(re)birth defect: when vindication comes 39 years too late

I have a birth defect, but I didn’t know it until I was 39 years old.

I was waiting in an examination room for MRI results when my neurologist walked in, climbed atop the patient table without so much as a nod, flipped open a manila folder, and said, “Has anyone ever told you that you have a brain deformity?”

A few weeks earlier, when I walked into the office for my first neurologist appointment in over twenty years, I did it as an experiment. I wanted to see what happened when my mother wasn’t there anymore to tell doctors behind my back that I was putting on an Academy-Award worthy act: the migraines, the dizziness, the sudden collapses in school hallways between classes, the seizures that “didn’t look like any seizure she had ever seen,” the severe stomach pain, even my bruises from my father’s abuse. Fake, all of it, according to her, conversion disorders in medical speak. It didn’t matter that doctors told her conversion disorders are every bit as “real” as physical ailments. In her mind, conversion disorders = faking.


Social history interview with my mother, hours after my commitment to an adolescent psychiatric ward following a suicide attempt, 1990:

Karen says things could be better at hope, but it's not that bad. Karen is very uncomfortable talking about any physical confrontations between Karrie and Mr. Higgins. Her face and neck have become very red and she has lost much eye contact. Karen says things don't really get physical between her husband and daughter but they say very ugly things to each other. Karen says Mr. Higgins tells Karrie, if he had it to do over again, he wouldn't have ever had her.

This past year, Karrie has had numerous psychosomatic symptoms according to Karen. Karen thinks it is possible that the seizures are psychosomatic. Karrie has never received any counseling.

No doctor had ever (or yet) diagnosed my symptoms as psychosomatic, not to my face and not in my charts. My mother was forging a new medical history for me, writing it to her advantage, locking the closet so the skeletons wouldn’t fall out. Hence: Karrie never received any counseling.

She got my sister counseling. That much I can tell you.

But for a second child to need counseling? That’s the most dangerous thing of all: corroboration.

Deuteronomy 19:15 One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.

The first time I requested my medical records over thirteen years ago, the hospital redacted the social history interview. The second time I requested them, in 2013, someone in the St. Luke’s records department slipped in six extra pages. Just like that, my history got rewritten.

The social worker labeled my mother “the informant,” like a snitch enlisted by the cops.

According to the informant:

At this time, Karen tries to explain a bruise on Karrie's face. Karen says it probably happened when Karrie had a seizure at school and hit her face on the desk. That Saturday, Mr. Higgins was waving his hands wildly. Karrie stood up and got hit in the face. Mr. Higgins was very upset because a case worker ended up at the house and again, he felt Karrie was the one who turned him in. The case worker came the night before Karrie attempted suicide.

Suddenly, my seizures were real enough to give me a shiner. How convenient.

Or my father was swinging his arm, and I just walked into it.

But I can’t blame her for that lie. She got that lie from me.


24 hours before my suicide attempt:

The Department of Human Services child abuse investigator thanks my mother for the coffee the way you thank a waitress, smirking at the faux brick wallpaper, the plastic Garfield clock and matching telephone, the burnt and peeling surfaces of our counters.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

My father clenches his fists, grinds his teeth. Does Ms. DHS record this on the legal pad? I see she is writing, but for all I know she’s playing tic-tac-toe or rating the coffee and wait service, taking note of the stained carpet and cheap, vinyl tablecloth.

The investigator nods my direction, as if permission is all I need—never mind my father glaring at me. I want to dump her coffee on her lap, poke her eye with her pencil. Fuck her.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t remember?”

Suddenly, I get that tickly feeling in the arches of my feet, like when I balance on bridge rails downtown.

I do remember. I remember how my father used to say, “Kids kick you in the teeth” every time Mom took my sister and me to Super Skate or devoted whole summer afternoons to teaching us to paint plaster Strawberry Shortcake and cat figurines.

I remember how he left the pewter buckle on his belt, and when it hit my hip, the ball and socket vibrated so hard I thought they might crack. One of his buckles was engraved with the symbol for the Masonic Lodge—a capital G inside the angle of a compass—and something about the G in the center made it seem more menacing, like God himself was branding me.

Now that I am old enough, I hit back.

I steal a glance at my father, hunched over, squeezing his right forearm tight as a blood pressure cuff, his t-shirt still streaked with oil from work, his socks worn where his big toe pushes on the fabric. Sometimes it seems like he’s trying to contain something so big his body isn’t strong enough to do it.

“Maybe it was an accident,” I say, looking the investigator in the eye. “Maybe he was swinging his arm and I just walked into it.”

Not until 24 years later will I comprehend the full consequences of what I have done. I have handed my mother corroboration on a platter. I have made her lie true.


Dear Ms. Higgins: I am writing in response to your July 10, 2013 email in which you request that the Department of Human Services provide you with copies of any of the prior records naming you as an alleged victim of child abuse. You believe you are entitled to the records based on Iowa Public Records law. In review of the Department's data systems, there are no available records from 1990 in which you were listed as an alleged victim. If you believe the prior assessments may have been specific to sexual abuse and have been sealed as identified above, an attorney could provide guidance regarding the orders necessary through District Court to access the potential records. I hope this information is helpful.


At my first appointment as an adult at the neurologist, the receptionist slid a clipboard across the desk and directed me to fill out the intake forms.

Have you ever been physically or sexually abused? Y N

Do you suffer from depression? Y N

I froze, the pen tip hovering millimeters above the paper.  If I lied on that intake form, I would never get vindication. Any diagnosis would be fruit of the poisoned tree. If I told the truth, my appointment would go just like all the others.

Dear Ms. Dennis: Thank you for referring Karrie Higgins. Miss Higgins was seen in the Renal-Hypertension Clinic on July 23, 1999, for evaluation of polyuria. She also has a history of psychogenic seizure disorder.

Once doctors saw the word “hysterical” in my history, they knew I couldn’t possibly be sick.

Cut-outs from various medical records: Discussion and disposition: In summary, Karrie appears to have had several spells which are compatible with simple partial seizures. She seems to have had an additional spell with loss of recollection for the event which may have very well been a partial complex seizure. ... suspected hysterical seizure disorder ... In summary, Karrie appears to be a bright, active, generally well-adjusted teenager who shows no evidence of depression, anxiety, or psychosis. We have no adequate explanation for her spells from a psychological perspective ... Assessment: Karrie suffers from seizures. They have been considered functional after workup in Iowa City. However, the pattern of the seizures raises concerns about an epileptic seizure disorder. Dilantin therapy will be continued. Because of the low Dilantin level, on the one hand the patient is insistent she is taking her medications regularly, on the other hand the dose will be increased to 400 mg daily. Daily blood levels obtained. Thank you for requesting my assistance. W. S. Risk, M.D. 03/21/90

Even still, I took a gamble and told the truth.

Have you ever been physically or sexually abused? YES

Do you suffer from depression? YES


My mother treated my doctor visits like trials by ordeal, subjecting me to heinous and invasive tests–scopes shoved down my throat, electrical shocks to test my nerve responses, to name a few–not to find out whether I had this or that disease but to test my veracity. Every time a neurologist stuck electrodes to my head, it was a lie detector. Every time I got shoved in an MRI machine, I felt like a witch with her limbs tied behind her back, splashing down in the river.

And because my (now confirmed) temporal lobe epilepsy is notorious for evading EEG electrodes, my ailment proved the perfect validation strategy for my mother staying with my father, even though he hit his children and subjected us to sexual commentary and severe psychological abuse.

I bruised myself. And I was nuts.


Thanks to this medical history, I hate doctors with the fire of a thousand suns and usually only go when I’m desperate.

That day in 2014, though, I needed to know if I could rewrite my history. As I sat in that examination room with the words “Has anyone ever told you that you have a brain deformity?” hanging in the air, I thought I had broken free from my permanent record. I was born again.

Literally born again, discovering a birth defect at the age of 39.

Something nobody could accuse me of faking.

An MRI scan of the author from the side of her head, revealing how her cerebellum is herniating through the foramen magnum.

MRI scan of the author's brain, from the side of her face. The cerebellum is falling through the foramen magnum. The MRi image says "made in Osirix," which is a program for exporting MRIs from the CDs provided as records.
Another MRI of my head that shows the Chiari more clearly. It says “Not for Medical Usage” because I exported it from the CD the radiologist gave me using the free Osirix program, which creates the watermark.

The neurologist sat down next to me and pointed to my cerebellum in the MRI images. “Do you see how it is descending through the foramen magnum?” She said. “That’s Chiari Malformation. It isn’t something that happened to you. You were born with it.”

Like most neurologists, she didn’t take time to explain the implications. I didn’t know until later how many of my lifelong symptoms and issues were explained by Chiari:

  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • collapsing
  • word-finding issues
  • buzzing and clicking in my ears
  • balance and coordination problems at times

As for my seizures, which the Chiari doesn’t explain, my neurologist called them “textbook temporal lobe.” Basically, I won the neurological lottery.

I texted my mother with the results right away. The MRI showed a defect in my brain, I said. I left it at that. I guess I half-lied because I hoped she would take it as proof of my seizures.

But her response never came. Her apology never came.


Last week, my aunt suffered a grand mal seizure, and she has since been prescribed anti-seizure medications. It’s awful, and I wish I lived nearer to help her transition into the world of epilepsy.

She’s not the only a relative with seizures. There was my cousin Marcia, who careened off an interstate in 2006 thanks to a seizure. She died on impact. Her medications failed her.

Once, after another cousin got diagnosed, my father–with whom I went no-contact in the 90s–somehow obtained my number and called to half-ass apologize for not believing me back then. I hung up and promptly called AT &T to change my number. Too little, too late. And anyway, as soon as the alcohol wore off, I knew he’d change his story. Classic drunk bait-and-switch.

And yet, after my aunt’s seizure, I couldn’t help but hope for an apology from my mother. After all, seizure threshold is genetic.

But the text never came. The call never came.

Because even when you have an MRI scan.

Even when the doctor calls your epilepsy “textbook.”

Even when all the evidence points to you telling the truth.

You are still a liar.

That fucking chart follows you everywhere. Even when you are born again.

I got 99 problems but AWP ain’t 1

Today, I am going to talk about something I don’t talk about publicly in great detail most of the time: being a writer with multiple invisible disabilities and the alienation, exclusion, and profound loneliness I feel because of it. I don’t like to air my grievances because I generally do not trust able-bodied people with this information, not even many of my closest friends. If that hurts anyone’s feelings, I am sorrynotsorry. It is not meant as a criticism or attack on anyone. It comes from a lifetime of feeling left out and misunderstood. It is why I understand the righteous anger of others who experience discrimination.  I know what it feels like when people gaslight you. It feels like shit. It feels like you landed on some cold and alien planet that doesn’t want to share its air.

My experiences as a person with epilepsy, bipolar, PTSD, and Chiari are usually met with neuro-typical ‘splaining. My experiences as someone with hearing impairment are usually met with patronizing “advice” to get a cheap hearing aid at Costco. I have learned it is best to keep my mouth shut & my head down and not make “problems” for everyone else. It’s not even worth it to ask for accommodations anymore (read my experiences with that quagmire below), because the kinds of accommodations I need don’t make sense to people, and so they either shame me for asking or neurotypical ‘splain why I don’t really need them. And this in the context of a supposedly “progressive” community of writers, artists, and academics.

I live and work in an isolation bubble, doing the best I can with what I’ve got. Somehow, I have managed to win some awards and wind up with a notable in Best American Essays 2014 along the way. So I am not some dilettante who’s just bitter about lit-mag rejections. I am out there doing the work and getting published. So do not even think of coming at me with some “sour grapes” accusations. I ain’t having it.

Click this link to one of my pieces (TW: sexual abuse). Go read that comment from “Coco.” It’s pretty typical of the bullshit I put up with because my brain is not wired like most people’s. According to the anonymous Ms. Coco, I should be writing fiction. FUCK THAT. I will write fiction if I WANT to write fiction. When that comment popped up on the site, I wondered why it was allowed there at all. Would a similarly overt racist comment have been allowed? I hope not. So why an ableist one? (And psst … I already know I should stay out of the comments.)

And if you want to tell me that my autobiographical experiences aren’t “real,” well, allow me to expand your vocabulary:

neurotypical privilege

screen grab from the neurotypical privilege Tumblr: "NT privilege is getting to define what qualifies as "reality."

Then there was


and this.

And the time I was teaching college composition online, and the department switched to a new scheduling system that would have forced me to conduct late-night live seminars, and late nights = seizure trigger. I disclosed my disability to my boss for the first time, and I got lectured about not disclosing until I could “get something out of it” and told to “plea” with my colleagues for a daytime slot. I schooled the motherfucker in ADA. Instead of accommodating me and moving on, he accommodated me and made my work life a living hell until I resigned.

When I prepared to file an EEOC complaint, I was STRONGLY ADVISED it would show up on background checks FOREVER, and I would never work again, so I didn’t file it. Nice little system there, huh? Oh, and guess what? I haven’t had much opportunity to work again, anyway. I taught at another school after that and got laid off for daring to get sick from yet another supposedly “ADA-covered condition.”

Or all the times I’ve been labeled “difficult” or “silly” for NEEDING a hotel within walking distance of AWP (or whatever event) because I cannot drive and DO NOT ride public transit in an unfamiliar city because a seizure in that context could get me dragged into a police station or worse. Yep. I’ve been interrogated by cops when I was post-ictal (wanna guess how police officers handle someone in that state, not realizing they CAN’T answer?) Not arrested, thank goodness, but I know epileptics who have been … and I know of some who have died as a result (though the case in that link clearly intersects with race, too, but hey, disability doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we are people).

So when you tell me I am being “silly,” you can fuck off. Fuck. Right. Off.

Or when lit mags say they are looking for diversity and don’t solicit submissions from people with disabilities.

All those times I wanted to attend a writing retreat, but it couldn’t accommodate my epilepsy. Maybe it only had bathtubs, and bathtubs = drowning if I have a seizure. Maybe it boasted mandatory events at times that would trigger seizures. Maybe it required me to transport myself to a highly secluded area without any accommodation for the fact that I cannot drive due to my seizures. Oh, this happens all the time. All the time.

And even if I could go, I don’t trust able people to respect my wishes or my boundaries once I am there. I’ve been down that road too many times, burned too many times. What if I have a seizure and “ruin” it for everyone or they make jokes like professors in my MFA program did? What if they call an ambulance and get me in thousands of dollars debt for an ER visit, even though they promised not to because it isn’t necessary & I gave them instructions in case of seizure? Want to guess how much money I have paid to hospitals for unnecessary ER visits?

And then I don’t get retreats and residencies on my CV, and people say: You’re not trying.

Or when writers post about their book tours, and I think, shit, how the fuck am I going to do that if I ever finally publish this book burning inside me? Stuff they don’t even see as an issue, really. Drive (drive! I’ve never done it!) up to some readings in a nearby town or suburb or whatever. Hop on a plane. Stay out late at literary events and parties. No big deal.

The times I have walked into lecture halls and FROZEN from anxiety because no matter where I sit, I am a problem: If I sit up front and have a seizure, I disrupt the whole thing and ruin it; If I sit in the back, I cannot hear.

Or how about June 2003: I am seated at a coffee shop window in Marina Del Rey, California, scoping out my MFA classmates as they arrive at the Marriott for “our” graduation. I make sure they are all inside before sneaking back to my room, retrieving my suitcase, and getting the hell out of dodge. I don’t want to ruin everything by having a seizure, so I miss my own graduation.

Yep. I didn’t go to my own fucking MFA graduation because I DID NOT FEEL WELCOME.

But I keep my mouth shut most of the time. It’s better that way. Trust me.

So why am I speaking up now?

On Friday, after I learned that AWP rejected every single disability panel proposal for the 2016 conference in Los Angeles, it hit me like a sucker punch. For the first time ever, I had been invited to an AWP panel, and it happened to be about invisible disabilities. Even though I have never been able to attend before thanks to the logistical and accommodations nightmares my epilepsy and other disabilities create, I felt the incredible lightness of hope. This particular year, my husband might have even been able to drive us there and go with me, which infinitely increases my sense of safety. (He’s a writer, too.) It felt like a confluence. Like things were coming together. Being invited made me feel part of something for the first time in a VERY long time.

And then it got rejected.

OK, that’s fine. Rejection is part of the game. But it wasn’t just my panel that got rejected. Every single disability panel got a

the word "nope" in white text on a black background


Every single one.

Sure, they gave us a “disability caucus,” which translates to a “networking event” where we hang out with our own kind and don’t make problems for all the able people … but not a panel. NOT ONE. We were not worthy of even ONE panel. I have to think they designed it this way. They WANT us isolated. They WANT us contained. They WANT us to keep our problems to ourselves. Otherwise, they might have to actually change some things. Gasp.

This setup reproduces the exact same conditions in which we already work and live. How convenient for everyone.

A rep from AWP “explained” the decision this way:

screen grab from Facebook post on the public AWP page: "As someone with a disability who works at AWP (I read submissions to The Writer's Chronicle), my fingers are *always* crossed that we received proposals from writers with disabilities. Every time we post a call for proposal submissions, we ask for a range, and certainly for disability-focused panels. As we've always said in our calls for submissions, our panels are only as diverse as the submissions."

But there were disability panel proposals. Again, I was part of one. I have also talked to other writers on Twitter whose disability panels were rejected:

(Image is screenshot of AWP panel proposal for “writing ethically about psychiatric disability.”)

The excuse smacks of lit mag editors who claim, when charged with sexism, that they simply don’t get submissions from women. We all know it’s total bullshit. Come on.

And, anyway, true or not, the excuse wreaks of ableism:

1. IF AWP isn’t getting many proposals from writers with disabilities, they need to find out WHY. Did they ever stop to think that writers with disabilities feel unwelcome? That maybe it’s really fucking hard to get to these events with obstacles like under- and un-employment, astronomical medical costs, logistical problems like transportation, chronic pain, safety risks, medications, etc., and a proven history at AWP of not accommodating in meaningful ways? (Ask around. I am not going to do the work for you.) Did AWP ever think that maybe, just maybe, the conference is not very accessible, and THAT is why they didn’t get many proposals? Why no outreach?

2.  Look at the winning panels, and you can see right through this little numbers game (lie). There’s a panel on teaching the elderly at the Y and elder care facilities. Actually, that’s really cool. I love it. But … um, am I supposed to believe that AWP got a ZILLION panel proposals on teaching the elderly? Because by AWP’s own logic, that’s the ONLY way you will get a panel accepted. Remember, the WHOLE reason they didn’t accept a disability panel is because … they didn’t get that many. Hm. I’m having a REALLY hard time believing they were INUNDATED with proposals on teaching the elderly (an admittedly cool panel, but that’s not my point).

3.If AWP is “itching” for disability proposals, why did they reject every last one? Actions speak louder than false declarations of ally-ship.

4. Minority groups deserve representation, too.

5. AWP is NOT “only as diverse as its proposals.” Funny, even though my panel got rejected, I am still here and still disabled and still a writer and still a member of AWP.

They think they can pull a goddamned David Copperfield and vanish the disability problem just by rejecting our panels?

Black and white photo of David Copperfield from probably the early 80s. He is in a darkly lit room. His thick hair is falling over his eyes, which stare intently at the viewer. His right hand is raised and open in a position suggesting he is about to cast a spell on the viewer.

Publicity photo of David Copperfield from the television special The Magic of ABC Starring David Copperfield.

Imagine if an MFA program rejected every single applicant with a disability on the basis that only a “few” applied. OUTRAGE! ADA violation! And yet, AWP rejects every single disability panel with impunity. How is this acceptable for an organization that purports to represent writers and writing programs?

And then there is this:

Association of Writers & Writing Programs Facebook page post: In reviewing the applications of this season's Writer to Writer mentees, we are seeing a deep need for mentors who write from the perspective of someone with a disability. If you'd like to serve as a mentor, please follow the link to learn more. Applications are welcome through August 1st.
screenshot of a Facebook post from AWP seeking writing mentors who identify as having a disability

Wait, AWP wants us to volunteer as mentors, but they don’t think we are worthy of a panel?

Are they kidding me with this hypocritical, phoney baloney “we care” nonsense?

I have read some comments alleging that disability panels lack “broad appeal.” Oh, really? Re-read that proposal I posted up there about psychiatric disabilities. Tell me it’s a yawner with a straight face. And why is it that disability panels must appeal to everyone? Other demographics don’t seem to be burdened with that requirement.

There’s a panel on mother writers. I’m not a mother and don’t want to be a mother, but it would be ludicrous (and downright shitty) for me to say that mothers shouldn’t have a panel. OF COURSE mothers should have a panel. They face a whole host of challenges I could never understand, and it’s an important issue. (Psst, and I BETCHA there are even some mothers who have disabilities! Yep. Contrary to popular belief, we people with disabilities can and do reproduce.)

Every year, my friends peruse the panel descriptions and complain about the tough choices they will be forced to make. Must be nice, I think, having that problem. I am so far removed from that luxury, trying to figure out some way to get this epileptic body there to participate meaningfully (and SAFELY). Honestly, the AWP might as well take place on Pluto.

Well, AWP did do me one solid: I know one conference I don’t have to work out logistics to attend. I know where I’m not welcome.

I got 99 problems, but AWP ain’t 1.




UPDATE: I’m not the only person who is angry at AWP for its treatment of members with disabilities: http://stephenkuusisto.com/2015/08/01/the-awp-and-disability-inclusion/

(Note: Other writers with disabilities may have vastly different opinions and experiences. Please respect that diversity if you jump into the conversation. Also, this post in NO WAY is an exhaustive exploration of my experiences or issues with accommodations.)

I never did a thing to hurt you: abusers and intentions part two

If there is one thing I learned from the police transcript of a taped phone call between my brother and his final victim, it is how expertly abusers use their intentions to manipulate people:

Greg: Honey, I have never done a thing in my life to hurt you. You ought to know better than that. Come on now, I'm not denying nothing because I didn't do a thing to hurt you, sw, sweetie.

The first time I read the transcript, I thought the jury could go either way (had my brother not died before the trial). His confession didn’t seem as cut-and-dry as the detective made it out to be on the affidavit for arrest.

But when I showed it to my husband, he said, “He was going down.” To him, it was as airtight as a guilty plea.

I couldn’t see it then, but I was still falling under my brother’s spell:

Greg: Oh my God, you're accusing me of having sexual stuff with you. I can't believe this. I, I'm just totally flabbergasted man. You're making me out to be this monster, and I'm not. Oh my God, You make me out to be a really bad person, and I didn't do a thing. I really didn't. I'm not trying to screw your head up. I want, I think, I love you. Don't you know that I love you? NAME REDACTED: You're greg: Don't you believe that? NAME REDACTED: You're not a monster. GREG: You know, you don't believe that I love you? Huh, for a minute?

I was still internalizing his manipulations, still thinking: But he loved me. He’s no monster. He didn’t want to screw up my head.

Two years later, after getting over the initial shock and re-reading the transcript, I see it plain as day, how the police worked during the phone call to actively slice through intentions straight to actions:

As you could hear in the tape at first he denies that any of that ever occurred, that it just wasn't true. She continued to speak to him about needing him to be truthful, he kept mentioning things about he didn't hurt her and I was writing notes to her. I would tell her no you didn't hurt me, but what you did was wrong. Again in the first part of the tape he denied anything happening then he went to well, they were wrestling and she misunderstood which of course she denied, and said no, you knew what was going on. He then went to the next phase where he said if something happened he is sorry and he would say he is sorry about it, and she continued to tell him all she wanted was the truth ...

The police officer slipped the girl notes to say things such as:

I'm not talking about hurting me. We're talking about you touching me.

He was giving her a Teflon shield against my brother’s excuses and intentions. See how she shifts the focus from her pain to his actions? We are talking about you–not me–but you.

When read in that light, the transcript revealed to me how I had been manipulated, too. Even as I have been telling my story and taking steps to heal, I have still been locked in the original script of what my brother “intended.” Re-reading the transcript now, I see his confession for what it is, and I believe his case was as close to a slam dunk as prosecutors could ever hope to get in a sex abuse charge.

As the conversation unfolds, you can witness my brother progressing through stages, almost as if he’s in therapy: denying a secret ever existed, attempting to manipulate memories (“You have any doubts. We were in front of the TV.”), to admitting something happened but not the way the girl thinks, to finally breaking down and confessing, but only while manipulating her to never tell anyone.

Of course, it’s upsetting to witness the victim denying her own pain to cut through her abuser’s intentions, but it speaks volumes about the mindset of someone who would molest a child that this is what victims and investigators have to do. It speaks volumes, too, about the ways in which our culture indulges abusers by focusing on their intentions while forcing survivors into a kind of self-abnegation.

And yet, it also points a way forward: Abusers should be judged on what they did. Not on what they intended. Not on how bad they feel. Not on how sorry they are. Only on what they did.

Of course, remorse affects rehabilitation potential and factors into actuarial recidivism risk assessments for sex offender registration. And in court, defense attorneys will attempt to emphasize intention over action, painting victims as “mis-perceiving” what was done to them. That’s part of having an adversarial system wherein the defense has a duty to fight for acquittal.

But let’s shift the focus away from courtroom tactics and focus on friends and family of survivors, who rather than lending support, regularly and routinely play “defense attorney” by shifting conversations to offender intentions or remorse. Whether or to what degree trial courts and correctional outcomes focus on intention is irrelevant here.

Human beings are not courts of law.

Human beings are not courts of law.

Human beings are not courts of law.

Every single time we make an abuse allegation about intentions instead of actions, we are slathering the offender in Teflon. Do you really believe that’s who deserves to be shielded?

no visible trauma: on invisible disabilities and MFA programs

My second residency in my MFA program, I had a seizure smack-dab in the middle of workshop, right in front of my future new mentor. I don’t know what happened afterward, but I remember thinking I had blown it, that from now on, I would be that girl.

The main reason I had applied to a low-residency program was to avoid seizures getting in the way of my studies. During my undergrad days, I had them all the time. Between poor nutrition due to poverty, lack of sleep due to working many jobs, squeezing in homework at night, constant stress, fluorescent lighting in almost every classroom, and lack of access to neurological care, I didn’t stand a chance. With a low-residency program, I could set my own hours (except during residencies), never miss class, and have seizures under the radar. Nobody would have to know.

I never counted on having one during residency.

The Los Angeles Fire Department EMT Emergency Medical Service Report:

Blue and white form with a pink border that says Los Angeles Fire Department Emergency Medical Service Report at the top in bold blue text. Dated 06/23/2001, it states my name and address and that I had a seizure. "Equal grips, warm dry good skin color. No visible trauma"

I am struck by the words, “no visible trauma.” It sums up the terror and the problem of epilepsy in three little words: my disability is invisible. During seizures, it becomes visible. Other times, I can “pass” for “normal.”

On the one hand, it’s an advantage because I can slip into the world of “able” people without notice.

On the other hand, slipping into that world means people fail to recognize why I come off a little weird: What do you mean you never learned to drive? Come on, don’t be a party pooper! Stay out all night! Never mind that lack of sleep is a trigger.

Or why I require accommodations: I’m sorry, but it is not fair to the other employees if we schedule you for daytime shifts only. Never mind the unfairness of failing to accomodate. The only fairness that counts is fairness to able people.

So when that seizure happened during workshop, it was game over. I had been outed.

Two years later–on the exact same date, according to my records–it happened again, this time during a senior reading. All I remember of that night is a jumbled mix of images, like individual frames scissored out of a movie reel. I remember being lifted into an ambulance on a gurney and my friend climbing in with me. I remember the paramedic prepping me for a shot–probably Phenobarbital sodium solution or diazepam because I was in & out–and my friend saying, “No.” That’s how we became best friends. I don’t know if the paramedic stuck me, anyway. I don’t remember anything else from that night in the ER. My next memory is conking out in my hotel room alone, afraid of having another seizure.

A few days later, a professor in the program joked that I seemed to only have seizures around one particular professor. “You better stay away from him,” she said. “He makes you have seizures.”

The insinuation was obvious: I had some sort of hysterical crush (that would be a nope). Or maybe I was faking.

I wanted to tell her no. Stress, late nights, not eating right during residencies: all of those things trigger seizures. And besides, I had them at home, too.

Instead, I laughed, pretending to her joke was funny. I was trying to “pass” again, I guess.

Her comment shocked me, but it shouldn’t have.

At the previous residency, I submitted a piece about my epilepsy for critique, and the responses went like this:

People put the spoon in your mouth because they are trying to help.

You’re too angry.

Don’t you understand why people call ambulances?

Why can’t you understand that seizures scare people?

When people pet your hair, they are trying to comfort you. You shouldn’t feel violated.

Notice none of these comments address the actual writing. Notice the underlying assumption in all of them is that my point of view is not valid; therefore, my essay is not valid. If I want to write memoir, I have got to take care not to challenge neurotypical people.

Never mind that neurotypical people do not bear the same obligation to me.

The critique went on and on and on, and the workshop instructor never stepped in to stop it.

Finally, a friend intervened. “Did you learn something about epilepsy from this piece?” She asked.

Everyone nodded.

“Did you learn what it is like from her point of view?”

They nodded again.

Squeamish silence, followed by another student chiming in, the one who thought I was unfair about spoons getting stuck in my mouth: “But I would be more open to learning it if she would take into account my feelings.”

Back then, I lacked language for what was happening, but now I know what to call it: ableism. And this happened in a progressive MFA program that not only touts its commitment to social justice, but also advertises it as the main thrust of the program.

In other words, even “progressives,” even “liberals,” even people committed to social justice, can be biased and bigoted.

I wish I had possessed the language back then to call my peers out on their bullshit, but I didn’t. All I had was this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. They telegraphed their message loud & clear: I had to “pass” and “represent” people with disabilities at the same time, like some kind of quantum voodoo, existing in all possible states at once.

Thanks to my friend intervening, I felt empowered to shrug off the ableist critiques. I revised that essay, but on my own terms. And then I published it. You can read it right here: State Lines.

What I’m saying here is that allies matter–whether it be against ableism, homophobia, racism, transphobia, sexism, or any number of oppressive -isms. Speaking up matters. Do it.

Restorative Justice and Sexual Harm

For readers who responded to my husband’s story, here is his first report about his experience at the National Association of Community & Restorative Justice Conference 2015, where he went to continue promoting his message of accountability. At the conference, he asked tough questions, delivered a presentation about power, race, and class in Restorative Justice, and met with many other survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Restorative Discourse

This week I attended the 5th National Conference on Restorative Justice held in Ft. Lauderdale Florida. I was there to speak on challenges or problems in the Restorative movement that may result in creating, extending, or concealing harms rather than creating justice.

The conference was opened by Mara Schiff of Florida Atlantic University who introduced the first plenary speaker, Dominic Barter. Internationally renowned for his implementation of Restorative Justice in the Brazilian criminal justice system, Barter trains practitioners in facilitating the processes that have become associated with Restorative Justice. As he spoke about the benefits of Restorative processes Barter brought up that as rules are created for Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices, the process of creating the rules can block or exclude people who don’t accept, can’t meet, or who culturally engage in different manners than those who are establishing and preparing the “restorative” process. These comments opened the door…

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ketchup vs blood

“When you perform, you have a knife, and it’s your blood. When you’re acting, it’s ketchup, and you don’t cut yourself.” –Marina Abramović

When I was an art history student, I found myself drawn to the margins, especially to the darker performances of artists like Chris Burden:

and Marina Abramović and Ulay:

Maybe it was my working class background, but it thrilled me to think that actions could be art. It didn’t have to be some highbrow object behind a velvet rope. Or maybe it’s because so much performance art is about violation of the body, and as an epileptic, I live each day with the risk of my boundaries being violated. How many times have I awoken from a seizure to a stranger’s hand petting my scalp or rifling through my private things (understandably) for an ID or medical alert?

As I wrote last year for the Writer’s Life Project:Blog Hop, my writing process often drives me to performative actions: getting tattoos, learning the art of forgery, taking a lie detector, submitting to hypnosis, and so on. All of these actions arose from the writing process, and yet, they were also sincere.

From my post in last year’s Blog Hop:

You could call them performative in the sense that they spring from the art, but they are also sincere and true. I believe my writing process is like a nucleus attracting matter to my ideas. I never thought of memoir as just writing about my life. On the contrary, I think my writing incants my life into being.

I have had a hard time articulating exactly what I mean by my process being “performative” and “sincere” at the same time. Last night, I was watching “The Artist is Present,” and Marina Abramović has an expression that states it so perfectly. As I quoted at top:

“When you perform, you have a knife, and it’s your blood. When you’re acting, it’s ketchup, and you don’t cut yourself.”

When I went out into the Salt Flats last year and performed Ezekiel, it wasn’t “acting”:

Closed Captions available on the video. Click the CC button. Description: In this video, I wear a long purple skirt with a flower embroidered on the front panel, a white shirt, denim jacket, and black cat-eye glasses. I am walking on the salt when I find an olive green bicycle, which I lift up and push on the salt back and forth with mountains in the distance behind me. I find a brick, circle it, and then ram it to pieces. On the clay brick is drawn the 1860 city plat for Salt Lake City. I eat scrolls, bite one of my wisdom teeth, and eat grapes, while my husband reads from Ezekiel with some added text I wrote.  Closed captions coming soon. 

Let me tell you what it was like out there that day: white, radiant hot. So hot the camera shut down every 15 minutes or so, and we would have to retreat to the shade of the rest area. I was still on Depakote for my epilepsy and bipolar. In fact, it was still pretty early in being on the medication. My hair was falling out. Sunlight felt like lit matches poked into my pupils. My skin appeared dry and rugged.

All day on that medication, I experienced intense de-realization, like I had peeled apart the layers of celluloid film and crawled inside. Everything around me was unreal and one dimensional, but also so real I was inside it. I felt like I had slipped into another dimension or even another time in history. Images around me moved in jump-cuts. It felt reminiscent of a seizure aura, even though the medication was supposed to suppress seizures. If you know the story of Ezekiel, you know that he may have suffered such episodes as well. Some people think he might have even been epileptic.

My femurs felt so heavy, as if molten lead had been poured into them where my marrow should be. You see my plodding gait in the video? That isn’t how I normally walk, but it’s how I naturally felt like walking out there on the salt. And watching it now, it perfectly expresses how I felt on Depakote, too. Leaden legs. Put upon by God. I don’t even necessarily believe in God, but I still felt it. It was very real.

The author standing on the white crust of the Salt Flats with a bicycle tipped over to her right and a clay brick on the ground in front of her. Her hands are touching her temples as she stares down at the brick, apparently in distress. She is wearing black cat-eye glasses, a white shirt, a jean jacket, and a long skirt with a flower on it. The sky is pale blue with clouds.
Still from The Valley of the Dry Bones video. The author standing on the white crust of the Salt Flats with a bicycle tipped over to her right and a clay brick on the ground in front of her. Her hands are touching her temples as she stares down at the brick, apparently in distress. She is wearing black cat-eye glasses, a white shirt, a jean jacket, and a long skirt with a flower on it. The sky is pale blue with clouds.

I became Ezekiel out there on the flats. I didn’t act him. I became him.

I ate those scrolls even though they tasted bitter and dead and pulpy. Bits of paper got caught in my teeth. You would think paper would dissolve on contact with saliva, but it doesn’t. It takes a whole lot of mastication to cut through the cellulose fibers. Digesting paper is even worse. I didn’t want to eat the scrolls, but I felt that I must. I felt that all my work had led me to that moment. An overwhelming compulsion took over me.

And just like eating the scrolls did for Ezekiel, it transformed me. It opened up a channel to some kind of power inside me, and it forever changed the direction of my book. I can do this, I thought afterward. I can be my own prophet.

I can do magic. I can resurrect dry bones.

None of this ketchup nonsense. I am out for my own blood.

opening up the tomb

In a few hours, my dentist will pry the crown off Tooth 19. Rolling the stone from the tomb: that’s how I think of it, exhuming a part of my skeleton I thought long-since buried. It’s not a dental procedure. It’s an autopsy. He is looking for signs of infection in the pulp my previous dentist left behind. Pulp. Living tissue entombed by gutta percha filling.

In its own way, it’s a resurrection. How do I know the pulp was always there? How do I know it hasn’t reappeared? I am not ready to reveal all the endodontic details that have led me to this thinking, but I see it as confirmation that my magic spell is working.

Not that I anticipated my teeth coming back to life. Not that I wanted my root canals re-done. But still. The poetry of this side effect pleases me. Magic has consequences. Messing with the timeline has consequences. Resurrection has consequences.

Of course it does.

“See how your roots curl and twist,” the dentist said last week when he examined my x-rays.

x-ray of tooth 19 showing radiopaque root canal filling going most of the way down the roots.

(x-ray of tooth 19 — on a side note, I realized too late that I sent the x-ray for the opposite side of my mouth to DIAGRAM for Partial Match, linked at top also … well, no bother. They are both screwed up.)

Don’t I ever, I thought.

He traced his finger down one of the tentacles and stopped where the radiopaque trail did, abruptly, like a gutta percha highway that never got completed. A dead end. Except, not dead. Alive. And that’s the problem. “As long as there’s pulp in there, you are at risk of infection,” he said. “It could break the teeth apart.” Teeth, plural, because I have a mouth full of unfinished root canals. My teeth are always breaking thanks to epilepsy and the medications for it. It’s only a matter of time before one of them turns electric, like a fluorescent bulb flickering on, except instead of radiating light, radiating pain.

But pain is a kind of light.

I have always thought these teeth — Tooth 19 in particular — were haunted. They ache even though they shouldn’t, a phenomenon I have always called “phantom pain.” My previous dentist dismissed it. “Dead teeth do not hurt,” he said. “That’s the wonder of root canals.”

It’s also the danger of them. If bacteria get left behind or invade, you don’t feel the infection until it’s too late.

Maybe the pain was jaw sprain, I began to believe. But now I wonder if it wasn’t the stirrings of something else.

“If you had said it bothered you from sweets or cold, I would say that’s in your head,” my new dentist said. “But the ache? There’s good reason for that. This tooth is alive.”

It’s not just the tooth. The crown on Tooth 19 is all wrong. Always has been wrong. See that little shelf hanging over the edge? Food and bacteria have gotten caught in it–like a trap, like it’s luring them there–and the tooth is decaying. It could shatter. It might not even make it through this procedure. We will see. The gum area around it is inflamed, which is pushing my teeth apart.

Pushing my teeth apart. 

It’s almost as if the tooth is erupting all over again from my gums.

“That will make your jaw ache, too,” my dentist said.

dental x-ray showing the top teeth biting down on the bottom ones.

What do you expect, when you don’t seal the tomb?

I had a nightmare: on the Duggars, Christianity, and abuse

TW: child sexual abuse; spiritual abuse

“I had a nightmare,” my father-in-law says, his voice hoarse and weak after a stem cell transplant for lymphoma. “That Rod climbed through the window of my hospital room and attacked me.”

He and my husband are chatting on Skype, something they never used to do until his father got sick. In any other context, it might look like redemption: a son and father healing a rift. But already, I am suppressing an urge to yank the laptop from my husband’s hands.

Rod was a felon my husband’s parents invited into their home for a faith-based Restorative Justice program. A felon who manipulated my husband into playing the “wee wee game” with him in the bathtub, amongst other things. The “wee wee game” is exactly what it sounds like: genital fondling.

My husband combs his fingers through this curls, a tic he acquired ever since he landed in the hospital for severe dissociation from acute stress and PTSD. His symptoms were so severe that a colleague found him at his desk late at night, picking up a pen and putting it down, picking up a pen and putting it down. In my husband’s mind, he was trying to figure out how to stop the compulsive motion and break out of the feedback loop. It’s a good thing he didn’t, because he might have gotten into his car and attempted to drive home.

He spent the night in the ER getting a spinal tap, MRI, CAT scan, and blood tests. They tested for drugs, for STDs, for meningitis.

Later, in an isolation unit at St. Mark’s Hospital, while we awaited the meningitis culture results, he said, “I love this place. This is the happiest I have been in a long time.”

He loved that room because the outside world could not climb in through the windows. He felt safe for the first time in a long time.

“Why did you put that photo on Facebook?” My father-in-law asks.

“My cover photo?”


They mean this one:

Ledger from a courthouse with entries in handwriting listed by date. They are not legible in the image.

It’s a hand notation about Rod’s case in the “Big Book” in the Story County Courthouse in Iowa. My husband posted it because these notes show that after Rod’s suspended sentence, the Restorative Justice program was supposed to be supervising him. They neglected their duty, and my husband has been fighting for accountability in RJ programs to prevent what happened to him happening to any other children.

“People are going to think you are letting it define you,” my father-in-law says. “You don’t want to give Rod that satisfaction.”

He doesn’t even hear what he is doing, I think. He is trying to transfer his nightmare–his shame, his guilt, his responsibility–to my husband. He is telling him: You are hurting me by telling your story. People will think you are messed up inside. He cannot let my husband be damaged, because then he might be accountable for something. So long as my husband is not “screwed up,” his father can live free of guilt.

It’s the same manipulation he has used since my husband was a child.

After the “wee wee game,” my husband told his mother what happened. She and my father-in-law responded with a “forgiveness ceremony” in the backyard, in which they formally forgave Rod for his crime. They thought it was the “Christian” thing to do.

But for my husband, it was a worse trauma than the abuse.

Worse than the abuse.

Believe it or not, his parents kept the offender in their home after this incident. Only later, when he stole a television, did he get the boot. My husband got the message loud and clear: The television was more important than him.

My husband’s family is not fundamentalist Christian. His mother is Catholic; his father has tried on many faiths and settled on a Unitarian church. And yet, their incessant pathologizing of my husband’s pain & attempts at healing looks exactly like the fundamentalist cult to which the Duggars belong.

Here is what the “counseling” looked like for Josh Duggars:

“Counseling Sexual Abuse” 1. The parts of our being. Concentric circles with the body on the outside, then emotions, then will, then mind, then soul, then spirit. 2. Which part is the most important? Which is the next most important? Which is the least important? 3. What did offender damage? What parts do we damage with bitterness and guilt? 4. Why did God let it happen? Results of defrauding by: immodest dress indecent exposure being out from protection of our parents being with evil friends 5. Is there any guilt? For disobedience For not reporting it (see Deuteronomy 22:22-24) Failing to report it allows others to also be abused. 6. If abused was not at fault: God compensated physical abuse with spiritual power. What is being might in spirit? Greater faith Spiritual discernment Genuine Love Wisdom and Understanding Creativity Energy, enthusiasm, and joy Inner peace 7. Example: Daniel Extreme abuse Wisdom, understanding Counselor to four kings 8. If you had to choose … No physical abuse or mighty in spirit, what would you choose? 9. Reason for bitterness: He damaged your body Important step: dedicate your body to god 10. Prayer to dedicate body to God

Over the past few days, I have witnessed many people on Facebook decrying the Duggars for failing to report sexual abuse and for relying on counseling that blames the victim and forces forgiveness.

And yet, many of these same people have shared memes like this one:

Cindy Brady from "The Brady Bunch" wearing a bright yellow turtleneck, plaid dress, and pigtails, with text overlaid that reads: Constantly rehashing the pain and holding it over that person's head is not forgiveness. You may think it is warranted, but you're only destroying yourself.

I am not the only one noticing the hypocrisy.

Imagine how it feels to be my husband–whose primary trauma was the forgiveness ceremony in his backyard–and scroll past a meme like the one above.

Now imagine how it feels for the people who were most responsible for your protection and care to send the same message, over and over: your offender didn’t hurt you; you are hurting you.

This is abuse.

This is abuse.

This is abuse.

If you think I am exaggerating, take a moment to scroll back up and look long and hard at #3 on that Institute of Basic Life Principles “counseling” tract.

#3. What parts do we damage with bitterness and guilt?

Telling survivors to stop hurting your perpetrator by expressing your pain, as in the above meme, is a manipulation tactic designed to silence survivors. It’s a tactic to make everyone more cozy and comfortable, free of exposure to ugly truths.

It is, in effect, a double bind: You MUST heal, but you MUST refrain from doing the one thing that might help you heal, which is telling your story.

My husband’s parents are the masters of the double bind.

When my husband tried antidepressants and started to feel better, his father said, “I hear those pills are bad for you. Why can’t you just meditate?”

It was the exact same thing he did to him as a child: bullying him into a spiritual solution, as if the problem were him, not the changes to his brain from PTSD and depression, but him. If only my husband would be more spiritual. If only he would forgive like a good little Christian, he would be healed.

Later, my father-in-law went to a minister and complained about my husband dredging up the past. The minister called it “abuse” for my husband to hold his parents accountable. My father-in-law, feeling validated and victorious, called and accused my husband of becoming an “abuser” by not simply getting over it.

Holding someone accountable is abuse? But exposing your child to a molester and dragging him into an unwanted forgiveness ceremony is not abuse? That is some master manipulation right there, straight from mainstream Christianity.

To my father-in-law, I would like to say: I had a nightmare, too. That my husband would never want to leave that isolation unit for fear of what might attack him on the outside. That he would prefer to live forever in that bubble because in there, your nightmares could not reach him. Even if it meant I couldn’t, too.

life sentence

I am lying on the Salt Flats with my left arm extended to reveal the tattoo that reads,

(This post has been updated with a new photograph that better shows the tattoo.)

I did it. I got my 𐐌 𐐈𐐣 𐐓𐐡𐐌𐐆𐐥 𐐓𐐅 𐐘𐐇𐐓 𐐈𐐞 𐐉𐐤𐐆𐐝𐐓 𐐈𐐞 𐐌 𐐗𐐈𐐤 tattoo.

It says: “I am trying to get as honest as I can,” a direct quote from my brother as he spoke to his final victim, unaware that police were tapped into the line and recording the conversation.

I needed it to be in Deseret Alphabet because it is the alphabet that first made it seem possible to share my story. The very first words I wrote in it:

our secret


𐐵𐑉 𐑅𐐨𐐿𐑉𐐮𐐻

You see, Deseret Alphabet is phonetic. Translating my brother’s words into it felt like cosmic CPR, giving him the breath of life again.

Translate: verb
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.

So how fitting that this tattoo sits just under my Salamander, a tattoo I chose partly for its alchemical symbolism and partly because it evokes Mark Hofmann, the man whose forgeries cracked my heart wide open in spite of his psychopathic intentions. (Weird. Yes, I know. It’s complicated.)

When I bend my arm, the salamander and my brother’s sentence touch but also become hidden, secret.

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.

neurotypical privilege (cw CSA)

In December 2013, I took a polygraph about my brother sexually abusing me as a child. I took it even though I knew it was junk science. I took it because it was junk science.I took it knowing it would be one of the most stressful experiences of my life.  I had my reasons.

Black and white image of the polygraph chair in which I took my lie detector test. It has very wide-set arms made of wood that is well worn by the many people who have sat in it for tests.

It took a long time to process what happened to me in that cramped basement office where rapists and child molesters get grilled every day for the Utah State Sex Offender Registry. Sometimes, I don’t think I will ever be done processing it. Every time a blood pressure cuff squeezes my arm at a doctor’s office, I am back in that polygraph chair.

A few weeks after the polygraph, I got a chest x-ray for suspected pneumonia and worsening asthma, and as the radiographer explained how to contort my body to net the clearest image, he told me that women’s lungs expand to fill more of the body than men’s do. “Up to here,” he said, tracing his finger across the lower part of his neck.

I flashed back to my polygraph. “More air means truthful,” my examiner said as he wrapped the pneumograph tubes around my ribcage and abdomen.

Truthful: full of truth.

In asthma, too much air in the lungs is pathological. In the lie detector, it’s the opposite. So should I let out all that air or not?

Black and white image of the pneumograph tubes that were wrapped around my chest and waist to measure my breathing.

These intense body memories are sort of a feedback loop, because the lie detector chair felt medical, like all those EEG’s I got as a kid.

Lately, I keep thinking about how the chair seemed designed for male proportions. My arms had to spread wide open to reach its arms. I felt like a little girl–a little girl playing “condemned criminal” in an electric chair.

And in truth, I became a little girl in that chair. I got transported to the past. Or rather, the past got transported to me.

And that is where everything went haywire.

I remember what my brother did to me in vivid detail but often with no clear story arc: his musk, his Marlboro-Reds flavored tongue, his rose tattoo, his 5’o clock shadow scratching my cheeks. What I can’t do–what I have never been able to do in some cases–is put it together into what came first, what came second, what came last.

The other thing, my most secret shame, is that I almost always transport those sensations to the present tense. Here is a snippet from the chapter describing what happens:

And then it’s like someone jump-cuts the tape, and my brother and I are dry humping on my cheap IKEA couch in Salt Lake City, and he is on top with his work boots hanging over the arm, and his fingers around my ribcage, and I am licking his teeth, and he is still 26, but I am 38, and I am the older one now …

It’s not even like I’m a time traveler observing the past. I am participating, but I am an adult.

I had no words back then for what was happening to me. I did not understand it. So I think when I remember it today, I remember it as a grown up because that’s when I finally did understand. That’s when it became a story. As Bessel A. Van Der Kolk wrote in Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, “It appears that as people become aware of more and more elements of the traumatic experiences they construct a narrative that ‘explains’ what happened to them.”

And here is where neurotypical privilege comes into play. I submitted an excerpt of that chapter for publication, and it was accepted. The first editor and I decided on a cut-off point to shorten it, and it was done. Or so I thought.

Months later, a second editor took over the piece and wrote comments like these in the margins and within the text:

You are daydreaming

You are imagining

He even added “I imagine” in front of sentences.

I pulled the piece. There was no way I could accept having my abuse memories depicted as “daydreams.” Some of the edits were legit, and I would have gladly done them, but I draw the line at being accused of “daydreaming” my rape as a child.



  1. a series of pleasant thoughts that distract one’s attention from the present.

Getting to define what counts as “real” vs. a “daydream” is a privilege that “normal people” with non-pathologized brains exercise every day.

Never mind that “non pathological” brains produce memories the exact same way as “pathological” ones. Again from Van Der Kolk:

This process of weaving a narrative out of disparate sensory elements of an experience is probably not all that dissimilar from how people automatically construct a narrative under ordinary conditions.

The only difference is the timeline.

I know my time is out of joint. How the hell do you think I latched onto forgery as the central healing process of my book?

Of course, I have much more to say about the nature of memory and how “non-pathologized” memory is, in fact, just as screwed up as “pathologized” memory, but I will refrain for now.

What I want to focus on here is who gets to be the arbiter of it. Because neurotypical privilege does not exist in a vacuum.

My first editor for that piece was a woman.

The second editor who diagnosed my memories as “daydreams” was a man.

After I withdrew the piece, he said he hoped he hadn’t offended me with the daydreams comment, and I think he meant it. I think he was so steeped in his dual privilege–male and neurotypical–that he literally could not understand what he had done. If he was unsure about something, he could have asked for more documents. He could have fact-checked. But he didn’t. Instead, he simply decided what part of my story was “real” and what part was “imagined.”

Would he have called a male veteran’s war flashbacks “daydreams” simply because they defy the timeline by dragging the past into the present: fireworks as bombs, backfiring car engines as gunfire? I doubt it.

Neurotypical privilege + a male-dominated literary landscape makes it very hard to speak about my experiences–to exhale all that truth I am so full of.

And I just keep thinking about that polygraph chair, how it was designed for a man’s proportions. And how many sex offenders have failed that test, but their victims are still diagnosed as “liars.” How my brother was the one who committed a crime, and yet, I was the one taking a polygraph.

And even though my polygraph examiner’s chair was of the ordinary office variety, it seems that men lay claim to that chair, too.

Scan of polygraph results: A numerical system is used in evaluating polygraph charts, an aggregate score of -5 to +5 is deemed an inconclusive test and no opinion of truth or deception is given by the examiner. A score of +6 or greater is a truthful polygraph result. A score of -6 or greater is a deceptive polygraph result. The aggregate score of the polygraph test for Karrie Higgins is +6 or greater indicating Truthful. It is the final opinion of Vern Peterson that Karrie Higgins is Truthfu when Karrie Higgins answers the questions about Greg having sexual contact with her when she was a child.

be it remembered

My husband and I talk a lot about justice. He has a very different perspective from mine, but we understand each other.

“I never wanted my brother in prison,” I told him the other day, knowing he would have loved to see my brother locked up for life. “But I wanted the trial.”

To me, trial and punishment are not the same thing. Not the same need. Not the same wish.

One is about creating a public record of my brother’s place in my life. The other is about exiling him from my life.

It’s an interesting dilemma, because our adversarial system defines success as “winning” a prosecution or exoneration. What about someone like me, who wants desperately to take the stand but seeks neither conviction nor exoneration?

On occasion, my husband has shared my writings with Restorative Justice advocates because my story generates friction at contact points between RJ and adversarial justice: On the one hand, I crave connection with my offender, and on the other hand, I have experienced great healing and validation through obtaining documents related to his prosecution for molesting another victim. For the first time in my life, I felt free to reveal “our secret.” In my grief and love, I seem like a poster child for RJ, and yet, without those court documents generated by the adversarial system, where would I be in my healing?

How do you square these conflicting needs? In RJ, you remove the retributive element in favor of connection; in adversarial justice, you may not get connection, but you get a narrative on the record, unlike sealed or secret restorative circles.

It’s interesting also when I interview people who knew my brother. They sometimes seem reluctant to reveal what they know, as if prosecution–and hence, punishment–were still real possibilities even though my brother has been dead since 2008. They often precede stories with my least favorite words:

scan of notebook page with notes from an interview with a friend of my brother's. It says "off the record" and is underlined twice.

Off the record. If only they knew the pain those words inflict. How they feel like “our secret” all over again.

I don’t have an answer to my dilemma, except to keep writing. My memoir is not vigilante justice. It is not about winning in the court of public opinion. I just want a testimony, however I can get it.

My favorite words in the whole file of my brother’s case? These:

Top page from the court file in State of Iow vs. Gregory Dale Higgins. It says, "Be it remembered that on the 21st day of December, AD 2007, came Deputy Jeff Morrison and filed information on oath charging defendent with the crime of Sexual Abuse 2nd State of Iowa, Poweshiek County, City of Montezuma.

Be it remembered. That’s what keeps me going.

on the 25th anniversary of my suicide attempt

Friday the 15th should have been the day of my “I am trying to get as honest as I can” tattoo, words my brother spoke to his final victim on a phone call he didn’t know was getting taped by the police.

I am trying to get as honest as I can, written in Deseret Alphabet

It was to be the final tattoo in my resurrection spell, since my life has spun into chaos, and I will not be able to complete all fifteen.

By Friday, the last scabs had fallen off my peacock tattoo, and I could see that the infection (caused, I think, by a man who grabbed my arm in the store, demanding the story when the tattoo was still shiny and new) had not ruined it. My beautiful peacock was emerging with no visible damage.

However, I was sick from the side effects of antibiotics, not to mention a migraine and the eerie blue rings around my eyes that signal impending seizure. I also wanted to give the peacock time to fully heal, so I moved my final tattoo to Thursday.

All day, though, I had this nagging feeling that the 15th was important somehow, that I should be getting my tattoo on that day.

One advantage of being hospitalized a lot as a kid is that I can check my whereabouts during almost any time period, so I pulled up my hospital chart, and sure enough, the 15th was significant: the 25th anniversary of my suicide attempt and the 23rd anniversary of my brother marrying his final wife–the one who would eventually cooperate with police when he molested yet another child.

Hospital chart note from 5/15/90 Higgins, Karrie J. This 15 year old took 20 1 mg Clonopin tablets prior to her arrivals. She apparently also takes Dilantin in addition to Clonopin ... She is being admitted to a monitored bed on Neurology where her respiratory effort, conscious state and vital signs remain stable. I. Overdoes with Clonopin and Dilantin toxicity ... Her cardiac picture will be monitored.

Wedding announcement newspaper clipping: Rhodes-Higgins. Karen Diane Rhodes and Gregory Dale Higgins, both of Cedar Rapids, exchanged marriage vows May 15 at Pinicon Ridge Park, Central City.

Back then, I didn’t even know he had remarried, let alone that he had exchanged vows with a woman who shares my mother’s first name, making Karen Higgins my mother and sister-in-law.

I wonder if he knew about my suicide attempt.

At first, I felt as though something significant had been stolen from me. I wanted my brother’s words branded into me on the anniversary of my overdose, which after all, is the same way he died (depending on who you believe). One of the drugs he took was even an anticonvulsant, just like me, though he took it for pain, not epilepsy. Somehow, branding my arm with his words — the same arm I used to cut with a butter knife, leaving white hatch-mark scars even 25 years later — on this day of all days seemed right.

But nothing was stolen from me. In fact, I think the new date is even more magical in its own right: May 21st, the 25th anniversary of my first pass home form the psychiatric ward:

Psychiatric notes from May 21, 1990 noting that I was released on a pass from the hospital that day.

I remember that pass home well. Playing on the radio as my mother pulled out of the hospital parking lot: “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman:

The same song played on the day I got out on a second pass, too. And it played again on the day I was released for real, as if the clock kept getting reset to May 21st, over and over. Every release some kind of rehearsal or act.

And they were.

A car was the ticket out; a car was how you escaped. And yet, I could not drive because of my seizures, and in fact, have never learned to drive. Something inherent to my body was going to make it hard to escape– the very disease all those anticonvulsants I swallowed were supposed to suppress.

I wasn’t normal, but I knew I had to fake it on my first pass if I ever wanted a chance to get out–not out of the hospital, but out, as in far, far away. So I did fake it.

Note the nurse’s comments:

Returned from pass with mother. Search for contraband. Mother reports that pass went well. Goals turned into nurse.

It was a lie. It did not “go well.” I faked everything that day, doing my best to play normal daughter and sister. I remember oohing and ahhing over the food at dinner. “This beats hospital food!” I said. I didn’t say that my stomach hurt from sitting so close to my father.

And even with the contraband search, I hid the new cut marks on my left arm, self-inflicted in my bedroom hours before returning to the psych ward. I was very good at hiding them.

So this anniversary is more important for my final tattoo, because like my brother,

I'm trying to get as honest as I can.

I am tired of faking normal. I am going to wear my heart on my sleeve from this day forward, in the most literal sense of that expression. And by my heart, I mean my brother’s confession, because if he confesses, I confess.

my brother’s body

Recently, I was contacted by an artist interested in adapting two of my essays, “The Strange Flowers” and “Partial Match” into physical (think dance) theater.

I cried when I read her email. So much of my work is about giving my brother a body or donating my body to him, and it felt like I had manifested it, like my magic resurrection spell had leaked out into the world, dance being the ultimate embodied expression.

Ever since, I have been preoccupied with who will ‘play’ my brother. What will that body look like? How will it move? What size will it be relative to the ‘me’ on the stage? Will it be tattooed? It isn’t so much that I worry about the body being ‘right’ or ‘exact.’ However, embodiment has been the whole point of these works–the loss of it, the need for it, the burden of it. It’s strange to me that when I finally get get this wish fulfillment, this second coming of my brother, I have to let go of his body.

If I am honest, I want him up there on that stage. Not a clone. Him.

It never occurred to me worry about how I would be portrayed or by whom.

That is, until my sister texted me, “I want to dance in it!” Meaning, she wants to dance my part. She wants to play me. She is a dancer, and she has her own story to tell about our brother. When “Partial Match” published, she called me “her hero.”

I know she is reacting from the heart. She’s excited. She wants to support me.

And yet.

So much history. When my sister came forward about our brother, nobody thought to ask me if it happened to me, too, and I got the message loud and clear: I was not getting called to the witness stand; my testimony didn’t matter.

But that’s not the whole truth. I could have spoken up. I could have told, too. I have often revisited that moment, trying to understand my younger self, but little girl Karrie did not know what I know, and I wind up forging my own history. At the time, I didn’t understand the consequences of keeping silent, but I did understand that nobody wanted to know what happened to me.

Over the years and in so many ways, I got obliterated from the record–the same record in which my sister’s name, my sister’s story, got recorded. It has made for a twisted dynamic.

There is no chance my sister will play me, so I am trying to let these feelings go.

And yet, I keep coming back to this: What does it say about me that I want my brother resurrected, playing his part all over again on that stage, but I cannot bear anyone except a stranger playing mine?

I am trying to get as honest as I can

When I started my tattoo magical resurrection spell, I set out to write my own Mutus Liber on my body, with 15 “plates” (as in the original book) depicting the alchemical operation taking place. Mutus Liber is an alchemical text. The name means silent book.

I am not ready to get into too many specifics, but I had read a Mormon theological text by Adam S. Miller that led me to believe I needed certain symbols of Zion (aka Salt Lake City) on my body for the spell to work, along with specific ink chemicals, chosen for their alchemical properties but also for the specific damage they inflict inside the body and their relationship to pollutants in SLC. I needed to resurrect this place, most especially the graffiti that saved my life when I was in the depths of despair after first moving here.

Gate to a parking lot with a sign that reads, faintly, "The Other Place." It is spray painted with the word OXEN. Sidewalk grate with the word OXEN written in white. Crosswalk pole with a postal service sticker that reads Will you be my Valentine? Oxen Fence to a government property. OXEN is spray painted on the sign and underlined twice. Crosswalk button with OXEN painted on it.

OXEN carved into a sidewalk when the cement was wet. I call this one "permanent oxen" since it cannot be washed off. There are autumn leaves atop it.

I call this graffiti artist Mr. OXEN, and until recently, he was mostly an abstraction. The day I walked into the tattoo shop with the top photo (above), however, he transformed into a real person.

“Do you know him?” said the guy at the counter.

“No,” I said. “I’m just obsessed with his work. I’ve been photographing it for years.”

“Come here and look at this,” the guy said, turning to the artists.

“No way,” they said when they gathered around and saw the image I had brought in.

One of them took me to a corner where the shop displayed some calligraphy by Oxen.

I couldn’t tell what they thought of my project, and I didn’t explain it, but I knew I had found the right place.

Over time, I came to suspect that my artist himself might be OXEN, but there is no way to know for sure, and I will not ask him. I wanted to believe it was him. If I was trying to resurrect this place, how perfect to have the graffiti artist write on me in his own hand, as if I were a crosswalk pole.

I also wanted GURRL and HEMA:

Graffiti tag that reads GURRL with a broken heart above it. All in lipstick red. A pair of cateye glasses atop a pole that reads GURRL

A crosswalk button sign with a sticker that says HEMA. A little halo floats over it.

Eventually, I wanted the Walker Center weather tower, transmitter and receiver of all that is magic:

Iron tower atop a building. It reads WALKER going down and CENTER repeats around the base.

But then, everything changed. It became clear, through some tacit agreement, that the graffiti was never happening. I don’t know if it offended Oxen, or if he saw it as copying. Maybe if he knew the whole story, he would change his mind, but I have a sense–and I am very intuitive about these things–that he would not. He conveniently forgot the OXEN images I had already given him whenever we discussed the next tattoo.

And all of a sudden, no more new OXEN tags appeared downtown. I wondered if he had given up the tag because I had taken it too far.

So I let it go.

I just let it go.

And as I did so, something magical happened: I started to let go of this city, too.

I took a walk downtown to watch falcons one day, and a man approached to ask the time, pointing to my Doomsday Clock tattoo.

My wrist tattoo: the Doomsday clock at 3 minutes to midnight. The time is written in Deseret Alphabet.

“End of the world o’clock,” I said. And this intense peace fell over me. I felt I could walk right out of the city and never look back, like I didn’t need it anymore.

I completed several other tattoos, mostly alchemical symbols, and I never again asked for graffiti or architecture from this place.

The final alchemical symbol was the peacock. Here is where things get interesting. That tattoo got infected. I don’t know how, because my shop is extremely clean, and I was taking good care of it. It’s just one of those things. I started antibiotics, and it has healed significantly. For awhile, it looked like it might not turn out as beautiful as the others, but as the tattoo emerges from scabs and layers of skin, it looks good. I think it will be fine. The body has amazing capacity for healing.

How interesting that this tattoo got infected, though: symbol of turning inward on the alchemical journey, but also of alchemical mistakes. Perhaps I had looked inward to the wrong things. Perhaps I had lost my way on this journey.

Life is in chaos right now, with job losses and other things, so I cannot afford my entire tattoo spell. However, I have one last tattoo with a hefty pre-paid deposit already down on it. I was going to get a grasshopper next, but with the upheaval, I changed it to what would have been the final tattoo in the 15, anyway:

I am trying to get as honest as I can -- written in Deseret Alphabet.

It says, “I am trying to get as honest as I can,” in Deseret Alphabet, a quote from my brother’s taped phone call with his final victim:

I am trying to get as honest as I can.

I feel at peace with it. I believe the peacock was right.

In my Deseret Alphabet translation, I made the choice to use a more ‘archaic’ form for the first sound of honest. That letter that looks like a lightning bolt? Technically, it represents a sound I have never pronounced, ever. Only someone from Britain or the Northeast would even begin to comprehend how to pronounce it properly. For my Midwestern mouth, it’s impossible. However, it is another way to write “honest,” and I have always loved how the little lightning bolt looks.

And that it is a sound neither my brother nor I could pronounce? For honest, of all words? Perfect.

forensic facial reconstruction

In February of this year, my husband and I completed a Forensic Facial Reconstruction–Sculpture 40-hour workshop at F.A.C.T.S., aka the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State. For me, it was part fulfillment of a 15-year dream to study with Karen T. Taylor and part research for my book-in-progress. The last day of class was my 40th birthday, and I don’t know, but it felt like I had reconstructed myself. I had found something I thought lost forever, and I felt a new confidence that I was on the right path with my alchemical amalgamation of magic, forensics, and faith.

Forensic reconstruction on a skull blends forensic anthropology, cognitive science, and art. One cannot specialize in either-or and succeed at identification, and therein lies the terror and the beauty of it. It defies the modern worldview that divides science and art, although as Karen told us, most people will feel more comfortable on one side of the discipline or the other. Some people love cutting the tissue depth markers because the measurements are “precise” and “knowable.” Others feel more comfortable styling the hair or parting the lips a certain way.

I first stumbled on Forensic Facial Reconstruction 15 years ago while in-process on an essay about a missing woman, and it forever changed my worldview and process. I began to think of writing as a forensic art, and forensic science metaphors became prominent in my work. I think it appealed to me because it represented an intersection with the justice system for which I longed, but more on that in an essay later.

Here in Salt Lake City, I went through a crisis with forensics as a way to understand and process the world, and I turned to certain magical processes instead. My course at F.A.C.T.S. reminded me that I could have a magical forensics. I could be my own justice.

Before we began sculpting on our skull, we spent a few days studying facial anatomy, sculpting muscles onto a practice skull. Quoting another professional in the field, Karen said, “The mind cannot forget what the hands have learned.” She was right. Later on as I sculpted, I found myself thinking about the underlying muscles and how they would shape the face.

The sculpture process begins with intense study of the skull for characteristics that give clues to heritage and gender: size of jaw, teeth, shape of skull. The artist must consult with a forensic anthropologist for expert insights. Teeth are memoirs carved in bone, giving clues about class, access to care, diet, and age.

Once the features are determined, sculpting begins by applying tissue depth markers, which are derived from anthropological studies where needles were inserted and tissue depths measured. The goal is to find average tissue depths for different heritages, although of course, it’s very complicated in a world of mixed heritages.

Cast of a skull with tissue depth markers glued to the appropriate locations. The markers are numbered to correspond to their location.

After this, strips of clay are applied with the correct thickness.

We learned an approach derived from the skull anatomy to approximate the nose. I fretted so much over it. I thought it seemed impossible to get it right. It turned out OK for a first sculpture attempt.

Black and white image of my hand holding up a life-size image of the skull with the nose drawn onto it next to the sculpture for comparison. The sculpture is only partly complete and has two strips of clay across the teeth for the mouth to be created. The eyelids have not been blended with the rest of the face yet.

Close-up of sculpture showing nose and mouth. The sculpture's lips are open slightly to reveal teeth. There are hatch marks on the clay surface from using sandpaper to texturize it slightly.

Here I am fussing with the hair. Karen later sat down and showed me an easier way to fashion the hair. She also pointed out that I had created a straight part. While it looked fine, it’s those little details that can stop someone from recognizing a loved one. You don’t want to solidify a specific “look” because the loved one might fixate on it and think, “Nah, that couldn’t be my daughter, son, wife, husband …” You have to build ambiguity into the sculpture. We fussed with the part to make it a little messier — not super messy, but enough that it could go either way.

The author sculpting. She has brown hair pulled into a ponytail and is wearing a pink patchwork sundress. On her right shoulder, there is a black tattoo of the SLC temple doorknob. The sculpture sits in front of her on a table, balanced on a stand. She is reaching around the sculpture's ear to place a strand of hair there.

Photo taken from behind and above as Karen T. Taylor smooths some clay onto the sculpture face right below the eyes.

Here is Karen demonstrating to me how to fill out the eye and cheek areas to achieve a more youthful appearance (our girl was aged quite young, probably in her 20s).

You can also see here how the eyebrows look different. Karen was demonstrating some techniques for me. She did one side, and then I got back to work doing the other.

Black and white photo of the author seated behind her sculpture working on the hair.  She is wearing a sweater and glasses and has dakr her hair pulled into a ponytail.

We also studied Karen’s collection of real skulls, paying particular attention to the features that matter most for a successful reconstruction. At one point, Karen showed us slides of eyes and asked us to guess who the famous person was. We failed. Then, she showed us slides of famous people’s teeth, and we identified all of them.

I wanted to cry it made me so happy. Teeth, to me, are the ultimate identifier, but in a different, more personal way.

Close-up of teeth on a real skull. Some of them have metal caps. Some are decayed.

Mandible with interesting dental features.

Mandible with interesting dental features, including several missing teeth and some decay.

At the end, we got to see our girl’s (that we started calling her “our girl” has fascinated me — is it possessive? is it familial?) real face to see whether our sculpture could have made an identification. I cannot share her image here for privacy reasons (and well, I don’t have an image of her, anyway), but she was an actual murder victim, and her face has haunted me ever since.

She looked exactly like my mother when she was young. Same hair. Same shadows over her eyes, same way of holding her mouth. At first, I thought I was seeing things, until I glanced at my husband and saw that he was noticing it, too.

“Do you see it?” I asked him.

“I do,” he said.

“She’s a dead ringer for my mother.”

This whole time, I had thought, this face looks familiar. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I worried I was making the beginner mistake of sculpting my own features.

From an essay I wrote in graduate school, with a character based on Karen T. Taylor that cited her book:

When the forensic artist first learned to sculpt over a plaster cast of a skull rather than a real one, she constructed cheekbones like her own – high and deep – and ignored the shape of the imaginary victim’s face: a common mistake, to mold the clay into a face one knows best. The hands are wired for it, from years of itching the same nose, rubbing the same chin, brushing blush on the same cheeks. And maybe the artist even loves the victim a little, wants so badly for her to have a name that she gives her a face she can recognize.

“I believe your sculptures could have gotten an identification,” Karen said, and it meant everything.

Later, as we pulled out of the parking lot and began the drive through the Freeman Ranch, I thought about what I learned in the larger sense–a life lesson. Here is what came to me: sympathy for God. I now knew what it meant to put flesh back onto bones, how hard it was to know a face from just the skull. I saw what Ezekiel saw in the Valley of the Dry Bones. A strange thought for a person without a faith to think, but not really. After all, I have been taking resurrection into my own hands.

I came to the class to learn how to resurrect, and I wound up becoming mother to my own mother. On my 40th birthday no less. Since then, I occasionally break down into tears: on my birthday, I gave birth to my own mother. Sort of the ultimate resurrection. I have been absorbing its meaning over these past few months, but so far, the right words elude me. I will find them, though. The time will come to articulate the transformation that happened at F.A.C.T.S.

There were many other things I will not share here, but I will write about them soon.

View of “my girl” from above:

Sculpture from above showing the hair with a less rigid part. The hair has some loose bangs and the rest pulled back into a bun, with a messy part.

Best birthday present ever:

Certiciate of Completion of a 40-hour workshop in forensic facial reconstruction.

In my book, Karen T. Taylor signed:

Title page for Forensic Art and Illustration, which Karen T. Taylor signed: Feb 6, 2015 San Marcos Texas: Karrie, I'm so glad to know you ... and I feel that you are a special soul. May the 'good guys' always win! Fondly, Karen T. Taylor PS: Loved spending your 40th with you!

May the good guys always win.

people explain my tattoos to me

People explain my tattoos to me.

You are taking back your body, they say. But they are wrong. I am donating my body. I am casting a tattoo magical resurrection spell to save my brother’s soul. I am not ready to go into the specifics of the alchemy, chemistry, epigenetics, theology, theodicy, and psychogeography that led me to body modification, but I will share a little glimpse of the process here.

My first tattoo was a replica of the Salt Lake City temple doorknobs, minus the words “Holiness to the Lord” because the artist felt they would crowd the image–and I agreed. It was also truer that way: I am a Gentile, a non-believer, forever on the outside here in Utah. To mark myself in this way, with a holy Mormon symbol, to claim it for my condemned body, is somewhat radical, especially since the LDS Church officially prohibits tattoos. I felt the exclusion of “Holiness to the Lord” reflected the complexities of me needing this image on my body.

I also love my mole that interrupts the ink. When my tattoo artist finished, he apologized that he couldn’t ink the mole. I said, “No. I love it.”

“Yeah, that’s you,” he said.

I think it looks like a little bee buzzing around the hive.

But know what I love the most? The reminder that my skin is living vellum. If you have ever studied Medieval manuscripts, you know that flaws in the vellum could result in some interesting issues for the scribes — writing around holes being my most favorite. Here, the artist has written around a flaw in my vellum.

Selfie with my t-shirt draped over my shoulder to reveal a tattoo replicating the Salt Lake Temple doorknobs. It has a beehive in the center with a seashell below it.

Salt Lake Temple doorknob. It says Holiness to the Lord over a beehive. The beehive has a seashell below it.

A selfie standing in front of the temple with my temple doorknob tattoo revealed.

My second tattoo reproduced my brother’s rose on his left delt. I could not obtain a picture of his rose (and the process of trying to track one down is a story in and of itself), so I found a rose I liked instead. A Tudor rose. In Masonry, this rose is a symbol of resurrection. It also comes with alchemical symbolism.

Selfie with t-shirt draped over my shoulder to reveal a rose tattoo. The rose is Tudor in style and bright red with some orange in the center. It covers my whole shoulder. My lips are slightly parted as I turn my head toward the camera.

Some people remarked when they saw this photograph that something had changed in me. It was a side they had never seen–sensual, even perhaps trying to be sexy. I thought that was interesting, given the reasons for this tattoo. It sparked some soul-searching for me. I realized it was true. I do feel more sensual after getting this tattoo. The reasons are complex, and I will share them some other time, perhaps in an essay.

Selfie in front of the temple with t-shirt draped over my shoulder to reveal my rose tattoo.

This tattoo specifically seems to incite a lot of commentary among those who know why I got it. Why would you mark yourself with your brother’s tattoo? Are you trying to say you are not afraid of him anymore?

But I was never “afraid” of him. And no, I am not sending a message or making a statement of independence or freedom. Like I said, I am doing something far more radical: trying to save his soul–and not only that, but doing it without membership in a faith. (More on that in future writings)

Here is how the tattoos look from the front. Notice the symmetry? I love that!

Selfie in a camisole top with my hands on my hips to show where the tattoos on my shoulders are placed.

Directly below the temple, I got a falcon. As you know, I have been involved with rescuing fledging falcons on Temple Square in recent years. That experience has been healing for me, because it is the one time I feel welcome on Temple Square, like I really have a home here. And you know, I feel an affinity with falcons because they symbolize unconverted Gentiles.

Selfie leaning over with one hand on the back of my head to reveal a falcon tattoo on the inner portion of my arm. There is a bright red sun behind the falcon, who is seated on a branch that doubles as a scroll.

I also love how the falcon is seated: in alchemy, a seated bird indicates that an alchemical operation is underway.

Directly below the rose, I got a salamander, which carries so much symbolism, too: in alchemy, resurrection, because the salamander can survive fire. To St. Augustine, the salamander proved that souls could burn for eternity and not be consumed–again because ancients believed that salamanders survived fire. There is also the symbolism associated with Mark Hofmann, who is a huge part of my book-in-progress.

Selfie with my left hand behind my head to reveal a salamander tattoo on my left inner bicep. The salamander is aqua green and is surrounded by stars and space matter.

And on my wrist: the Doomsday Clock. It says 3 to midnight in Deseret Alphabet, because the Doomsday Clock is at 3 minutes to midnight right now and also in 1984, a crucial year in my book-in-progress. My tattoo artist called it “permanent party time,” and I love that. Notice how if I bend my arm, I can bring the “end of the world” to “resurrection”: death and resurrection meet, like live electrical contacts.

Selfie leaning on my left hand to reveal a doomsday clock tattoo on my left wrist. It is bright red and says "3 minutes to midnight" underneath in Deseret Alphabet.

I got the Doomsday Clock tattoo on the anniversary of my husband going into the hospital due to extreme stress, an event that set our personal Doomsday Clocks in motion, the end of our time here in Utah. It happened totally at random because I got sick and had to postpone the tattoo. The artist said, “Will a few weeks from now work?” And it landed on that date. I didn’t even realize it until later. Perfect.

More on my tattoos in an upcoming essay, but maybe this post answers some questions. Maybe not. I know I am being a bit cagey, but it’s because I feel a strong need to protect myself as I continue on this journey. I will say this: the magic spell is working.

People explain my tattoos to me. Soon, I will explain them to you.

Writer’s Life Project, a Blog Hop

I was initially reluctant when my dear friend and co-conspirator in CNF, Antonia Malchick, invited me to participate in the Writer’s Life Project blog hop, only because my life at the moment is in turmoil. But then I thought, you know what? I always say I don’t get invited to these reindeer games, so if I refuse to jump in now, I can never complain again. So here I am.

It’s perfect that Nia invited me, actually, because she has talked me off the ledge many times when I doubted myself or my work, something I am going through right now. She and I met through the daily #cnftweet micro-essay contest on Twitter, and I recognized  her as a kindred spirit, someone who appreciates a deep plumb line.  I mean, oh my god, she took on a sawmill apprenticeship to learn the skills of her pioneer ancestors. How freaking cool is that? She is an amazing writer and an even more amazing friend.

1) What am I writing or working on?

I am currently writing “Superman is my Temple Recommend,” a memoir about adopting a magical worldview while living as a gentile among the Mormons.  It is part theodicy, part environmental memoir, and part grimoire, wherein Salt Lake City’s infamous air pollution, the Zion grid, Mormon forger and bomber Mark Hofmann, Gary Gilmore, Ronnie Lee Gardner, Hugh Nibley, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, David Copperfield, a local weather tower, and a cast of “missionaries” are colliding to cast a magic spell for atonement/at-ONE-ment.

Right now, I am working on the final section of the book entitled “Bone Lead Burden,” which combines epigenetics, air pollution chemistry, toxicokinetics of lead and methylmercury, astrological medicine, Saturn Death Cult cosmology, ancient magic, Biblical prophecies, Adam-God doctrine, blood atonement, radiocarbon science, my story of incest, and my attempt to resurrect my brother (through forging his confession) into an Augustinian theodicy or justification for evil and suffering.

All my life, strains of this theodicy have been crammed down my throat, and I decided, “What would happen if I took theodicy at face value and ran with it?” It has been triggering to say the least, but what better way to write an anti-theodicy than by following theodicy to its bitter end?

I say Augustinian, but I also wrestle with other strains of theodicy, such as Irenaeus, in which evil is “justified” for human development (a strain I see in Mormonism).

The book process has led me to take a polygraph, submit to hypnosis, learn how to manufacture inks and forge documents, and translate documents into Deseret Alphabet. I have discussed the nature of “testimony” with LDS missionaries, interviewed a key forensic document examiner from the Mark Hofmann forgery and bombing case, explored the inner workings of an air quality monitoring station, stood in line with Ordain Women to gain entry to the Priesthood Session at October 2013 General Conference (read about it here), sat in quiet contemplation at the grave site of Brigham Young, attended an ex-Mormon conference, learned ancient magic, visited Hofmann’s crime scenes, spent countless hours in Special Collections at BYU and U of Utah, filed more GRAMA and FOIA requests than I care to count, submitted to medical tests, and become a one-way pen pal with Mark Hofmann (he never writes back). Soon, I will volunteer to rescue fledgling peregrine falcons on Temple Square.

Probably the best way to learn about my engagement with the Mormon faith and my connection to Mark Hofmann is to listen to me on the Mormon Matters podcast: Engaging Mormonism from Outside the Fold.

I also have a number of shorter works on the burner, including an essay about loving a man who loves guns and something called “Retracting my Testimony,” which I am not ready to discuss.

Check out karriehiggins.com to find links to published essays and standalone parts of the book.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It depends on how you classify my “genre.”

If you mean how it differs from other creative nonfiction, then I would say my current work is more speculative and sometimes magical.  In a recent standalone essay/chapter entitled “The 37 Miracles of Block 37,” I wrote a history of Library Square (aka Block 37) in Salt Lake City, but it reads less like a history than a prophecy, which is how it felt writing it, too–as though I was channeling it. It’s got an angel and Lucifer colluding to steal a skull, the Angel Moroni delivering a golden watch to the old police station, the Metropolitan Hall of Justice lighting the Jordan River on fire, Superman’s Fortress of Solitude in the basement of the library as a secular Holy of Holies, Adam & Eve waving at us from Planet X as it falls into its sun … and more.

Do I believe those things happened? No. I’m not crazy. Do I believe they are true? Absolutely, yes I do. They speak a truth about the war between the secular and theocratic in Zion, about the psychogeographic battle between Library Square and Temple Square. And each and every event in that piece is based on a verifiable historical research. Even the skull! For real! Geologists excavating the site found (and lost) a strange horned skull. Everything in that essay is true. I never had to bend a thing or lie to make it “fit” a magical theory. So the piece itself is a meta-commentary on how history becomes polemic, how polemic becomes conspiracy, and how all of the above become faith.

Crescent wall of the Salt Lake City Public Library, as seen from 400 S. The wall arcs across the photograph, and in front of it, a stainless steel building with a curved roof has a glint of sunlight reflected from it. Storm clouds are moving in. Close-up of the exterior of the SLC Library: windows on an arced wall reflect the gray light of storm clouds. In the upper left, green tree leaves.

If you had asked me this question about genre ten years ago, I would have said something about writing as a forensic art or science, an adversarial process that I left bare on the page. You can see my crisis of faith in forensic science playing out in how my writing has shifted toward something more … magical. And yet, really, I am after the same thing as I always was: a testimony. I have discovered that magic and forensic science are two ways of getting at the same thing, and they both require leaps of faith.

It is not merely the case that men conceived of matter as possessing mind in those days, but rather that in those days matter did possess mind, ‘actually’ did so. When the obvious objection is raised that the mechanical world view must be true, because we are in fact able to send a man to the moon or invent technologies that demonstrably work, I can only reply that the animistic world view, which lasted for millennia, was also fully efficacious to its believers. In other words, our ancestors constructed reality in a way that typically produced verifiable results.

–Morris Berman, quoted in Quinn

If by “genre” you mean to contrast my memoir/grimoir to other literature born of (or at least during) the “Mormon moment,” one huge difference is my outsider status. I am not Mormon. I am not ex-Mormon. I am not anti-Mormon. I am not even a believer in any faith. I am, in a way, the ultimate outsider. One might think this would limit me, but instead it gives me incredible freedom to explore Mormon theology and doctrines in a way that many members invested in the Church either cannot or will not. I am free to let the psychogeography of Salt Lake City guide me to Brigham Young’s doctrines such as blood atonement or Adam-God, and I can get from them what I want and need.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I grew up in a family of secrets: secret siblings, secret abuse, secret incest, secret affairs. These experiences turned me into a secret agent. If there is a secret, I will find it out, whether through court databases, background checks, forensic document analysis, or magic.

When I got my lie detector, the polygraph examiner said, “You’re interested in the troublemakers, aren’t you?” Yes, I am. I was sexually abused as a child by an adult brother (you can read the story here), and I never got justice. As a result, I am drawn to the criminal element, the dark side, the unjust. In a very real sense, my WIP develops several theories of criminogenesis.

4) How does my writing process work?

My writing process is immersive to the point that I cannot tell my writing from my life.

I believe, as Mircea Eliade wrote:

There is indeed only one way of understanding a cultural phenomenon which is alien to one’s own ideological pattern, and that is to place oneself at its very center and from there to track down all the values that radiate from it.

Color photograph of me at the temple door. A woman stands at the top of steps before an oversized door. She wears a black skirt and is kneeling, doing something ambiguous, perhaps testing the lock.

Immersive process begins in psychogeography. I take walks in the city and listen to what it is telling me: If I feel a powerful urge to turn down a block, I turn down that block and try to figure out why. I notice traffic patterns, pedestrian patterns. I listen to the prophets of the streets, i.e. graffiti artists. I make maps. I study old maps. I study histories of blocks I feel drawn to. Every city is an ideology expressed in a grid, and I try to figure out what that ideology is.

For me, walking through Salt Lake City feels like this:

As a result, my work compels me to take certain actions. You could call them performative in the sense that they spring from the art, but they are also sincere and true. I believe my writing process is like a nucleus attracting matter to my ideas. I never thought of memoir as just writing about my life. On the contrary, I think my writing incants my life into being.

For example, when I was writing “Nowhere, No Place, Like Home” for Black Clock, the process of working through that essay drove me to take my brother’s names to the temple door for a heretical Gentile proxy baptism request.

Another example: Ezekiel. Ezekiel has become central to my WIP for a variety of theological, theodical, and cosmological reasons. Throughout this process, I have felt connected to him across the centuries.

I made Ezekiel bricks, except instead of the city of Jerusalem, I carefully drew the 1860 SLC Plat. I am taking them out to the Salt Flats to lay siege to them with a bicycle. I will also be eating my own homemade scrolls written in my homemade bone black ink, amongst other things. In my WIP, the Salt Flats are Ezekiel’s Valley of the Dry Bones. They are Hofmann’s saltwater jar for his document-aging ozone tank. They are a place of magic and resurrection.

clay brick with the 1860 Zion Plat etched into it. it is sitting on the salt crust of the salt flats. White brick with the 1860 Zion Plat etched into it. it is sitting on the salt crust of the salt flats.

And speaking of ink, it is perhaps the action most central to this process: I started making iron gallotannic ink because I wanted to get inside the process and mind of Mark Hofmann, but once I made that first batch, I asked myself: What would I forge if I could never get caught? I wondered which came first: the ink or the forger?

I have since branched out into many kinds of inks, including bone black, lamp black, carbon black, iron gall, metallic, and others. They are central to this writing process.

I have learned how to strip ink from vintage Valentine and birthday cards to give me a clean slate to forge my brother’s confession. That process strips paper of time, making it young again … so I have learned how to put back that time, make it old again.

See what I mean? I wrote myself into a forger. That’s my process.


The Bottle City of God has won the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Prose

I am very excited to announce that my essay, “The Bottle City of God,” has won the 2013 Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Prose from the Cincinnati Review!

Here is what editor Michael Griffith had to say about my essay:

“The Bottle City of God” is a sharp-minded, nimble, thoughtful essay that manages to be both wide-ranging—set in Salt Lake City, it takes up issues of Mormonism, city planning, cricket plagues, the end-times and their role in LDS theology, jaywalking, graffiti about jaywalking, anti-religious prejudice, temperature inversions and air pollution—and deeply personal. Karrie Higgins meditates poignantly and with a luminous intelligence on what it is and means to live in Salt Lake City as a non-Mormon, on what it means to breathe Zion’s strange air. This is a marvelous essay about what can be assimilated, about both the literal and the metaphorical ways that we take into ourselves the places we live.

The essay will appear in the Summer 2014 issue.  It seems like such a long time to wait!

It is doubly exciting to win because this piece also happens to be the beating heart of my book/grimoire-in progress.

When asked to write something about the process of writing “Bottle City of God,” I submitted this snippet:

“The Bottle City of God” started off as a spin-off piece from an essay I wrote about my early experiences in Salt Lake City undergoing a reluctant conversion–not to the Mormon faith, but to the concept of faith. In that piece, the air pollution played only a small part, but as my understanding of Zion deepened, and as I got sick from the air, I realized I was gaining what the Mormons call a “testimony.” But what did it mean to have faith without belief–and belief without faith? To be a gentile Mormon? The answer, I realized, was in the air. “The Bottle City of God” is evolving into a book: part theodicy, part grimoire wherein the pollution, the Zion grid, Mormon forger and bomber Mark Hofmann, Gary Gilmore, Ronnie Lee Gardner, Hugh Nibley, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, David Copperfield, a local weather tower, and a cast of “missionaries” are colliding to cast a magic spell for atonement/at-ONE-ment.

So Summer 2014 for the essay … and who knows for the book? If I have it my way, it will be published before I die, at least!

corroboration as lie

This week, while plotting dates on the master timeline, I exhausted every ready source for evidence: medical charts, journals, family obits, old apartment leases, and legal documents. I thought I would have to forge ahead on memory alone until I realized my filing cabinet contained a goldmine of corroborating documents: clips of the newspaper column I wrote in my twenties.  I know a newspaper column seems like an odd resource for personal history, but most of my columns were short personal essays, closer to creative nonfiction than journalism.

Re-reading them now, at the age of thirty-eight, I feel a little squeamish and even embarrassed by them. They were much more intimate than I remember. Back then, readers used to approach me at the grocery store or on the sidewalk and spill their secrets like I was some kind of oracle. Some asked me to write about them. A few became boyfriends. One man who got a crush on me via my column eventually became my husband. At the time, I didn’t understand why people felt like they knew me from those few inches of newsprint every Friday.

Now I get it, and I am not sure I like it much now that the tables are turned–especially after discovering a column I have no memory of writing.

The mystery column was about my brothers, probably my first foray into the risky territory of secret siblings. I do not remember having the guts to shine a light on these secrets all those years ago, when I was only twenty-two and when my words would be delivered to almost every doorstep in my small town. It must have been excruciating to write, let alone publish. How could I forget?

The timeline gives me a clue: When I wrote it, I was caught up in a stormy affair with a much older man who, amongst other strange behaviors, often confessed his tortured attraction to young girls. Without delving into the gory details, this relationship caused a lot of stuff to surface that I did not know how to handle, and I believe I wrote this column in a kind of fugue.

And now, here I am, confronting this younger me and her younger memories.

Certain details in the column seem to contradict my memories today, a discovery that momentarily spun my world off axis, in part because, as an abuse survivor, I know what it means to be branded a liar–to have my testimony impeached. Never mind how unreliable or slippery the offender was or is; it is the victim who must appear whole and empirical under the microscope.

Case in point:

In the sixteen-year-old column, I catch my mother with an obit and press her for information.

In a recent essay, I tell the story of catching my father clipping the obit.

When I mentioned the discovery of these clashing facts to some friends, they immediately leapt into a discussion of false memories, which I found fascinating. I never characterized either memory as false; I only stated that two written records contradict. In our legal system, contradictory statements would be grounds for witness impeachment; perhaps the culture of our adversarial system has blurred into daily life. Never mind life is not a legal case.  Never mind it is not always so simple.

In fact, both happened at different points. I think I focused on my mother in the newspaper column because she represented less risky territory at the time (never mind  how I feel today).

But truth be told, I forgot about pestering my mother about the obit until I saw this column again, I suspect because I hesitate to place my mother in any position of responsibility for family secrets.

Fascinating cognitive theory is playing out here, too: I just finished reading some studies about the impact of positive and negative emotions on memory. Negative emotions are associated with “item-specific processing” while positive emotions are associated with “relational” processing. My emotions surrounding many childhood events have only recently begun to surface in an authentic way, sparking a fundamental change to how I process memories; hence, the focus shifts–and so does the narrative I reconstruct.

A few other details puzzle me, too, but I need more time to reconcile them.

This experience has left me with fresh questions about fact-checking, truth, and creative nonfiction. Recently, a friend and I were dishing about experiences with fact-checkers, and she told me about one editor who confirmed every detail down to the color and fabric of a pillow from two decades prior. Because of that experience, she holds back from writing certain things for fear of the fact-checking because, well, some things cannot be corroborated. What happens to truth then?

Documents, after all, are just documents. The fact of their existence ≠ the existence of fact.

And what happens to it in this case, when an old “record”–even one I created–seemingly contradicts a newer one?

What happens when corroboration itself–as a process, as a philosophy of truth–becomes a kind of lie? When corroboration maybe even damages the truth?