Guilt is a ghost,” Myriam Gurba reflects, more than once, in her memoir, Mean. It’s a refrain, a call to exposure, a statement that works from either side. Mean, after all, is a book of ghosts, including, on some level, Gurba’s own. It is also a book of guilt, of responsibility: a reckoning, or a set of reckonings. What makes this so good? There are many answers, beginning with Gurba’s radical and necessary empathy. She is a survivor of sexual assault, attacked in her hometown of Santa Maria, California, the summer after her freshman year at UC Berkeley. And yet, if this makes Mean a true-crime narrative of sorts, Gurba has deeper concerns. Her focus is less the incident per se and more all the ways it insinuates itself, how trauma and sexual violence are everywhere. “Rape is in the air,” she writes. “Rape is in the sky.”
Gurba makes this explicit from the opening section of Mean, which details, in language by turns poetic and visceral, a rape and murder by the same man who assaulted her. The victim is an itinerant worker named Sophia Torres, identified in the news as “a transient in Oakley Park.” Such a description, Gurba tells us, “is cruel. It reduces her to transience, as if she personified it, and it ignores her name.” It makes of Sophia, in other words, someone who does not matter, an absence, her life available to us only in fragments, to the extent that it is available at all.
“I’m unqualified to tell the story of Sophia Torres,” Gurba writes, “but since she’s dead, so is she.” What she’s getting at is reclamation, but also something more. On the one hand, there is the need to speak for those who can speak no longer. On the other, there is the need to speak for oneself. In Mean, Gurba moves back and forth between these complementary impulses, returning more than once to the story of Sophia, even as she tells her own. “Some ghosts,” she writes, “listen to the radio through the bodies of the living. They use us to conduct pain, pleasure, music, and meaning. They burden us with feelings that are both ours and theirs.”•