Anthropodermic Biblioplegy, disabled bodies, and who gets to have boundaries

CW medical abuse, mention of sexual abuse

Harvard University owns a book bound in skin excoriated from the back of a woman who died institutionalized for mental illness.

She did not consent for this man to slice the skin off her back. He just took it, because he was a doctor and he could: perhaps the most literal expression of how disabled bodies are not allowed boundaries.

Skin is what makes a body a body.

There are three qualities that separate life from non-life, according to Astrobiology Magazine.

Quality #1: An “identity,” a body with a boundary between it and the world, to form a “bag of chemicals.”

Without skin, we have no boundaries; without skin, the proteins and gases and enzymes and blood inside of us have no bag to contain them. Without skin, we have no identity.

And a doctor, in a final act of violence, took this patient’s only boundary between her body and the world. He took her identity.

All we know is she died of apoplexy. We do not know her name, for the good doctor never thought to record it.

No skin off his back.

Sometime in the mid-1880s, when his friend Arsène Houssaye wrote Des Destinees de l’Ame — The Destiny of the Soul — and gave him a copy, he bound this book in his patient’s skin and wrote this note inside (translated from the French):

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.”

He fetishized her skin, gazed at its pores, thought it “elegant.” It raises questions, for me, of what other boundaries he might have crossed, before her death.

In fact, this doctor bound that other book he mentioned  in (it seems) the same patient’s skin: De integritatis et corruptionis virginum notis, a tome containing detailed descriptions of the hymen & how to examine it for signs of lost virginity. Inside, he wrote, “This curious little book on virginity, which seemed to me to deserve a binding in keeping with its subject matter, is bound with a piece of woman’s skin that I tanned myself with some sumac.”

Disabled people suffer much higher rates of sexual violence: our bodies are not allowed the same boundaries.

Des Destinees de l’Ame:

From Harvard’s library: image of the book bound with human skin.

Notice I have not named the doctor. It is intentional. He who commits an unspeakable offense shall remain unspoken.

To prove a book is bound in human skin, you can’t just perform DNA analysis: so many hands have touched it, it could be contaminated. Maybe it’s goat skin but your test comes back with touch DNA from a random library patron. Maybe the good doctor had his mitts all over the body, and then the book. You could study the pores and hair patterns to differentiate from animal vellum or parchment, but it’s too subjective. Instead, you have to analyze the collagen peptides.

On a now-deleted Harvard blog post:

Microscopic samples were taken from various locations on the binding, and were analyzed by peptide mass fingerprinting, which identifies proteins to create a “peptide mass fingerprint” (PMF) allowing analysts to identify the source.

Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, and Daniel Kirby of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies described the results:

“The PMF from Des destinées de l’ame matched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat. However, although the PMF was consistent with human, other closely related primates, such as the great apes and gibbons, could not be eliminated because of the lack of necessary references.”

This woman is reduced down to collagen, connective tissue. Her skin contains a body that is not hers, a story she did not write. Does she agree with Arsène Houssaye’s philosophy of the soul after death? For that is now her genetic code, the letters that make up her body, her anatomy, her organs.

This is violence.

Excoriate, verb:
1.
FORMAL
censure or criticize severely.
“the papers that had been excoriating him were now lauding him”
2.
MEDICINE
damage or remove part of the surface of (the skin).

Censure, remove skin: for this doctor, there was no difference.

Censure, verb:

express severe disapproval of (someone or something), especially in a formal statement.

Is a book about the soul after death a formal statement?

Think of William Corder, who upon his murder conviction was sentenced to hanging and dissection by doctors, who excoriated skin to bind a book detailing his murder case: the book that censured him for all eternity.

His skin now contained his corpus delicti. It was all he was. There was not supposed to be a question for him of the soul after death. Just this: his crime, his confession, his hanging, for all eternity.

We call the practice of binding books in human skin anthropodermic biblioplegy.

from biblio- “book” + Greek pegia,

from pegnynai “to fasten, fix; make stiff or solid,” from PIE root *pag- “to fasten.” Related: Bibliopegic; bibliopegist.

To fasten, make solid — in human skin. Make solid, like a body.

It interests me because of my tattoo resurrection spell, which I’ve written about on this blog over the years. One of those tattoos is a line from my brother’s taped confession:

I am trying to get as honest as I can.

I got it in Deseret Alphabet: the alphabet of the Mormons, of Utah, of testimony. When I got that tattoo, all I had was the police transcript of that phone call–no audio. Deseret Alphabet was my way of making my brother speak his confession.

Speak it from my skin, through my skin: living vellum.

Karrie lying on the Salt Flats with her left arm extended to reveal the tattoo that reads, “I am trying to get as honest as I can” in Deseret Alphabet. Her head is turned to the right, and her hair is covering her face.

I touch my left hand to my right shoulder, where my Salt Lake Temple doorknob tattoo just finished healing. In a couple of days, I get a rose on the opposite shoulder, just like my brother’s. I’m not getting it in memory of him, but to steal the memory of him getting it. I’ve been stealing his memories: talking to his childhood and high school friends, searching for photos, watching vintage Pontiac GTO ads, mastering the Parachute Landing Fall.

Memories have epigenetic mechanisms, meaning: Every time I steal one of my brother’s memories, I make myself more related to him, genetically.

“We speculate,” wrote Jeremy Jay and David Sweatt in Nature Neuroscience, “that the new understanding of the role of neuro-epigenetic molecular mechanisms in memory formation can answer the long-standing question in neuroscience of why neurons can’t divide.” Neurons, “can’t have their cake and eat it, too.” They can either use methylation to preserve a singular memory, or they can use it to preserve cell-wide identity–a lung cell is not a kidney cell because methylation blots out different genes–but they cannot use it for both.

I am co-opting the machinery of memory for the purpose of reproduction. I am giving birth to my brother from my brain, like Athena popping out of Zeus’ skull. I am letting neurons have their cake and eat it, too.

I have always conceived of these tattoos as a Mutus Liber or alchemical text. Much of the magic has been in the inks & their chemical composition, but also their placement, as I wrote in 2015:

At the same time, my brother’s rose tattoo and the Doomsday clock meet: the end of time is resurrection; resurrection is the end of time.

Selfie with my hand under my chin. My doomsday clock tattoo and rose tattoo on my left shoulder are uncovered. Both are bright red.

My arm is a stampless cover.

My arm is a wish.

My arm is a mercury switch.

Literally a mercury switch, all that tainted red ink. In an MRI machine, it would become electric.

While I was getting the tattoo, people asked me what language it is and what it says.

“I’m going to be explaining it for the rest of my life,” I said to my tattoo artist, and he nodded.

Gives a whole new meaning to life sentence, I thought.

With my brother’s words branded into my arm, I will forever be giving him voice. I will forever be translating this secret alphabet. I will forever be moving my brother from one condition to another.

Maybe it’s a kind of redemption. Maybe it’s a kind of justice.

Anthropodermic biblioplegy uses a dead person’s skin to bind a text, but I am using living skin to bind a text to my body.

Except skin, being what it is, is both alive and dead: on the surface of the stratum corneum, dead cells. These are the cells you exfoliate to look fresh and young and alive.

And tattoos are liminal, too: macrophages rush to the scene when a tattoo gun injects the ink, gobbling it up and holding it in place to protect your body from a foreign body (boundaries, boundaries, boundaries). Tattoos are permanent because your body is protecting you. When macrophages die, they release the ink and a new macrophage devours it and holds it in place, like microscopic scribes copying illuminated manuscripts at a monastery.

They are reproducing a body within a body.

And when you die, the hydrogen sulfide that forms in your body reacts with your hemoglobin to form new pigments that blacken the outer layer of skin, obscuring tattoos. The body makes its own ink to obliterate the story that invaded it. A little rub with hydrogen peroxide, much like master forger Mark Hofmann (from whom I learned the art of ink making) with his forgeries, and the tattoo is revealed once again–but only for a little while, before the sulfmethemoglobin and iron sulfide ink blot it out again.

Skin as palimpsest.

The body makes tattoos permanent to protect you in life and obliterates them to protect you in death.

In a way, my project to confess for my brother is not all that different from the murderer’s skin binding a book of his own corpus delicti: it, too, is kind of an epigenetic text of sorts, rewriting the story of a body, giving it a new genetics. What’s different is I chose it. It’s my body, my text, my Mutus Liber.

A doctor did not excoriate skin off my back. And my confession is intended to save a soul, not condemn it: this is the real destiny of the soul, the ones we write ourselves.

 

 

 

 

Exercising while disabled: damned if we don’t and damned if we do #AITA #Exercise #Disability

Recently an AITA thread on Reddit exposed the harassment disabled people who dare to exercise in public experience:

At my local YMCA, I have experienced ableism and harassment, too.

Subtle ableism greets me at the front door:

Automatic accessible door with a sign that says “Conserve Energy: use revolving door.”

I can’t use the revolving door unless someone ahead of me pushes. The accessible door is easier. You could say it conserves my energy.

Staff & others have defended the sign, though, when I called it to their attention. “It’s not directed at you, and the revolving door keeps heat from escaping.”

I get it. Conserving energy matters. YMCA is a nonprofit. They don’t have money to burn. And we’re in the middle of a climate catastrophe.

The problem is, disabled people get scapegoated for energy costs, “wasting” resources like medical plastics, and even climate change. The YMCA knows exactly who they are targeting with that sign.

Perhaps the YMCA hoped non-disabled members might second guess themselves if they snuck through the access door, but the problem is, you can’t always tell who’s disabled. Better to build an accessible entrance everyone can use, while conserving energy at the same time.

Why does it matter? Attitude is an access barrier. It announces who is welcome and who is not, who is a burden and who is not. And if your space doesn’t welcome disabled people, it is already inaccessible before we start talking ramps and elevators.

My husband joked we should stick signs on the treadmills: “Please use the track to conserve energy.” (Of course, treadmills can make walking accessible for some folks, but it’s a damn good point.)

I laughed so hard it hurt. “When you burn fat, you breathe it out as carbon dioxide. Bunch of climate-changing Crossfitters in here!”

It didn’t take long for the attitude on the door to become the attitude on the gym floor.

On the second day of my membership, an abled woman behind me snapped my photo on her iPhone. She didn’t even try to hide it.

I knew what she was up to. It’s a tale as old as time for disabled people: If we’re “caught” doing something abled folks think we shouldn’t be able to do, we get “Miracle in Aisle 3” meme’d. Amazing! Watch as a woman with a cane is totally healed!

Exercising while disabled: damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. If we don’t workout, people blame our disabilities on laziness. If we do, we’re faking. And I’m thin and white, which means I have a lot of privilege. Disabled people who aren’t thin and/or white get policed even more.

Inside, I was howling with laughter at my big break into Miracle Meme fame. It wasn’t like I tossed aside my cane and plyo’d to the peak of Mt. Step Mill. I was pushing pedals on a NuStep machine, for chrissakes, widely used in physical therapy and cardiac & pulmonary rehab. NuStep’s own YouTube features a video laying out the accessibility features for spinal cord injury:

I am not paraplegic, but one of my conditions, syringomyelia, literally means cavities in my spinal cord. I walk with an ataxic gait. My joints like to sublux and dislocate, too, thanks to Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. Between acute injuries, chronic pain, poor balance, and dizziness, I gotta be careful at the gym — and I am.

The NuStep is my holy grail workout machine. I can strengthen muscles, get my heart rate up, and not worry about falling. It also challenges my core to hold my trunk stable, stimulates neural connections, and improves circulation. I can adjust the resistance, too, and focus on activating my glutes (a problem for me that a pelvic floor therapist first pointed out and gave me exercises to improve).

But even if I climbed to the summit of Mt. Step Mill, it doesn’t mean you’re witnessing a Miracle at the YMCA.

After all, abilities fluctuate. Right now, I can’t even use the NuStep because of ankle instability and wrist pain. Instead, I have been riding a recumbent bike. That’s Ehlers Danlos Syndrome for you.

I hope randos on Facebook who 😮 me starring in my very own miracle meme noticed my butt was planted in a seat.

Getting photographed by fellow members sucks. Now imagine staff demanding your medical history.

Not long after the Miracle in Aisle 3 incident, a staff member invaded my personal space as I wiped down the machine post-workout. “Why do you have a cane?” He asked.

First: Never ask disabled strangers this question. They may not want to disclose private medical information, and the backstory could be traumatic — a car accident, an assault, who knows? Your curiosity does not trump their right to privacy.

Some people might argue the guy was just concerned for my safety like the Redditor claimed in AITA, but at no time during purchasing my membership did management require me to explain my disabilities (which are quite visible), provide a doctor permission letter, or any other documentation of my limitations. My safety is my responsibility. I wouldn’t climb on a machine where I could fall. I know better.

And the truth is, anyone can get seriously injured at the gym, regardless of disability.

I answered the question, anyway. I was still new to this Y, excited about my heavily discounted membership but nervous about exercising in public again after so many years at home on a recumbent bike. I didn’t want conflict.

“Well, you got a good workout,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he meant it as an accusation or compliment: faker or inspiration porn.

Later, the same staff member attempted to harass me off the NuStep machine so another member — someone I witnessed riding multiple machines, lifting weights, etc. — could claim it. “How long are you going to be? She likes this machine, too.”

It wasn’t as if I was hogging it. I just sat down. Every member gets 30 minutes on any machine if someone is waiting — longer if nobody wants it. I had waited all week for my shot: Three times, I left disappointed when the accessible machines were all taken. It doesn’t help two NuSteps are broken, one recumbent bike clunks when you peddle it, and another one’s seat shakes.

“I waited all week for this machine,” I said. “And I am not getting off for 30 minutes.”

My husband talked to management, who promised to let the staff member know he was inappropriate. They also promised to fix broken NuSteps & recumbent bikes. A month later, I checked: still broken. I remember when the treadmills were broken, how quickly they got repaired. Maybe there’s a reason the NuSteps got delayed–a hard-to-get part, perhaps–but the machines didn’t even have “sorry–in need of repairs” signs taped to the displays. I’m not sure the Y has any intention to fix them at all.

While we are talking about access to exercise, let’s not forget about missing & broken sidewalks, missing curb cuts, and inaccessible transit–all serious issues where I live.

I love walking, but it’s not safe. Where is the concern for my safety out there? I don’t see abled folks at City Council meetings grabbing the mic and demanding safe transit or sidewalks. In fact, in my city, they have fought tooth & nail against the Master Sidewalk Plan. One guy called sidewalks a “Russian plot”–fake Russian accent and all. (I wish I were joking.)

In a recent NextDoor thread, my neighbors demanded to know why pedestrians walk in the street & get in the way of their cars. “It’s dangerous,” they said. I reminded them they hated sidewalks & now they gotta live with the consequences.

As for me, I go to another YMCA location now, one inside a hospital clinic that partly caters to injury rehab patients & partly to a regular gym crowd. It’s got most everything my old location had (minus racquetball courts & a pool), plus more NuSteps than they know what to do with, accessible treadmills with rails running the whole length, a walking-only track, and no signs on the door discouraging me from hitting the automatic button. The only problem is, it’s clear across town, which considering how strongly YMCA feels about energy conservation 🙄, is kind of strange they want disabled members burning up extra fossil fuel just to snag an accessible machine. Why not make every location accessible?

Then again, it was never only about conserving energy, just like it was never only about safety.

Nancy Davenport’s “The Apartments”: Art After 9/11 and the Performance of Terrorism

Just got an art history paper of mine up on the site, here.

A 747 jet flies low and close to the top of an apartment tower. On a balcony, a person poses with their arm in the air, pointing a gun at the plane.
Nancy Davenport, 747 (image description in alt-txt)

Five days before the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11, 2001, the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in New York City premiered The Apartments, a series of digitally altered photographs in which artist Nancy Davenport simulates terrorist attacks on white-brick-wonders not unlike the modernist façades of the Twin Towers. With titles such as Terrorist 2Sniper, and Revolutionary (day), revolutionary fighters wave red flags like occupying armies, snipers aim rifles from balconies, and missiles bank toward bland apartment blocks. The series appropriates photojournalism images from the 1970 Kent State shootings, the 1982 Siege of Beirut, and the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre, as well as iconic performance art, positioning The Apartments in a liminal space between photojournalism and performance.

Were it not for September 11th, The Apartments might have succeeded as a show about misplaced political idealism, “failed modernism” (Yenelouis), and the problem “of photography as an objective medium to capture reality” (Davenport, “The Apartments”). Some of Davenport’s images might even appear comical in the absurd futility and clichéd gestures of her “revolutionaries.” 

Read the rest in link at top! Unfortunately, it’s missing my footnotes, but maybe that’s for the better.


Some further thoughts:

Despite being tough on Davenport in that paper, I am a huge fan. My Parallel Stress series is, in part, a response to her re-enactment of Oppenheim’s iconic work (referenced in the paper), through digital manipulation as opposed to physically rigorous performance. I was intrigued by the concept as “accommodation,” and yet, I knew to make the points I needed to, I could never make my images that way. In a way, Davenport’s Parallel Stress neutralizes the bodies because they are not really performing physically, and I took a leap from there.

But I was also influenced by Davenport’s Weekend Campus, for a piece I am doing that creates a reverse animation of my brother’s crime scene photos. As I wrote in my PHD statement of purpose:

“In a similar vein, I have been thinking about Barthes’ “horror of the anterior future” as applied to crime scene photography when the photographic subject is a dead body. I am collaborating to create a backwards animation of the photos from my brother’s crime scene, inspired in part by the work of Nancy Davenport in Weekend Campus.”

The thing about Barthes’ “horror of the anterior future” is that it requires a photo of a then-living person who is now dead. As Barthes wrote: “He is dead and he is going to die…”

It’s a paradox.

But what is the horror of the anterior future when the subject of the photograph is a dead body? Because I experienced that horror with the crime scene photos of my brother, and he was dead. It comes down to modes of storytelling in forensics, the way investigation works backwards from death to life, a reverse process of decay. There is no anterior future because it, too, has come to pass in the photo, and yet, we have to figure out what happened. We have to discover and witness it. In a way, until that is done, it hasn’t come to pass. We have to be complicit in the death, in a sense, creating our own anterior future–and our own horror of it.

So I’ve been at work on a series of photographs that walk through the various versions of my brother’s death, backwards, in a choppy sort of animation, inspired in part by Nancy Davenport’s “Weekend Campus,” in which she uses a rudimentary animation of “panning” as if in film. It’s her homage “to the great French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Weekend, which is famous for an eight-minute continuous tracking shot in which Godard catalogues all the dominant types of persons who made up French society of the time.”

Mine is not relying on panning and not a tracking shot; I’m interested in the concept of time in forensic storytelling — and as such, it’s more about animating actions with so many “missing” sequences. Investigators and survivors create “movies” from these janky, jumpy, glitchy sequences, making a story from disconnected and singular images. Even the investigation of the crime scene is disjointed, out of sequence, no concept of a starting or ending point …

Part of this project involved re-creating the Google Maps image of the apartment house where my brother died:

View this post on Instagram

Today is the 11th anniversary of my brother Greg dying & we went out and did the first reproduction of the Google maps photo of the apartment house where his body was found days later. . . I’ve been obsessed with the toddler pushing the empty stroller at the edge of the frame in the Google maps image (2nd photo) & what he represents to me about the house, how Google captured this hidden history in a way but nobody knows it unless they know. There is an entire semantic memory there for us & nobody else … and yet it appears in the visual, “objective” map. . . I’m dressed in the costume I always wear when playing Greg: the red wig, the skirt printed with his police booking photo, something Army green … and I’m pushing my pink wheelchair instead. . . It’s part of a project in which I’m inserting myself into certain landmark google maps images like this … doing my Parallel Stress pose. This shoot is part of larger project overall, one I pitched in my PHD apps: . . "In a similar vein, I have been thinking about Barthes’ “horror of the anterior future” as applied to crime scene photography when the photographic subject is a dead body. I am collaborating to create a backwards animation of the photos from my brother’s crime scene, inspired in part by the work of Nancy Davenport in Weekend Campus." . . Cutting in a series of images of me re-enacting the different accounts of my brother’s death, to played backwards from the actual crime scene photos, which have a strange ordering all their own as well. . . Alan had a super wide angle camera with us and we also took iPhone images like this cause: Instagram. 🤷🏼‍♀️

A post shared by Karrie Higgins ♿️ (@karrie.higgins) on

Which seems strange, right? Why should this be part of the sequence? I kinda explain here.

Anyway, if you are interested in Davenport’s art & how it intersected with 9-11, click the link at top & enjoy.

a lot of what you love about Greta Thunberg, you hate about autistic people IRL

Autistic activism is “having a moment,” you might call it.

Or not, actually. It should be having a moment.

Feminists in my Twitter feed are declaring Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old climate activist, their personal hero:

… while erasing the reason Greta “is not playing.” Greta is autistic, and she is literally not playing — not playing at looking like a neurotypical. In the autistic community, we call it masking: pretending to understand neurotypical behaviors, hiding our stims, suppressing our special interests, doing anything to not look autistic.

Greta is “not playing” because she’s not masking.

It‘s strange to witness neurotypicals calling it feminist and empowering for an autistic girl to refuse to mask, when so often in real life they shun neurodivergent people for being ourselves — forcing us to mask to fit in.

They label us too angry. They call us blunt. They disinvite us to events and refuse to grant us stage time because we are unpleasant. They call our facial expressions weird and our voices flat. They think we are robotic, unemotional, lacking in empathy. They call us obsessive. They call us exaggerators and confabulators and liars.

Which, if you’re paying attention, are pretty much the same ableist attacks right-wing commentators have leveled against Greta Thunberg.

When I was protesting inaccessibility at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference, most of the responses I got were not to my message, but to how I delivered it, which has everything to do with my neurodivergence.

I get these responses to my social media use in general, too: Why don’t you smile more in pictures? Why do you have to talk about x, y, z? You sound angry (when I’m not) or You’re too weird (OK that one might be true). On & on …

Now I watch as the same people (primarily women, primarily self-identified as feminist) from the lit community who said I could’ve delivered my message in a “more pleasant” tone are thrilled by the brand of activism that Greta brings because it angers men …

… while erasing her neurodivergence to make her more palatable to them.

Never mind autistic people are in greater danger of sexual abuse and violence. Then, when we report that violence, neurotypicals come at us again with the “confabulator” and “exaggerator” labels, so celebrating Greta for “angering men” is not exactly the best take.

It reminds me of what happened behind the scenes with AWP: certain neurotypical activists would egg me on in emails or private messages, celebrating how I refused to package my message “nicely.” Really, I just wasn’t going to lie. One time, in a Facebook discussion thread, a fellow activist said, “I would pay money to get Karrie on the phone with [former director] Christian Teresi.”

As soon as I needed backup, though, POOF. They disappeared and left me to the anger of abled writers & conference organizers. I noticed for all their praise, they stopped inviting me to be on panels. I realized they were, in fact, using me for my neurodivergent traits. So I stopped doing it.

And now — on a much larger scale — I see people doing this to Greta. They want her outspokenness and unsmiling face, but they are too busy erasing her neurodivergence to protect her from the ableist onslaught she is experiencing. Who will be her backup?

I ask you to reflect on this question: If you love Greta so much, what love have you shown autistic activists in your “real life?”

getting a testimony by and through the ink – an update on the book in progress

slice of a tree showing the rings, which I have illuminated with my homemade gold ink –a conceptual piece for #Inktober about accumulation of pollution in tree rings near copper mining & smelting operations, something I’ve worked magic with in my book, based on my experiences in SLC

CW some mentions of CSA

Most of my readers know I’ve been making ink, learning the art of forgery & writing in Deseret Alphabet for many years now, starting with my stumbling onto the Mark Hofmann case in 2010 while sunken into a deep depression from the culture shock of moving to Salt Lake City and grief from my brother Greg’s death. He died suddenly four months before I left Portland for Salt Lake City in February 2009, and so my grief was destined to get wrapped up in my immersion into Mormon culture: for me, they are inseparable. But it took Mark Hofmann & his forgeries to break through my deep resistance to loving Salt Lake City.

I was fascinated by Hofmann’s Salamander Letter forgery in particular because even though it manufactured bogus “evidence” of Joseph Smith being a money-digging dabbler in magical arts, it was also true: Smith was a money digger. Smith did dabble in magic.  “It is true,” Hofmann later confessed when caught, “that I wrote the documents according to how I felt the actual events took place … the idea there was more to keep it in harmony with what I thought potentially genuine, discoverable documents may say.”

I wanted to get inside Hofmann’s mind, so I learned his ink and his methods. But the first thing I wrote in his iron gall formula:

Iron gall on parchment: “What would I forge if I would never get caught?” This was posted also on my Facebook at the time and became … a topic!

My answer:  my brother’s confession for his crimes. So what came first: the forger or the ink?

I became obsessed with the idea of forgeries that are true–the idea that I could manufacture the missing artifacts & evidence of my life, including my secret siblings, the abuse I experienced, and my Mormon family connection.

In 2013, I was perfecting my iron gall – using Hofmann’s formula – and thinking of it in terms of the Mormon concept of testimony, a burning in the bosom that signals truth:

But if there is such a thing as false testimony, and it feels like truth--just like truth–how does anyone ever know anything is true? If knowing is a feeling, and lies feel just like truth, then every feeling, every scrap of knowledge, is a potential forgery. What do you do? Accept the story that was written for you? Dismiss and deny any testimony that contradicts the narrative your ancestors, elders, and family have given you? Isn’t that exactly what abusers perpetrate on their victims: powerlessness to tell their own true story?

I believe this lifelong tension between truth, testimony, and evidence is what sparked my interest in Mark Hofmann’s forgeries. It is why I have learned to make my own ink. It is why I am translating my brother’s taped phone call into Deseret Alphabet, a phonetic alphabet invented by the Mormons in Utah, because I want to breathe life into his words again, to make him speak, even in death. It is why I am forging the plea agreement my brother should have made. Why I am forging birthday & greeting cards he should have sent me, letters he should have written. I am not trying to bamboozle anyone; on the contrary, in my book-in-progress I make it very clear what is forged and what is not. The point is not to trick people.

A few of those forgeries on vintage Valentine cards:

Valentine with a girl in a car and a policeman stopping her. Text creepily says Police Don’t Stop!
If you tell on me, you tell on yourself. – Greg
Valentine card with four panels: How to keep busy when you’re alone and miss me → over; How to keep busy when you’re alone and miss me, with illustration of two children facing each other on an orange background → “you liked it like a big girl” written in Greg’s handwriting and signed, Greg, then one more panel of How to keep busy when you’re alone and miss me →

So many times, I have tried to tell the story of my forgeries and inks. They were central to the piece about my lie detector–to which I subjected myself because Mark Hofmann was subjected to one, too.  I had this idea in mind that if I wanted to understand the master forger, I had to follow in his footsteps,: Everything Hofmann did, I would do, too. (Except, obviously, the bombings.)

I read books that he read. Visited places he frequented. Made his inks, practiced his methods. I even underwent hypnosis regularly for months, because Hofmann was an expert at self-hypnosis. I did it like him: hypnosis first, lie detector second. Everything had to be in the right order.

I learned to make papers and age them. I learned how to mess with Carbon-14 dating, too. I got good.

I forged my first greeting card from my brother on the day of my lie detector test, and I wrote:

“I miss the old ink polygraphs,” the polygraph examiner says, raking his fingers across the thin blue lines of his legal pad. “I loved to watch the needles move. I could touch the paper and get ink on my fingers.” He rubs together his left forefinger and thumb, leaning in close and whispering, “It was like I had been part of something.”

I wonder if he used this technique as a detective in the Salt Lake City Police: violating personal space, confessing a secret to make an adversarial process feel collusive.

“I get it,” I say, making fists to conceal the black stains on my cuticles and fingerprint ridges. Last night, I stirred tannic acid, green copperas, Roman vitriol, gum Arabic, logwood, and distilled water in a cast iron pot: an acrid, purple-black witch’s brew of iron gall ink. I got the recipe from Charles Hamilton’s Great Forgers and Famous Fakes, the same book that Salt Lake City police seized from Mormon document forger Mark Hofmann’s home in 1985 after he blew up two people with pipe bombs to cover up his forgery schemes. I read it because he read it.

As we speak, the mixture is fermenting inside a mason jar on the kitchen counter like a squid ink delicacy. This morning, I siphoned a little into a pipette and filled a vintage ink bottle. Then, I dipped in a steel nib pen and practiced my brother’s signature until I could draw the upper loop on his capital “G” without hesitating. Nothing betrays a forger faster than hesitation.

The piece was accepted for publication in 2014, but it was not to be. And so, this element of my story stayed bottled up.

___

For years, I worked from only one exemplar of my brother’s handwriting: his signature pleading not guilty to sexual abuse of a child under twelve: the same crime he perpetrated against me. I think it subconsciously influenced the greeting card concept: greeting cards require very little text; a signature carries most of the weight. It was also influenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls, but more on that later.

I started studying graphology — less for personality & character analysis than to sharpen my skills at graphical analysis of handwriting.

From the ill-fated 2014 lie detector piece:

Even though my brother was born in Hawaii on the naval base where my father was stationed, he grew up in the same city I did: Cedar Rapids. He would have learned penmanship in the 60s; I learned it in the 80s. The Palmer Method taught writing as a whole-arm movement with the forearm resting lightly on the desk—no death grip on the pencil. Even now, I can hear my teacher coaxing me to relax my fingers.

penmanship practice page by Karrie from elementary school. She has written capital & lowercase G & Capital H; the teacher circled some exemplars in red

“Hold the pencil up here,” she would say, peeling my fingers from just above the tip of the lead and repositioning them higher. “Let the movement come from the arm.”

But whenever I did, the loops of the letters spiraled out of control.

When the teacher wasn’t looking, I squeezed the pencil tight again. I still do it.

May 24, 1959 Cedar Rapids Gazette:

Parents of the kids in schools where it was taught doodled in an effort to duplicate the printing-like movements and wished they’d had Palmer method, too. Fame of the system spread far & wide until the Palmer Method and Cedar Rapids and the CR Business College were all mentioned in the same breath.

Greg was two years old when that article appeared.

How strange, my brother and I lived at the epicenter of Palmer penmanship education, and I—the forger—have to travel back in time to re-learn the system I resisted back then. I have to loosen my grip on my pen. I have to hold it like I am someone else.

At the end of a 1983 article, though, I see something that makes me doubt what I saw in the shape of Greg’s “G”:

Meanwhile, the A.N. Palmer Co. and Pace Graphics, now of Schaumburg, Ill, produce Palmer Method textbooks today. And since 1970, the Palmer method has been used in Cedar Rapids schools.

By 1970, Greg would have been twelve, well past learning cursive. Did he really learn Palmer? 

Then again, the January 1963 Gazette asks of its readers—all locals—the following:

Did you learn in grade school to write the Palmer Method? Did you know that its creator, Austin N. Palmer, was a Cedar Rapids man? Do you realize that Palmer Method is still widely used?

I think it is safe to say my brother, too, learned Palmer.

Over time, writers shed the strictures of the penmanship system they first learned. It happens consciously and unconsciously. I remember forcing my signature to change. I remember thinking my original one so rote, so bland, so exposed.

Original:

Young Karrie’s signature on a worksheet, with no personalization.

Decorated:

Young Karrie signature with many flourishes, including loops that encircle both 1st & last name like lassos extending from the final letters.

Which is why I find it so odd how little my brother’s changed from the rote Palmer copybooks. No paraph after the s. No fancy loops.

Gregory Dale Higgins signed in Palmer cursive, above his typed name, pleading “not guilty”

But look closer, and you will find my brother dropping hints: no scythe-like curve inside the “G”; no curly-cue inside the top of the D. And yet, the tightness of it and the flow holds close to what he was taught, as if he never felt the need to make his signature match his sense of self at all, as if he knew who he was from the start. At least in his signature, my brother ran together letters. His r is a barely visible arrow flowing out of the curly-cue of his o. The n in “Higgins” looks almost like his i’s. I do that, too: write so fast that letters bleed one to the next. Just like him, my i-dots do not appear directly above the letters. In fact, I often do not dot my “i’s” at all. When I do, I stab the ballpoint on the paper, leaving pinpoints like an earring hole. His are dashes, like Morse code.

A graphologist might point to how his name floats, specter like, above the line, a symptom of moodiness or moral confusion.

Throckmorton, chief forensic document examiner on the Hofmann case, warned me about graphologists—“graphos,” as he calls them. It is, of course, pure pseudoscience. Still, I can’t help but feel a chill when I see “moral confusion” in the diagnosis of Greg’s signature—in investigatory terms, his modus operandi, his signature.

As for me, I detest paper with lines:

notebook page with my handwriting; words are scattered all over and mostly illegible

All of my favorite notebooks come filled with grid or dot patterns, like maps or architectural plans. Sometimes, my letters hog five rows; sometimes, they only occupy two or three. There is no way to tell if they sit on the line, because the baseline changes: the paper makes way for my words. Is that the temporal lobe epilepsy—my discontinuity of identity? Maybe I am forging the graphological implication that I want. Maybe I am shielding myself from analysis. Maybe I am morally confused, too.

Now, I have many more exemplars from his Army & VA records. They took years to acquire. Once, I got grilled by VA General Counsel about whether I could claim equal footing as “next of kin” to a half-sister I have never met. Her name appeared in Greg’s records; mine did not. I won. I still don’t know how I did it.

More exemplars should have made forgery easier, but instead, it opened up new questions and complexities. It made it harder.

combined scans of two forms on which Greg listed his offenses at the time, which were “speeding”; the word appears four times and the lettering is different each time

Or how about this? My brother bubble-dotted his i’s when he was eighteen. Bubble dots!

Gregory Dale Higgins signature, age 18, on his Army enlistment form

Somewhere, in the space between his bubble-dotted Army enlistment signature and his signature pleading not guilty to sexual abuse, his letters got tighter, narrower, and started to float, like a ghost.

Here is my brother’s signature in his high school yearbook, obtained from the Prairie High librarian:

A page from a high school yearbook with senior signatures. Greg Higgins is there with dots on the i’s and a long loop extending downward from the S like a tail.

Here, finally: a flourish! That long tail on the s, like the Big Dipper. It marries g & s. Dips deep, deep down into what graphologists call the subconscious zone, the land of the erotic, sexual, dreams, collective symbols, the material … this is the land of desire. The signature is how you want to be seen, how you present yourself to the world, and here, he is libidinous and dreamy, with an innocent face in those bubble dots.

The combination of his g & s intrigues me: it feels like x + y: his mother and father. Given name vs. surname. Mother vs. Father. Higgins being our shared father’s name.

“Your brother was a woulda been coulda been muscle car Yahoo,” one of his old friends told me when I called him with questions about my brother. I try to square that image of him with the bubble dots, his infamous raw sexuality.

All the girls had crushes on him. A compilation of interviews with his high school girlfriends & women who had (and still have) crushes on him:

Funny how the muscle-car yahoo decorates his signature in the yearbook, while sticking close to the copybook Palmer letter forms. That’s his youth showing through: I am witnessing a moment of self-discovery here, my brother forming an identity by & through his signature.

I got jealous when I first saw those bubble dots. It looked like my sister’s handwriting, not mine. I never did bubbles like that, never traced such lovely loops. If handwriting were genealogy, he’d be more related to her. I had to forge to make us related.

Graphology might be bunk science — remember how the lead forensic document examiner in the Hofmann case warned me about graphos — but damn, sometimes it is true.

____

The more I made inks, though, the more it became an alchemical process: a way to transmute grief, process my progressive disabilities, and even practice magical medicine.

My Asthma Abracadabra spell, for example, which was part of my PHD application portfolio in 2015:

In ASTHMA ABRACADABRA, I channel all senses of the term, for my asthma medications, an immediate and simple solution to make me breathe, are made of petrochemicals as well, meaning they contribute to petroleum extraction and pollution, even as my illness was created by that pollution.

Doctors always want to pour gasoline down my throat. My body is a petroleum sink.

My inhalers are beneficent tailpipes. 

Even the packaging uses petrochemicals, for the industrial inks used to print the medical pamphlets in each inhaler are made from petroleum feedstocks.

The inhalers themselves are plastic: made from petroleum.

In this performance, I recycle the paper from asthma inhaler patient information booklets into new paper, not bleaching out the ink: I want it to be part of the paper itself, like a secret palimpsest.

I size it with gelatin, a substance made from skin and bones. The scrolls are bodies. Bodies I have created. I create with the word.

I write a message on the first sheet in sympathetic ink, using gall nuts and a reagent to develop the message (the regent being copperas).

Read the rest of the spell here.

___

In SLC, I immersed myself in air pollution science.The more I studied air chemistry & pollution & forgery & disability & epigenetics the more I found the same chemicals implicated, over & over. Hofmann used ammonia in his forging; epileptic blood is high in ammonia post-seizure, and epileptics are often seen as liars … benzene in gasoline and medications … carbon and petrochemicals in pollution and inks. My inks & forgeries recreate ecosystems; they are living, breathing bodies.

Hence, my alchemical approach to inks & a scroll where I take my spinal cord through ink-chemical permutations as I process it at various stages, as here:

drawing of a spinal cord, vertebrae & brain with a tidal wave leaking from the back of the cervical spine and washing back toward the body, a gold-capped molar caught up in the wave; the spinal cord is drawn in black with gold illumination, the vertebrate in black with gold illumination over them, and the nerves, brain, and wave in ultramarine blue.

Iron gall possesses what archivists call bite, meaning it sinks into paper like teeth. Ink’s root word, encaustic, means burn, and iron gall is a slow burn. From the moment you dip in a nib, oxidation begins, which is how the writer sees their words at all. Without a dye like logwood, iron gall is invisible at first, until the air blackens it. The corrosion on some documents is so complete, if you lift an old paper, letters fall out of the page like alphabet ash.

Every stroke of iron gall absorbs oxygen as it rusts, gaining the weight of the oxygen: words grow heavier as they age. They gain the weight of time. [time is a physical substance]

Every letter reenacts The Beginning, the perfect chemical signature, chemical blueprint, of our atmosphere … Two hundred millions years before the Great Oxygenation [Oxidation] Event that changed Earth’s atmosphere forever and made it habitable to human beings, cyanobacteria appeared and learned to photosynthesize. In went light, out went oxygen pollution.

For the entire alchemical ink recipe (of sorts), posted in 2017: Ink Magick for a Dental Stem Cell Transplant.

___

The deepest and most serious of forgery+ink magick of all: an epigenetic magic spell that was the center of my 2015 PHD application. An excerpt:

In Rube Goldberg Machines, Mormon theologian Adam S. Miller wrote:

“The body, despite its motility, has no clean edges, no hard lines. Instead, it bleeds out beyond this fragile, porous shell of skin and hair into the fabric of the world around it, just as the world around it simultaneously bleeds back into the flesh, fiber, and blood of the body itself through respiration, digestion, and sensation. Disconnected from air, food, water, and sensation, a body is not a body. As a result, to successfully resurrect a body, one would have to successfully resurrect a world.”

To resurrect my brother’s body, I have to resurrect his world.

I had already started with forging my brother’s confession through birthday and Valentine cards, but his world needs his body.

I got a rose tattoo to reproduce my brother’s. I didn’t get it in memory of him. I got it to steal his memory. I wanted the memory of tattoo needles cutting into me in the shape of a rose.

Karrie stands with her t-shirt draped over her shoulder to reveal the rose tattoo on her left shoulder. The photo cuts off so you cannot see her face, only her lips, slightly parted. In the distance behind her is the Salt Lake Temple.

Memories have epigenetic mechanisms, meaning: Every time I steal one of my brother’s memories, I make myself more related to him, genetically.

“We speculate,” wrote Jeremy Jay and David Sweatt in Nature Neuroscience, “that the new understanding of the role of neuro-epigenetic molecular mechanisms in memory formation can answer the long-standing question in neuroscience of why neurons can’t divide.” Neurons, “can’t have their cake and eat it, too.” They can either use methylation to preserve a singular memory, or they can use it to preserve cell-wide identity–a lung cell is not a kidney cell because methylation blots out different genes–but they cannot use it for both.

I am co-opting the machinery of memory for the purpose of reproduction. I am giving birth to my brother from my brain, like Athena popping out of Zeus’ skull. I am letting neurons have their cake and eat it, too.

Epigenetic methylation is ink, too, blotting out genes. Genetic code as palimpsest. Forgery, too.

(For more about the tattoos, which I designed as my own Mutus Liber, an alchemical confession of sorts: here and here and here.)

But timelines get complicated. I wrote about the timeline in teeth, how it could undo me:

Yank a tooth out of a post-Bomb body, and you can calculate a corpse’s birth date within 1.5 years. Teeth stop forming at an early age, so they stop picking up carbon, and because they erupt through the gums in predictable patterns, the mouth is like a timeline of exposure to Carbon-14. But the method works best for people born after 1960. For people born in the 50s—like my brother—it gets trickier because their dentition was forming during a time of great flux in radiocarbon levels: up and down, up and down. Tooth 18, which erupts after Tooth 19 might wind up with a lower radiocarbon content, even though it’s younger.

When my brother licked the lingual side of his molars, he was licking a timeline out of joint.

In the report, “Measuring atomic-bomb derived C14 levels in human remains to determine Year of Birth and/or Year of Death” Gregory W.L. Wodgins writes that “blood, hair and nail radiocarbon levels lagged atmospheric levels by 0 to 3 years, consistent with a rapid replacement of these tissues”—which is why are calibrated to the air at time of death. “Bone lipid levels,” on the other hand, “lagged atmospheric levels by 6.8 years.”

But I was born after the bomb testing ended. My teeth should form a perfect timeline, which could expose my forgery. I am investigating ways around it, and I have requested my brother’s VA medical records, including dental radiographs and records, in the hopes of formulating a forgery plan.

And I have not yet obtained radiographs of my brother’s teeth. I do not know if his teeth had funky roots like mine.

x-ray of teeth showing molars with root canals. The teeth have extra roots that are also curly.

Another solution is throwing off the carbon isotope ratios in my body to prevent a proper dating of my body:

  • Using petrochemical-based shampoos, which contaminate the hair matrix with carbon devoid of C-14 due to petrochemicals coming from fossil fuels. This throws off the radiocarbon balance in the tissues, particularly relative to fingernails.
  • Eating food grown in the heavily petroleum and coal-polluted air of Utah, which will alter the C-14 content in my cells (also sea food, which is low radiocarbon, but … I want it to be of the Utah air)

To make my body un-dateable.

___

It’s strange, looking back at your work and seeing the seeds of things & how they grew: I was already thinking resurrection ink during at least 2013 when I wrote Strange Flowers, which published in 2014:

If I cannot press a roentgenizdat for my brother, I will make him another kind of record: his words written in bone.

I grind the carbon left behind by “The Strange Flowers” with bone black pigment, gum Arabic, and distilled water to make an ink.

At the last minute, I add honey, because of Ezekiel:

Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe.

God commanded Ezekiel to eat the scroll, and he said the lamentations tasted “sweet as honey” in his mouth.

The blackness of bone black pigment belies its true nature: mostly tricalcium phosphate, a perfect laboratory medium for transfection, the deliberate infection of a cell with DNA to alter its sequence and sire a new cell line. I grate wisdom tooth dust into the rich black fluid and follow it with spit. My steel nib pierces the bone ink like an injection needle, infusing the DNA of my saliva and bone into my brother’s words as I translate the police phone call transcript into Deseret Alphabet.

I wanted the words of that ink to make him a Luz bone: the bone of resurrection, the seed from which God grows bodies at the Resurrection, End Times.

___

But resurrection has consequences.

I began to believe that my epigenetic forgery created my spinal cord condition. I made it happen. As I said in a 2017 interview with now-defunct ROAR:

The first time I saw the syrinx (hole) in my spinal cord, I thought, “I am too good at magic.” My whole process for years has been an epigenetic resurrection spell in an attempt to bring my oldest brother (who died in 2008) back to life. He had a spine like this. It was why he took so many pain medications.

I mean, the holes in my spinal cord are caused by a neural tube birth defect called Chiari Malformation that makes my skull too small for my brain. My cerebellum is falling through the foramen magnum and cut- ting off the ow of cerebrospinaluid. CSF pools in my spinal cord and erodes it. BUT my Chiari wasn’t diagnosed until I was 39 and very sick from the air pollution in Salt Lake City. I went in for a routine brain MRI for my epilepsy, and my neurologist said, “Has anyone ever told you that you have a brain deformity?” I’ve been getting brain scans since the late 80s! Nobody ever found my birth defect. My syrinx wasn’t found until two years later during a c-spine MRI.

When I told doctors at the NIH, where I am participating in a study, they said, “I would love to get my hands on your childhood MRIs.” Me, too.

Did you know that a fetus initiates parturition by secreting surfactant protein-A and platelet activating factor from its lungs? It kicks off an in inflammatory process, and labor begins. This inflammatory process resembles my asthma in the SLC pollution, the chemistry of which inspired a lot of my magic. I sometimes think I gave birth to my own birth defects—that I was going through some kind of rebirth there in SLC, initiated by my own lungs. And I did it in my brother’s image.

My brother’s spine got crushed in a factory accident. He was making the machines that harvest corn to make ethanol. I am facing ethanol injections in my L1 vertebra for a tumor (separate from my syringomyelia) that will eventually cause a compression fracture.

It’s the most radical of radical empathy. I know it sounds weird, but I’m proud of it.

Since then, it has gone so much further, as I was recently diagnosed with craniocervical instability as a consequence of my Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, requiring fusion of my c-spine, possibly to T1: titanium in my spine, just like my brother. What came first: the inks or the genes?

___

Meanwhile, my conditions progressed, and my hands lost more strength and coordination. I started to experience more eye tracking problems, worse fatigue, and more.

My fingers, always hypermobile due to Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, hurt more while feeling less. One syrinx in my spinal cord affects nerve pathways that innervate the thenar eminence, and a result, it is wasting: I cannot grip like I used to. I have lost some blunt touch sensation, as well as all protective sensation in most of my fingers & hands. I don’t feel cuts or burns, even as my neuropathic pain rages hot like fire. It’s one of the strange contradictions of syringomyelia.

My handwriting changed. My signature changed. I shared it in a graphology group to talk about the changes, and fellow budding graphologists declared it an illegitimate signature.

my signature, Karrie Higgins, in black ink on dotted white paper

They mean because of the scoring: crossing out — obliterating — my own name with the line through my H. It’s the graphological equivalent to suicide.

But when you are ataxic, you might not have good control over lines and loops and spacing. You move through the space of the paper like you move through actual space: disordered. That is what ataxia means.

And anyway, I am also bipolar. So if my handwriting cannot reflect my mental illness and still be legitimate, then what is graphological “illegitimacy” except ableist? 

Still, it’s a reality: this book is hard for anyone to do, but even harder for me.

I have had to adapt my entire process:

When I make inks, I can no longer grind pigments with a mortar & pestle over the course of many days. Now, I use a dedicated pitcher for my blender. My occupational therapist gave me foam wraps for my pens, so I can control them better, without a death vice: I still find it so hard to control them. I use a light box so I can see better what I am doing, but it gives me migraines. My lines are never not wobbly, my pen pressure never not uneven. When I need to use fire — and I use fire a lot — I call on my husband for help.

I know these adaptations & “flaws” will leave their traces in my forged writing, inks & papers, but I like the idea of it: I long ago committed to my forgeries being honest. In each and every one, I drop hints: My dip pen hygiene is terrible on purpose, building up layers of ink like strata, all different carbon dates; each batch carries different oxygen isotopes in the water, too. I am dropping little hints in the chemistry. My Valentine’s cards are not of the correct era: too vintage, too old. And on & on … I never wanted to bamboozle anyone. I wanted the process of manufacturing my own evidence, my own artifacts — the ones that should have existed — to be the thing.

I love how my disabilities — some long associated with dishonesty and lies because of ableist stereotypes — got me there. The very things that made the graphologists call my writing illegitimate.

Graphologists teach that the paper represents literal space & handwriting a graphic tracing of a person’s movement through it: Your fingers are the needles of a lie detector or EEG, tracing hidden truths against your will. If that is so, then my ataxic body, dissociated from its senses, should leave an honest trace of itself, too. In this way, my forgeries & inks are not just manufactured evidence, but actual evidence. They are a disability poetics. By & through the ink, I gain a testimony that my writing is legitimate.

___

Currently, I am working on an Intermedia piece that brings together my inks, magick, alchemy, genealogical discoveries, and Mormon theological underpinnings. For this piece, I am writing my family’s medical history using individualized inks — for person, era, conditions — onto squares of Medieval parchment, aka, the kind made from animal skins and sewing it into a garment. I started it a few years ago, but it takes a long time to acquire the needed parchment due to cost — just like it took a long time to gather the family history.

several sheets of parchment of various sizes, with natural variation in shades, too, from ivory to light tan.

It’s hard to know where the book ends. The story could keep going deeper indefinitely, but I see an ending in sight now, and it’s something I made happen through my inks, too. I am closing in on it: something that was meant to happen all along. And I can’t wait to share it.

 

Lena Dunham & the fetishization of #hypermobility CW: CSA, abuse, medical trauma

CW: CSA, abuse, medical trauma

In a recent profile in The Cut, Lena Dunham characterized her mixed connective tissue order as making her “flexible” and “the reason she is good at sex.” (She has also mentioned Ehlers Danlos Syndrome previously, though not in The Cut profile. People can have both.)

There are so many problems here it is hard to begin.

First, hypermobility and flexibility are not the same thing, and conflating them harms people with CTD diagnoses and those in diagnostic limbo. It might seem like splitting hairs, but in reality, it can delay diagnosis for years or decades. Hypermobility means joints move easily beyond normal range of motion, often leading to partial dislocations called subluxations, or full dislocations, when the joints must be reduced back into place. Not all people with CTDs experience dislocations, but many do.

Flexibility is in the muscles, not the joints.

As Murray Meetze writes on Uniquely Striped:

As hypermobility goes up, flexibility can often go down. As is the case for me, muscles can tighten while attempting to stabilize hypermobile joints. Many with EDS, including myself, have extremely tight hamstrings, even in childhood, as the hamstrings try to protect the hypermobile spine and joints. Can EDS patients be extremely flexible? Absolutely. But, flexibility is not what doctors should be assessing when EDS is up for diagnostic consideration.

An example of hypermobility:

Karrie’s right arm, extended to her side, with her elbow bent the wrong direction; she has a falcon tattoo visible on her inner bicep

Notice that doesn’t look like “flexibility.” In fact, I am stiff!

In my case, my muscles stiffened up so much over the years that I didn’t realize my subluxations and dislocations even were hypermobility. I thought you had to twist into a pretzel like performers in Cirque de Solei to get a diagnosis. In fact, during my first visit at NIH for a Chiari-Syringomyelia study (a known comorbidity to EDS), I was asked, point-blank, “Are you hypermobile?”

I did not yet fully understand what it meant. I started to tell them about some of my joints (with documented dislocations going back to birth all through childhood & still today), but I feared they would “make me show them how bendy I was” and since I “wasn’t flexible,” they would laugh at me.  It added another two years to my diagnostic wait!

It turns out I score 6 on Beighton (the test used to score hypermobility) now, but a 9 if you had tested me years ago. Some of that change is aging; some is stiffening from syringomyelia and muscle tightness to hold my joints together.

Some folks with CTD are super flexible; some are tight. It is different from hypermobility and not part of the criteria. And yet, many doctors think I am flexible and are surprised how stiff I am. It makes them question my diagnosis, even though an expert geneticist at a dedicated connective tissue clinic gave it to me.

And by the way, connective tissue disorders mean a lot more than hypermobility. For me, it has caused craniocervical instability which will eventually require surgery fusing my cervical spine; an aortic aneurysm and congenital heart abnormalities, including an atrial septal defect; severe pain; loss of function of many joints after so many dislocations; Chiari-Syringomyelia; my deafness that requires hearing aids (hypermobility affects joints in the ears, too!); mast cell activation disorder; unrelenting fatigue; migraines & other headaches, facial pain, TMJ, urinary tract issues; severe digestion problems; eye problems; a lifetime of painful dental issues + a high, arched palate … and the list goes on.

Connective tissue affects every system in the body, so boiling it down to “I’m flexible” erases the real experience of a CTD.

So that is one thing.

The fetishization is far worse. Many of us with hypermobility have dealt with leering & inappropriate comments from medical professionals, strangers on social media, and even intimate partners–as well as abuse that is both because of our hypermobility and covered up by it.

Don’t forget that Dr. Larry Nassar abused U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team members primarily by using Ehlers Danlos Syndrome as an excuse: “One gymnast, Melody Posthuma Van der Veen, claims that he told her she might have EDS because he was able to ‘put his whole hand’ inside of her, the Huffington Post reported in a tweet.”

Lena Dunham seems unaware of the harm she perpetuates with her “makes me good at sex” comment. Perhaps it is her privilege in having access to the best doctors, the best care, and even a huge platform. Most of us do not live like that. Perhaps she really believes it makes her good at sex. I don’t know. For me, it causes pain with intimacy: I can dislocate & sublux in my sleep, let alone during sex. I am not alone.

When I was a child, my doctors knew I was being abused. My father was under active investigation, which is documented in my medical records, meaning: doctors definitely knew. They diagnosed me with PTSD and were highly suspicious of sexual abuse. My parents would shift from refusing to believe my diagnoses–calling them “psychosomatic”–to using them to cover up injuries.

Meanwhile, I caught on at a young age to medical appointments being forensic investigations in disguise. If I talked about the abuse,  I had no shot at epilepsy care. To neurologists, if you have abuse trauma, your seizures must be psychosomatic. Never mind that epileptic & disabled children face much higher rates of abuse. It can be both.

I knew if I talked too much about my pain, I also could be denied my epilepsy meds, as the doctors had long since decided I couldn’t have epilepsy and dislocating joints and pain, etc. (Now we know they are all, in fact, connected.)

If I didn’t talk about the pain, I wouldn’t get care for it, but I might have a shot at keeping my epilepsy meds. But then: no care for the pain!

Sometimes, even I wasn’t sure which injuries & pain were abuse and which were my disabilities.

Which is why Lena’s comments are so dangerous. Some medical professionals prey on this confusion to build careers as forensic experts. One doctor, Michael Holick, works feverishly to diagnose children with EDS to get parents off the hook for abuse charges.

The problem? Dr. Holick never (or rarely) examines the children in person; hypermobility is common in children so diagnosis of EDS usually isn’t made until later; and his theory about bone fractures does not fit well with EDS. While it is absolutely true that childhood EDS injuries could be mistaken for abuse, Dr. Holick seeks & finds EDS in almost every case, with no examination. He also seems to forget, again, that disabled children face higher rates of abuse. It can be both–and often is.

Many disabilities are fetishized and have been throughout history. There is even a word for an able-bodied person who fetishizes disabled bodies: a “devotee.” When I read Lena’s comments, I wondered: Had she ever even cracked open a disability studies text, or read disabled voices who are talking about these issues? She barges in with her huge platform, becoming “the face” of these illnesses, without (it seems) taking time to respect disabled activists, artists, and writers who have been doing the work for disability justice.

For BIPOC people with CTDs, the fetishization and conflation with flexibility can inflict even longer diagnostic delays due to medical racism, as well as greater danger of abuse & assault.

Lena Dunham might have been joking, and there is certainly nothing wrong with using humor to cope with illness, but some jokes are harmful and have real & lasting consequences. I hope she will use her platform more responsibility in the future, but I don’t have much hope.

The Bottle City of God

originally published in The Cincinnati Review, 11.1 (2014), winner of the Schiff Award for Prose (2013)


My first summer in Zion, the Mormons deliver a latter-day miracle.

A grasshopper plague is encroaching on a town somewhere out there in the vast Utah emptiness, on the other side of the Great Salt Lake: two thousand grasshopper eggs to the square foot, little exoskeletons bursting into being from thin air, like popcorn kernels on a hot burner.

Local news Channel 4 bears witness: Every ten years, the grasshoppers come. Like clock work.

As an outsider, a Gentile, I have made this reporter my hierophant. The Mormons have their Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and I have a newsman. I never watched local news before moving here.

The plague is supposed to happen.

Backyards are popcorn machines, pop, pop, pop.

Insecticide has failed us.

The seagulls — the same birds that saved Mormon pioneers from the grasshopper plague of 1848 — have forsaken us. But not all of us. One lone believer prayed for a miracle, and seagulls swooped in to devour the pestilence. “It was my faith,” she says. “The seagulls came because of my LDS faith.”

LIVE FROM GRANTSVILLE, UTAH: God has not forsaken us in these latter days. We are still his people, the peculiar people.

But what if the miracle is the other way around? What if the miracle is the grasshoppers?

“I want hard times,” Brigham Young proclaimed, “so that every person that does not wish to stay, for the sake of his religion, will leave.”

The plague is supposed to happen.

___

 

Zion is not a city. It is a terrestrial docking station for the heavenly Zion when it descends at End of Times. I used to imagine it hovering like the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a glittering, saucer-shaped metropolis in the clouds, skyscrapers sprouting out the top, twinkling lights arranged around a center iris. When Zion appeared, the golden Angel Moroni statue atop the Salt Lake Temple would come to life, blow his trumpet, and herald the apocalypse. The temple spires would light like a runway control tower, signaling to God: This is the place.

I committed the classic Gentile mistake: ascribing too much power to God and not enough to humanity. Zion does not wait passively like a lightning rod. It is not a candle in the window for Heavenly Father. It is a writ of extraordinary relief, a direct appeal to the highest authority: Appear in our jurisdiction. Heavenly Zion “can come only to a place that is completely ready for it,” Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley writes in Approaching Zion. “When Zion descends to earth, it must be met by a Zion that is already here.” The world does not end because we are bad; it ends because we are good.

Latter-day in the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints means last days. Mormons must concentrate at all times on the end, as Zion does. It is why they stockpile macaroni and cheese, Cheerios, powdered butter and milk, soup, water, toothpaste, candy, shampoo, deodorant, gasoline, generators, flashlights, batteries, and bullets. Their minds and hearts must be microcosms of the City of God.

Like attracts like.

One Mormon becomes an object of fascination on CNN when he shows off his underground bunker blasted into a mountain slope, stocked with canned food, firearms, and gold for the apocalypse — not because he fears it, but because he wants it. He does not pray, “Spare us.” He prays, “Give me advance notice.” He is leaning air stairs against the stars.

Since moving to Salt Lake City, my husband and I have started our own stockpile in a spare room: twenty-five pound buckets of oats, butane canisters, a portable stove, gallons of water, batteries, flashlights. We started it because the city is overdue for a catastrophic quake along the Wasatch Fault, and when the fault ruptures, the east benches will drop off the mountains, tilting the valley floor like a pitcher, pouring out the Great Salt Lake.

“Americans hate the Mormons,” I say to my husband after a news segment about the fault. When we first arrived here, Facebook friends regularly posted polygamy jokes on my wall. One called the Angel Moroni the Angel MORON-i. “Nobody will save us.”

Not long after that, my husband purchases an AR-15 and locks it in a gun safe. In a backroom closet, he stacks ammo boxes like bricks.

Can a city, by its very design, make you long for the apocalypse?

___

The Mormons have a saying: As long as you can see the temple, you are never lost. They mean this literally. On Salt Lake Temple, the Big Dipper carved into the west tower is in perfect alignment under Polaris, the North Star. As Polaris sits at the center of the clock dial of the stars, the temple sits at the center of Zion. The temple is meridian zero: the point from which all streets radiate, a spiritual and navigational compass. Almost every downtown address expresses latitude and longitude in relation to it: 200 S 500 E translates to two blocks south and five blocks east of the temple.

As long as you live in Zion, you know how far you have strayed from Heavenly Father — and how to get back to him. In this sense, as Nibley describes in the Meaning of the Temple, the temple is the “knot that ties heaven to earth, the knot that ties all horizontal distance together, and all up and down, the meeting point of the heavens and the earth.”

In the temple, man climbs back to the presence of God through the endowment: washing and anointing; a ritual drama of the creation and the garden of Eden; learning the signs, keys, and tokens to reach Heavenly Father in the afterlife, and finally, passing through a veil into the Celestial Room, symbolizing the presence of God. It is the fall of Adam in reverse. It is atonement.

“Notice what atonement means,” writes Nibley: “reversal of the degradative process, a returning to its former state, being integrated or united again — ‘at one.’ What results when particles break down? They separate. Decay is always from heavier to lighter particles. But ‘atonement’ brings particles back together again. Bringing anything back to its original state is at-one-ment.”

Atonement is the opposite of entropy, the opposite of the natural order of things, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which dictates that things fall apart.

The temple, then, is an anti-entropy machine.

This is also why Joseph Smith — he would say God — designed Zion to be so compact and dense: one square mile, a maximum of twenty thousand residents; ten-acre blocks with twenty half-acre lots each; eight people per lot. “When the square is thus laid off and supplied,” he declared, “lay off another in the same way, and so fill up the world in the last days” — a divine urban-growth boundary. He knew if Mormons strayed off the plat, they would wander off God’s map and onto man’s. Zion would dissolve. The center could not hold.

___

In Salt Lake City, vandals mount insurrections on the crosswalk poles:

Crosswalk button with US Priority Mail label stuck to it that reads: JⒶWⒶLK! It’s a stupid fucking law, anyway.
Crosswalk sign with US Priority Mail label stuck to it that reads: OPRAH
JⒶWⒶLKS
(fuck the law)
Crosswalk pole with US Priority Mail sticker that reads: If God were real, he would JⒶWⒶLK!

Crosswalks are Zion’s Achilles’ heel, the intersection of what was and what is. When Brigham Young designed the streets 132 feet wide so oxen team drivers could turn around “without resorting to profanity,” he did not know he had exposed Zion to a fatal flaw: “wide, wide forever wide streets,” as Norman Mailer described them, ready-made for cars. The automobile was the anti-temple, a force of entropy destabilizing Zion’s crystalline structure. Zion dissolved, sprawling across the valley. The center could not hold. The population of Salt Lake City today: 189,314. Population of the metro area: 1,126,982. How many of those people can see the temple — actually see it?

“Even the smallest impurity or flaw in anything designed to continue forever would, in the course of an infinite stretching of time, become a thing of infinite mischief,” warns Nibley in What is Zion? And yet, Joseph Smith received the designed of the Zion Plat by divine revelation, and Brigham young was his spiritual heir — a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, too. How could God telegraph to his chosen people a blueprint tainted with a fatal flaw?

I am, of course, committing my classic Gentile mistake once again: ascribing too much power to God and not enough to humanity. Zion can only come to a place completely ready for it. The streets had free will paved right into them from the start: You can U-turn. You can turn away. People chose cars, not God’s blueprint. Today, Salt Lake City is so car-obsessed that pedestrians risk life and limb to cross downtown streets. The city resorted to installing cups containing hazard flags on the crosswalk poles. Signs implore, “Take one for added visibility.” I refuse to submit to that lie.

At first, when JⒶWⒶLK appears on poles in my neighborhood, the graffiti seems like a force of entropy, too. If God were real, the vandal writes, tipping his hand: He is a nonbeliever, inciting pedestrians to revolt. And yet even he longs for the original Zion, the one designed for God’s people — emphasis on people — not cars.

Maybe, just maybe, the blueprint contains no flaw at all. Maybe this was supposed to happen. “One does not weep for paradise, a place of consummate joy,” writes Nibley, “but only for our memory of paradise.”

How can you atone without falling apart?

___

 

We are not canaries in the coalmine. Stop driving for the fucking air! — gas station graffiti

flyer from the Utah Department of Air Quality showing the valley at three different times, progressively more polluted to the point you cannot see the city or mountains–as if the city has sunk into a pollution sea

In winter, Zion becomes the bottle city of Kandor: entombed inside a fortress of solitude, breathing its own private atmosphere. The same mountains that insulated pioneer Mormons from persecution in 1847 turn traitor, trapping cold, stagnant air in the valley. Warmer air floats over their peaks, sealing the city inside an invisible bell jar. Meteorologists call the phenomenon an inversion because it flips the natural order: cold air near the ground and warm air high above. Heaven and earth trade places.

Here in the Bottle City, soot and particulates from power plants, automobiles, oil refineries, incinerators, and wood-burning stoves build up like exhaust in a locked garage, thickening into smog so dense it leaves a film on my teeth and hair, so caustic it sears my tonsils and throat. It tastes like a dirty penny. It gloms on to my vocal cords, corroding them until I sound like an old menthol smoker. Sometimes I cannot speak at all. My nostrils burn. My snot thickens into acidic goo.

Under the bell jar, the city is airless, windless, a kind of vacuum. Sound ceases. Winter birds hop along tree branches, beaks opening and closing, but I hear no song. Children scream and giggle, but the sound reaches me as though I am underwater. Barking dogs sometimes break through, but as in a dubbed film, their muzzle movements do not synch with the sounds. You would think smog could carry sound, that all those heavy metals would transmit it as clear as a telephone wire, but it does not.

The Utah Division of Air Quality calls the particulates PM2.5, meaning 2.5 micrometers in width, roughly 1/30th the width of a human hair, tiny enough to penetrate into the deepest lung tissue. Most of them are secondary aerosols: NOx from automobile combustion reacting with ammonia and other volatile organic compounds. NOx stands for nitrogen oxides: x as in algebra. Add to these molecules the intense UV radiation at Zion’s elevation of 4,300 feet, and a photochemical process gets sparked that cannot be stopped. The process is mathematical, predictable, exquisitely ordered: intelligent design. Even air-quality scientists call the chemicals species, as though they are living things, with volition and will and minds. When I walk through the smog, I am not just walking through toxic air; I am walking into a cloud computer, a sentient force.

NOx is unstable, as are all volatile organic compounds. Unstable atoms seek stability, order, an end to entropy: this is why they pair up, marry, give birth to new particulates. A microcosmic Bing Bang is happening right before our eyes. The smog is primordial soup, the stuff of new life: an inversion of the normal order of things, an insurrection against the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Meteorologists blame the earth for the air: the strange topography of Zion, the mountains in all cardinal directions. Locals blame the air for the air. They call it bad air, as though it perpetrates evil. Never pollution, only bad air. “If it was the cars,” they say, “the air would be like this all the time, but it only happens in winter.”

They are wrong. In summer, we are a bottle city, too. Air stagnates then as it does in winter, except somehow Zion stays sealed inside with no lid to hold it. The sun beams down as omnipotent as a nuke, breaking apart molecules, accelerating reactions between NOx and volatile organic compounds to generate ozone.

Even with no temperature inversion, we are still breathing inverted air: stratosphere becomes troposphere. The same ozone that saves us from radiation high above kills us down below, rapid-aging our lungs. We cannot breathe the same air as God. And once the cycle begins, it perpetuates until molecules have no more atoms to give, ticking down like a doomsday clock.

They can blame the mountains and the air. I blame the temple.

The temple is yanking heaven down to earth by its knot, pulling it into the bottle like a model ship. The anti-entropy factory is working. It is holding air together on earth as it is in heaven. Unstable atoms fall apart; atonement brings them back together again.

I breathe the inversion in; I breathe it out — and just by entering my lungs, the air has changed composition once again. Simply by breathing, I am complicit in the cloud computer. I am co-creator of the intelligent design. I am quickening the apocalypse.

I am atoning.

___
January 2013: The Mother of All Inversions descends, choking off the Bottle City from fresh air for weeks. NBC News with Brian Williams finally picks up the story — the first national outlet to cover it.

On Facebook, my fears come true:

Facebook post from NBC News: Air Pollution Plagues Salt Lake City; comments posted:
Oh NO!!! “GOD’S” — country — RUINED by “GOD’S” PEOPLE?!” LOL!!!
Maybe it will wipe out all the Mormons.
Oh just pray it away.

We will die here, I think. Superman is not coming. Americans hate the Mormons.

Then I catch myself thinking, Good. We are still the peculiar people. The chosen people.

We.

___

 

When I first moved to Utah, I mistook the Bingham Canyon Mine for a volcanic crater. Later, I thought it might be a desert plateau because the rust-colored marbling around the crater walls reminded me of the painted hills in the eastern Oregon desert. Then I thought it was a rock quarry. Then a meteor impact site. Then a nuclear crater from the days of atomic blasts in the American West, even though I know the mushroom clouds bloomed over Nevada, not Utah, where Downwinders breathed the radioactive clouds that blew across state lines. When I learned it was the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, I refused to believe it. Nobody digs a mine pit in plain sight of a major metropolitan area.

Nobody, that is, except the enemy. On October 26, 1862, Colonel Connor planted the Fort Douglas flag on a hill overlooking Salt Lake City, signaling the United State government’s resolve to end the “Mormon problem” once and for all. To the feds — already embroiled in the Civil War — securing the provisional State of Deseret represented not only a strategic maneuver, but also a slap across Brigham Young’s face. To them — with his fifty wives and Danite henchmen slitting apostate throats in the dark — Brigham Young may as well have been the devil. Colonel Connor knew the self-proclaimed peculiar people could not survive the encroachment of Babylon, so he hatched a plot to lure Gentiles to Deseret. “You strike gold,” said Fort Douglas Military Museum Director Robert Voyles in the Salt Lake Tribune, describing Connor’s thinking, “how fast can you get gentiles?”

And even though Utah never spawned a California-scale gold rush, it did yield copper and silver — enough to make some Gentiles rich — as well as coal and uranium. Now 8,000 to 11,000 abandoned mines and 17,000 unguarded tunnels haunt this landscape. Since 1983, ten people have died falling into shafts, and twenty-six more have been injured. Stay out and stay alive, the Utah Bureau of Land Management admonishes, and though I know it is a public safety campaign, I get the sense something lurks beneath that warning, a double entendre.

Perhaps this is why mining particulates are called fugitive dust.

But here is the thing: Brigham Young not only let the mine happen; he helped it happen. He lobbied for the Transcontinental Railroad to meet at the Golden Spike. The railroad would bring Mormons into Zion, but it would bring Gentiles, too, and Gentiles would not defend Zion’s crystalline structure. Gentiles would be a force of entropy. He had to know the railroad would also speed trade, which of course included the mines. “If we were to go to San Francisco and dig up chunks of gold or find it here in the valley it would ruin us,” he said. He knew.

In 1974, Kennecott constructed the Garfield smelter tower 1, 215 feet tall, equivalent to three LDS World Headquarters office buildings stacked one atop the other: a modern-day Babel.

Garfield Smelter stack standing tall near the shore of the Great Salt Lake, photo by Doc Searls, Wikipedia commons

For 84 days, cement trucks worked around the clock, echoes of ox teams hauling granite from Little Cottonwood Canyon to build the Salt Lake Temple. To this day, the Garfield smelter remains the tallest man-made structure in Utah, designed to reach high enough in the sky to spit out pollution where it can blow away on the wind and meet the standards of the Clean Air Act. It is taller than the Las Vegas Stratosphere. Taller than the Seattle Space Needle.

With new efficiencies and cleaner emissions, the smelter no longer needs to stretch so high into the sky, but Kennecott has no plans to tear it down. It has become a kind of beacon for boaters on the Great Salt Lake and drivers on Interstate 80.

As long as you can see the smelter tower, you are never lost.

From a perch on the second story of a downtown parking lot, I can make out the walls of the Bingham Canyon crater, not the massive open pit where Kennecott shovels 450,000 short tons of earth every day. I squint, trying to make out the 320-ton capacity Komatsu trucks. With tires 12 ½ feet tall and bodies 29 feet wide and 51 feet long, they ought to be visible here, 27 miles to the northeast, like little remote-control trucks in a sandbox.

I can blame Brigham Young, but my people — the Gentiles — absconded with the land. What is the atonement for that?

Fugitive dust penetrates the deepest pockets of the lungs, lodging forever in the alveoli. I breathe in the mine dust, and within my wet flesh it becomes mud, which I exhale as water. It evaporates in the Zion sun and returns to the air. I transmute it. But I can never breathe it all the way out. It is part of me now. I am the fugitive dust. The fugitive dust is me.

___

 

After we shake hands, Bowen, Air Monitoring Manager at the Hawthorne Station, steps back as I photograph the two research sheds. I am surprised by how primitive they look, like meat lockers air-dropped in a snow bank. Were it not for the Hawthorne School playground just a few feet to the west, I might mistake the bare-bones setup for an Arctic research station.

The Division of Air Quality chose this location because of the school’s wide-open playground, but it has an added benefit: Children are most susceptible to asthma, so if scientists monitor the air where they play, they can protect the littlest lungs. The city contains better and worse pockets of pollution, so in this moment, I am sharing the same pocket as our little canaries in the coalmine. The canaries are nowhere to be seen; outdoor recess is canceled on red-alert air days. We are into Day Ten of the Mother of all Inversions, and I am struggling to inhale enough oxygen through my honeycomb charcoal-filter mask.

“You mentioned you’re a writer,” Bowen says. “You a reporter?”

“No,” I say, pulling down my mask so he can hear my raspy voice. “I’m a creative writer.” I don’t feel like explaining creative nonfiction, so I stop there.

“Good,” he says. “I mean — ” He steps closer, leans in, and knits his fingers together. — “we have to log all our interactions with reporters.”

We stand side by side, watching the wind-speed and direction instruments spin, slowly, as though underwater. It is hard to believe there is any wind at all.

“Want to take a tour?” He points to the two shed-like structures.

I walk with him, listening to the station buzz like a fly too close to my ear. I did not expect it to make so much noise. I did not expect it to be electric. I always pictured giant HEPA filters hung up on flagpoles, passive and silent. Then I realize: That I can hear it at all means it must be buzzing ten times louder on the other side of its smog muffler.

I follow Bowen up the stairs, feeling the vibrations of the humming trailers, and wonder how much electricity is required to keep this station running. Electricity contributes to inversion air because of the power-plant emissions.

On the way up, I glance at a playground slide, its red, blue, and yellow as brilliant as a Superman costume against the brownish-gray sludge in the air. “Do the kids pester you in the lab?” I ask.

Red, yellow & blue playground slides and jungle gym in front of the Hawthorne Air Monitoring Center

“No,” Bowen says, shrugging, already at the top of the stairs. “They pretty much ignore us.” He looks resigned, maybe a little sad.

“If I were a little kid at this school,” I tell him, “I would bug you every recess.”

He shrugs again, and I glance at the slide one more time.

The kids are steeping in it.

On the roof, I can peep into the backyards of several houses behind the school. I wonder if those people have any idea what these air-dropped meat lockers do — if they realize that when they log into the Utah Air Quality site that the reading is literally their air.

When Bowen opens one of the machines and removes a stack of filters, I am shocked at how tiny they are, like stacks of tiddlywinks or poker chips.

Bo’s hands with two round filters in the palm, each inside a plastic circle casing

He shuffles them in his palm, and I imagine all those bright red and blue plastic rings piling up in a landfill. As the filters degrade, the particulate disperse into the soil. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. When desert winds kick up Utah’s parched earth, are they stirring pollution right back into the air?

“Do you keep them?” I ask, gesturing to the filters. “I mean, when they’re used?”

“We throw them away,” he says.

“No recycling?”

“No.”

Of course, even if they recycled them, where would the particulates go? Clean them out of the honeycombs and dump them in the dump. Either way, we are burying the problem.

I think about the charcoal mask I am wearing, and how I will throw it in the garbage when its nooks and crannies are crammed full. I think about the carbon and zeolite HEPA filter I stuffed in the trash bin this morning after installing a fresh one. We are burying the air in the earth.

Is air monitoring sustainable? Is protecting our lungs sustainable? Is breathing sustainable?

And then I remember: My filters work by adsorbing particulates — not simply absorbing, but adsorbing, too — meaning the filter and molecules are attracted: like to like.

Bury those filters, I think. Let them fill up a landfill. Let like attract like. Let Zion do it to itself.

___

By the time Utah doctors implore Governor Herbert to declare a public-health emergency because of the bad air, it is already too late for me. Sometimes my lungs feel like helium balloons, and no matter how hard I exhale, I cannot force out the air. I gasp and gasp until I am certain my lungs will pop. People always think of breathing as inhaling, but the body does not inhale because it needs air; it inhales because of too much carbon dioxide in the blood. In this sense, breathing means expelling poison. I cannot expel this poison.

The asthma doctor confirms it, pointing to my pulmonary function report and declaring, “You had trapped air in your lungs.”

“A mini-inversion,” I say, my voice barely a whisper. The pollution has damaged my vocal cords, too.

“Exactly,” he says. “Particulates and all.”

I consider this for a moment, how I am a microcosm of Zion now. What does that mean for a Gentile?

He seems to sense my confusion. “What you have is called extrinsic asthma,” he says, “meaning it does not come from within you. It is not part of you. It was triggered by something external.”

I want to tell him he is wrong, that my asthma is intrinsic. I want to tell him about the cloud computer, the intelligent design, the atonement. I want to tell him about the temple, how it is yanking heaven down to Earth. How some of us cannot breathe the atmosphere in Kandor, and that is intrinsic. I want to confess about the mine, how I have been looking at ads for the Daybreak housing development at the base of it, even though — because I know — the fugitive dust will be worse there. How like attracts like.

Instead, I nod and tell him I will inhale a steroid medication through an aerochamber and wear my honeycomb mask. I tell him I will buy a new HEPA filter. I tell him I will beat this, even though I know I have already succumbed.

I am the fugitive dust. The fugitive dust is me.

“What if I leave?” I ask.

“You might get better. You might not.”

“If I don’t get better, does that mean it was intrinsic?”

“How wonderful would it be if all you had to do was leave?”

___

Get out.

Family and friends, witnessing the Mother of all Inversions on national television, urge me — beseech me — to move out of Utah, to move back home, to move anywhere but here. “We have clean air in Minnesota,” an old high-school friend posts on my Facebook wall. “We have clean air in Iowa,” my family back home writes. “Come home.”

Get out.

I tell them my husband and I are searching out-of-state job boards. I tell them we are apartment hunting. I tell them we are making plans.

I tell them I am running a HEPA air purifier twenty-four hours a day.

I tell them I am inhaling my asthma meds, staying indoors on red-air days, and taking my vitamins. That I am eating dark chocolate daily, as Utah doctors recommend, that the antioxidants will shield me.

I do not tell them this: that I suspect they want to save me from conversion, not inversions.

I do not tell them my sickness is intrinsic, that it is part of me.

I do not tell them about atonement.

I do not tell them that the sicker the air makes me, the more I want to stay.

___

 

In the thick, blue air of an inversion, I venture out for the first time in weeks. A man shuffles past me on the sidewalk, cradling a transistor radio. He adjusts the antenna and tucks his chin to whisper into the speaker: “Joseph Smith, yes, I can hear you now. The signal is clearer because of the air.”

___