I carry my brother’s body

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except he was.

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

I felt that fuck you. I felt it hard.

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

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

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

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?

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.