In Myriam Gurba’s latest essay collection Creep, the Mexican American author interrogates both those who deceive, exploit, and oppress others as well as the culture that enables them. “People who hurt other people can be charming,” Gurba notes in the title essay. “It works in their favor.”
In Creep, Gurba moves beyond the memoir she became known for with 2017’s critically acclaimed Mean “to writing family history, and in some senses also genealogy. I’m locating myself within literary genealogies and also pedagogical genealogies related to education,” she tells me. Creep’s eleven essays address, among other topics, femicide, the criminalization of survivors of sexual violence, the racial grammar of Joan Didion, and racism in public education. Speaking out against such bigotry led to Gurba, a former high school psychology instructor, exiting the profession a few years back. Gurba was passionate about her former career, but acknowledges that now “exiled from that world, it’s incredibly difficult to talk about it, because that wound is so profound.”
I spoke to Gurba about the importance of bearing witness, her activism, and tracing how an abusive relationship unfolds.
Deirdre Sugiuchi: When you were forced out of the classroom, I was following your Twitter thread. I’m sorry to say this, but as a former educator, it was helpful for me.
Myriam Gurba: No, I get it. I would receive messages from teachers or former teachers who had been in similar situations. There’s a measure of comfort that comes through the validation. This is not a unique experience. This is an experience that is shared by many of us who choose not to conform to the bullshit policies that we are expected to happily obey, not just obey, but with a smile. They want to protect the institution, and they think that the best way to protect the institution is to make its reputation unassailable.
So often when I talk to adults about this, especially parents, they want to believe that the problem that I’m describing is unique to the district that I worked in, and I’m like, “No, this is standard across the United States. I’m talking about a problem that exists in the school district where your children go to school.” This is not unique to me, but people really, really want to reject that truth.
DS: The thing I love about your writing and your activism is you’re saying things that people, particularly women, are conditioned out of saying, but does it ever wear you out to have to be a disruptor?
MG: Does it ever wear me out? Absolutely. Engaging in that kind of behavior and doing that sort of work is very tiresome, especially when that work is being done alone. One of the regrets that I do have about functioning as a whistleblower is that in some situations, I wish that I had chosen to work collectively with others because if you’re just an individual woman functioning as a whistleblower, it’s easy for you to be vilified. It can be tiring, but doing that sort of work is also something that I remain passionate about. The energy ebbs and flows.
DS: Your essay, “Itchy,” which addresses racism in public education, begins with an anecdote about your father, who was an educator and later an administrator. Your mom was also an educator. Can you discuss how your parents inspired you to be an activist?
MG: My father and mother both worked as bilingual school teachers in California, and then my father became an administrator. One of his administrative tasks was the management of a bilingual education program in the Santa Maria Valley. He also had a federal position as the director of the migrant education program. Some of my father’s work involved organizing parents of migrant school children. Through the example that he set, I came to understand my role as a teacher, as one that also doubled as an activist and an organizer. I also understood that my role as a teacher in California also required me to engage in anti-racism.
My father also often acted as my protector, as did my mother. When I would encounter bigotry in the classroom, I was very fortunate to have two parents who were both teachers who were both anti-racist who could advocate on my behalf. As an adult, I felt that it was my duty to pay that forward with my own students.
DS: In “Locas,” you write about your cousin, who, you write, is “one of many Latinas who lost more than a decade of her life to prison thanks to the War on Drugs.” Can you discuss the impact the War on Drugs had on your cousin?
MG: My cousin is a survivor of sexual violence. She’s an incest survivor, and that perpetration began when she was six years old. It carried on for a very long time, and it was very violent. When she turned to adult family members for help, she was met with denial that substantiated what her abuser told her, “You’re never going to be believed.”
What my cousin most longed for was safety. She found safety in a few places, and when she did locate safety, it existed through relationships. She also experienced what she believed to be safety through the numbing provided by drug use, and so she began to self-medicate. That continued for a very, very long time. The criminalization that she experienced was a result of that attempt to numb the pain and also the rage that she felt. When she was inside many of those jails and prisons, she was given more reasons to self-medicate, because, as she explained to me, she moved from one abuser to another. So while the abuse initially began in the context of the domestic sphere because it was perpetrated by family, the next abuser became the jailhouse, then the next abuser became the prison, because she faced sexual assault there too, and sexual coercion, so that criminalization is largely tied to drug use.
DS: You’re haunted by Sophia Castro Torres, the woman who was murdered by the same man who assaulted you. You had to access police reports to even learn about the facts of her life. Can you discuss the importance of bearing tribute to Sophia through your work?
MG: I felt compelled to write about Sophia so that she will not be forgotten. Since learning about her death, I have been haunted by her presence. In her case, I wanted to restore some dignity that the perpetrator Tommy Martinez worked very hard to destroy, but that had also been tarnished by certain reporters in the way that they had characterized and also mischaracterized her. I think about Sofia’s death as a death that one person is not responsible for. There are many institutions that also bear some of the responsibility for her premature death. For example, all of the women who Martinez attacked survived except for Sophia, and the difference between her and the rest of us is that she was homeless, and we’re not. Had there been accessible public housing in the community where I grew up, that could have prevented her murder. She wouldn’t have been walking in a park after midnight, or it’s a lot less likely that she would have had that experience. I wanted to restore some dignity to her and at the same time I did describe what I imagined her death to be in this very graphic way because I wanted people to understand the brutality. I have been critiqued for the graphic description that I give of her death in Mean, but I wanted people to really understand how brutal it was. Those details and that sense of haunting has lessened over the passage of time, but I still have a sense of her being with me. I imagine that she’s going to be somebody who I return to over and over again because I’m incredibly committed to keeping her memory alive.
DS: In the title essay, you write about intimate partner violence. You were trapped in a relationship with a man who assaulted you. In the essay, you recount how people ask, “How does something like that happen to someone like you?”
MG: It’s just such a bizarre question. I very much do get the sense when I’m asked that question that the person who’s asking it is drawing a very firm line between me versus them, that’s the insinuation I hear, that there must be some character flaw that is drawing the abuser to me, and that is serving as some sort of obstacle that is preventing me from being able to resist these battles.
What I find so strange about that question is that battering is the most pervasive form of gender-based violence that exists on planet Earth, and gender-based violence happens because of misogyny. I’m a female person. That aspect of my existence is not something that is turned on and off. It doesn’t matter what kind of female person I am. Whether or not I’m a perky, combative female person or this acquiescent, obedient female person, perpetrators have all sorts of different tastes. Some perpetrators might be attracted to somebody who they perceive as being easier to dominate. Then you also have perpetrators who envision themselves as these sportsmen who want that big fish and seek out what they perceive to be a woman who’s more difficult to tame because she presents a challenge. I’ve actually heard abusive men talk that way.
DS: Yes. I feel as a society we’re constantly pretending that gender-based violence is not happening.
MG: The more vulnerabilities that are heaped onto a woman’s shoulders, the more likely she’s going to be targeted for this type of mistreatment. You’ve got intersectional oppression and you’ve got intersectional domination. In my case, I’m this person who is female. I’m queer. I’m the daughter of an immigrant. I have Mexican heritage. I’m also a person of Indigenous ancestry. I have a slew of phenomena that create vulnerability, and that make me this prime target. I think that part of the insinuation—how could this happen to somebody like you?— is also motivated by a misinterpretation of the way that queerness functions in battering relationships. There are a lot of folks that imagine that queerness or feminine toughness insulates a person from battering, when in reality, it makes the person more vulnerable. Queer people are more vulnerable to all sorts of violence. When it comes to LGBTQ folks, bisexual women report a lifetime prevalence of stalking, rape, and battering at rates of 61%. For bisexual women, it’s not a matter of if you are going to be stalked, if you’re going to be raped, or if you’re going to be beaten by an intimate partner, it’s just a matter of when that’s going to happen. That’s the case in certain targeted communities. This is again, something that goes undiscussed, that there are targeted communities.
DS: Can you just discuss the importance of art for bearing witness and the ways it can empower not just the writer but the reader?
MG: I wrote the title essay, because seeing my experience reflected on the page gave me veritable permission to name what was happening to me as intimate partner violence, as coercive control. It was almost like I had to see it mirrored. Once I did that, it set into motion my escape. What I’m attempting to do through the title essay is to offer other survivors an account of captivity from start to finish. I wanted to trace how such a relationship unfolds, what sociological factors are marshaled in order for the entrapment to occur. I really wanted to give explicit and nearly granular descriptions of the violence, because I want to help in any way that I can to set other victims free. Sometimes we need other victims to hold the mirror so that we can see ourselves reflected and we can see our predicament accurately reflected.
When I was reading that forensic literature (on intimate partner violence) when I was trapped in that battering relationship, some of that literature made me doubt whether or not I was experiencing violence, but it was the literature that was very graphic that underscored for me and validated that I was experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV). I do think some representations of IPV become very euphemistic. I also think that the pendulum has sort of swung in the direction of emphasizing the sort of psychological abuse and psychological terrorism that is endemic to all battering relationships. But I think that that psychological violence then eclipses the very injurious bodily violence that so many of us are subjected to.
Again, when we compare and contrast various groups of survivors, our experiences with physical and sexual violence are very different. Heterosexual women report IPV at rates of 35%, lesbian women at 44%, and then bisexual women at 61%. When bisexual women report IPV, we tend to report extreme violence. I was experiencing extreme violence but not finding records of that in the literature. It’s ironic that it was the extreme violence that I was experiencing that made me wonder whether or not I was actually experiencing intimate partner violence. Because so frequently, there was an emphasis on psychological aggression, but my abuser also broke my tooth. I’m not reading about women having their heads pounded against tables and I’m having my head pounded on the table. I do think that, unfortunately, I had to see myself reflected in women who were experiencing similar injury to be able to name my plight, so I’m attempting to give that reflection to whoever needs it.