Content note: mention of CSA
The other day, I asked a pair of sister missionaries a question that has been bothering me for months: How do you know you have a testimony?
Well, one of the sister missionaries replied, a testimony is something you know to be true.
At first I thought she was deflecting. After all, she did not describe how she knows. She just said that she knows. But for Mormons, the two are one and the same: knowing something is true is a feeling.
As readers know from previous posts, I was sexually abused as a young child by an adult brother (half-brother, I imagine his side of the family correcting me). Only my mother believed it happened. The rest of the extended family treated it as a lie–and me as a liar.
When my brother died five years ago at the age of 51, I could sense a secret was being buried with him. No. It was not that I could sense it. I knew it. I could feel it in my heart so acutely I longed to reach my fingers inside the chambers to touch the rawness there, like licking gums when a baby tooth falls out.
I held onto that feeling for five years until I finally ran a background check and discovered he died a few days before facing trial for sexual abuse in the 2nd degree of a child under twelve.
He had committed the same crime again, but this time, he faced charges. This time, the police got involved. This time, there was a paper trail and evidence and a witness list.
At long last, I had corroboration. I wished it did not come at the cost of another victim, but I had it all the same. Maybe I could be her corroboration, too. Maybe I could save her from a lifetime of feeling like a liar.
And yet, ultimately, I still end up with this:
That’s a snippet from a transcript of a taped phone call in which police were listening in as my brother’s final victim confronted him.
Elsewhere in the call, he admits to what he did and confesses that he remembers “our secret.”
When I obtained the criminal case file and filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the phone call transcript, my heart felt like someone lit a tiny lamp in its darkest chamber, where before there had only been ash. I could feel its warmth radiating into my blood, as though all my blood were transforming from liquid to gas, from blood to heat.
That’s a testimony. That is what it’s like to know something is true.
But here is the thing: When people know what they know based on that burning in the bosom alone, they can ignore documentary evidence. They can say, but I know this cannot be true. And that is exactly what my family has done: refused to believe the evidence right in front of them.
I got corroboration and evidence, but I did not get truth. I cannot light their lamps with my wick.
“The time will come when no man nor woman will be able to endure on borrowed light. Each will have to be guided by the light within himself. If you do not have it, how can you stand?” — Heber C. Kimball
How would–how could–I have ever uncovered the corroboration, the evidence, were it not for what I knew–for my testimony?
So which do I trust? The feeling or the evidence?
And how do I defend my truth when the inevitable happens, when my family alleges my testimony is false? That is what Mormons do if a member receives a testimony in contradiction to the doctrines or opposition to the prophets: They dismiss it as the work of the devil, as a false testimony, as fire from the pit of hell instead of the glory of god.
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 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.
The point is that these two words are the most destructive I have ever known:
That was one of my first Deseret Alphabet translations, written in my first batch of homemade iron gall ink, and I am sure I made a mistake, but I am leaving it as is because I want the process to be part of it, that process of gaining the voice, the testimony, the ability to speak truth.
I have since decided the only honest ink in which I can write “my brother’s” plea deal, cards, and letters is bone black, for reasons best explained in my piece forthcoming in DIAGRAM (I will link it here when it publishes). But the phone call transcript? I am translating that into Deseret Alphabet with iron gall, with ink that has what archivists have bite. Ink that burns. Ink that is fire.
How do you get a testimony?
Recently, I read all my rough notes from when I first started making ink. At first, I was doing it as immersion research. I wanted to get inside Mark Hofmann’s head. I was not writing true crime, mind you. Many other writers have already covered that territory. My writing about Mark Hofmann is a personal journey as a gentile in Salt Lake City coming to grips with Salt Lake City’s history–and with my own.
I also had this inkling of a question about what comes first: the forger or the ink (or maybe that should read the keys to the secret of ink). With my very first batch, I started asking myself, “What would I forge if I could never get caught?” I started to think, “Who has the keys to the time machine now?” I wrote all these little riffs on magic and Agrippa and elements and oxidation. That is how iron gall ink without an added dye gets its color: oxidation.
It is a poetics of ink, in ink, from ink. A testimony in ink, of ink, from ink.
Today, I finally finally finally get my hot little hands on more supplies. After re-reading all my initial notes and examining the appearance of my ink on my first translations as it oxidizes, I know that little lamp is burning still. I know I will not have to get by on borrowed light.