Abuse, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

Strange Flowers.

November 11, 2014

TRIGGER WARNING This article or section, or pages it links to, contain information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.beauty-hunting-jen-logo-blackBy Karrie Higgins.

Six years to the day that my brother picked up his landline and said

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to a sixteen-year-old girl being coached by a cop, and five years after he swallowed morphine, methadone, diazepam, and gabapentin, slumped out of his loveseat, and froze face-to-floor in rigor mortis, he transmits a love song from outer space, implanting a coded message in a Beyoncé single. Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.

Everyone else hears a sampled audio clip of NASA public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt seconds after the Challenger disintegrated on January 28, 1986, but I am tuned into a secret sibling frequency.

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I love you like xo.

Ever since my brother died, I have dialed his disconnected telephone numbers, tracking where they terminate over time, hoping to cross his ghost voice in the wires. He is finally returning my call. We have a downlink.

Twenty-seven years ago, while everyone else was hopelessly gazing at debris raining down like shooting stars, I was hypnotized by those sibling booster rockets snapping apart: a DNA double-helix blown wide open, fragments of the orbiter like nucleotides spilling into dead space, never to recombine. Nobody sees what we see. It was exactly how my brother warned it would be if anyone found out about us.

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***

 

My brother was an expert at falling. He could leap from airplanes, count one thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, and yank the ripcord on his T10 parachute at the precise, 82nd Airborne Jump School-regulation second. He knew how to spare his groin during opening shock, when the parachute canopy blooms open, decelerates the fall, and jerks a jumper by the harness straps crisscrossed under his crotch. He squeezed his knees so tight he could grip a bullet between them.

He plummeted to Earth at a rate of twenty-three feet per second, but he never broke a bone. Jump School taught him the fine art of Parachute Landing Falls, distributing the blunt force trauma over five points of impact: balls of his feet, calf, outer thigh, hip or buttock, and latissimus dorsi. Strange to think that brutalizing more body parts means fewer injuries, but it is true.

He practiced from a two-foot platform.

He practiced from a four-foot platform.

He practiced from a cable trolley to simulate a moving plane.

He practiced from a 34-foot tower equipped with a simulation airplane door.

He practiced from a 250-foot tower.

He practiced from a real airplane in the daylight.

He practiced from a real airplane in the dark of night.

It’s not the fall but the landing that alters social standing, Airborne taught him, and my brother graduated top of his class.

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The same year he mastered the PLF, I fell through my mother’s cervix in non-regulation form: butt first, waist folded forward, ankles wrapped around my neck.

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“Breach,” my hospital chart says, and the misspelling is not wrong: my body was a breach of contract, left hip popped clean out of its socket from the brute force. That was my opening shock.

For my first eleven months, the doctor outfitted me with a Pavlik Harness, strapping my legs to spread my knees wide open, securing both femoral heads into their sockets.

My mother called it my parachute. “It looked just like one,” she told me when I asked why. “Instead of on your back, it was between your legs.”

 

***

 

“You know the flowers are a metaphor for your vagina,” the hypnotist says, nodding toward my elementary school story spread on the dining room table, where we chat before sessions.

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It’s exactly the kind of psychobabble I told him I did not want.

“I don’t want therapy,” I had said when I booked my first appointment. “I just want to remember my brother’s voice.” What I meant was, I wanted to remember his voice in a body. His words still come to me in memories and dreams but strangely disembodied, like whispers through an open vent or a puff of cigarette smoke.

Somewhere, in an evidence box in Poweshiek County, Iowa, police are hoarding a recording of his voice, but they won’t let me have it. When I filed a Freedom of Information Act request, all I got was the 40-page transcript.

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“You poisoned your own vagina,” the hypnotist says, pointing at the story. Thoughts are nuclei, he explains. They attract matter, like to like, until they grow a body, like Athena popping out of Zeus’s brain. “Fearing is the same thing as wishing.”

Now I understand why his fingers went limp when I attempted to slip my story into his hand. I wanted him to touch the pages, though, like a prosecution witness examining an exhibit on the stand. Last week, when he assigned me a master timeline, I thought he wanted hard evidence, like a rape kit. But I never had a rape kit, only a pair of bloody panties that my mother pulled out of her purse all sticky and balled up, unfolding them like a blooming flower to show a doctor.

“You have to stop talking about things like they happened to someone else,” the hypnotist said, “and start talking like they happened to you.”

That night, I arranged documents on the living room floor in a concentric spiral, like a galaxy, my brother’s obituary at dead center, the black hole holding the matter of my life together.

This is how big I was when my brother started thrusting his pelvis between my legs during wrestling matches:

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This is how big he was:

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I walked the galactic paper trail like a labyrinth, but the sequence felt wrong, even though I obeyed the strict chronology dictated by the documents. I didn’t remember my life in that order. I was not even sure things happened in that order, even though the documents said so.

Maybe the order people discover things is the order they really happen.

Discovery:

  1. legal devices designed to compel the adversary to disclose material facts.

Material:

  1. matter from which something is made; physical

Material fact:

  1. fact a reasonable person will see as essential to a case

My brother and I never had material facts because we never had a case. He only got caught when he did it again.

Not our case:

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“You have to get angry,” the hypnotist had said, but the timeline didn’t make me angry like he promised.

“There really were flowers,” I say.

1983: Backyard at the old house. Infertile soil gritty as sand. My father says he has to fight it to grow anything. A rake. A shovel. I stab at the flower patch like I am digging a grave. I do not know my father planted seeds already. I do not know the neighbor is spying, the one my father calls the n-word, not always behind his back.

My father corners me in the garage, gripping the shovel so tight that his knuckles glow as white as exposed bone. “He told me what you did.”

No, there weren’t flowers. Only potential flowers.

“I had cervical cancer.” I blurt, darting my eyes away from the hypnotist. “The doctor scraped out my cervix with an electrical wire loop. Smoke was billowing out of my vagina like a chimney. Have you ever smelled singed flesh?”

March 2003: I am 28 years old. Still childbearing age, my gynecologist keeps reminding me. “I have to remove a lot of tissue,” she warns. “After this, you will never be able to carry a baby to term.”

“Go ahead,” I dare her.

“Cervical cancer?” The hypnotist says. “You know that’s caused by a virus?” His intonation has changed, a hum at the end of every syllable like in the hypnosis room.

“Human papilloma virus.”

“Hysterectomy?”

“No.”

I do not tell him I hoped for a hysterectomy ever since the day I discovered I had a womb.

Fourth grade. The school nurse focuses a slide. A faceless pink cartoon woman stands in the center of a clock dial, head down, hands covering her naked crotch. “You are growing up,” a disembodied voice narrates under crackles of static, “and soon your body will experience changes that may be frightening.” The slide projector beeps. The woman uncovers her crotch, now hairy, and the nurse points out that her breasts have blossomed, too. I hate that word: blossomed.

The nurse hands out calendars to predict hypothetical periods for the imaginary woman, demonstrating how to plot 28-day cycles. She does not know I have already bled between my legs—not a period, though.

The boys were taken to a different classroom, and I wonder if they are learning to plot their days by their sex organs. I leave my calendar blank.

Not me, I think. I’ll get my uterus yanked out.

I poisoned my own vagina.

After my surgery, I ask to look at the cancer.

“It’s not a good idea,” the doctor says.

“I am not checking out of this hospital until I see that cancer.”

She retrieves a petri dish from the surgical tray and holds it up to my face like a cup of water. I peer over the rim at the glistening tissue, still reeking like hair on fire, vaguely electric. Good, clean margins, that’s our goal, she had said. We are always trying to give things bodies.

“Did you ever think your brother gave it to you?” The hypnotist’s voice snaps me out of the memory. “The HPV, I mean. Did you ever think your brother gave you cancer?”

***

Ancient Israelites had a saying: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Pierce an unripe grape skin with your eyetooth, and your babies will suffer the bitter bite—not with you, but instead of you. It was more than a proverb; it was spiritual usury. When mothers and fathers sinned, they passed down high-interest debts in YAHWEH’s cosmic accounting ledger. YAHWEH proved a relentless collection agent, extracting vengeance to the third or fourth generation.

Enter the prophet Ezekiel, proclaiming a sin jubilee. “As I live, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb,” said YAHWEH to Ezekiel, and Ezekiel to the people. “The wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”

But YAHWEH lied. Children’s teeth are set on edge. Our bodies carry the sins of our parents like microscopic marks of Cain, secret scarlet letters. Inside the nucleus of every cell, six feet of DNA is rolled as tight as a scroll in a phylactery, its code as indelible as scripture. Indelible, not inalterable: our bodies blot out genes with the black ink of methyl groups, CH3,, when environmental insults make adaptation necessary. Beatings, sexual abuse, malnutrition, pollution—the insults are endless. Methylation is the biological equivalent of crossing out a word; hence the term epigenetic, above the gene. Outside becomes inside; nurture becomes nature.

My brother’s tongue probed my tooth socket, and he left bite marks on my DNA. Just by snaking his fingers under the elastic of my panties, he altered my genetic code. He ejaculated inside me, and I started carrying another me inside me: he impregnated me with myself.

A DNA test would reveal our secret.

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He is my brother, but he is also my father.

Methylation can also be transmitted through the germ line. Germ line: like an infection. A mother gets exposed to dioxin, and her daughter buds breasts early. Grandparents starve, and the bodies of their descendants hoard calories, even when surrounded by fast-food joints and vending machines. Families even transmit the propensity to suicide, wiping themselves out through reproduction.

The only way to make God honest is to not beget children.

 

***

 

“Accutane?” The hypnotist says after he notices me smearing on lip balm for the hundredth time in one session, and I explain why my lips are cracked. I’m worried he will think it’s something catchy. “For acne, right?”

I nod. I hate talking about the acne. People always picture a pizza face. People always think you’re unclean. Or a junk food addict. Or too stubborn to try this or that vitamin. Or a pimple picker. I am none of those things, and I never had a pizza face.

“You know that’s caused by a hormone imbalance.”

Androgens. Male hormones.

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“Accutane will change the entire morphology of your skin,” the dermatologist promised.

I relished the thought of altering my morphology, my whole form and structure, picturing medicine molecules like little wrecking balls to my DNA. It sounded like a miracle.

Every day, I popped the pills out of bullet-shaped blister seals imprinted with this image:

 

It was the only time anyone said, “Don’t have a baby,” and “stop being a boy” at the same time.

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The hypnotist hands me a CD. “Listen as often as possible,” he says.

That night, I play the recording. A male voice reads “positive instructions to my inner intelligence”:

I correct any X and Y chromosome imbalances resulting from my attempts to honor a parental desire for a baby of the opposite sex.

“You would never know Karrie’s hips were broken,” my father used to say. “She could climb right over the tops of trees. She should have been a boy.”

My brother made my father’s wish come true. When he touched me, he did not just damage me; he passed his damage down. He made me his clone, like Eve:

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EPSON MFP image

Maybe the excess androgens, the male hormones, are his body rattling around inside mine.

 

 

***

 

For years, I starved my body trying to never become a woman. At least, that’s what pop psychologists say. Female sex abuse survivors turn anorexic to make themselves forever children, suppressing secondary sex characteristics: hips, breasts, pubic hair, periods.

I guzzled magnesium citrate. I swallowed laxative pills. I lived on one energy bar a day and exercised for hours. I got so bone thin that EMTs who strapped me on stretchers after seizures asked, “Are you feeding that body?” before they ever even asked about my epilepsy.

“You always feel so light,” a college boyfriend said, and I knew what he meant and drew power from it.

 

***

 

The hypnotist slides a paper across the table. Along the top, it reads, “Five Square Test.” It emanates a fresh-off-the-ditto-machine grape soda scent, like pop quizzes in elementary school.

I hate tests I can’t study for. When neurologists were trying to figure out if I was faking my epilepsy, they forced me to take depression tests, personality tests, tests, tests, tests.

 

Do you like science magazines? T or F

Your father was a good man. T or F

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EPSON MFP image

A few months later, I swallowed bottles full of Dilantin and Klonopin, and the psychologists never made me take a test again.

“What do you see?” The hypnotist points to a square with a circle inside it.

“The moon,” I say.

“What else?”

“A hole.”

He nods. “Keep going.”

“A garbage can drum.”

“Good,” he says, handing me a pen. “Now write on it however you wish.”

He wants something from me, I think, hesitating before I obliterate the circle like a bubble form with only one answer.

He gasps. “Do you ever feel completely empty inside?”

“Yes.”

***

Risk factors for cervical cancer:

✓If your mother or sister had it, your risk ticks up a magnitude of 2 to 3 times. My mother’s cervix, under the glare of a flashlight, would appear pockmarked

and scarred from multiple biopsies and excisions.

✓ If you first have sex at an early age.

I had sex for the first time at eight—or maybe not the first time, but the first I can corroborate. At that age, my cervix was still twice as large as my uterus, wide open and exposed, an easy target. Its zone of transformation, where columnar cells metamorphose into squamous cells, still sat on the outer surface, meaning the cells most vulnerable to viral transfection got doused in my brother’s semen.

✓ If you take birth control pills.

Thirteen: I popped my first birth control pill after a boy pinned me down on the hood of his car, yanked my panties down to my knees, and forced his penis past the hard lump of scar tissue where my hymen should have been. He bragged he had deflowered me because of the blood, but I knew he had not, and it felt like a super power: the masked forever virgin. I took a cab to Planned Parenthood with one-dollar bills from my Tootsie Roll penny bank and walked home with twelve plastic compacts of pills in a lunch bag. The boys could make me fuck them, but they were never going to make me a mother.

✓ If you smoke.

I smoked my first cigarette after the rape, even though my pills warned of blood clots and strokes.

✓ If you ever catch chlamydia.

Fifteen: a man in his thirties slipped me a note at a coffee house, and he took me out the next night. Later, my mother drove me to his house for sleepovers, sometimes even on school nights, and he tried and tried to fuck me, but he couldn’t penetrate my fortress of scar tissue, my secret super hymen. After he finally busted through, he lost interest and slept with a woman from work. A real woman, he called her. A real woman carrying chlamydia.

✓ If you don’t get regular PAP smears.

I haven’t had a PAP in a decade. When sketchy online pharmacies set up shop with free “consults,” I bought my pills there, proud to outsmart gynecologists with their quid-pro-quos: let them stick a speculum inside me or no pills. Fake drugs scared me less than another abnormal PAP. Not taking anything scared me more. I needed my ovaries shut down.

“You won’t need anesthetic,” the gynecologist had promised before my biopsy. “You won’t feel a thing.”

But I did feel it.

Feet in stirrups, knees wide open just like the Pavlik Harness, I watched her insert the forceps with its tiny jaws on the end like something from a serial killer’s tool chest, her face like a giant insect behind the colposcope binoculars.

I flashed hot. I flashed cold. I thought she was harvesting organs. I thought she was implanting a fetus. I flashed to my brother sticking a broom handle inside me. Vasovagal syncope, the reaction is called, a severe drop in blood pressure. The nurse had to pin me down.

And I never trusted a gynecologist again.

On Facebook, I have announced, “Ten years cancer free!” But I don’t know that.

The cancer got burned off, but the risk factors did not.

Did you ever think your brother gave you HPV? Maybe he did, but he didn’t give me cervical cancer. My body took the HPV and made it into cancer. I smoked cigarettes, swallowed hormones and mystery pills, slept with men twice my age who were sleeping with other women—but all those risk factors trace right back to sexual abuse, and in that sense, my brother fathered my cervical cancer whether he infected me with HPV or not.

 

***

And then, four months after he died, I moved to Salt Lake City, where high-pressure warm air slides over the mountaintops in wintertime, sealing cold air in the valley, trapping car exhaust and industry emissions like God is trying to smother us with a pillow.

✓ Exposure to traffic pollution

In 2011, Danish researchers found that high exposure to NOx from traffic exhaust = high rates of cervical cancer, even when accounting for tobacco and birth control pills. The cervix is a dumpsite for air pollution, pooling in its mucus like seminal fluid, conceiving material facts.

 

***

 

In the cosmology of Brigham Young, second Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, God did not grow Adam from soil. God was Adam, an alien from another galaxy, surviving the burn-up through Earth’s atmosphere because he had no body. Eating the apple transmuted him into flesh. Biologically, the Prophet got it right: trees transmute carbon dioxide into apples, and humans transmute apples into muscle and sinew. Air became DNA: that was our Fall, not knowledge.

Unlike Genesis, God did not sedate Adam to harvest a bone and clone him a sister-wife. Adam chose incest for himself. He brought Eve with him, sister-wife from his home planet. Conceived as spirit babies to heavenly parents in a galaxy far, far away, they plunged through a veil of forgetfulness, parachuted into baby bodies, grew up, and fell in love never knowing each other as spirit siblings. Sealed as husband and wife, they passed the tests of mortality on their home planet, and when they died, became gods. Their reward: populating planet Earth. This time, there was no veil; this time, they understood the consequences of getting bodies—and they ate the apple, anyway.

Modern-day Mormons preach Adam from dirt; Eve from bone, just like Genesis. In 1980, Apostle Bruce McConkie warned any temple-going Mormon “who yet believes the Adam-God theory does not deserve to be saved.”

I am not a believer. I already do not deserve to be saved. But I would convert to just Brigham Young’s version of Genesis if I could. In his cosmology, my brother and I are not strange. We are part of God’s plan.

***

 

“You’re not thinking of converting to LDS?” The hypnotist says, when I tell him I am translating the police transcript of my brother’s incriminating phone call into Deseret Alphabet. I know what he’s thinking: It’s strange for a non-Mormon to learn it. Developed by Utah Mormons in 1854, it died out by 1869, so even most Mormons don’t know it anymore. I love it because it’s phonetic, one letter for each English sound, a total of thirty-eight.

It’s an alphabet of testimony, of the witness stand, a descendent of phonography: “sound writing” in Greek, meaning every pen stroke gives body to voice.

In Deseret Alphabet, my brother’s and my first initials are almost identical, only one tiny curly cue different:

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G and K, Greg and Karrie.

G is what linguists call “voiced,” meaning the vocal folds come together; hence, the curly cue. K is “voiceless,” silenced like a methylated gene. It even looks methylated, the curly cue erased.

By now, the hypnotist has stopped hypnotizing me; I hand him $100 in cash every session, and he rants about the Mormons. I never did regain memory of my brother’s voice. I don’t know why I keep coming.

“No,” I tell the hypnotist. “I’m not thinking of converting.” But it’s a lie. Maybe I come because I want him to talk me out of it.

“Good,” he says. He leans forward, stabbing his finger on the tabletop. “Stay the hell away from the Mormons.”

 

***

 

The day Steve Nesbitt resurfaces on the radio, I am perched on an examination table at the asthma clinic turning blue from lack of oxygen. I never understood respiration as combustion, but now, every bone from my femurs to phalanges might as well be packed with snow. Every breath crushes my ribcage, like when my brother used to pin me down wrestling.

Outside, Bald Eagles are falling out of the sky, and nobody knows why. Deep down, everyone suspects the smog. The air is so thick it tastes metallic, like licking the oxidized filament calx of a light bulb. It feels like end times.

“Is it okay if I listen to your lungs?” The doctor says, but we both know the rule of the doctor game: he is not really asking permission.

He cues me to breathe, and I try to fake it so I sound normal. I want to pass the test so he won’t find out my secret: I am completely empty inside.

“I didn’t hear anything,” he says. “No wheezing. No air movement. Just dead space.”

Not empty, dead, like a ghost is haunting my lungs.

“We need a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia.”

At first, I say no. It can’t be an infection. It has to be the air. I want it to be the air.

Then I remember: Steve Nesbitt on the radio, birds falling like a hailstorm of bone, just like Ezekiel warned. It is six years to the day of my brother’s last x-ray, filmed in a minty dentist office in Iowa hours before the incriminating phone call. Soon, under Iowa law, the dentist can toss the film in a dumpster.

We don’t have forever.

There is a tiny, almond-shaped bone at the base of the skull called the LUZ, the indestructible seed from which God grows bodies at the resurrection, like perennial flowers. “Though you grind the LUZ in a hand mill,” Rabbi Joshua promised, “it is not pulverized.” But maybe Rabbi Joshua never witnessed the damage cremation wreaks. After my brother’s soft flesh vaporized inside the retort, his bones got dumped in a cremulator and ground down to four or five pounds of gravely powder. If I fingered his ashes, I would never find his seed, because it doesn’t exist anymore.

My x-ray can take its place. The film is part bone, made from gelatin, gooey proteins and peptides of collagen—not just a photo of bone, a clone. Even better: gelatin is depleted of methionine, precursor to methyl donor SAM-e, meaning this LUZ can never get methylated.

I look the doctor in the eye. “Where do I get the x-ray?”

“Good,” he says. “You have no idea how very sick you are.”

 

***

 

Childhood violence is so bad for the lungs that it constitutes its own form of pollution. One study in Environmental Health Perspectives even speculates that exposure to violence followed by NOX from automobile exhaust places lungs in “double jeopardy”: first, violence lowers the threshold for asthma; then, it worsens clinical outcomes.

Double jeopardy:

Being tried for the same crime twice.

My asthma is a material fact.

 

***

 

Now that I have asthma, I create my own NOX. Asthmatic lungs emit twice the nitric oxide of normal people. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory, the body’s defense against lung irritation, meaning the same substance that heals me also makes me sick—and maybe makes you sick.

 

***

 

When smoke billowed out of my vagina in that operating room, it sent up a wish for rain and snow.

In the 1950s, Japanese scientists S. Ogiwara and T. Okita examined cloud and fog nuclei under the electron microscope and discovered tiny blots of black carbon at the center of the crystals, not sea salt as anticipated. Black carbon is a combustion product, which means man manufactures his own precipitation.

“A question will arise,” they wrote: “If the combustion products are the most important nuclei, what was the most effective nucleus before man used fire?”

I picture the particulates of my cervix raining back down. Does my rain poison flowers or nurture them?

 

***

 

Bacteria and viruses nucleate snow, too. One bacterium, pseudomonas syringae, is so good at nucleating ice that ski resorts spew it through snow machines. Skiers have no idea the snow is an infection.

Biologist Brent Christner, with colleagues in Montana and France, examined flakes from snowfalls around the world. They treated the nuclei with lysozyme, an enzyme in human saliva, tears, and mucus that attacks bacterial cell walls as a first line of defense. Lysozyme killed the nuclei, meaning: the snowflakes were alive.

Stick out your tongue; catch a snowflake. Your spit destroys the nucleus, but maybe not every time. Maybe one time, the nucleus destroys you. Some scientists even theorize that bacteria exploit the water cycle to be fruitful and multiply. Wind gusts carry microbes aloft to the tippy top of the troposphere, where they float in purgatory until they attract bodies of water droplets and fall again.

When winds swept my cervix into the atmosphere, my HPV went with it. Combustion particulates combined with a virus: a super nucleator. Is it possible to catch HPV from a snowflake? Did I make someone else sick, just by trying to get better? Is healing a zero-sum game?

 

***

 

The day I swallowed whole bottles of Dilantin and Klonopin, paramedics pumped my stomach full of charcoal. Combustion particulates cleaned poison out of my body the same way rain cleans pollution out of the air.

But charcoal could not scrub clean the telltale genetic scars in my hippocampus. Maps of methylation marks in the brains of abuse survivors who committed suicide look like bubble forms with all the answers filled in.

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Source: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0002085

Control subjects with no abuse histories who died in sudden accidents, on the other hand: so many circles yet to fill in, so many choices.

How much of my suicide attempt was me, and how much was my brother, attempting to silence me from the inside?

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***

 

I light “The Strange Flowers” on fire and watch the combustion particulates billow into the air. I imagine wind sweeping them into the stratosphere, where they escape gravity and scatter in outer space, like my own private Panspermia, the ancient hypothesis that microbes piggyback on comet tails and cosmic dust as an intergalactic propagation strategy.

Maybe the pollen of my strange flowers stows away on a speck of the Challenger orbiter, floating through a cloud of my brother’s cremation dust, where our DNA recombines.

 

***

 

Normal people are so repulsed by sibling incest that it triggers their gag reflex. In the study, ‘You make me sick’: Moral dyspepsia as a reaction to third-party sibling incest, test subjects got sick reading stories of sibling incest the same way they did viewing photos of feces-smeared diapers.

I am not like normal people. When a college boyfriend confessed he could not bear the thought of his sister sleeping with her husband, I did not gag. I caressed his shoulder, kissed his neck, and said, “Pretend I’m your little sister.”

Later, a therapist explains it as re-enacting my abuse, but it didn’t feel like my abuse. It felt like a super power.

This is why study subjects refused to shake people’s hands if they knew they had sex with a sibling. Clear margins. That’s our goal.

 

***

 

All my friends’ new siblings arrived swaddled in blankets with binkies in their mouths. Mine parachuted into my family a full-grown man, musky, deep-voiced, hairy-chested, 5 o’ clock-shadowed and tattooed. Our timeline was out of joint and therefore suspect, a perversion, a secret. Ask my childhood friends about my big brother, and most will reply, “Karrie had a brother?”

I did not know he was a half-brother. Family never explained it to me then, but they always correct me now. Genetics as trial strategy: the less material fact our siblinghood is, the less significant the transgression.

But my family got the genetics all wrong: My “whole” family—my “real” family—are actually half.

Swab my father’s saliva, and our chromosomes will match 50%.

Swab my mother’s saliva: the same.

Swab my sister’s, and we are not a full match, but a partial one. Whole siblings are only half.

As for my brother—my half-brother—he and I are no more related than first cousins. Half-siblings, it turns out, are fourth-siblings, sharing roughly 25% of their genes. In Utah, cousins can marry, with one caveat: bride and groom must, at a minimum, be over 55 years old and never able to reproduce.

 

***

 

Too late. T-minus two days before Challenger: Super Bowl XX, the one with William Refrigerator Perry and the Super Bowl Shuffle. I am eleven days from eleven candles on my birthday cake, feeling all grown up on a solo sleepover at my big brother’s apartment on a school night.

In his bedroom during the halftime show:

His tongue probing the Bugs Bunny gap between my front teeth. Pabst Blue Ribbon, stale ashtray, Listerine, silver fillings. Is this what all boys taste like?

Now you lick my teeth.

Good.

Now here.

Spicy-sweet sting of cologne on my tongue, like the numb after atomic fireballs.

A little boy watching from the doorway. “Come here,” my brother says, and then the little boy is in bed with us, too.

“Touch him here,” my brother says, and I comply.

This is our illicit germ line transmission, our bootleg baby.

And my brother never touches me again.

 

 

***

Two weeks after XO hit the radio, Keith Cowing of NASA Watch bashes Beyoncé for exploiting Challenger in a song about “the trivial life event of a girl breaking up with her boyfriend.”

What would he say if I knew I watched Challenger clips on a loop, just to hear my brother’s voice?

Or if he knew I wanted to press XO into my chest x-ray and play it on a turntable—like a roentgenizdat, those Russian bootlegs of American rock records pressed into x-ray films upcycled from hospital dumpsters in the fifties. Ribs, they were called, clones from bone. Nesbitt would be my brother’s LUZ: Obviously a major malfunction.

But when the technician walked to me the x-ray room, and I asked how I could get the film, he said, “Oh, we don’t use films anymore. It’s all digital now.”

 

***

Hours after the x-ray, the asthma doctor delivers the diagnosis I have been hoping for: “No infection. Just too much air.”

He prescribes methylprednisolone to clear the inflammation so I can let go of trapped air. Methylated prednisolone, a synthetic steroid: male hormone pills dissolving on my tongue like snowflakes, making my lungs completely empty inside.

Fearing is the same thing as wishing.

 

***

 

Scientists are searching for a miracle medication to strip maladaptive methylation marks. They call it hope. They call it healing. They call it restoring potential.

They do not know what it is like to cross paths with a stranger in the peanut butter aisle and have my brain press play on my personal porno: tufts of curls on my brother’s chest and thighs, acrid taste of his sweat, finger screwing up inside me like a bullet in slow motion through the rifling of my vagina, while he whispers, “Shhhhhh.”

Psychiatrists call them intrusive thoughts.

Intrude: verb

enter with disruptive effect

But the images do not enter me; they are already inside me. My brain presses play, not the stranger in the grocery aisle, not the cologne, my brain.

And the personal porno is not the worst thing. The worst thing is that I feel it between my legs, too, at first an ache, like a tooth cutting the gums of my cervix, and then it feels good, sweet relief, and I want it so bad. I want my brother so bad.

Even if an elixir could cleave my methyl group-cytosine bonds, even if I could return to my Eden time, my original genes, the black marks resurrect every time I remember. I will methylate myself.

 

***

If I cannot press a roentgenizdat for my brother, I will make him another kind of record: his words written in bone.

I grind the carbon left behind by “The Strange Flowers” with bone black pigment, gum Arabic, and distilled water to make an ink.

image_23_Strange_Flowers_Burning_web

At the last minute, I add honey, because of Ezekiel:

Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe.

 

God commanded Ezekiel to eat the scroll, and he said the lamentations tasted “sweet as honey” in his mouth.

The blackness of bone black pigment belies its true nature: mostly tricalcium phosphate, a perfect laboratory medium for transfection, the deliberate infection of a cell with DNA to alter its sequence and sire a new cell line. I grate wisdom tooth dust into the rich black fluid and follow it with spit. My steel nib pierces the bone ink like an injection needle, infusing the DNA of my saliva and bone into my brother’s words as I translate the police phone call transcript into Deseret Alphabet.

I get stuck on this line, writing it over and over:

image_24Trying_to_Get_as_Honest_web

 

image_25_tryingtogetashonest_scroll_web

I roll it up like a phonograph cylinder and eat it, my teeth crushing the carbon skeleton like a cremulator.

Then, I write GKGKGKGKGKGKG, all the way down the parchment, let the ink harden, and eat it, too.

image_26_Deseret_Alphabet_Initials_scroll_web

It does not taste sweet as honey in my mouth.

You kill me boy XO

 

 

 

1

Karrie Higgins lives in Salt Lake City. Her writing has appeared in Black Clock, Quarter After Eight, Los Angeles Review, Western Humanities Review, Full Grown People, Mapping SLC, and DIAGRAM, from which her essay, “Partial Match,” is a notable essay for Best American Essays 2014. Her essay, “The Bottle City of God” won the 2013 Schiff Award for Prose from the Cincinnati Review. She is currently at work on “Superman is my Temple Recommend,” an environmental memoir/grimoire, in which she embraces getting sick from the SLC pollution, learns the art of forgery from Mark Hofmann, attempts to resurrect her brother from the dead, and gains her testimony in the waning days of the Mormon moment. You can find her at karriehiggins.com and @karriehiggins on Twitter or facebook.com/karrie.higgins.

 Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She leads retreats and workshops around the world. More info here.

 

 

A list of all upcoming workshops including: Seattle, London, Dallas, NYC, Atlanta, Princeton, Chicago, Philadelphia and more. Click poster.

A list of all upcoming workshops including: Seattle, London, Dallas, NYC, Atlanta, Princeton, Chicago, Philadelphia and more. Click poster.

 

Ring in New Years 2016 with Jen Pastiloff at her annual Ojai retreat. It's magic! It sells out quickly so book early. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. With a sense of humor. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com with questions or click photo to book.

Ring in New Years 2016 with Jen Pastiloff at her annual Ojai retreat. It’s magic! It sells out quickly so book early. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. With a sense of humor. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com with questions or click photo to book.

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34 Comments

  • Reply Antonia November 12, 2014 at 9:55 am

    The power of this piece, especially with all the images, is just breathtaking. Amazing, incredible, mind-blowing. So glad this work is out there.

  • Reply alexandra November 12, 2014 at 10:58 am

    I have never read anything like this before.

    Like writing to save your life, like being told you have one hour to live what do you want to leave here.

    Like the hardest work I have ever seen.

    She had me on my knees for her.

  • Reply Tena November 12, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Absolutely spell-binding! I couldn’t put it down. Beautiful.

  • Reply Alaina November 12, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    This was hard for me to read because

    I relate, but I am so glad that I read this. Thank you, Karrie. I agree with Alexandra. You take your readers on a journey, and I want to cry, so deeply and for many reasons. This is the hardest work I have ever seen too.

    “Maybe the order people discover things is the order they really happen.” I have been trying to put everything that happened to me that’s knotted together in this mess of pain and plays like you describe in the peanut butter aisle—while I’m numb to actual emotions and walking like I’m not really with me and don’t care, when I do care, about life and people and so many better things— into chronological order as you describe.

    What you said about order is so much more real; that discovery is the chronology, there’s nothing I need to find or fix about me. I already know what needs to be told.

    No case here, have to get angry also. 6-hour report listing felony after felony but he’s free and I’m essentially giving myself the death penalty with anorexia. There is not enough tangible evidence left behind by him but enough burned into my mind through memories so real, more vivid than normal memories.

    Your writing is power and it inspires me to find my voice.

    I am sorry, though I know words aren’t enough. I send the best energy that I can and receive strength from your voice.

  • Reply Jowita November 12, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    Mind blown.

  • Reply Melanie November 12, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    Wow wow mind blown is right incredible

  • Reply Karrie Higgins November 13, 2014 at 7:09 am

    Thank you, all, for the support and comments. It means so much. xo

  • Reply Alan November 13, 2014 at 8:20 am

    Coco, as Karrie’s husband who has been along her on this journey of discovery, I assure you, the tooth extraction did take three hours. I read every magazine in the little office. It was a country dentist who would take an out of pocket payment that day at low cost because we didn’t have the money at the time to go to an oral surgeon. The dentist used only local anesthetic, and she was a quirky character. When they came out of the back room she was still talking about the little “Elephant Tooth.” The dentist’s husband was an eye doctor who shared the waiting room and used the next office. He kept coming over to see how the procedure was going. It was rather a unique experience.
    Regarding magical realism, the kind of depersonalization that occurs for victims often results in transferring memories into feelings, ideas, political positions, and/or religion. As another victim of child sex abuse I understand how her process works. A core component of this essay and her body of work is the difference between the mental experience and processing of an event, including the elements of depersonalization which can seem magical, and the material facts of the case, including court documents, other’s recollections and correlations in time between events you depersonalized during and events that you did not. The doubt that can be created in the mind of the victim, not just by people who tell you your experience wasn’t your experience, but also by disparities in your recollection and validated documents such as police transcripts from an open investigation, is powerful enough to silence most victims. Karrie is not silent, and she is not silent in a manner that is beautiful and amazing.

  • Reply Shanna November 13, 2014 at 9:29 am

    “Coco,” of course you are entitled to your feelings, but perhaps a public forum (where you’re appearing anonymously, by the way) isn’t the best place to tell an author what she “should” be doing, e.g. writing fiction. Shoulds are kind of meaningless bullshit. What purpose does your comment serve? She “should” be doing whatever the fuck she wants. The fact that her wonderfully creative work doesn’t meet your criteria for memoir is, well: a. antiquated; b. extremely subjective; and, c. although your words are eloquent and couched in disclaimers, just straight up rude.

    This is her truth, beautifully, creatively rendered, and frequently questioned by the author herself on the page. It’s memoir. It’s not journalism.

    Also, subtly bringing into question the validity of her abuse. Ugggh, no, “Coco.” Just fucking don’t. Truth (and memoir writing/essay writing) is fickle and subjective. It’s the writer’s job to bring her truth to the page, but the method in which she does that (and in this particular case, by tracking down the ephemera of her youth and holding it to the light to compare against her memories) is–in my opinion–a powerful and exceptionally TRUE way to tell a story. Saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that while you believe abuse exists in the world, there’s only, perhaps, a kernel of truth to this story is just … well, I’m no psychiatrist, but I’m guessing there’s something about the subject matter that’s pushing you to react so negatively and harshly. I honestly don’t understand how you could read that piece and then say this in good conscience: “I am not denying abyss [Freudian sic] happens including terrible abuse but this writer’s work reads more to me like a work of imagination…” It’s offensive. It’s demeaning.

    I don’t know if you’re a regular on this site, but if you haven’t had a chance to check out Jen Pastiloff’s great video series called “Don’t be an asshole,” I highly recommend it.

    HIGHLY.

  • Reply Amy Roost November 13, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. You give voice to so many of my own feelings about my brother who abused me and that I still carry with me at age 52. Your writing is brilliant.

  • Reply Alaina November 13, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    Just to add another of my “I relates,” I am a completely corroborated abuse survivor, and so much of what Karrie says I relate to. Pedophiles do groom, do confuse victims, and the worst ones know how to make a victim question his or her own validity. For example, subtle threats that you really don’t want to believe, that are bizarre in nature and seemingly out of nowhere. I just now found evidence of the grooming, and I never realized just how manipulative and planned it was as a child. Only now looking back, could I reassess my own story and see that although in my memory, I said I loved him like a father so I said I loved him so I somehow caused it, he drew that very sentence out of me by saying he thought of me like the daughter he never had. Same story, but very different from that traumatized little girl’s point of view vs. my adult grown woman with mother instincts of my own now (I’m in my 20s) perspective. What happened doesn’t change but the story we told ourselves changes. And that is in overcoming, that is triumphant.

  • Reply treva draper-imler November 14, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    Dear Karrie,

    I read this piece first last night, then again today. I wasn’t for sure that I had grasp it all. Your words were to be respected, so now I have finished the second read. I feel like I cant breathe, truly. Where ever your soul goes to for peace, I pray it is bountiful. You are fierce.

    most humbly
    your reader,
    Treva Draper-imler

  • Reply Mel November 15, 2014 at 3:56 am

    In my opinion, the writer shouldn’t have to justify what is “truth” and what is fiction. It is, after all, her account of the truth, whatever that may be to her. And frankly, it’s nobody else’s business.

    Anyway, lovely work.

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