Myriam Gurba’s searing memoir “Mean” begins with an invocation: “Let’s become a spot upon which fateful moonlight shines,” thus setting up a seemingly innocuous scene in a Little League Baseball field. As the scene unravels, though, it grows more ominous, one where a “dark-haired girl walks alone.”
Gurba goes on to recount the rape and murder of Sophia Castro Torres, a Chicana who was initially described by news reports as a “transient.” As a Chicana herself (or “Molack” — her mother is Mexican, and her father is Mexican-Polish), Gurba can’t get Torres out of her head.
The haunting isn’t made transparent until the middle of the book (which I won’t give away), but before the gritty swerve, Gurba describes her herky-jerky coming of age in Southern California. Micro- and overt aggressions get heaped upon her — playground slurs, the white family next door cooking her “Mexican casserole,” the teacher who looks on and does nothing as the boy next to her assaults her during class. “That’s the story of my avant-garde molestation,” Gurba says, somehow miraculously able to buoy the intensity with a sense of humor.
The book is portioned into small sections, which allows Gurba space for language play and cheeky non sequiturs: “I enjoy saying that my father forcing me to mow the lawn and use the leaf blower turned me gay.”
Snapshots of a dislocating childhood abound. Her fifth-grade classmates call her a racial slur, and, after she tells the teacher, Gurba is made to apologize for making them cry. When she is 8, her friend shows her pictures of her father’s Hustler and Playboy magazines. “We didn’t talk about what we were doing, we just stared together.”
Gurba’s college years are harrowing and heartbreaking as she reckons with guilt and her own privilege, and casts a necessarily securitizing eye on rape culture. After she is sexually assaulted, a nurse tells her, “You’re going to have to get over this,” throwing Gurba into confusion, post-traumatic stress disorder and sometimes disastrous relationships.
That original scene on the Little League field is titled “Wisdom.” Indeed, just before Gurba reconstructs the scene, she says, “We open our eyes. We allow them to adjust to the place and things described.” Here, the book sets itself up as a challenge — to empathize, to tell the truth and to stay awake to the violence done to women (and minorities) every day, and the various ways in which our society works to erase their dignities and identities, not to mention their bodies. The good news is that Gurba is a sensitive, occasionally caustic and always compassionate guide.
Josh Cook’s writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Iowa Review and elsewhere.
By: Myriam Gurba.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 174 pages, $16.95.