OCTOBER 3, 2014
“CHILDHOOD WAS TERRIFYING for me,” said Mary Karr in an interview in The Paris Review. “A kid has no control. You’re three feet tall, flat broke, unemployed, and illiterate. Terror snaps you awake. You pay keen attention.”
In her memoir, Excavation, Wendy Ortiz proves the point. Left to her own devices by alcoholic parents, she maroons herself in her bedroom, listening to music and smoking marijuana, alone and aching for a connection. Writing becomes the only way for her to exert control in a life where she’s allowed none, and she keeps detailed, handwritten journals. Growing up a captive to her family’s chaos, she must find another means of escape. “Books were pleasure boats I could step into when my parents were despicable with drink,” she writes. And along with books, she becomes enmeshed in a secret, sexual relationship with a teacher 15 years her senior.
Predatory adult male teacher plus vulnerable female student equals illicit sexual affair. The tropes are so recognizable they’ve become formulaic. And though they make us queasy even so, we can usually predict how the story will end. In Ortiz’s account, though,the old equation is rendered unpredictable. Blurring the boundaries between predator and prey and adult and child, Ortiz reveals an adolescence sopped with fury and shame. The result is an account that refuses to fit into any equation we thought we knew how to solve.
The trouble begins — though like most trouble, it’s been brewing — in Wendy’s eighth grade English class. There she meets her new teacher, the charismatic Mr. Ivers, capable of drawing out even the most jaded and insular student, of which Wendy is one. In a single line at the end of an early chapter, Ortiz describes the intoxicating effect of the affair, laying bare the truth of her feelings in the straightforward language that is characteristic of her style: “With Mr. Ivers in my life now, I felt strangely outside of things, but the places I found inside myself were suddenly starting to feel unpredictable, explosive, alive.” And come alive she does: through Ortiz’s constant references to particular bands and places, like Depeche Mode and the Glendale Galleria, a crystalized moment in time emerges: Los Angeles in the 1980s. I felt the nubs of shag carpet in her living room; I smelled the stale marijuana graying the air. I looked up from the pages and saw teenage Wendy everywhere, passing by the windows of a café, entering an older man’s car.
Mr. Ivers, too, is enamored of Ortiz’s writerly gifts. He immediately recognizes and compliments Wendy’s skill, and uses it as a pretense to start calling her on the phone. In this way, they begin an on-again, off-again relationship that lasts until she turns 18. More than just a blatant abuse of authority, Mr. Ivers manages to twist Wendy’s passion for language into a means of seduction. Like any adept predator, he has the capacity to turn her inside out, to take the parts of her life that feel unbearably tender and transform them into a kind of sexual fuel. And if the key to Wendy’s exploitation — her talent — can and will ultimately save her, until then it is the stake he uses to pin her to the floor, where she wriggles around, trying to strike a pose in which she looks desirable — older, sexier, capable of keeping him. She pores over their every conversation and encounter. Though he makes her swear to write none of it down, writer that she is, she gives in to her compulsion:
Everyone was watching Pink Floyd: The Wall in the living room, my pen was stuck in the confines of two blue lines on this stuff called paper, and Jeff was looming in my frying mind […] I didn’t think of anything but recording the happenings in my journal, later, sober, fresh from experiences and revelations.
For Wendy, her most intense experiences don’t materialize until she writes them down. But instead of providing her perspective and insight at the time, the act of writing only makes Mr. Ivers loom larger in her life. It’s not until she leaves home for college that he can be minimized to a character fit for the page. Even then, her descriptions of him ring with detail: everything from his clothes (an ever-present sweater vest) to his habits (chewing tobacco). He becomes a truly compelling villain, by turns charismatic and frightening. Ortiz describes him so clearly that if, for a moment, we were to look away, he might walk right off the page and into our daughters’ junior high classrooms; then into our living rooms while we’re away at work.
Mr. Ivers has found Wendy at the perfect time. Out of place and insecure among her peers, she sexually experiments in long (and often searingly funny) masturbatory sessions, which involve her rubbing her body against the carpet in a kind of giant rug burn. The fact that the book is ever funny is a testament to Ortiz’s skill — her ability to modulate tone in the face of such a dire subject matter. Though she often pictures women in these scenarios, she forces herself to imagine men in order to convince herself she’s not a lesbian. The Catholicism her grandmother has worked so tirelessly to instill in her means “shame lent a soft, tragic hue to each and every fantasy.” It accumulates around Wendy like a thin layer of dust, marking everything. She’s unable to extricate herself. When she and Mr. Ivers begin to have sex, the question of whom she really wants to see naked becomes further muddled. Any contact with the teacher feels illicit and dangerous, and it keeps her in a peculiar holding pattern. Down the rabbit hole, the deeper she goes, the more impossible it seems to escape and reenter normal, teenage life. The power Mr. Ivers holds over her — the mixture of shame, and fear, and lust — makes her feel tainted and trapped, as though she’s been relegated to a dark and dirty place.
The memoir is constructed in short chapters, alternating between Ortiz’s teenage years — ages 13 through 18 — and her adult life, in which she’s married with a daughter. Ortiz’s prose practically vibrates on the page — the story is told with that much transparency — and the shifting provides a kaleidoscopic effect: we move back and forth in time, seeing the dramatic differences between the vulnerable young girl and the adult she’s become. As a woman, Ortiz teaches at-risk teenagers, and is a loving mother and wife. In one chapter, she details her obsession with Mr. Ivers in the visceral terms of girlhood — “the classroom began to feel heavy with temptation, pleasure, disappointment, or ruin” — and in the next chapter, she describes working with high school age kids and relating to what their lives are like — “Another part of me gets it. Like, viscerally.” These juxtapositions — the colloquial and the lyrical, the immediate and distant — provide incredible scope. By the end of the memoir, I felt as though I’d read an entire life. The complexity of Ortiz’s relationship with Mr. Ivers is rendered in such painstaking detail (I didn’t dare look away), I felt grateful to have made it out of the story unscathed.
Even when channeling her teenage naïveté, in which she continually misreads Mr. Ivers’s motives, Ortiz’s story of lost innocence is unmuddied by drippy sentimentality or self-pity. Her sentences are muscular, without the fatty tissue of over-explanation or justification. She never undercuts the power of her prose with an adult sensibility of right and wrong. Instead, because she lays out the bare facts without judgment, the reader sees Mr. Ivers for what he really is: a coward.
Ultimately, more than anything else, Excavation is the story of writing as salvation. The book, though compulsively readable, isn’t heavy on plot — and why should it be? The subject matter is weighty enough, the stakes that high. Ortiz writes:
During those teenage years my self-worth was something I felt was small enough to hold. It was my pen, my paper and sometimes, maybe, my ability to attract people to me.
Until she truly breaks from Mr. Ivers, he holds that sense of self-worth between his palms, and though he is capable of flattening it at any moment, Wendy survives. By the end of her memoir, she is wife to a woman she loves, mother to a child whom she wants desperately to protect. I felt as though I’d traveled a great distance, too: I’d followed Wendy Ortiz out of the dark tunnels of Los Angeles, watched her brush away the dust and examine the fossils from that secret and terrifying time. Now, I imagine her blinking in the sunshine, flanked by the people she loves.