Good readers make good writers: Review of Wendy C. Ortiz’ “Excavation: A Memoir”
Last month, I reviewed Cheryl Strayed’s incredible memoir Wild. Since then, I’ve also devoured a memoir called The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch, and was so moved and astounded by it that I literally can’t think of how to discuss it yet. I’m still in the press-it-into-friends’-hands phase of my engagement with that book (as such, my copy is not currently in my possession). I can’t do it justice through analysis or even reflection yet. You must read it.
I did, however, also squeeze in some time with another must-read: Wendy Ortiz’ memoir Excavation. This book had more of a straightforward narrative that made for faster reading, and while Yuknavitch made a lot of leaps and bounds to various tropes in her personal journey, Ortiz stuck to one issue: her adolescent sexual relationship with a teacher.
One of the issues in writing that I’m presently obsessing over is un-silencing. In my Writing through Trauma to Truth course here through the Center, my students and I focus on “saying the unsayable,” making coherent and narrative “sense” of various traumas we’ve endured. There is power in saying something that you are afraid to say, or which someone else has made you promise not to say, ever.
This is the power Wendy Ortiz harnesses in her memoir.
Over and over, her teacher, Jeff Ivers, makes her promise not to write in her journal about their…can it be called an affair? An affair implies consent, and can a 13-year-old give consent to a man her senior by a decade and a half? Anyway. “Mr. Ivers” uses Wendy’s gift and proclivity for writing to get close to her, then twists her pubescent anger about her negligent alcoholic parents into a connection he exploits for his sexual gain. Over and over, he implores her to keep their secret. Over and over, she promises, then dashes home to tell her journal everything.
I, for one, am so very, very glad she did.
Besides un-silencing, what Ortiz has done in Excavation is to create a very vivid recollection of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Her pop cultural references, elaborate descriptions of clothing and parties, of hitchhiking and making one’s childhood bedroom a safe haven with a distinct soundtrack (Depeche Mode, Pink Floyd) and scent (marijuana and incense), show us a landscape in which such deviance could occur. I sympathize with Ortiz’ desire for connection, her fierce intelligence and creativity, and her adolescent solitude; she is a victim of male opportunism. Rather than being a cautionary tale for young girls, however, Ortiz has written a coming-of-age story in which a young girl finally recognizes she is being exploited and abused, and, heroically, chooses to leave.
One thing among many that I love about this book is how Ortiz speaks in her adolescent voice. There are passages where the adult Wendy is reflecting, but the bulk of the book is written by 13-, or 14-, or 15-year-old Wendy. I’m glad for that because we don’t often hear from adolescent girls, and because telling us about her obsessive attempts to look “sexy” and “adult” enough for this man ring more authentic—in placing us right there alongside her young self, Ortiz doesn’t give us the luxury of distance from this dire situation. I felt keenly uncomfortable, on edge, and disgusted by the villain Mr. Ivers was becoming before my eyes. The language he used to express discontent with her becomes cutting—verbal abuse in all its subtle, often unprovable nuances. By speaking as her childhood self, referencing her volumes of diary documentation, readers might be less likely to question Ortiz’ memory (worse things have happened when women publish memoirs about abuse or illicit relationships).
Ortiz’ memoir teaches us to be suspect of anyone who makes us promise not to write something down—especially if that person knows he’s talking to a writer. It also teaches us that adolescent females are stronger and more self-sufficient than we, as a society, often give them credit for. I loved the pace and flow of this book as much as its defiant un-silencing.
Have you or will you read Excavation?