The Ghosts that Haunt Us

Review of Mean by Myriam Gurba (USA: Coffee House Press, 2017)
by Prasanthi Ram
This review contains spoilers and discusses sexual assault.

by Myriam Gurba is a confrontational coming-of-age memoir that begins in Oakley Park, Southern California, where a woman is about to be raped and murdered. This violence, for a reader approaching the book without prior warning, comes as a shock. It begins innocently enough, as the opening paragraphs set the stage: "Let's become a spot upon which the fateful moonlight shines." Through the deliberate use of present tense, the plural pronoun “we” and a tone of couched understatement, the reader is overcome with a dawning sense of horror and helplessness as they are made to bear witness to the violence.

Gurba's choice of incident is deliberate, as she reveals that this is in fact a true rape-and-murder case that occurred on November 15, 1996 in Santa Maria, USA. The rapist was Tommy Jesse Martinez, Jr., his victim a Mexican migrant worker named Sophia Castro Torres. To the victim's discredit, Torres was reported in the news as a “transient,” a reductive term that stripped her of any personhood or significance. It is Gurba who revisits the narrative and reclaims Torres’ lost agency by deliberately using her first name, an intimate act, almost as if they knew each other well. This familiarity and connection to Torres is, initially, a mystery for the reader. Gurba closes her essay on Sophia by describing how she is burdened by feelings that are not just her own: “Sophia is always with me. She haunts me.”

Following that grave opening, Sophia abruptly disappears into the background while Gurba emerges to recount her own growing-up years. She writes of being half-white and half-Chicana; of the privilege of growing up in a middle-class family, unlike Mexican immigrants (such as Sophia herself); of seeking racial solidarity with non-whites or at least non-racist whites, who refrained from calling her mother a “wetback”; of being quietly molested in fifth-grade history class by a classmate named Macaulay while their teacher averted his gaze; and of falling in lust and love with women and women’s bodies (“Have you ever wanted to milk a well-endowed lady? Seriously milk her?”). Her tone holds a thrilling and sometimes disconcerting balance between severity and humor, true to the fundamental fact of life that even the most morbid of contradictions occupy the same time and space. And she spares absolutely no details—at one point, she describes having an affair with a Berkeley drama professor who was married and “held office hours in Dwinelle Hall," telling clues for anyone familiar with the then-faculty.

This brutal honesty is part and parcel of Gurba’s practice of the titular meanness. As she puts it,” “I want to be a likeable female narrator. But I also enjoy being mean.” This enjoyment does not negate the fact that it is also a necessity. After all, meanness is not just behaving at the expense of others but, more importantly, a defense against life’s cruelties. It is a coping mechanism mandated by experiences of unchecked racial discrimination, misogyny, and violence accumulated and compacted since birth. Moreover, if one is female and is unable to go against the gendered norm of likeability and hone the ability to be mean, one may not survive the harsh reality. In fact, Gurba says, “Sometimes it keeps us alive.” Nonetheless, she does draw a clear line between meanness as a survival tactic and meanness as unbridled evil, the kind where one feels entitled enough to inflict harm on another human being. “I’m not so mean that I’ve ever raped anybody,” Gurba writes tellingly. “I’ve never grabbed a strange woman, pulled down her underpants, shoved my face into her pussy, and inhaled. That’s a special kind of mean.”

As engaging as Gurba is as a writer, readers may find the first half of Mean to be rather disjointed. The narrative experimentally shifts between lengthy prose passages and brief vignettes, between shape poetry and reproductions of official statistics. The chapters do not always speak to each other, the flow disrupted by unexpected tonal shifts or time jumps. This apparent incoherence is magnified by Sophia’s disappearance from Gurba’s story, which begs the question: why write about Sophia in the first place? The long-awaited answer comes in a chapter past midway of the book. The chapter title “I Wandered Lonely as a Dissociated Cloud” is a heartrending play on the opening line of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils.” Unlike the speaker of Wordsworth's poem, whose carefree tone matches his encounter with beauty in the world, Gurba's meeting with reality is an unpleasant one.

It turns out that the overall disjointedness of the book is in fact symptomatic of the underlying trauma of sexual assault—Gurba reveals that she too was raped. As the rest of the memoir unfolds, the truth comes together: the man who assaulted Gurba is the same man who raped and murdered Sophia. Strikingly, even this recount of violence and its aftermath is interwoven with bouts of dark humor, such as being absurdly horrified about being in her period underwear during the assault. Moreover, as Gurba waited for the arrest of her rapist, she recalls that “two ideas swam circles around each other like sharks in the aquarium of [her] skull,” which points to the fundamental incongruity of experiencing, processing, and articulating trauma.

With this revelation, it becomes clear that at the heart of Mean is an agonizing sense of survivor’s guilt: “I’m not glad you’re dead, but I’m glad I’m alive.” In the very first chapter, Gurba establishes that “Guilt is a ghost." It has clung onto her through time, repeatedly reminding her that she is alive whereas Sophia is dead. They lived parallel lives, two young Mexican women in the USA, Sophia 25 and Myriam 19, up until Sophia was “touched to death” by a man, and reduced to “a transient,” a mere ghost. At the same time, Gurba’s guilt presumably stems from what sets them apart as well: her middle-class upbringing, her access to education, and her ability to publish a full-length memoir in English. There is undeniable privilege in even being able to tell her story, a privilege that is governed by factors beyond the mere fact of her chance survival.

Yet, it must be acknowledged that Gurba never uses that privilege to write Sophia’s story for her. Sophia is written intermittently into the memoir because she has to be, because the vile actions of one man back in 1996 caused their narratives to become irrefutably intertwined, because Tommy Lee Martinez, Jr.’s deliberate choice to be a “special kind of mean” led Gurba to be haunted by the late Sophia for years. It would therefore be cruel to paint Gurba as anything other than a woman trying to come to terms with the trauma and guilt that was forcibly inflicted upon her.

At the end of her memoir, Gurba does not feign optimism nor offer any form of consolation. Instead, she rightly stresses that sexual assault of women by men is pervasive, if not perpetual, and points to the astounding number of women who have and will continue to lose their lives to it—“Somewhere on this planet, a man is touching a woman to death. Somewhere on this planet, a man is about to touch a woman to death.” Whether they like it or not, the reader too leaves the text haunted by its various ghosts: Sophia, Black Dahlia, and even young Gurba, the then-19-year-old who decided not to testify against Martinez but later provided the rawest testimony she could muster through this memoir. Ultimately Mean reminds us that in a world of recurrent cruelty, it is our duty to allow these ghosts to haunt us, to readily confront the truth about violence against women and, most of all, to be brutally honest, even mean, when speaking up about it.

Prasanthi Ram is a PhD candidate for Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. Her interests lie in South Asian literature, feminism(s) and popular culture. She is currently working on her debut collection of short stories that explores the Tamil Brahmin community in Singapore.