Nonfiction: Issue #1

"Rust on orange," Fabio Sassi
*image: “Rust On Orange,” Fabio Sassi

Here in the Museum of Things Gone Terribly Wrong

by Craig Reinbold

Setting: an outdoor bus terminal and the place is bustling. S—, a native of Mexico City, has been wearing the same reeking T-shirt for most of a week, and he strips it off now, reaching into a bag on the floor next to him for a clean pink polo, which he slips over his head. He loops a belt around his waist, the buckle a silver skull with red rhinestone eyes. In the bag are the rest of his pertenencias—jacket, passport, wallet, credit card and ID, exactly 221 pesos, and a list of phone numbers—which have only just been returned to him.

A few dozen other recent deportees are sprawled out on a nearby patch of concrete or are crouched on gravel, everyone passing the early afternoon hours, waiting for their effects to be returned, to use a phone, waiting until they can figure out someplace to go.

The sun is scorching and it’s hot even in the shade. Lungs are dust-choked, lips cracked.

S— slouches in an old torn-out bus seat, its fabric once a vibrant, patterned blue, now dirt-stained the shade of dead leaves. My friend sits beside him, hands him a pay-as-you-go phone, so S— can call his wife in New York to let her know he’s okay and is in Nogales. Picked up just south of I-10 and deported. Yeah, in a few days, he’ll go at it again. He loves her. He’ll see her soon. He hands the phone back to my friend, who immediately clears the call history. My friend takes out a notebook and asks S— about his trip.

Three days in the desert. Thirty-six hours in custody of the US Border Patrol. At the detention center near Why, Arizona, agents threw his phone in the garbage. They blared migra corridos—songs depicting graphic tales of death in the desert—over loudspeakers all day. Every two hours guards came in shouting. Lined everyone up for inspection. His cell was overcrowded and freezing, the air-conditioning on high all the time. S— blinks. My friend writes. Yeah, like some kind of psychological torture, maybe.

***

The other day I was complaining to the curator of an Ansel Adams exhibit that Adams’s iconic photos of Yosemite lack a sense of the history of the place, as empty of people as they are. She was quick to rebut, saying, “A photograph is only without history if the viewer comes to it without a sense of history.”

***

A group of migrants—including three women and two teenage boys—was detained while crossing. They were made to run for 30 minutes. The agents said this would discourage them from trying again.

Five men detained for 24 hours reported verbal abuse directed towards children. J—, age 14, was grabbed by the neck and threatened. An agent told him, “I don’t give a shit that you’re a minor. If you continue with this behavior we’ll fix that out back. You’re in my country.”

***

Originally from Wisconsin, I currently reside in Tucson. In 2011, the US Border Patrol apprehended 123,285 undocumented immigrants attempting to cross the Sonora, Mexico / Arizona border. That same year, the local desert saw 191 documented migrant deaths. Looking at a partial record of bodies found between October 2010 and September 2011, under Cause of Death, most common is “Undetermined (skeletal remains),” followed by exposure, “Probable Hyperthermia.” Of those identified, the youngest was 18, the oldest, 60. Many people I’ve mentioned this statistic to have remarked that this number, 191, seems low.

R— was apprehended in the desert, handcuffed, knocked to the ground and kicked. Calling him a “stupid Mexican” and a “piece of shit,” an agent took his tennis shoes and threw them into the desert.

Three women reported that the agents who apprehended them pushed them into cacti as they walked.

On her way back to Los Angeles, where she’d been living for the last four years, a woman was picked up near Tijuana. The apprehending agent threw sand in her face.

B— was apprehended near Nogales, Arizona. Guards in the detention center told her to strip down, and they dragged their hands across her breasts.

A friend of mine works with a local non-profit migrant aid organization. One of their actions involves collecting stories of abuse. They refer to this collecting as documenting, and in 2011, this organization published a report based on more than 4,000 interviews detailing more than 30,000 incidents of abuse and mistreatment of migrants. Based on this report, “it is clear that instances of mistreatment and abuse in Border Patrol custody are not aberrational,” but rather, are “common practice.”

And here, I should admit, I can sympathize with the Border Patrol. Seems to me theirs is one of the more difficult jobs around, not so much guarding the line as parsing people. Agents are also abused, in ways, and are occasionally killed as well. Everybody’s stressed out about everything, and everybody’s operating under some kind of duress, and so, all too frequently, someone does something more or less awful. Reminds me of a bit of wisdom a 20-year-old veteran once laid on me, that “a fucked up reaction to a fucked up situation is not fucked up.”

And so I can sympathize with the Border Patrol. Or if not sympathize exactly, at least I hesitate to judge. They’re just doing their jobs, and over time stress cracks the sturdiest of facades: An agent tonks a migrant on the head with his Maglite. An agent spits on a migrant. An agent cops a feel in the field. An agent goes home angry, hits his daughter, breaks her wrist in four places. All of this is predictable, maybe, which is to say, maybe, understandable. Maybe.

A fucked up reaction to a fucked up situation is not fucked up.

Full-disclosure: The 20-year-old veteran I was talking to delivered this axiom in response to a story he had just told me. The story of a friend of his, another Marine, who once unloaded a shotgun round into an Iraqi man’s mouth because he was just too tired, too exhausted at the thought of going through the motions of arresting him. And then we agreed: A fucked up reaction to a fucked up situation is not fucked up. But maybe it is: predictable, understandable, and still totally fucked up. Maybe an explanation is not an excuse and should not try to be.

I think of a woman I once interviewed, an Army nurse who was stationed at Abu Ghraib when the torture scandal was breaking. She was also a Chicago police officer and told me about responding to a call and finding a Mexican man bleeding out on the floor of his kitchen. He had stabbed himself with a screwdriver, and when that didn’t kill him, he picked up a carving knife and slit his throat. His roommates said he’d been depressed. His family was back in Mexico. And he’d just lost his job. No, he didn’t have documents. She followed the ambulance in her squad car and, as they turned onto the freeway, the tollgate closed and she couldn’t stop in time. So she drove through it, tore it right off. At the hospital, the paramedics told her this happens all the time, and they joked about it, laughed about it. Because it was funny. “It’s that gallows humor,” she told me. “You’ve got to find the humor in those situations.”

The policewoman I spoke with—who had served as a nurse at Abu Ghraib and had seen limbs blown off and soldiers disemboweled by shrapnel, who’s seen all kinds of things—cried for a good 30 minutes during our conversation. She talked through it, was not embarrassed, made no effort to stop. Sometimes the world is so sad it makes you laugh. Sometimes you can’t laugh and you just cry.

***

Hungarian-born British author Arthur Koestler on the root of funny: Comedy, that which inspires laughter, “comes like a bolt out of the blue, which, so to speak, decapitates the logical development of a situation.” The narrative that was acting “as a channel directing the flow of emotion” is disrupted, suddenly, and “when the channel is punctured the emotion gushes out like a liquid through a burst pipe; the tension is suddenly relieved and exploded in laughter.”

Of course laughter is only one of three types of responses to a sudden wrench in your narrative. When two planes of perception come together, the result “is either a collision ending in laughter, or their fusion in a new intellectual synthesis, or their confrontation in an aesthetic experience…that is to say, the same pair of matrices coming together can produce comic, tragic, or intellectually challenging effects. … [The effect of each convergence] can be converted from a comedy to a tragedy to purely intellectual experience, based on the same logical pattern—i.e., on the same pair of bisociated matrices—by a simple change of emotional climate.”

All of which is crazy jargon for: these things can make us laugh, make us sad, or make us think about the world in a new way.

***

A good friend of my father’s hanged himself a few years ago. The two of them used to meet after work and walk along the bike trail that runs through the city. They did this for exercise, but also, I’m sure, for companionship.

This friend of my father’s left behind a daughter and a son my age, and it’s awful that he’s gone, but it’s also awful that they now carry around the image of their father bloated and dead and hanging from a beam in the garage. And this makes me wonder if there are some things that might be best left undocumented.

Years ago, visiting home for a few days, I was riding in the car while my mother ran errands, and she dropped some heavy news on me. It was January and the country roads were salt-dusted and endless, their curves shaped by fields of corn stubble sticking out from under the snow. The pines were the green of pickled olives, the sky the color of whitewater. It was the kind of afternoon that turns conversation sentimental, and as we cruised from home to town, to another town, and back to home, we talked about raising kids, how parents always over-correct for what they deem their own parents’ mistakes. Parenting is tough; that was the gist. Then she told me that her father, my grandfather, who died when I was young, had hit her. It wasn’t clear to me if this was a reoccurring thing or if it was just the once, or what. My grandfather had served in the FBI through World War II, had been a lawyer, a law professor, had been a noble guy, I thought, and this notion that he had once (or often?) struck my mother was kind of unbelievable. Yet believable.

I had lots of questions, wanted to get the whole story, really hash it out. But my mother clammed up. Maybe some things should be left in the past; if not forgotten, at least buried. Let sleeping dogs lie, and all of that. Maybe her silence was for the best. Approaching the unspoken past warrants caution. The writer Charles Bowden says it: “There are some things that if learned change a person forever.” Some things we learn we spend forever trying to forget.

Freud once suggested that if we forget, it’s because we don’t want to remember. Bowden pushes this dictum further: “This loss of memory is not because of cowardice. It is wisdom that comes with survival.” This is how we endure.

My dad didn’t see his friend’s suicide coming. Maybe he knew his friend was depressed, stressed about work, life, all of it—but who isn’t? This man had been his best friend, and he’d had no idea it was that bad. I asked my dad how he felt about it all, about his friend’s death. “Lonely,” he said.

 ***

Bowden’s book, Murder City, is gonzo journalism told in collage, positioning explorations of Juárez beside news reports of murders and rapes and drugs and stories acquired from people on the street, from other journalists and crazies and paid killers and the city’s sidewalk saints. Here Bowden is a preacher, heartbeats away—it seems—from blinding himself with lye to get our attention.

There were 1,652 officially recorded murders in Juárez in 2008, the year he began keeping track: “Everyone grows numb. Murders slip off the front page and become part of the ordinary noise of life. … Juárez is rated by some counts to be the most violent city in the world.” The final tally for 2009 was 2,643. And 2010 reached a new peak: officially, 3,111 murdered—though by another, trustworthy count, the toll was at least 3,600.

Bowden sermonizes: “Consider this possibility: Violence is now woven into the very fabric of the community and has no single cause and no single motive and no on-off button. Violence is not a part of life, it is now life. Just ask Miss Sinaloa.”

Who’s Miss Sinaloa?

“She came to Juárez from Sinaloa, the state on the Pacific that is the mother of almost all the major players in the Mexican drug industry, probably to visit her sister who works in the city. She was very beautiful—her hair hung down to her ass and her skin was oh so white. They called her Miss Sinaloa. I know this because when Elvira, who works at an asylum on the outskirts of the city, starts talking about her, she includes the Miss part. Yes, Miss Sinaloa, a beauty queen who came to Juárez. ‘Once,’ Elvira says with pride, ‘we had a very beautiful woman—Miss Sinaloa. The police brought her here; she was 24-years-old.’”

Bowden leans into the pulpit. The pulpit tips perilously. I hold my breath. He preaches on. I wait for the crash.

“The city cops claimed they had found her wandering on the street one morning, but Miss Sinaloa had actually been at a party. No one knows how she left the party—in Juárez there are many versions of every event—but everyone agrees on what happened after: The police took her and then raped her for three days. Eight policemen, in turn, over and over. She was fair-skinned, middle-class, a beauty queen. And a fair-skinned woman is a special treat for street cops.

So they bring her out and dump her. They have, they say, had her in jail, but she is too much to handle. She fights and yells and is no fun at all. “By the time she got to the asylum, Miss Sinaloa’s buttocks bore the handprints of many men. There were bite marks all over her breasts.”

 ***

In the sixth grade I spent a number of nights at a friend’s house, with little parental supervision. We never got up to much but did watch a lot of Baywatch reruns and some terrible, gruesome horror movies his grandma rented for us. I have never liked gore, but there it was. I recall in particular a fictionalized biopic of our local serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. And there he was—the actor, Dahmer, all the same to me then—sitting beside a blood-smeared bathtub, holding a severed human hand.

Twenty years later I understand that the trick is simply to know when to look and when not to, though when it comes to real life this becomes a more difficult distinction to judge. As moral beings, when do we need to open our eyes to what the world has put before us, when does even a gruesome scene demand reckoning—and when is it okay to turn away? I don’t know. I do know I’m stuck with that grotesque image of Dahmer in my head.

 ***

During high school I worked as a dietary aid in a nursing home, prepping meals, plating, doing dishes. For more than two years, I spent a couple nights a week and every Sunday in that kitchen. M— worked there, too. She was my age, and over the course of all this repetitive, mostly mindless choring we got to be friends. Once, on break, over a tray of our preferred snacks—Nilla wafers and chocolate milk for me, a pack of Newport 100s for her—she told me something that I have decided—for reasons—to repeat to you. When she was young she walked to and from school, and one day a man called out to her from a purple Buick parked beside the sidewalk. He rolled down the passenger-side window and she went over and looked in, and he was holding his erection in his hand.

I don’t know what happened then. I neglected to ask the requisite follow-up questions and she never mentioned it again.

It’s hard to picture a purple Buick, and I wonder if her memory has maybe changed that detail. Purple, she’d told me, had always been her least favorite color.

 ***

Bowden: “Things can be frightening and yet reduced to nothingness by silence. … Silence, like protest, is the drug of our time, the way we do something by doing nothing.” We go mum, and turn away. “We turn a deaf ear to the music of Juarez. We think this act will keep us sane and safe.”

“People know how to ignore whatever interferes with the way people want to think about the world.”

 ***

Something else: A—, another friend of mine, was raped behind the shed in her parents’ backyard. By the neighbor boy. She was 12. He was 14.

 ***

And then there’s my friend, R—. The summer she turned 18, she was waitressing at a pizza joint that doubled as a happening evening bar. She is tall and beautiful and easy-going, and one Sunday afternoon she was taking inventory in the basement when the 50-year-old bar-back pushed her against a table and raped her from behind. She didn’t even know who it was until he was finished and she turned around to see him looking at the floor, zipping his jeans up. He went back upstairs. Not knowing what else to do, not wanting to have to walk past him, she stayed in the basement and finished the inventory.

As far as I know, R— has never told anyone else about this, only me, and then only years after it happened. In a sense, I know, I am “outing” her here, though I hope I have disguised her identity enough that she might not even recognize herself, if not for her singular story. R isn’t even her real initial.

I suppose I could just ask her how she feels about my passing this story on to you, but it’s not something we talk about. It happened to her, and I think about it a lot. But it’s not something we talk about. We could talk about it, I suppose, but we don’t. I’ve never brought it up. And since that initial disclosure, neither has she.

 ***

Bowden reiterates: “Silence can be a great comfort.” An easy comfort, a comfort he understands but rails against. For three years in the early 80s he covered the sex crimes beat for a Tucson newspaper, an experience that ate him up. Deep in it, he refused euphemism—“child molestation,” “sexual assault”—for its hypocrisy, as this is just another means of turning away, and turning away is a form of complicity.

It has been suggested—who are you, people have said, a white, hetero man, who has never been raped or molested or otherwise abused…—that I should not be raking up this muck, that it is not my place, that I have not yet established sufficient personal context for a reader to make sense of why I am asking them to consider these things. What is my stake in this?

Maybe I am just afraid of turning away.

 ***

The Chicago Cultural Center recently showcased an exhibition, the dully titled, Write Now: Artists and Letterforms, featuring work by more than 60 artists, including one Daniel Johnson.

Johnson’s contribution was small: four 8 x 10-sized black-and-white drawings—think pages from a graphic novel—each narrating an experience he’d had while working at a public hospital. The first featured an obese woman, wiry hair, sores on her groin, a gross scene. In the second, an overdose patient is lying on a gurney hooked to an IV, and is singing Stuck a needle in your arm, So take another toke, have a blow for your nose, and just then the doctor walks in and he sees the patient and then they’re both singing, Ooh ooh that smell, the smell of death surrounds you! The artist wrote the chorus into the scene twice, as if the doctor and the dying man finished the song together. A third drawing showed a body bag in a brightly lit hallway. The narration read: Baby head torn in two, eyes completely black, in a biohazard bag, set on a small, small stretcher, with a small, small baby inside.

I can’t remember the fourth drawing. I was with friends and we were on our way out, to go for a drink. Taking notes was an afterthought.

I was struck, really, by this: These four 8 x 10 pages were tacked onto a wall the size of a billboard, and the rest of the space was left empty. And while I found these pieces disturbing and moving, I couldn’t figure out what the thinking behind it all was. Then I imagined 400 of these sheets, this billboard wall replete with these ugly pages—and I thought that would have been like a punch in the solar plexus. The quantity of them would have overwhelmed, would have been saying something, but what?—that this is overwhelming.

As it was, we just scratched our heads, I scratched some notes, and then we went for beers.

 ***

Essayist Lia Purpura illuminates: “I once had a friend. He had been teaching a long time when I was just starting. He liked telling his students he’d seen them before. In another life, at another school, the same hairline, the same kid brother back home in eighth grade. In class, he gave them obituaries to read. And though we’re no longer close, here is consolation: I still believe in what he was up to: seeing if he could make them dizzy. Suggesting they write their way into or out of the disquieting facts he offered up. Offering the chance to find themselves breathless, to consider themselves a point on a circle falling and rising, falling/drawn up, as the wheel moved, moves, is moving relentlessly on. He wanted them to feel conveyer beneath their feet, when all along they’d assumed they were walking.”

 ***

I am on the conveyer here and fear the gears broken, hear metal parts whirring free beneath me, and the belt is picking up speed. I don’t know how to write my way out of this.

Remember back in the spring of 2009, when pop artist Chris Brown beat up his then-girlfriend, the singer Rihanna? The fight started while they were driving somewhere, and he left her on the side the road with bruises on her face, a split lip and a bloody nose, and “what appeared to be bite marks on her body.” I was teaching at a Chicago charter school at the time and brought this up to one of my freshman classes, which decided, unanimously, that the incident was Rihanna’s own fault, that “she had it coming.” She had, apparently, given Chris Brown an STD.

I was bothered by my students’ response, so I kept throwing out other examples, trying to find a situation where we could all agree that the woman was not, somehow, to blame. Beyond frustrated, I finally proposed the ridiculously obvious: “Let’s say a 10-year-old girl is walking home from school, her elementary school, and she’s grabbed by a 50-year-old man who rapes her behind a dumpster in an—”

Before I could even finish, a girl jumped in, “Well, what was she wearing? Maybe she was asking for it.”

Or how about this: A few years ago, in my home city, Milwaukee, an 11-year-old girl was gang-raped by some 20 people, most of them between the ages of 13 and 21. One man was 40. That man’s niece, age 16, had apparently organized the event. The assistant DA who prosecuted the case told reporters, “The really scary thing is, during court proceedings, I heard members of the perpetrators’ families saying this kind of behavior is not uncommon.” Fourteen people were eventually convicted, receiving between four and fifteen-year sentences. One woman from the girl’s neighborhood, aged 22, responded to a reporter, “Five years? Ten years? That’s ridiculous. They getting time for nothing. That girl, she knew what she was doing.”

I don’t know how to write my way out of this, so I suppose there’s only in, as in deeper, as in deeper into the rabbit hole.

 ***

Writing about his time working his beat for the Tucson newspaper, Bowden chronicles: A toddler who was held “by the legs” and swung “like a baseball bat” into a cinder block wall. A seven-year-old girl found in an alley, eviscerated. A woman raped in the desert, pistol-whipped, shot twice, and left for dead. A child molested by a neighbor. A woman who “tells me that when she was a girl her father, who was rich and successful, would sit around with his male friends and they would take turns fucking her in the ass.” Another woman raped in the desert, and almost killed, except this time the perp, the same guy who’d done this before, is caught and sent to jail, but this is of little comfort, as “I know he will be back and he will be older, and that that will be the only change.” “Children with cigarette burns and sore orifices.” “The father said he had done nothing but fondle his son. The boy had gonorrhea of the mouth.” “An eight-year-old is riding her bicycle on the sidewalk near her home; the next moment the bicycle is lying on the ground and the girl is gone with no one the wiser… A young mother who works in the newsroom comes over to my desk and asks me what I think the chances are of the girl being alive. I snap, ‘Fucked, strangled, and rotting out there.’”

Bowden has pounded a hole through the wall that would shut out these bits of the world. Sunlight pours in, bright and unfiltered, and I feel the skin around my eyes stretched tight and burning. I’m going blind. Or I wish I were. Or maybe I’d rather see everything. Strive to see everything, as Bowden does. Also a defense mechanism, an equal though opposite reaction, to embrace that which disturbs and terrifies us. Or if not embrace, at least stay locked eye to eye. Strive to keep that which would frighten us in our sights, to keep it from getting around us.

On the beat in Juárez, Bowden looks down at “a puddle of blood seeping into the brown earth by the roadside.” He notes:

“The body has just been taken away by the authorities.

“I lean over and flies rise up off the blood.

“Below, a herd of goats searches for food in a garbage dump. The hillside gleams with shards of broken glass.

“The flies rise to my face.

“And I can only decide whether to face what I see.

“Or turn away.”

It has been suggested that I am obsessed with Bowden, with his dramatized sense of righteousness and masculinity, and that this obsession is unhealthy. I say it is much simpler than that: I admire him. Bowden refuses to turn away. I want to turn away. I will not turn away.

 ***

Purpura: “It’s the noticing that cracks us open, lets something in…these specimens I’m here to see, I’m not turning away from. Here in the museum of things gone terribly wrong…”

 ***

Recently, here in Tucson, a six-year-old girl went missing from her bedroom, her absence only discovered the next morning. Kidnapped, taken, disappeared. Still gone. “Fifteen-twenty detectives and analysts are working on the case…” “Police have received more than 900 leads.” “Investigators questioned all 17 registered sex offenders in that area, but turned up no clues.” The police say “they’re working on the assumption that she is still alive and they’ll be able to bring her home safely.”

I think of that young mother in the newsroom standing over Bowden hunched at his desk. “What are her chances?” she asks. And he snaps.

 ***

One response to the overwhelming stacking-up of examples of trauma and abuse would be to narrow it down and use one or a few as an example, to focus in on a universal, on one that might substitute for the many. Miss Sinaloa is a prime example, at once an actual person and a stand-in for the hundreds or thousands of women kidnapped and raped and killed in Juárez in recent years.

Though of course my friend M— is not my friend A— who is not my friend R—, and there’s something shady, I think, in asking them to sacrifice their individual stories, their personal narratives, for the sake of our shortening the stack of documents of abuse compiled here. Wouldn’t we lose something?

After a war, the recovered remains of the unknown dead stand in for all of the dead who have passed unknown. The dead amassed and interred, faceless and appropriated—the unknown dead as emblem.

Purpura has a thought to add here, too: “In the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, even the bones themselves are not the body. Are a portion standing in for the whole, synecdoche, not meant to be Michael J. Blassie, shot down in An Loc in 1972. Though it is he, the DNA test now tells us. Unequivocally. But the medal of honor, though it hung over him for fourteen years, does not, it was ruled, belong to him.

“He just lent his body to an idea.”

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a national monument. Who has ever heard of Michael J. Blassie? In a society such as ours, there is safety in the denial of an individual’s needs, rights, suffering. Who first said, “War doesn’t kill thousands of people, but rather one person dies thousands of times”? I don’t know.

Stalin supposedly said, as if to say no matter, “When one dies, it’s a tragedy. When thousands die, it’s statistics.”

 ***

Statistics are powerful for a reason: they take experiences we may or may not personally have and put those experiences in the context of the greater whole—they help bring into focus the larger picture. According to a 2008 survey by the Vegetarian Times, in that year, 7.3 million Americans were vegetarian, and an additional 22.8 million followed a “vegetarian-inclined” diet. Based on the 2010 population, that means about 2.4% of us are veggies; 7.4% of us are veggie-inclined.

According to another (dubious?) survey, 25% of adolescent and adult males don’t use deodorant. 15% of people prefer cold pizza. Twenty-two percent of men wear boxers (seems low to me), and 6% regularly go commando. Forty-one percent of Americans experienced their first kiss between ages 14 and 16. Citing a 1998 national survey conducted by the US Department of Justice, an Arizona rape prevention website suggests that slightly fewer than 1 in 5 women (17.6%) and 1 in 33 men (3%) in the US have been raped in their lifetime. An old friend of mine works for a rape prevention clinic in Madison, Wisconsin, and she tells me the statistic they use in presentations is that 1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetime—it’s not just about the numbers, it seems, it’s about the phrasing.

My friend also tells me that while each state does it differently, in Wisconsin, no one is actually charged with rape, per se. Rather, offenses of this nature are categorized under “sexual violence,” defined as any unwanted sexual attention, and under this umbrella term, “sexual assault” is defined by varying degrees of unwanted sexual contact. First degree sexual assault involves the forced penetration of any part of the body—oral, vaginal, or anal penetration—with a penis, finger, object, etc. Fourth degree sexual assault would include, say, groping someone without consent.

Returning to that 1998 national survey: Of the 1 out of 5 women who reported having been raped, 22% were under the age of 12 when the act took place, and 32% were between the ages of 12 and 17; 1 out of 4 will be; 3% of men have been; and 86% of the women who reported being assaulted since age 18 were assaulted by someone they knew.

Statistics are, I admit, pretty numbing. And apparently, 73.6% of all statistics are made up anyway.

Better to get our data from the field.

Based on what has been confided in me, of the (relatively) few women I’ve been with, circumventing the actual numbers, 57% have been victims of varying degrees of sexual violence, and 29% have been victims of first degree—forced penetration—sexual assault. It’s also likely that others simply didn’t share their traumas with me, and of course, of those who did, exactly none of them reported theirs in any official way. It’s important to note that an estimated 60% of rapes go undocumented.

The statistic that 3% of American men have been raped at some point in their lifetime strikes me as poignantly evidential of just how large (and quiet) an issue this is: In an unbiased landscape filled with a truly random selection of Americans, it seems you’re more likely to end up standing beside a man who has been raped than a vegetarian.

Acknowledging that I understand this is not exactly how statistics work, I feel I must tell you, I personally know a lot of vegetarians.

 ***

What am I doing stacking all these stories here? Maybe I am trying to make up for all of those silences in the moment, when those friends of mine told me something and, not knowing how to respond, I didn’t say anything. Maybe these stories are just weight, and I am tired and looking to unburden myself. But of course, who am I to feel so tired?

Maybe I just want to acknowledge how these stories have changed how I see the world. Not darkened my view of it necessarily, but rather made my vision of its darkness more clear.

 ***

The humanitarian non-profit that my friend works with in Arizona, the organization that records instances of abuse against migrants, says, “We have an obligation to document and make public the routine violation of basic rights that is occurring in our backyard,” and this sort of community oversight is meant to help generate “immediate and fundamental changes to these routine practices.” In the last few years, this organization has taken its collection of documents of abuse to Washington DC to further its Border Patrol Custody Standards Campaign. These documents of abuse are, in a word, evidence, of wrongdoing, of a need for change, and I wonder if that is what this essay is ultimately trying to do here: document, build evidence, call for…call for what exactly? Evidence is supposed to add up to something. What does all of this add up to?

Here’s where I get stuck: A migrant gets caught in the desert south of Tucson and is yelled at and handcuffed and knocked down and kicked in the chest. A US soldier murders an Iraqi man rather than arrest him. The body count in Juárez plummeted by almost 45% last year, some 3,622 reported murders in 2010 falling to 1,976 in 2011, but this is still 324 more deaths than the 1,652 that set Bowden on his crusade in 2008. A friend of mine was raped when she was a girl, another when she was 18, and statistically 1 out of every 4 women will be raped in her lifetime. And there seems to be a nuance separating all these cases of abuse—between my friend R—’s confession of being raped in that bar, and R—, the migrant, reporting that his shoes were removed and thrown off into the desert: public abuse versus private, and private shame versus a public crime—but how do we know which of these are simply chapters from the past that we cannot change, and which are symptoms of abuse that require speaking up as a means towards mending? When does the telling begin a healing? When is it just raking up muck? At what point do our stories exceed our own narrative? At what point does the personal become universal?

 ***

There’s that Hemingway story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in which Harry and his wife are stuck high up on the mountainside, and he is dying of gangrene. Harry is a writer, and believing he will die before help arrives he drinks to pass the time and gives himself over to dreaming about all the scenes and people and stories he will never have a chance to write about—all the things “he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.”

And maybe you—like Harry, like me—also collect scenes and phrases and notions about the world and character sketches and ideas really, and maybe we collect these things hoping someday to find a way to mold them into a story, an essay, or a poem. And maybe we, like this guy Harry, collect these things, and hold them close, and wait until we feel confident enough to do them justice, and so really we wait forever and in the end we never write about them at all.

And maybe, like me, you have been told things by people passing through your life, have been given stories of abuse and trauma and neglect—or maybe you have stories of your own—and maybe like me, you’ve never known what to do with these stories, and not knowing, you’ve settled for holding them secret, safe, secured somewhere between the lungs and the heart. Or you’ve held them close only waiting for the ache to dissipate.

It strikes me that we tell others our stories, these stories, because if we don’t, if we bury them in ourselves, then these stories, these parts of ourselves, will eventually disappear. And sometimes this is indeed what we want. Sometimes it’s not. And sometimes we’re not sure what we want, so we tell a friend maybe, just once, and then it’s up to them what they do with that.

 ***

Some things we suffer make life hard, some kill us, and some leave our surfaces unscarred but do a fair job of rubbing out the heart. History as freight: sometimes our pasts are the most burdensome load we carry. And as my friends speak, I document, and now I share the weight of their stories.

 

Craig Reinbold

Craig Reinbold’s work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Brevity, New England Review, Iowa Review, Ruminate, and a number of other more or less literary places. He is an assistant editor at Terrain.org and helps manage the Essay Daily, a blog-cum-conversation about all things essay. At the moment, he resides in Wisconsin, with his wife and son and dog, Olive.

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