MYRIAM GURBA’S Mean opens with the brutal rape and murder of a young homeless Mexican woman named Sophia. It’s a startlingly rendered scene, spare and painful. It’s also an unusual choice for a book that seems to be a memoir; instead of offering a story, however painful, from her own life, Gurba disturbs us with a deadly violent sexual assault on another woman.
And yet this opening might be the most appropriate choice Gurba could have made. For while she quickly moves to relating her own tales of sexual abuse and exploration, she never lets us forget that an embodied life is always full of the impress, imprint, and pressure of other bodies. Some of those bodies we invite; some thrust themselves upon us. She tells us, for instance, of Mr. Hand’s history class during which, on the verge of adolescence, she sits quietly while the boy in the neighboring seat sticks his fingers between her legs every day and molests her. Mr. Hand, ironically named, never lays a hand on her himself, but he notices the molestation one day — and quickly averts his gaze.
All of a sudden, Gurba’s early experiences and Sophia’s murder are connected, a perverse continuum, a grotesque slippage into each other. Gurba plays with the perversity of molestation as a grisly linking of bodies and hands across time and space, here referencing the abuse of a young boy by an older man:
If molestation is a circle, a circle of life, then isn’t the hand of every molester working through the hand of every other molester? It’s fair to say that Mr. Osmond’s hand was working through Macaulay’s hand just like the Eucharist is no longer bread during Mass; it’s Jesus coming at you through a cracker.
Sexual abuse is never an isolated event. It’s always part of a larger cycle of sexualized violence against young bodies, often female, and against the defenseless. The quick turn to religious imagery recalls the Catholic Church’s silence around its numerous pedophilia scandals while also drawing our attention to the abuse seemingly sanctioned at the heart of the Christ story: a father willingly sending his son to die. That story, itself, recalls an earlier version in which the same god demands the sacrifice of his servant’s son as a test of loyalty.
All of these sacrifices create a cultural heritage of violence against children, condoned while a teacher looks away as another child learns to abuse his peers. For Gurba, that heritage creates ghosts, which serve both as metaphor and materiality throughout Mean — both the stories of abuse permeating our culture and the spectral sensations of unwanted hands pressing on vulnerable bodies. Gurba grapples with these ghosts, fearing them but also wanting to listen to them. More disturbingly, at times, she is unable to turn away from the stories they tell: “Some ghosts listen to the radio through the bodies of the living. They use us to conduct pain, pleasure, music, and meaning. They burden us with feelings that are both ours and theirs.” Gurba’s body becomes the live wire, twitching unexpectedly as shocks of recognition connect her experiences to others, inviting her perversely to enjoy the moments of pain shared, of burdens carried together.
One of the more difficult dimensions of reading Mean is the sense one gets of a life spoiled, damaged, likely beyond recovery. The loss is poignant. Gurba recounts growing up with a Mexican mother and half-Mexican dad, both professional people, the father himself an educator. They were not poor, perhaps thinking that their lives would be somewhat insulated from abuse. If anything, they were on a trajectory away from damage. At least that’s the phantasmatic hope of the emerging middle class. So how did this happen? Why could they not have protected their daughter? Gurba doesn’t ask this question, but it lingers in the background as you read. And then you recall the Weinstein scandals, the pervasiveness of abuse in the shadows of an industry where the klieg lights otherwise shine brightly.
And yet Gurba persists. She writes. As she puts it, “Art is one way to work out touch gone wrong.” But this isn’t a simple formula. Art doesn’t banish the ghosts. If anything, her process eschews the Freudian formula of repression and sublimation and instead embraces Abraham and Torok’s “introjection,” the particularity of the life story, the slow, steady, and painful working out over the course of a lifetime the afterlives of unwanted touch. The work of working out is never done. Introjection is the right word here, suggesting internalized projection, the deep interrogation of self that simultaneously honors the specificity of one’s abuse while also seeing in it the narratives of the all-too-many who have also been abused.
Language becomes the artful manner through which Gurba can articulate the particularity of her experience while connecting it to the abuse that others, like Sophia, have suffered. Mean is full of wordplay as language slips and slides through short sections, mostly narrative, but also frequently poetic, sometimes outright poetry, including a shaped poem and several lists. But Gurba’s is never language play just for its own sake; her words always bend back to the lives, bodies, and psyches damaged by abuse: “Did you know PTSD is the only mental illness you can give someone? A person gave it to me. A man actually drove me crazy. He transmitted this condition.” The mind is turned inside out, internal conditions transmitted through external contact as Gurba’s off-hand metaphor literalizes being driven crazy.
One of the most arresting ways that Gurba offers us her stories is through her play with chronology. The narrative is largely chronological, but not quite. We see her as a child, growing up, going to Berkeley, exploring various love interests. We know that she experienced sexual assault and trauma at some point, if only because the book begins with Sophia, but also through hints dropped here and there. It takes us a while, though, to get to Gurba’s rape, and the details, as she admits, aren’t fully forthcoming. She honors her privacy. But then she reveals, over halfway through the book, that the man who raped her also murdered Sophia. The implication, left like a burnt taste in our mouths, is that Gurba could easily have been killed.
Beyond bearing witness to Gurba’s abuse, we are also invited by this book to consider the formal role of chronology in memoir, in the offering of an account of trauma. In Gurba’s hands, the interruption of straight chronology serves more than just rhetorical or dramatic effect; it foregrounds the burdens of memory on the body. And not just her own painful memories, but the ghosts of all of those abused: “Guilt is a ghost. Guilt interrupts narratives. It does so impolitely. Ghosts have no etiquette. What do they need it for? There is not Emily Post for ghosts.”
Mean demands our attention not only as a painfully timely story, but also as an artful memoir. It bears striking comparison to Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, a book about its author’s own tale of abuse, and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a delicious recounting of its author’s own complex erotic intimacies. Like both writers, Gurba turns the complexity of her story into art, claiming that “[w]hat matters is a woman making art out of everything she was born with.” But Gurba makes a distinction between what she was born with and what has happened to her since. While Yuknavitch and Nelson seem to trust a bit more in the recuperative power of art, sifting the self through aestheticized language, Gurba seems a bit less sure of recovery: “I’d anticipated squeezing a catharsis out of this pilgrimage, but I should’ve known my dreams of closure would remain dreams.”
No closure. I was reading this book while also reading David Ferry’s Bewilderment and his extraordinary translation of Virgil’s account of Orpheus going through hell to get back his lost love, his innocence, his Eurydice. On the way out of hell, he can’t help but look back and loses everything but his art, through which he spends the rest of his days bemoaning his loss until torn apart by the drunken bacchantes. There’s a lesson here. If we go through hell, perhaps best not to look back too much. But Gurba looks, and asks us to look with her. Ghosts will continue to speak to her. She might not have a choice, and Gurba seems at peace with that as an existential condition: “It’s OK for ghosts to exist through me. It has to be.” It has to be. That’s not quite reconciliation. It’s certainly not closure.
Mean is a powerful, vital book about damage and the ghostly afterlives of abuse. If I have one quibble with it, it’s that the title remains a bit opaque to me. Gurba claims at one point that “[b]eing mean makes us feel alive. It’s fun and exciting. Sometimes, it keeps us alive.” That meanness takes a decidedly gendered turn at points:
We act mean to defend ourselves from boredom and from those who would chop off our breasts. […] Being mean to boys is fun and a second-wave feminist duty. Being rude to men who deserve it is a holy mission. Sisterhood is powerful, but being a bitch is more exhilarating. Being a bitch is spectacular.
I don’t in any way want to take away or malign the power of bitchiness, or even meanness for that matter. But I rarely saw Gurba as mean. On a holy mission, yes. Justly angered and outraged, yes. But mean?
Then again, maybe she is. Maybe it’s mean to demand that we listen to the ghosts that can’t help but speak through her, that we are invited to experience vicarious pain, that we are challenged by the pain of others. And that’s a meanness that isn’t small. But it’s a meanness that is all too unfortunately necessary.
Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017).