CW: CSA, bodies, medical details, autopsy
Two years ago today, I received two life-changing emails within minutes of each other:
- The Poweshiek County Sheriff had finally — after three years of legal battles — surrendered a CD of my brother Greg’s taped police phone call to my attorney.
- The National Institutes of Health accepted me into the syringomyelia study.
The Democratic National Convention was on television. Trump was months from taking the presidency.
These things are connected.
If you’ve read my work, you know I got one phrase from my brother’s taped phone call permanently inked into my left forearm.
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.
Deseret Alphabet is phonetic. Translating my brother’s words into it felt like cosmic CPR, giving him the breath of life again.
1. express the sense of (words or text) in another language.
2. move from one place or condition to another.
Deseret Alphabet is not a foreign language; it is English represented by unfamiliar symbols. I was interested in definition #2: move from one condition to another. I wanted to make the transcript of his incriminating telephone call speak. I wanted to turn it into testimony.
Even though I am not Mormon, I also needed the language to be of this place, Utah, because I truly believe I had to come here, I needed to come here, that it was some kind of destiny. This is the place that set me free.
I almost became Mormon, like one of my brothers, but instead, I forged my own path, my own relationship to the faith.
I am trying to get as honest as I can felt like something I could work with, something I could use to save my brother’s soul.
Before I got that tattoo, I wrote I am trying to be as honest as I can on a scroll in bone black ink so thick it felt like ancient vertebrae sticking up from a burial site: a skeleton for my brother who lost his in the cremation retort.
Bone black ink I made from my tooth: Eve donating a bone to her brother.
I went to the Salt Flats — salt crystals like fossils — and re-enacted Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones.
So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.
And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.
There, I ate the scroll, ate his words. Let the word become flesh. Let my brother be resurrected.
But it wasn’t enough.
February 2015, forensic anthropology facility:
I am standing in a clearing surrounded by bodies under chicken wire cages, like the aftermath of a mass suicide. It’s a body farm, where forensic anthropologists examine decomposing bodies in hopes of gleaning knowledge to solve murders and identify victims. I came to study forensic art, specifically sculpting on skulls to reconstruct soft tissues that have long since decayed. I have no hope of working as a police artist; I want to understand resurrection as a physical process, something a human being can do, even when God refuses. I want to be my own Ezekiel–put the flesh back on the bones.
I step backward, almost stumble over one of the cages, and steady myself, leaning so close to the chicken wire I can poke a finger through and swab the buccal edge of a molar. The dead man looks just like my brother.
“This one still has hair,” a student says, peering over my shoulder. Everyone gathers around us. For a forensic artist, it’s an exciting find, the kind of detail that could identify a John or Jane Doe.
The dead man’s neck twists away from me, his jaw gaping, as if screaming from the torment of worms. The cage is the only thing between us. It has always been the only thing between us. My brother could never show me who he really was because of the specter of a cage; I could never see who he really was for the same reason. I never wanted him in prison.
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.
If I donate my body here, I think, my face up close to the chicken wire cage, with all my brother’s epigenetic memories intact, with my rose tattoo intact, I could take my brother’s place in the cage. I could serve his time, save his soul. Maybe even fool God.
And here is how word becomes flesh: I made myself a body like my brother’s. The holes in my spinal cord, my syringomyelia, were never discovered until I got those tattoos. My brother had a spine like this: rods of titanium to hold it together after his vertebrae got crushed.
When I saw the holes on my MRI, same vertebrae:
I did not think: this could destroy me. I thought: this could save him. I was forging my body into his. The resurrection spell was working.
Three years ago, I wrote the Linn County Medical Examiner to ask if my brother’s tissue & blood samples had been preserved. I wanted his genome and epigenome sequenced. I knew I couldn’t afford it; I figured I would find a way somehow, someday. I asked if there were photographs. It was before I got the crime scene photos and saw the body for myself. I needed to see his body.
I asked about the remote midline scar referenced in the autopsy report — a scar I now know came from hernia repair surgery.
Most of all, I wanted to know if the Medical Examiner knew this:
and this, in a message from his ex-wife:
“I can tell you .. that on two different occasions I had found Greg in the same condition, in the same position. Once in our family room. And the other time in our hot tub building outdoors. That time I had to call an ambulance because he was unresponsive. It was in the wintertime, and when they finally got him on the gurney & outside where the air was cold, he started choking, sat straight up & said, “What’s going on?” He refused to let them take him to the hospital & had to sign a statement to that effect. I told him the next day I was going to call his doctor about the medications.
And (this is the first time he had ever “threatened” me) he shook his fist in my face and said “Don’t you dare. If you do, she’ll stop giving me the pain medications.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
and if it would or could change this:
Would you have ruled it suicide?
I hated that inkblot test of an autopsy finding, how you could see whatever you wanted to see, how it enabled the family lies. A heart attack, I was told, when I got the call in 2008, a couple days after his body was found. I never believed it.
The Medical Examiner wrote back:
Arrhythmia: an abnormal electrical current surging through the switch-relay of the heart, making it thump thump thump off beat. I read the autopsy report again, my finger tracing down the center of the medical history like a scalpel, hunting for arrhythmia, but I never found it. You can’t diagnose arrhythmia on a dead heart. The Medical Examiner was asking me to take a leap of faith, to believe it was sheer, dumb luck that my brother died three days before standing in court as a jury heard him say on tape to his final victim:
“I want you to get your head squared on straight, but at the same time, I’ll be darned if I’m gonna be humiliated by some court of law.”
The Medical Examiner was asking me to believe that God granted my brother a writ of extraordinary relief. He was asking me to believe in a postmortem diagnosis without a body.
But wasn’t that the same thing I was asking of him?
It took three readings of the Medical Examiner’s email to see it, how he spoke of my brother in the present tense—his age puts him at risk for that—as if my brother were perched on an examination table, still alive, his heart still thump thump thumping.
There is another kind of autopsy, one that does not require a body, only tissue extracted from it: a molecular autopsy, capable of diagnosing genetic susceptibility to arrhythmias in cases of sudden deaths, particularly in the young.
Molecular autopsy saves the survivors: Family can seek testing and pre-emptive treatment.
I think I think I think my brother died so that I may live.
But it was too late: All tissues have been destroyed after 5 years.
My tissues are still here, I thought. I can take my brother’s place on the autopsy table.
I tried to get a genetic test, but I couldn’t afford it. University of Utah owned the patent on the genes.
The land of Deseret Alphabet kept the secrets of my heart, my brother’s heart.
But the VA didn’t. When my brother signed up for the Army, he signed his body over to Uncle Sam.
And Uncle Sam signed his medical records over to me:
I signed my body over to Uncle Sam, too: National Institutes of Health, a study of my syringomyelia. My term: five years. My marching orders: fly to Bethesda to report for duty on the anniversary of my brother’s autopsy: I was going to get down down down in the same position my brother’s body was found – the fetal position, the police called it – and let them open up the secrets of my neural tube with a needle, like an embryo in a petri dish.
A spinal tap.
I started to think of it as a living autopsy: me taking my brother’s place on the autopsy table.
On the day I was scheduled to fly over Cedar Rapids, the waters of the Cedar River were cresting, predicted to be as as high as the 500-year-flood in 2008. Waters rising, just like they were around my brother as his trial date neared.
In 2008, the same week the river crested and houseboats, untethered, slammed into the railroad bridge, the state filed pecuniary damages in my brother’s case: psychiatric bills for his victim.
My brother saw the river rising around him, and he went down down down
into fetal position floating in those fetid waters like a fetus in the amniotic sea.
After the heart monitor goes _____________________________________________________________________________, and doctors declare you dead, hundreds of genes flicker on like lightbulbs after an electrical blackout, delivering messenger RNA commands for cells to be fruitful, make proteins. Some genes reach peak activity days after a corpse is already cold.
Genes for inflammation, genes for stress, genes for immunity. The body thinks death is an infection it can beat.
Cancer genes go on a rampage–perhaps the reason transplanted livers so often succumb to tumors. What was believed to be recipient rejection might be an organ that still thinks it is dead.
Genes for embryonic development are reborn: the same code that wrote our bodies in the womb, long blotted out by the black ink of CH3–methylation–is revealed again, like original text on a palimpsest.
The DNA double helix unravels, opens our genes, unmasks our original blueprint. We are born again.
A possible reason for these increased abundances is that the postmortem physiological conditions resemble those of earlier developmental stages.
–Tracing the dynamics of gene transcripts after organismal death, Open Biology
the house Greg died in, Google map street view:
The first time I saw it, I thought they caught his death on camera. The child pushing his own carriage, at the edge of the lawn, front wheels just past the picket fence. They caught my brother’s ghost on camera.
But Google took that photo in 2012, not 2008. That child is alive, somewhere, ten years old maybe. That child is alive.
Death made my brother an innocent again.
And death will uncoil my DNA, too, release all those forged memories, written in the black ink of methylation. God always wins.
NIH never did that lumbar puncture, and they delayed my first visit to November: the anniversary of my brother’s graduation from Jump School. Honors, top of his class, Iron Mike award. “The best of the best,” his Airborne buddy called him.
The morning after Trump won, I was lying in an MRI machine at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, hypnotized by the clang clang clang, like the drumbeats when I marched in the streets my last time in DC. Two weeks after 9-11, anti-war protest, surrounded by riot police in Edward R. Murrow park.
I was fast back then, not like now with my walking cane. My group saw the opportunity, an unlocked door in a building on the perimeter, and we leapt through it like paratroopers out the airplane hatch. Cops chased us through the corridors, but we escaped to the Metro, to freedom.
My brother was alive then. He would have hated me protesting war. Airborne motto: Death From Above. And yet, he stopped abusing that other girl in September 2001.
[Did he stop abusing her because of 9-11? The shock of the war front coming home?]
MRI nightmare: President Trump shoving me in the MRI tube like a dead girl in a morgue drawer.
Greg’s best friend and Airborne buddy when I shared I was voting Hillary:
When the CD arrived from the attorney and I played it for the first time, I waited for my tattoo line. I wanted to hear my brother be redeemed.
But what he said and how he said it are two different things.
“Honey, I did NOT … come, oh that’s crazy. Oh, my God, oh my God, I’m just sick. I can’t believe this shit. Oh my God. This is just, this is just bizarre. I just can’t believe this. I did not touch you sexually. I, if, if, you took that way, way wrong, my God. My dear, you, I’m trying to get as honest as I can with you, I mean, that’s way wrong. It’s just, tickling you or wrastling you or grabbing you. If that, if that’s what you thought I was doing, then that was just, that’s not right, I mean, I, that was not my intention whatsoever, my God.”
It’s a throwaway line, a nothing line. He rushes over it like it doesn’t matter at all. A lie.
Under that cage on the body farm, I will not be confessing; I will be manipulating, just like him.
And yet, I am translating those words to a new condition: speaking his lie every time a forensic anthropologist examines my decaying body for clues.
Maybe something from my body will solve a crime: my brother and I will get our day in court after all. That’s a kind of honesty.
I am trying to get as honest as I can with you, God.
Two weeks ago, I flew home from NIH again. July 12th: my brother’s birthday. It was not lost on me: I spent my brother’s birthday in an airplane, of all things.
Front page, Cedar Rapids Gazette, his last birthday alive on Earth:
Back then, when the floodwaters retreated, city dump Mt. Trashmore, capped since 2006, was unsealed to entomb 430,000 tons of debris, including one soggy manila file from the basement of the Linn County Courthouse dated January 30, 1979, bearing my brother’s name and disposition: GUILTY. Misdemeanor Conviction, $100 fine.
His first sex crime. His genesis story.
Six years too late, I called the Linn County Clerk’s office to get the record. ”We lost a lot of records in the flood,” they said.
“And a lot of them we didn’t even try to recover.”
Floods –unlike tattoos — really do redeem.