The Secret Histories

Mean BY Myriam Gurba. Coffee House Press. Paperback, 160 pages. $16.

The cover of Mean

Halfway through Mean, Myriam Gurba’s coming-of-age memoir, an elderly woman named Muffins asks a teenage Gurba what she plans to do with her body when she dies. One of Gurba’s fellow volunteers at a local art museum, Muffins is also a representative of the Poseidon Society, which she describes as “an organization that advocates cremation. It’s the forward-thinking way of dealing with your remains. We also contract burials at sea.” Muffins hands over a business card and lowers her voice: “There are certain places where we’re not supposed to dispose. I can make those disposals happen.” The scene is at once a testament to Gurba’s ear for the comic in everyday conversation, and an apt image for the book as a whole. When you bury a body in a grave, you’ve buried it somewhere. A body cast out to sea, on the other hand, is at once nowhere in particular and potentially anywhere, or everywhere. That’s what the dead are like in Mean. They float through the book like ashes in the ocean: Often invisible but always potentially present, they can be brought suddenly into view by a current of thought.

One dead woman in particular courses through the pages of Mean: Sophia Castro Torres. Born in Mexico in 1961, Torres moved to Arizona in her early twenties. In 1994, following her boyfriend’s murder, she moved to Santa Maria, a city on California’s Central Coast—and Gurba’s hometown. On November 15, 1996, Torres was raped and murdered in Oakley Park, which is next to Gurba’s former elementary school. News reports described her as “transient” and rarely referred to her by name. A month later, the police announced that they had a suspect, a young man named Tommy Martinez. In 1998, Martinez was found guilty not only of Torres’s rape and murder, but of the assault and attempted rape of three other women as well. In fact, there was a fifth woman known to have been raped by Martinez, although she did not testify at trial. That fifth woman was Gurba.

Gurba calls Torres by her first name throughout the book, restoring to her some part of the identity she was denied in death. Of Sophia, she says: “We share this thing. A man, a Mexican. All three of us, the trinity of us, are Mexican. She and I share a fear of him,” and they know what it was like to have him “touching us and watching us. . . . We both understood that he wanted us dead.” Their shared experience—their relationship, such as it is—is the through line of the book, its animating spirit. Yet despite their connection, Gurba is conscious of the ways she and Sophia differ: A mixed-race, middle-class Mexican American, Gurba “grew up in a nice house with books, cable TV, and a white cleaning woman.” Sophia crossed the border from Mexico, and “picked strawberries for white people.” Her boyfriend died, then she did. Gurba survived. “The privilege of surviving doesn’t feel good. It makes me feel guilty.”

This guilt is one reason she didn’t testify against Martinez. But silence has many sources, and serves many purposes:

I told a detective about it, but I didn’t tell him everything. Some parts felt too personal for the historical record. Some of my reality wanted to, and wants to, remain private. By denying certain events a place in the historical record, there’s a certain denial of truth. With that denial comes dignity. Belief in one’s basic dignity is like makeup. It helps you leave the house. It protects your real face, the you-est you, against judgments. Sometimes, it’s best to protect what the arms, faces, fingers, and mouths of strangers have done to you from misinterpretation. Like a chipmunk, I hoard the memory of all the sensations that happened to me that afternoon by the railroad tracks. I invite some people to experience parts of the assemblage.

The assemblage she provides in Mean begins something like this: We have just spent the afternoon with her at the museum, where she attended a lecture on Japanese art. Now we’re following her down the streets of her childhood, through the honeysuckle-scented city. She is nineteen, back home from Berkeley for summer break. She passes the pool where she learned to swim, and the DMV where she failed her driving test three times. She admires a Spanish-style mansion, her favorite house in the neighborhood. She walks beside its stucco fence. “Here,” Gurba tells us, “comes a classic moment.” But she does not relinquish that moment immediately: “I want to chipmunk or squirrel away the memory of this event, place it in a tree trunk with the memories of all the other rapes, attempted rapes, and gropes, memories that will never be released or consumed. When a man asks, ‘What did he do to you?’ he’s asking to eat one of these traumatic acorns. Girls never ask for these seeds,” she writes, and then she parts with one, or a piece of one.

Afterward, she tells us, “I walked past the gray house where I was babysat in elementary school. . . . These sidewalks were so familiar. It amplified my horror that I’d spent much of my childhood walking them.” They lead her to the elementary school where her mother is a teacher—and where she had once been a student. The cops are called; one of them is a former student of her father’s. It feels almost like a nightmare, or The Wizard of Oz, only it’s real, and it is astonishing to read. So powerfully does Gurba capture this strange, seasick feeling—of good places unexpectedly turning into bad ones, suddenly having to stretch to include the worst thing that’s happened to her—that it pervades not only the rest of the book but everything that came before it.

Myriam Gurba, 2017. David Naz.
Myriam Gurba, 2017. David Naz.

The resulting effect is not quite second sight, but something more like double vision: a way of seeing two things at once, a shuddering view onto the world that exists beside—inside—the respectable one, and which, despite the latter’s best efforts, occasionally erupts into view. For instance: The same judge who would have heard Gurba’s testimony in the Martinez case later presided over Michael Jackson’s molestation trial. The Jackson case was brought by the same prosecutor, in the same courthouse. During the trial, the Salvation Army where Sophia ate many of her meals was overrun by paparazzi. (“It was weird watching people get famous through Michael Jackson’s body,” Gurba remarks. “They never would’ve gotten so famous through a dead strawberry picker’s body. Through a Mexican woman’s semen-stained corpse.”) The book is full of topographical descriptions in which Gurba explains how one part of Santa Maria is positioned in regard to another, often revealing in the process the function a place serves beyond its official one. These diagrams delineate space as a means of thinking about time, and about the way the present seems to stack up on the past. The result is a sort of terrible geography lesson: the invisible city made at last visible, a map of Santa Maria’s dirty secrets. It shows where the bodies are buried, and where they were brutalized, and often the most dangerous places are the ones that advertise themselves as providing protection. Gurba’s map also includes Mr. Osmond’s house, which looked like “summer for boys”: The bricks were red, the grill hot, the driveway full of local kids playing basketball. Osmond was a lawyer, a Mormon, a Little League coach, a dad; his son was in Gurba’s junior high gym class. A few years later, Gurba learns that Osmond has been accused of sexually molesting the boys he coached. This is news to her, but not to Osmond’s church, where he taught Sunday school. The church had heard it from some of the boys long ago, and the church had done nothing.

Gurba has already introduced us to one of the boys who testifies against Osmond. Macaulay sat next to her in seventh grade; Macaulay stuck his hand underneath their desks and molested her. One day, their teacher saw what Macaulay was doing: “I’m not sure what my expression told Mr. Hand, but I think it communicated something like, ‘I know that seeing a boy do this to me is embarrassing for both of us, but I’m pretty sure you can make it stop.’” But it doesn’t stop. “Unable to look into a girl’s eyes or soul while she was being molested, something all teachers should be prepared to confront, Mr. Hand snapped his eyes back at the worksheet he’d been grading. He hunched closer to it. He buried his blushing face in it. He used the worksheet as a veil. He became as modest as some harem girls are expected to be. As speechless, too.” Adults, authority figures, men who are meant to protect people: If they don’t hurt you themselves, they watch as someone else does—and they never say a word. This silence is what links the landmarks on Gurba’s map of Santa Maria. Everywhere someone’s story is being gotten wrong, if it’s being heard at all.

If part of Mean is a record of these past silences, a tape people tried to erase, then its flip side is the sound of what was suppressed—the voices of Gurba and the kids she grew up with, brown and queer and female voices, voices that don’t always speak English. As we follow Gurba from early childhood to young adulthood, we listen to these people speaking loudly and hilariously and truthfully. Gurba has a special skill for capturing the sly friendships of young children, and the way so much adolescent intimacy derives from shared conspiracy. As a result, some of the best scenes in Mean consist of little more than a young Gurba talking to a couple of her classmates. Their words are not always kind—a fifth-grade “race war” ranks as one of the most vivid episodes of the book—but they always sound like theirs. That Gurba is now a teacher, as well as the author of two short-story collections, makes a good deal of sense, and is cause for a certain amount of hope. Unlike some of her teachers, who could not make out the pitch of their students’ voices—who could hear the sounds but not what they were saying—Gurba has spent a whole life listening. When she was a baby, her parents made a pact: “My father, a green-eyed American, agreed to speak to me in English. My mother, a Mexican by birth, a feminist by choice, promised to speak to me in her native Romance language peppered with Nahuatl.” When she enrolls in nursery school, her teachers mistake this linguistic capacity for a deficit and set out to teach her English. “They didn’t get that my first language,” Gurba reflects, “was double theirs.”

Elizabeth Gumport is a writer and an editor at n+1. She lives in New York City.