"Lolita" might be one of the best novels in the history of literature, but the story it tells is much less disturbing than the story it was inspired by.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita became a classic almost since the time of its publication in 1955, but let’s just agree on one matter that has nothing to do with the quality of the book: it’s creepy and disturbing AF. In case you’ve been living in a bubble and have never heard of it, Lolita tells the story of a middle-aged hebephile (a person with a sexual interest in pre-adolescent children) who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl with whom he develops a very sick, sexual relationship. The novel has had so much success since it was released that even the term has become a common one to refer to precocious teen girls. It also inspired two movies (the first one, by Stanley Kubrick, is considered to be a masterpiece on its own) and tons and tons of references in culture. Now, if you thought this novel couldn't be any creepier, when you compare it to the story it was allegedly inspired by, it's child's play (no pun intended).
Nabokov had already dealt with the subject and had explored the nature of human perversion associated with pedophilia in some of his previous work, which eventually led him to write Lolita. However, it’s said that he did a very thorough research, and that the particular case that actually sent him to the desk to write was the terrible kidnapping of Florence Sally Hopper. Actually, before going directly to her story, in one part of the novel, Humbert Humbert (the narrator) wonders if he did to Lolita what Frank La Salle did to Sally Horner in 1948. As you can imagine, the case was so disturbing and horrid that it shocked the entire nation, but what happened, and how is it related to the novel?
It all started with a young girl longing to be part of a group. Sally wanted so badly to be one of the popular girls at her school that she was willing to do anything to achieve it. These girls, who knew how badly she wanted to be a part of them, told her that she needed to steal a notebook from Woolworth's as proof of her loyalty to them, which she did, without knowing that this would ruin her life. Little did Sally know that, as she stole an insignificant notebook worth less than a dollar, she was being observed by a man with bad intentions. Not long after believing that she had gotten away with her crime, a middle-aged man approached her, telling her that he was an FBI agent and that he had to take actions against her. Scared, the little girl begged him to forgive her and explained that she didn’t really want to do so, but that she was forced to. Naturally, this man wasn’t even close to being who he claimed to be. He was Frank La Salle, a pedophile convicted for rape who had just gotten out of prison, but how could she have known?
Whether he just happened to be there when Sally stole the notebook, or he had actually followed her in the past, is a mystery, but what we do know is that Sally’s life was anything but easy, and she really wanted to spare her widowed mother and pregnant sister from any trouble, so she took La Salle’s bait. At first, he let her go, telling her he would think about the matter in order to make a decision, but soon enough, he would be waiting for her outside school and following her. One day, he told her that he was risking his job for her, and that the only way to be cleared of the charges was to accompany him to Atlantic City to some special FBI offices, but, as you can imagine, he told her she couldn’t tell anyone about it, or else the whole plan would fail, and she would be taken to prison.
She told her mother that La Salle was a friend’s father, and that they were inviting her to their beach house for a couple of weeks. Seeing that Sally was eager to go, her mother gave her permission without knowing that she was sending her daughter to a living hell. La Salle took Sally across the country and forced her to tell people that he was her father. At some point, he even enrolled her in a school, while he looked for easy jobs to make money to live. It was in California when a neighbor noticed that there was something wrong with their relationship, so she would constantly ask Sally about this man, but she remained silent, fearing that he could do something worse to her.
No matter what Sally told this woman, she didn’t really buy what the little girl said, and she had a feeling that this wasn’t a regular father-daughter relationship. So, one day in 1950, two years after Sally had been abducted, La Salle left her alone at the trailer they were living in. The neighbor saw this as an opportunity and decided to invite Sally to her place to chat. After some time, Sally reluctantly told her the truth. Shocked, this woman told her to phone home immediately before La Salle came back. Her sister’s husband alerted the FBI, and La Salle was arrested that same day.
Sally told the police about everything that had happened, starting from the notebook incident to how this man had forced her to do horrible things with him. Even when La Salle continued telling the story of him being her father and her wanting to run away, after a trial where Sally testified against him, he was sentenced to 30 years in a prison in New Jersey. Now, if you thought Sally’s story couldn’t get worse, you couldn’t be more wrong. Not only had she experienced a really traumatic time in her life, the media was so interested in the case, that it was very difficult for her to move on. Moreover, instead of scrutinizing La Salle, the media decided to victim-blame her, arguing that she had it coming for leading a criminal life. And that wasn’t all. They actually commented on her body and said she was a bit chubby, something that everyone knows can cause lots of stress and anxiety in the mind of any teenager, on top of everything else that came with her childhood having been ripped out.
Then, after everything she had gone through, only two years after being rescued, Sally died in a car accident at the age of 15. She could never lead a normal life and would constantly go back to those horrible two years in captivity. When she died, her story was already old news, and only a couple of newspapers covered the story. Actually, even today, there’s no information about the accident nor what happened. However, we do know that, in a really cynical way, La Salle tried to approach the family and even sent flowers for the funeral, which they naturally refused.
As was mentioned before, this story shocked the entire country to the point that it inspired one of the most important novels not only in the English language, or of modern literature, but of all time. How did Nabokov manage to take that horrid and dark aspect of humanity and create such a deep and disturbingly great masterpiece?
Here are other real stories that inspired great classics: