Myriam Gurba’s memoir Mean opens with the chase-torture-rape-death of Sophia Torres, a young woman described by some media as “transient.” Gurba and Torres are linked by more than a shared culture: Torres was raped by the same man, but lived to experience the PTSD.
In between Torres’ death and the rewind to Gurba’s attack is a coming-of-age in Southern California in the 1980s that sticks to two specific topics: race, sexuality.
Gurba is part Mexican and part Polish — a self-described Molack. In the early chapters — which are short, dark-humored, sometimes poetic, she considers the racial reactions of her peers. A neighbor makes a “Mexican” casserole when she stays overnight; One of her first teacher’s assumes she can’t speak English; The girls in her elementary school call her a “wetback,” but during the classroom come-to-Jesus, it is Gurba who must apologize for making the white girls cry.
Gurba grows up near Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, and one section features a Jackson character hanging at the local arcade. This sets the tone for the sexual assaults happening in this time and place. It’s not just the stranger who attacks in the park on her way home from volunteer work, there is also the classmate with his fingers in her pants during History class and the neighbor who has abused young boys in the neighborhood.
Gurba’s story is dark and her voice is dry, maybe a necessity when considering the racial absurdities, the sexual assaults, the survivor’s guilt. Her words are gorgeous. Concise, but fully formed images. She’s interesting, and she plots an occasionally well-timed time-out, a character revelation. Entire chapters are a single sentence: How she spent her summer trying not to strangle Christians or the four college courses she’s taking that semester, in the collegiate course-catalogue shorthand.
In the chapter titled “Something I Often Reflect On as An Adult Woman,” she writes: “I still have unserved detentions.”