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?

I had a nightmare: on the Duggars, Christianity, and 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?”

“Yes.”

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.

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.

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?