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.

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?