not as a peer, but as a mentor. After Sally died, her family rarely mentioned her or what had happened. They didn’t speak of her with awe, or pity, or scorn. She was only an absence.
For decades Sally’s claim to immortality was as an incidental reference in Lolita, one of the many utterances by the predatory, middle-aged narrator, Humbert Humbert, that allows him to control the narrative, and of course, to control 12-year-old Dolores Haze. Like Lolita, Sally Horner was no “little deadly demon among the wholesome children.” Both girls, fictional and real, were wholesome children. Contrary to Humbert Humbert’s assertions, Sally, like Lolita, was no seductress, “unconscious herself of her fantastic power.”
The fantastic power both girls possessed was the capacity to haunt.
I first read Lolita at 16, as a high school junior whose intellectual curiosity far exceeded her emotional maturity. I thought I could handle what transpired between Dolores Haze and Humbert Humbert. I thought I could appreciate the language and not be affected by the story. I pretended I was ready for Lolita, but I was nowhere close.
Those iconic opening lines: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta” sent a frisson down my adolescent spine. I didn’t like that feeling, but I wasn’t supposed to. I was soon in thrall to Humbert Humbert’s voice, the silken veneer barely concealing a loathsome predilection.
I kept reading, hoping there might be some salvation for Dolores, even though I should have known that it does not arrive for a long time. And when she finally escapes from Humbert’s clutches to embrace her own life, her own freedom is short-lived.
I realized, though I could not properly articulate it, that Vladimir Nabokov had pulled off something remarkable. Lolita was my first encounter with an unreliable narrator, one who must be regarded with suspicion. The whole book relies upon the mounting tension between what Humbert Humbert wants the reader to know and what the reader can discern. It is all too easy to be seduced by his sophisticated narration, his panoramic descriptions of America, circa 1947, and his observations of the girl he nicknames Lolita.
Those who love language and literature are rewarded richly, but also duped. It's all too easy to lose sight of the fact that Humbert raped a 12-year-old child repeatedly over the course of nearly two years, and got away with it.
Reading and writing about about Vladimir Nabokov was like coming up against an electrified fence designed to keep me away from the truth. Clues would present themselves and then evaporate. Letters and diary entries would hint at larger meanings without supporting evidence. My central quest with respect to Nabokov was to figure out what he knew about Sally Horner and when he knew it. Through a lifetime, and afterlife, of denials and omissions about the sources of his fiction, he made my pursuit as difficult as possible.
What helped me grapple with Nabokov's maddening elusiveness was to reread Lolita again and again. Sometimes like a potboiler, in a single gulp, and other times slowing down to cross-check each sentence. No one could get every reference and recursion on the first try; the novel rewards repeated reading. Once you grasp it, the contradictions of Lolita’s narrative and plot structure reveal a logic true to itself.
During one Lolita reread, I was reminded of the narrator of an earlier Nabokov story, “Spring in Fialta”: “Personally, I never could understand the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other… were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest to rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.”
Nabokov himself never openly admitted to such an attitude. But the clues are all there in his work. Particularly so in Lolita, with its careful attention to popular culture, the habits of pre-adolescent girls, and the banalities of then-modern American life. Searching out these clues of real-life happenings was no easy task. I found myself probing absence as much as presence, relying on inference and informed speculation as much as fact.
Some cases drop all the direct evidence into your lap. Some cases are more circumstantial. The case for what Vladimir Nabokov knew of Sally Horner and when he knew it falls squarely into the latter category. Investigating it, and how he incorporated Sally’s story into Lolita, led me to uncover deeper ties between reality and fiction, and to the thematic compulsion Nabokov spent more than two decades exploring, in fits and starts, before finding full fruition in Lolita.
Lolita’s narrative, it turns out, depended more on a real-life crime than Nabokov would ever admit.
Over the four and a half years I spent working on The Real Lolita, I talked with a great many people about Lolita. For some it was their favorite novel, or one of their favorites. Others had never read the book but ventured an opinion nonetheless. Some loathed it, or the idea of it. No one was neutral. Considering the subject matter, this was not a surprise. Not a single person, when I quoted the passage about Sally Horner, remembered it.
I can’t say Nabokov designed Lolita to hide Sally Horner from the reader. But given that the narrative moves so swiftly, perhaps an homage to the highways Humbert and Dolores traverse over many thousands of miles in their cross-country odyssey, it’s easy to miss a lot as you go. Even casual readers of Lolita, who number in the tens of millions, plus the many more millions with some awareness of the novel, the two film versions, or its place in the culture these past six decades, should pay attention to the story of Sally Horner because it is the story of so many girls and women, not just in America, but everywhere. So many of these stories seem like everyday injustices—young women denied opportunity to advance, tethered to marriage and motherhood. Others are more horrific, girls and women abused, brutalized, kidnapped, or worse.
Yet Sally Horner’s plight is also uniquely American, unfolding in the shadows of the Second World War, after victory had created a solid, prosperous middle class that could not compensate for terrible future decline. Her abduction is woven into the fabric of her hometown of Camden, New Jersey, which at the time believed itself to be at the apex of the American Dream. Wandering its streets today, as I did on several occasions, was a stark reminder of how Camden has changed for the worse. Sally should have been able to travel America of her own volition, a culmination of the Dream. Instead she was taken against her will, and the road trip became a nightmare.
Sally’s life ended too soon. But her story helped inspire a novel people are still discussing and debating more than sixty years after its initial publication. Vladimir Nabokov, through his use of language and formal invention, gave fictional authority to a pedophile and charmed and revolted millions of readers in the process. By exploring the life of Sally Horner in The Real Lolita, I reveal the truth behind the curtain of fiction.
What Humbert Humbert did to Dolores Haze is, in fact, what Frank La Salle did to Sally Horner in 1948.
Excerpted and adapted from The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman (Ecco). Copyright 2018 by Sarah Weinman.