I carry my brother’s body

White apartment door with a golden letter A door plate. On the left, there is a window and a framed picture (photo taken too far back to make out detail). The lighting is dark, and there is a black ring around the edges of the image.
Photo by the Cedar Rapids Police, taken at the scene of my brother’s death. His front door.

For awhile, I carried my brother’s crime scene photos everywhere. I couldn’t bear to leave them–him–behind. What if our building burned down? What if the earthquake hit? Then I couldn’t bear to carry the physical photos because it could damage them. The police aren’t holding onto those negatives forever. I scanned all 24, saved them to a memory card that I tucked into my purse, and texted them to myself, one by one, over the course of a few weeks.

Scroll through my iPhone camera roll, and there they are: my brother’s apartment door, mixed in with photos of the temple doors in Salt Lake City; my brother’s body in fetal position, jumbled up with downtown graffiti, like I stumbled onto his corpse on the sidewalk.

Ever since the pictures arrived in the mail, I have these panic attacks: What if the police find them? What if they think I killed him? Who the hell stores pictures of a corpse in their filing cabinet besides a serial killer or a cop?

Now that I have them in my phone, the panics are worse. It happened today, on a walk: What if I lose my phone and get arrested for murder? The scenario always ends the same way: my arrest. I am the one on the lam, not my brother. I am the one wanted for a crime, not my brother.

I know it’s not rational: The police released those photos to me. I was 1,915 miles away when my brother died. And he wasn’t even murdered.

Except he was.

On the day I got the photos in the mail, I stripped nude and crouched in front of my couch in an identical position to the one in which he was found, the fetal position, the cops called it. I curled the fingers of my left hand—all except the middle one, which I extended almost straight, as he did in his last moment, one final fuck you on his way into eternity.

I felt that fuck you. I felt it hard.

“Looking at those photos fucked up everything,” I tell my husband. He knows what I mean: the writing, everything. Nothing is the same. I haven’t been the same.

“I’m glad I saw them,” I say, and I mean it. “But I think, finally, I can say I took my research too far.”

I carry my brother’s body around. I carry this secret around. The photos fucked up everything. 

Able in this Diverse Universe Writing Contest is LIVE #disability #autism #writing

Exciting news! The Able in this Diverse Universe Essay Contest is now open for submissions!

Dec.1-Feb. 29 an essay contest hosted by Karrie Higgins Able in this Diverse Universe to benefit a boy and his dog. These words appear in a white bubble against a background of white with a black web-like pattern.

All submissions fees benefit the training and care of Noah Ainslie’s future Autism service dog, Appa.

Also exciting? One of our readers is none other than Dr. Kwame Brown.

The contest not only will help Noah, but it will also raise awareness about invisible disability and ableism, two issues near and dear to my heart (and many of my readers’ hearts).

A white, fluffy poodle dog licks a young boy's ear. The boy is wearing a purple shirt with a bird, dog, and horse silhouette on it in white. Behind them, a man watches on happily. The dog is Appa, and the boy is Noah!
Aw, what a sweet photo! Noah looks so happy.

From the Submittable:

Noah’s neurodiversity often manifests as sensory overwhelm. He has been learning coping mechanisms for six years, but still visibly struggles when it comes to conforming to neurotypical standards. He is high function on the spectrum which means he doesn’t “look like” he’s disabled. He is subjected to ableist expectations, often very aggressively and in public.

Noah has been called a brat, spoiled, selfish, bad and many other words that should never be applied to our youth due to his reactions to sensory overload. Noah has been rejected for his invisible disability. Even his psychiatric doctors have failed to understand the diagnoses they gave him and have labeled him as “oppositional,” telling his parents not to “reward” him for “defiance” when school becomes too much and he needs a written excuse to take a break.

Fortunately, his school is a supporter as is his pediatrician. Both have written letters in support Noah having a service dog. Because of that, Noah has been matched with a dog and trainer. Appa is that dog, a four-month-old Standard Poodle. In just a few days of bonding, Appa was already anticipating Noah’s needs and intervening as his anxiety grew. Right now, Appa is with his trainer learning how to be the best companion he can for Noah.

With Appa’s help, Noah will have access to the public spaces his anxiety prevents him from entering. More importantly, Noah will have a companion who loves him for who he is and does not judge his inability to conform to ableist public standards. To learn more about Noah, visit his GoFundMe page.

The winning essayist will receive $250 cash & publication right here on A True Testimony.

For the deets on the theme, the rules, and perhaps most enticing of all … prizes, go to the Submittable. Remember, everyone is a winner because every submission fee helps Noah get his service dog, Appa!

 

Four Paws for Noah #Writing Contests

I am honored and excited to be a judge for one of three writing contests in support of Four Paws for Noah. Every entry fee goes toward helping a nine-year-old boy with autism get his much-needed therapy dog.

Two of the contests are open for submissions right now!

The one I will be judging opens on December 1st, and I will have more details for you as soon as it goes live.

Until then, check out the other two  contests on Submittable and consider submitting. There are prizes! But as Shawna Ayoub Ainslie says over on The Honeyed Quill, everyone who submits is a winner because you have done something good for a little boy.

Update & Where to Find Me Around the Web Right Now

I have been remiss in posting this month, and I will come back to A True Testimony shortly, but I wanted to let you know where you can find me lately:

I got interviewed by the lovely and amazing Arielle Bernstein for the Saturday Rumpus!

Here’s a taste:

Right now, I am writing a grimoire/environmental memoir entitled Superman is My Temple Recommend, a twist on the ex-Mormon saying, “Jesus is My Temple Recommend.” It’s a textbook of magic that draws from Mormon theology, pollution science, environmental epigenetics, alchemy, Saturn Death Cult cosmology, theodicy, psychogeography, ancient magic, criminology, memory research, and of course, forensic science.

The ultimate goal is to write my brother into eternal life (which I sometimes believe in, and sometimes don’t) by incanting a magic spell for his atonement for his crimes. It’s an Isis and Osiris story, my own personal Book of Breathings: I am gathering his corpus delicti, like Isis recovering Osiris’s body parts along the Nile.

Last month, I appeared as a guest on Minorities in Publishing Podcast, talking disabilities and lit.

And a few of my posts have been picked up on HuffPost. Be sure and check out my review of QDA: Queer Disability Anthology on HuffPost. It’s an incredible and important book.

More to come as soon as I finish a whole lot of PHD applications. Yep, you read that correctly: PHD applications. Between the letters of intent, statements of purpose, artist statements, and personal statements … Stick a pencil in my eye; I’m done.

 

 

I can’t stand a world with my brother dead, but I can’t stand a world with him alive. #contentwarning #grief #writing #CSA

By this time on September 26th, 2008, my brother was naked and dead on the floor in a tiny apartment in Cedar Rapids, and nobody knew it.

Neighbors and passersby couldn’t see his body through the maroon sheet he draped over the living room window, the same way he draped a safari print sheet over the bedroom window. When I saw his makeshift blackout curtains in the crime scene photographs, I gasped. I do that, too: shades permanently drawn, a repulsion to too much light, to people looking in. When I am alone, I want to be alone.

“It appeared he had been dead for some time due to the lividity,” the police said in the crime scene report. Lividity: when blood, no longer pumped by the heart, sinks into the lowest part of the body. Face to floor, arms reaching out in child’s pose, my brother’s ribcage and neck filled with blood, and it fixed there like a birthmark.

Fixed, like an x-ray after the fixer solution freezes bones in place on the film, broken for eternity. Even when the police rolled my brother over, the blood didn’t slosh into other body parts. His vessels had already broken down. The blood had no way out.

He had been dead for some time.

I couldn’t imagine my brother dead until I saw those photos, and sometimes, I wish I hadn’t seen them. I finally took my research too far, I think. I can’t stand a world with him dead.

But I can’t stand a world with him alive, either.

If he had taken the plea deal instead of morphine, methadone, diazepam, gabapentin, and desmethyldiazepam, he would be alive right now. This second. Maybe fixing himself a meal in the cramped kitchen I have stared at in those photographs, amazed at the olive oil decanter on the counter. My brother drizzled olive oil on his salads, his bread?

He would be out of prison right now. His body would be curled up on the couch of his little apartment, the one I know intimately from the crime scene photographs, the one I never would have seen were it not for the crime scene photographs.

The one located right down the street from my parents’ apartment–not the address in the obituary, in another town. Meaning: My father knew everything. He knew, and he didn’t tell me. He didn’t tell me because I have testified. I could have helped put his golden child in prison.

I could have testified. 

In 1974, the Supreme Court of Iowa heard the appeal of Joseph Raymond Maestas, convicted of “committing lewd and lascivious acts in the presence and upon the body of a child under 16 years of age.” Maestas wanted the testimony of the victim’s older sisters thrown out because their allegations from six and ten years prior were “too remote” in time.

The court disagreed:

We believe the facts of this case, and particularly the intrafamilial nature and similarity of place of defendant’s misconduct, compel the conclusion the evidence of defendant’s prior acts was not too remote in time …

In other words, incest transcends time.

In 2010, State v. Cox called Maestas into question, though, and I only found out about my brother’s case in 2013. But in 2008, if my family hadn’t covered up my brother’s crime, I might have been on the witness list.

If my brother were alive today, his name and photograph would appear on the sex offender registry. I could know his GPS coordinates for life. I could watch his age progression from afar for life.

I could track him down, show up at his door. Try to fix this thing between us. Fix us. So the last picture wouldn’t be broken for eternity.

Except, if I am honest, I wouldn’t know about his final crime if he hadn’t died. I never bought the heart attack story my family fed me after the autopsy. It set my teeth on edge. It pecked at my insides like a scavenger until I was completely empty. My family lied, and I knew it. They lied to protect him. 

I had what the Mormons call a testimony, a burning in my bosom, a knowledge of things unseen. I was in the visitor center at Temple Square, bawling as I watched an informational video. Families can be together forever, it said. I sat down at the genealogy computers, searched my brother’s name, and got a hit: his social security number.

“Write it down,” a sister missionary said, sliding a scrap of paper and a pencil toward me.

Write it down. Like a mission call. I could run a background check, I thought. Know things about him he never told me in life.

But exposing his secrets meant exposing mine, too.

I carried my brother’s social security number in my wallet for years, taking it out sometimes to look at it the way normal sisters gaze at photos of their brothers.

I knew. I had a testimony. 

3:59 AM on March 2, 2013, in the dark of the morning when nobody could see me, a background check returned this result:

Case No: 08791 FECR009867

Charge: SEXUAL ABUSE 2ND DEGREE – 1978 (FELB)

Statute: 709.3

Case Initiation Date: 12/20/07

He did it again. He did it again. He did it again.

He got caught. He got caught. He got caught.

I paced the apartment chanting those words under my breath, wringing my hands, until my husband woke up, and I said, “You’re not going to believe this. The fucker did it again.”

For the first time in my life, I felt like I could tell the truth. I was free. (I have since learned it isn’t that simple, but more on that in a future post.)

Did my brother have to die to set me free? Did my brother have to die for me to be redeemed?

I can’t stand it, this world with him dead. But I can’t stand a world with him alive, either.

keeping secrets is my superpower, but I don’t want it anymore #disabilities #ableism #writing

Last weekend, after I published a rant about inspiration porn, I received several responses from able people suggesting I shouldn’t be angry because their intentions are good.

It sounded an awful lot like that fateful workshop in my MFA program when a “critique” of my essay about epilepsy consisted of classmates lecturing me about my “unfair” emotional responses to spoons getting crammed between my clenched teeth, strangers petting my hair, and unnecessary ambulances. I know people’s intentions are good, but that’s their subjective reality–not mine. My subjective reality is cracked teeth, astronomical emergency room bills, ER doctors treating me like a drug addict, and a lingering sense that my body doesn’t deserve boundaries.

Simply by sharing my subjective reality, I was “hurting their feelings.” Never mind how their reactions hurt me.

Looking back, I don’t think my classmates were reacting to my anger, though. I suspect they were reacting to statements like this:

Order is unhealthy. Order is a disorder.

It makes able people uncomfortable when they realize I have no interest in being neurotypical. It upsets the status quo because it means they are not superior beings with superior brains. After all, that’s the assumption underlying gaslighting: We know better than you do. 

The word "nope" appears on a black background.

I call that workshop “fateful” because that’s when I realized nonfiction (as a publishing enterprise, anyway) isn’t actually about telling the truth. It’s about conforming facts to a reality that bears no resemblance to mine. For a long, long time, I stopped portraying my subjective reality around disabilities. The funny thing is, the more I essentially “lied” (by omission), the more people saw my work as “true.”

Now, the same-old stuff is playing out in reactions to my essay, Strange Flowers, which recently acquired new readers thanks to being a Notable in Best American Essays 2015. Several readers demanded to know whether the piece is “fiction.” Others were curious if it represented some kind of amalgamation or composite, rather than straight-up memoir. Most didn’t seem to question the facts–that I had been sexually abused–but they most definitely questioned the way I processed those facts.

Strange Flowers is almost like a “coming out” piece in representing how my mind works. This is literally how I process memories, emotions, sickness, grief, and trauma. It’s how my brain works. Plain and simple. I knew when I wrote it that people might find it a little “weird.” I didn’t realize how weird.

Who is to say seizure auras, manic episodes, PTSD flashbacks, and dissociation aren’t every bit as “real” as any other experience, though? To me, they absolutely are. Frankly, what many people describe as “normal” cognition sounds alien and bizarre to me. When people ask me to critique their work, I sometimes get the urge to “magic” it up. But I recognize it’s my subjective bias doing it, and I tell my inner self to shut the hell up. I know other people experience the world differently, and I accept it. I take their work on its own terms.

The funny thing is, people will tell me the bipolar and epilepsy make my work what it is, that somehow it magically pops out in this quirky structure, but that is so far from the truth.

Right now, as I work on the book-in-progress, I am ribcage-deep in notebooks filled with unintelligible scrawl like this:

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

I filled those notebooks during a manic state so intense that I often describe myself then as an “alter ego.”

And yet, my alter ego is still Karrie Higgins. I am still her. I have to spell it out for people because do you know what happens when I admit to friends and fellow writers about these “altered states?” They rob me of credit for my skill and hard work. They say, “OH WOW, I wish I had that!” or “No wonder!”

The thing is, I could leave the notebooks a big, fat mess. I don’t, because I am a writer, and I know how to fucking write. I took Strange Flowers through at least 50 hardcore structural revisions. I did that in what I call my “wind tunnel” state, which is how I generally write: zero emotions, an empty feeling in body and mind. That’s when my writing gets done.

And the truth is, I am terrified to admit any of what I just said.

You know the old trope about how people with disabilities adapt by developing superpower senses? I developed the superpower of keeping secrets. I did it because people were always grooming me for their personal agendas.

My medical chart is a wasteland of notes from neurologists who claim I was not “appropriately” upset about seizures, therefore placing me under suspicion of conversion disorder or malingering to get attention. Want to know why I appeared calm and unruffled? Because when I did express my true emotions, I got pathologized for them, too. My mother and my doctors saw me as unreliable, depressed, potentially insane. It’s why I didn’t even know about my Chiari until I was 39 and all my epilepsy prescriptions got revoked (until recently). All my neurological symptoms got written off.

Not only that, but the doctors never actually asked how I felt. They observed my behavior and assumed.

Grooming. I used that word on purpose. I wanted the connotation of abuse. I mastered the art of suppressing my feelings as a child growing up physically, sexually, and emotionally abused. Because guess who else told me it would “hurt them” if I spoke up? That it was “wrong” to get angry?” That, in fact, I wasn’t being harmed at all because nobody intended any harm? That nobody is going to listen to some weird, fucked-up, angry girl? Yep. Abusers.

I figured out quickly that my expert emotional cloaking skills came in handy facing neurologists, bosses, friends, teachers, child abuse investigators, coaches, and the like, too. When people tell me I “shouldn’t” be angry, it feels awfully damn familiar.

But here’s the kicker: People pathologize me when I’m not angry, too. I frequently receive comments to the tune of, “It makes me very uncomfortable how you aren’t angry at your brother.” Never mind it has to do with my dissociation and de-realization. Never mind I have the right to feel about him how I fucking want to feel about him.

I can’t win.

Why should I have to keep secrets to maintain able people’s comfort? So many people told me I made them uncomfortable by ranting about inspiration porn. No matter that after one of my toughest weeks of symptoms in awhile, when I was at my lowest, inspiration porn plummeted me into a pit of depression. It actually made me question the point of going on.

Instead of harming myself, I decided to write something. To speak up. I did it during a time when it was fucking hard to find words, and I wrote from pure emotion (a rare state for me), without worrying too much about precision, because at that moment, precision was sending me into a spiral of word-finding hell. I was my true self, and for me, that’s something. That’s a big fucking something. I wasn’t going to write cheerfully about shit that made me want to die. OK?

What I’m saying here is, telling the truth is healthy. Telling the truth saves my life.

Remember in my previous post how I mentioned having a seizure on the track, and my coach scolded me, told me to “Have some pride?” That happened within the same 24-hour period as me getting questioned about a black eye that my father gave me and lying about it … just as I was groomed to do. I was a stone-cold, expert faker of emotion that day, and it worked. My father was off the hook.

It was also the same 24-hour period I tried to kill myself.

I don’t remember the events in such a neat, logical timeline, but it makes sense to me looking back: Keeping secrets is deadly.

And that’s exactly what people who tell me I shouldn’t be angry (or fill-in-the-blank-here) are suggesting I do: keep secrets.

Secrets might be my superpower, but the thing about taking off my mask is that I can’t put it back on.

A little bit of magic: Strange Flowers is a Notable for Best American Essays 2015

Tonight I got word that my essay, The Strange Flowers, has been included as a Notable Essay for Best American Essays 2015.

This news comes on the eve of the anticipated completion date for the National Archives gathering my brother’s military records to mail to me — including x-rays, which if you have read Strange Flowers, means everything.

Saturday is also the 7th anniversary of my brother’s death.

I am at work on a performance in which I re-enact his last moments according to the narrative provided by the Medical Examiner, wearing a garment sewn from cotton sateen printed with his police booking photograph. This performance will be brutal.

Fabric going under the foot of a serger machine. The fabric is printed with the black-and-white booking photo from my brother's police report.

Part of this work includes still photographs of me lying in the same position as his body, with our bodies superimposed in Photoshop. I am his Elijah.

1 Kings 17:21, King James Version:

And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again.

In the Mormon faith, Elijah is the prophet who handed over the priesthood keys to Joseph Smith, making it possible for temple sealings and posthumous baptisms. For families to be together forever. Elijah: the man who rode straight to heaven on a chariot of fire, the unofficial patron saint of fast cars.

My body is injected through and through with black carbon, the ink of my tattoos, all those polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, same as in automobile exhaust, the stuff of long-dead things on fire, forming DNA adducts inside my body, containing pigments and heavy metals known to be used in automobile paints. I am turning my body into a fast car, resurrecting my brother’s world. My body will be the vehicle of his resurrection. My body will be his chariot of fire.

I didn’t just get the tattoos for the chemistry, though. One of them, the replica of my brother’s rose tat, I got so I could steal the memory of getting it. I’m on a mission to steal and his absorb my brother’s memories. That’s what forgers do.

These past few months, I have been talking to his old friends, and it’s become addictive. “You laugh like him,” they tell me. “You’re so bubbly and fun to talk to.”

You sound like him. I feel like I am talking to him. 

I can’t get enough of it. It makes me think my magic is working.

And it feels a little magical getting word about Strange Flowers this week of all weeks. It feels, well, like a sign.