Mean by Myriam Gurba is a book I was scared to read. After reading it, I realized my fear must have stemmed from the ghosts of my 5-year-old and 8-year-old self. But as I stare at my notes and push myself to type this out, I am riddled with anxiety about sharing those ghosts. Honestly, I would rather play it safe and write a regular old review that says, “Yes, this memoir is great, and you should read it!” And if you’ve read the immense praise for this book, you already know it’s worth reading because it’s a superbly written true crime memoir and ghost story. To sum up this book’s literary greatness, I think the best way is to use Robert Frost’s quote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” The reason I’m referring to this Frost quote is because professors used it as writing advice in many of the creative writing classes I have been in. With that said, I have learned this quote to be “an axiom among writers… Meaning that we put our heart and soul onto each page, choosing words specifically to elicit a specific response in the reader” (Simple Thoughts…). Thus, if professors use Frost’s quote as advice, then it is a fantastic method to judge a writer’s work. As a result, I must give Mean a five-tear out of five-tear score.
From the start, she made me cry, feeling vulnerable to memories I didn’t want to revisit. It was such an impactful read; I had to take breaks and ponder if I wanted to continue reading. So if the subject matter of this book sounds as though it may trigger you, then you should know it will trigger you. Her writing shows trauma she cannot bear herself to tell, and those showings will put you back in that traumatized headspace because your mind will fill in the blanks. Therefore, to write a vanilla review, one that says, “This piece of nonfiction is amazing! It’s a must-read!” is too simple because it’s more than a great book and page-turning memoir, it’s her soul giving all of our damaged souls a hug and letting us know we aren’t alone.
The First Teardrop Came From Wisdom
The impact of her story did not take long to affect my emotions. From the first chapter, “Wisdom,” she had me realizing all the guilt I still carry for not being able to save my own mother. As Ms. Gurba taught me, I will not be sharing details because those are between me, my mother, and the perpetrator. However, the weight is infinitely heavy and I have yet to go over the trauma with anyone. Another man also traumatized my mother when I was 8. Thankfully, I have no visuals in my own mind, other than my mother becoming silent for many years afterward. I just remember coming home to my uncle’s house and finding my mother speaking with a police officer. And then, months later, she became one of the women who testified to lock him up, bringing a serial rapist to justice. The strength needed to accomplish that was something I can never fully understand other than it took a herculean amount of mental toughness.
Even though I was battling uncomfortable memories while trying to keep tears from blurring my vision, Ms. Gurba slugged my brain on the bottom of page 3 when I read, “Some ghosts 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.” This quote made me realize why, in my 30s, I drove to the house where my 5-year-old eyes witnessed it all. It was the strangest thing because I randomly started working nearby, and continuously felt the need to drive over there. It was as if my 5-year-old ghost was pulling my hand to take me back there, murmuring, “I’m still here.” But when I drove over there in silence and stared at the parking spot and the front door beside it, I felt shock and couldn’t think, until, finally, I drove away feeling empty.
On page 2, Myriam creates the metaphor of smeared blood being “dark Rorschachs on various surfaces.” Prior to reading “Rorschachs” in her book, I had never heard the word. So when I learned it was referring to the Rorschach Inkblot Test, I read the section again. This time, the inkblot-test effect had me seeing my mother on those two days and wishing I could have done something, instead of being frozen by confusion and fear. At this moment I wanted to quit reading, but then I convinced myself that this book will help me come to terms with my guilt, possibly teaching me how to let a 5-year-old rest. Regardless, I teared up and took a break. To be honest, this thought affected me for hours. I couldn’t even make my meal, instead I paced around my house letting myself cry until I put on Pardon the Interruption and relaxed.
This Tear Fell for Señorita
Once I made it to the chapter called “Señorita,” my eyes read the bottom of page 24 to the end of the section on page 25; Myriam’s words took me back to feeling like that 5-year-old, but I had to let Gurba show what was happening to her while realizing I can’t do anything except be a witness. This section also made me wish I had no tears to connect with the author. By pages 30 to 31, Ms. Gurba shows how a teacher could’ve protected her from further traumatization, but he did nothing, leaving her with only meanness to fall back on. I had to take a break from reading at this point due to my anger toward the teacher’s cowardice.
The Third Droplet Broke Up the Cuban Interlude
However, as I read the next chapter, “Cuban Interlude,” the words took ownership of her trauma in “Señorita.” The strength it took to understand and come to terms with that moment in her life is a master class in emotional intelligence because “making peace with your trauma, the details that surround it, and believing that you have the power and responsibility to heal and move past it is essential to your growth” (Center of Shared Insight). And on page 33, the author shows 5-year-old me it’s part of life and you can’t save everyone since it is constantly happening. It’s like she calmed my childhood guilt by whispering in my ear, “Somewhere on this planet, a man is touching a woman to death. Somewhere on this planet, a man is about to touch a woman to death” (33).
Via Dolorosa Released the Next Tear
After that my eyes were dry for several chapters, but then I read “Via Dolorosa.” It was the section on pages 54 to 55 that showed me the way trauma haunts the past that wasn’t ever a part of it; how trauma dominates, turning everything into something that takes you back to the emotional shock because when it affects you, it infects every part of your past, future, and present.
A Fifth One Rolled After Reading Hella Ukiyo-e
The following chapters 15 through 30 were page-turning at its best. The prose just kept me reading without tears until, boom, I read the chapter called “Hella Ukiyo-e.” Specifically, the sections at the bottom of page 108 and at the top of page 109, they caused the “boom” effect. It was this part of the book that made me comfortable sharing my tears because I always felt like someone would ask for details and I wanted to keep those to myself. Like Gurba writes, “A possessive part of me wants to hoard this story. I want to chipmunk or squirrel away the memory of this event… [because] when a man asks, ‘What did he do to you?’ he’s asking to eat one of these traumatic acorns. Girls never ask for these seeds… They don’t need the details of my particular shame to construct empathy.” Reading this, it made me feel as if my experience at 5 years old feminized me toward this type of information because whenever I’ve met women who have gone through trauma similar to Ms. Gurba or my mother, I never need to know the details.
This is why when I read the following section on page 109, I felt her explanation of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in relation to her trauma and resulting meanness, and how there is another level she isn’t mean enough to reach. It was also at this point that I could feel this section was a foreshadow to her rape; it scared me since I don’t want to experience the tears for not being able to help my mother because I know Myriam’s expert ability to show through her prose will pull me back into that moment as a 5-year-old who did nothing. In addition, the author’s aura resembles my mother’s when she was younger, and this was messing with my mind.
The Omnipresence of Tears
In the following chapter, “Omnipresence,” the author uses “rape” in repetition to show how it is everywhere, like God. It made me remember how my mother changed forever after her trauma. The strength it took for my mother to testify against her rapist and the strength it took the author to write this memoir is something beyond immense.
Seven Water Where the Strawberry Picker Worked
So by the next chapter, “Strawberry Picker,” I was raw with emotion. It was at this time that I learned about Sophia Torres, and it pushed me back into that 5-year-old headspace because she was just two years younger than my mother and they share a similar background. The way Myriam Gurba shows the emotions behind this chapter made me feel helpless for my mother. It also made me scared to continue reading because I don’t want this to happen to the author either. Her aura’s resemblance to my mother’s made it difficult to continue. Consequently, I almost scrapped the whole idea of exposing how my tears connected with Mean to write a different review that simply and quickly states how outstanding the memoir is without any personal examples.
This Is Where They Surround an Exquisite Corpse
Then, as I turned the page, the next chapter, “Exquisite Corpse,” had a poem shaped like a human body. At the top of the poem, the “5’ 2”” personalized it because my mother is 5’ 1”. The quick paragraph on page 114 helped me understand witnessing my mother’s assault cut my life into bits and pieces; it also taught me that my mother’s life was cut into many more pieces, shards reflecting scenes she cannot escape. But this “found poem” slowed me down because I had to figure it out. It was this process that made me fully understand the immense effect these types of experiences had on the author and my mother because the poem itself feels as though it’s being told in bits and pieces, making me realize those bits and pieces will never be entirely figured out.
Siluetas Outlined By Buckets of Tears
Ms. Gurba’s repetition of “Guilt is a ghost” created the tear connection with the next chapter, “Siluetas.” This repetition taught me the guilt I carry haunts me because I’ve felt guilty since I was 5 for doing nothing, and the second time I wasn’t there at all. I feel guilty for not wanting to know what actually happened the second time; I guess, I just wish it never happened and would rather believe the story I told myself at 8. Then, on pages 116 to 117, the author shares the rapist’s poem. It’s so crazy I had to read it again after learning who wrote it, but it was creepy, bizarre, and disgusting even before I knew who had written it. Thankfully, the author used brackets in the poem to deny him the effect of using names, but it also feels as if the female name could’ve been Sophia. Then again, the author states it was written for his girlfriend, making me hope that was the case.
I Wandered Lonely as a Dissociated Cloud Sharing Droplets Everywhere
After reading the previous chapter, I sensed the author’s trauma would be shown soon. As a result, I avoided reading the next chapter, “I Wandered Lonely as a Dissociated Cloud,” for some time. This chapter is full of tears, and we should approach this with blurry vision. I even stopped writing this review at this point.
When I returned, I realized these tears were meant to be shared by the author, and that’s it.
Jeans Soaked By Hims
Even though I wanted the tears to stop, the chapter, “Jeans,” taught me to have compassion for my mother when remembering my childhood moments of hearing her call me him. The author helped me understand my mother had been through hell because of men; hence, she may have seen him everywhere, too. The unfortunate fact that I was a male may have been why she always told me I remind her of him. I never questioned who she was referring to. Instead, I just filled in the blank and thought she was referring to my father. But after reading this true crime memoir, I realized my mother may have been referring to multiple hims: the two men who violated her, and my father who abandoned her. Realizing this, I understand the difficulty of being her when she was too young to cope with the traumas she experienced. In addition, the author taught me my experience at 5 years of age may have made me see him everywhere, too, because I always have an instant disgust for men that resemble him, and I cringe and feel tense every time I’m around a guy giving off the him vibe.
The Other Women Gave Me My Twelfth Tear
As I continued through the next seven chapters, I had some tears, but they seemed to set up my tears that would come from the chapter called “The Other Women.” The tears I felt from reading this chapter resulted from making me think of my mother and the other women who had testified against their him. Thus, the author taught me to admire my mother’s and the other women’s fortitude for testifying and putting him in prison.
A Teardrop Matures Attending Summer Session 1997
Although there are tears that followed in the next chapter, “Summer Session 1997,” after writing the previous paragraph, I can’t express them since it’s not my place to share them. Because when someone experiences horrific trauma, you must let them heal in their own way. Fortunately, the author made me see these tears differently.
Tears Continue Their Education during the Fall Semester 1998
Two chapters later, I made it to the one called “Fall Semester 1998.” This chapter helped me understand why I tried to avoid the tears this book caused, exemplified by what the author stated on page 154 as “the chaos of memories.” Like the author, I really like that notion because it’s incredibly true. Writing this review about the tears I shared with Mean is giving me anxiety, so I have to write this with a fan directly on me because the memories I have shared cause me to sweat from the chaos. This effect made me want to quote the entire chapter. For instance, these tears I have written about in this review are something I have never shared because I, too, sense that “some parts [feel] too personal for the historical record. Some of my reality wanted to, and wants to, remain private. By denying certain events a place in the historical record, there’s a certain denial of truth” (154). I think the chaos from my own tears makes me afraid of people’s opinion because I can’t tell the exact truth since I’m not a camera recording the trauma; I was merely a 5-year-old child. And the one when I was 8, I still don’t want to know the whole truth because the amount I know is traumatizing enough.
The Flower Girl Who Dropped Fifteen Tears Instead of Petals
By the time I got to page 170, I was immersed in Gurba’s page-turning read because the new tears didn’t connect as harshly as the others. But the chapter, “Flower Girl,” hit me harder than a Tang Soo Do round kick, slamming against my temple, since I connected with the author’s father; I didn’t want to know graphic details regarding that day I was at school while my mother was violated.
She didn’t pick me up. Instead, my badass cousin was waiting for me. I remember feeling ecstatic because his truck was the coolest one I had ever seen; its monster-truck look made every classmate ask, “Who’s that?” But he was silent, which was strange since he always said smartass things and made himself laugh, a classic teenage jock. But when we made it to my aunt and uncle’s home, I saw my mother’s car parked outside, but so was a police car. All four of my cousins tried to distract me, but I shook them off and looked all over the house. As I opened the door to the room in their garage, my mother was speaking to a police officer; they looked shocked to see me. I just froze, and then my aunt whisked me away to go get ice cream. Afterward, when I went home, my mother was distant for a while. And each time I disturbed the distance, she would use meanness to push me away. Before reading Myriam Gurba’s memoir, I resented that meanness, but now I understand I was a him and a trigger for her tears.
I understand so much more about my mother after reading Mean. In addition, this chapter caused me to take a break from reading so I could gather myself emotionally. But when I saw Myriam’s author photo again, I learned the energy emanating from the photo resembles my mother’s energy during this time of her life. All I know, it would be much easier not to express my tears, but Ms. Gurba’s and my mother’s bravery made me muster the courage to let the emotion fall.
The tears I felt throughout Myriam Gurba’s true crime memoir could have filled an Olympic-size pool. I actually had to wipe many of them because it could’ve become an ocean while writing this review. This book also truly made me understand how hard it is to be a woman in this male dominated world we share. It makes me feel that, to protect themselves, women must view most, if not all, men as potential predators because it’s as though they see women as potential prey.
If you haven’t read this book, you need to. It’s as simple as that. Furthermore, I think this book could help people learn how to come to terms with their traumas. It should also be required discussion to show males the world through a woman’s point-of-view. In addition, since this book has elements of the LGBTQ and Chicana experience, it could show people that all humans deserve the respect we all expect for ourselves. To me, it’s insufficient to say it’s about one topic. It’s an influential book that is filled with the realness that only a brilliant author could use to illuminate your soul by simply reading her words. Therefore, I used the Robert Frost quote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” to show how this memoir exemplifies the quote used incessantly as writing advice. The author’s ability to exemplify this profound Frost quote is because “we make sense of what we encounter by reference to what we have experienced in the past. It’s in this way that [Ms. Gurba’s memoir] is able to result in a ‘clarification of life… a momentary stay against confusion’” (The Meaning of Robert Frost’s…).
I’m a better person and son after reading Myriam Gurba’s true crime memoir called Mean, and I invite you to read it and let yourself become a better person, too. Thank you, Ms. Gurba, for having the courage to write this memoir. I know Sophia Torres would tell you the same as would my mother and my 5- and 8-year-old ghosts. Like Michelle Tea said in her blurb, “Mean is perfection,” and I wholeheartedly agree.
Thank you for reading our book review blog about Mean by Myriam Gurba. We are not affiliated with the publisher, but here’s the link to pick up your own copy.
E. R. Sanchez is the author of Fried Potato Press’s first novel, Petaco Dreams, which will be released in 2023. In addition, he has had poems and stories published online and in print. If you’d like to read his work that was published online, please click here to go to his Stories and Poetry Section.