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