This New Essay Collection Reminds Us Abusers Can Be Real Charmers
Myriam Gurba, the author of the critically acclaimed new essay collection Creep, talked to Jezebel about her creep—and the creeps lurking all around us.BooksEntertainment
A creep can be a high school teacher, beloved by his students and colleagues. A creep can be an arduous romantic, relentless in wooing a new love interest. A creep can be your lover-turned-roommate, at different points icing you out and terrorizing you in your own home. A creep can also be more “typical” things: your jailer, your rapist, tormentor, stalker, abuser—the man you eventually feel certain will kill you. Myriam Gurba’s creep—an ex-partner from not so long ago—was all those things to her.
In Gurba’s critically acclaimed new personal essay collection Creep, she introduces us—essay by essay—to all the many creeps and creepy things™ that color her childhood and adulthood, that loom large and monstrous in history and the present. Creep comes after Mean, Gurba’s 2017 memoir detailing her experience surviving rape as a young woman and short skirt-clad “imperfect victim,” as she processes how the man who raped her, Tommy Jesse Martinez, went on to kill several women in Northern California. Martinez was just one predator who invaded Gurba’s world; Creep’s wide-ranging subject matter culminates in a haunting final essay that introduces us to Q, the handsome, literary charmer who swept Gurba off her feet, then spent the next several years physically and emotionally tormenting her to within an inch of her life—all while he was Gurba’s colleague, a fellow teacher at the local high school.
“Broadly speaking, most people are in denial about the extent, the scope, and the scale of gender-based violence,” Gurba told Jezebel. In the U.S., she said, “I think that denial has multiple underpinnings,” one of which is “the idea an abuser is particularly exceptional or special. … People don’t want to acknowledge they can be attracted to perpetrators, that perpetrators can be in certain professions, in helping professions, like, say, teaching.”
With darkness and biting, unexpected humor, Creep wrangles with the disturbing archetypes of perfect victim and perfect predator as two grotesque, conjoined puzzle pieces; some of the white women who posture as saviors while profiting off the suffering of the marginalized; and the pervasive obsession with true crime that often strips female victims of their humanity. After all, some killers will skin their victims and leave them physically faceless—only for particularly shameless storytellers to leave these victims metaphorically faceless, too. Gurba talked about all of this with Jezebel. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: The first essays of your new book dive into several chilling true crime case studies. We’ve seen true crime podcasts and storytelling practically become an industrial complex, which can be dehumanizing for victims. How did your personal experience with Tommy Jesse Martinez shape how you approached telling these stories of other victims as real people?
My interest in femicide developed through my own survivorship. As I’ve written in my memoir Mean and as I write in Creep, in 1996 I was sexually assaulted by Tommy while I was walking. He was a serial attacker, a serial perpetrator. A few months after he sexually assaulted me, he sexually assaulted another woman and largely targeted female pedestrians in my hometown, whom he kidnapped, tortured, and killed. Sophie Torres, one of his other victims, was homeless. She was wandering the streets when Martinez crept up behind her and killed her, and so I have experienced a sense of being haunted by her memory, from the guilt that I feel about having lived. And because of that preoccupation with her loss, I’ve developed sort of a relationship with her spirit, where I feel sort of accompanied by her in my daily life. And it’s informed my relationship to all victims of femicide.
I can’t speak on behalf of any woman whose life is stolen as a result of gender-based violence, but one of the things that I can do is defend them from having their stories hijacked by masculinist storytellers, who will, again, turn that story into the perpetrator’s story. I’ll give an example of what I mean by that. I was raised on the myth of [writer and artist] William Burroughs, that Burroughs is this great American writer, that he’s the greatest of the Beats. But he has this legend, this dark and fatal legend attached to him, where his greatness is rooted in the taking of his wife, Joan Vollmer’s, life. By taking her life, she sort of endowed his career with this sort of cannibalism, where she’s tucked away and his writing career is infused with that loss of life. What I’m attempting to do is shift the way that we talk about that legend, and tell the story of Vollmer as a great artist in her own right. What I want to demonstrate to the readers is that the vulnerable final months of her life very much followed a sort of domestic violence pattern. There were so many red flags present that indicated she was on a track toward femicide.
In the final essay of the book, when you’re sharing your story with Q, your abusive ex, there’s a pervading fear of femicide. How did you approach writing about this terror?
The threat of death is always hanging over us—three women a day die of femicide in the United States. We don’t get killed for staying, we get killed for leaving. And that is very much what I want for readers to understand, is that the stakes are so incredibly high. Nobody asks prisoners why they didn’t just leave prison. It’s just as silly to ask those of us who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or who have survived it, why we didn’t just leave—because we’re being held in prison. The threat hangs over us, if we leave we will be executed.
Intimate partner violence murders are political executions. If my perpetrator could show me, on several occasions, that he could kill me, he held immense power over me. I think of so many teenagers, so many women, killed for breaking up with their boyfriends—or Nicole Brown, who was [allegedly] executed by O.J. Simpson for leaving him. It became very clear to me that the executions and violence against women are a very sort of deliberate spectacle intended to terrorize women into staying as opposed to escaping.
Despite what you experienced from Q, the HR official you spoke to at the school you both worked at seemed entirely indifferent. What went into the decision to end the book on this very chilling note?
I wanted to end that essay on that chilling note, where I take my concerns to human resources and my concerns are dismissed, in order to demonstrate how so many of the institutions that women are directed toward, when we finally do disclose our predicament, are complicit with our perpetrators. Nine times out of 10 they’re not going to serve us, they’re going to serve the perpetrator. I wanted to indicate that there’s this fog that creeps into our lives, that entraps us within that fog, and we’re not only trapped with our perpetrator, we’re also trapped with all of these institutions that do not want us to escape, and from which there is no easy escape. I guess, there’s this concern for sociological storytelling in that essay, where I emphasize that Q could not have done what he did successfully without the help of so many institutions.
One of the essays that really stayed with me introduces us to your cousin Desiree and the cycle of abuse and gaslighting she faced that eventually launched her into the prison system—another site of abuse and gaslighting. What does her story show us about the different forms of predators that hunt victims?
As I wrote, there was incest happening in Desiree’s home and when my cousin spoke up about her suffering, that suffering was denied. Ultimately, what my cousin sought was safety. She sought safety in gangs and as a result of her search for safety, she was criminalized. The carceral system became her new abuser.
And this is the story of, I think, most women who eventually find themselves in prisons or jails. Their story begins very similarly to my cousin’s, where there is what seems to be interpersonal violence happening, maybe in the home. Then that interpersonal violence served as an invitation for the state to step in, to replace that sort of interpersonal battering, but both of them are connected. And the victims who tend to be especially violently battered by the state are the ones who fight especially hard to prevent violence from happening to them in the first place.
One essay zeros in on Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky, and how deeply rooted that story is in numerous notions—including racialized notions—of perfect victims and perfect predators. Can you talk a bit more about your relationship to Lucky and idealized victimhood?
These victim and perfect predator stereotypes are incredibly pernicious. When I read Sebold’s memoir, I had this incredible ambivalence toward it. Because on the one hand, here’s the survivor narrative that in certain ways, I can relate to. But on the other hand, I also felt as if Sebold constructed a hierarchy and had placed or situated herself on top of it due to certain traits and, as I read it, I realized I lacked so many of these traits. I am this incredibly flawed victim in comparison to her.
But I think there is comfort for the reader in those types of stories like Sebold’s that affirm this notion that evil is something that can easily be detected. In other words, it’s something that we can see. So I can look at somebody and I can see their innocence and I look at somebody and I can see their guilt. What I’m attempting to do with sharing my story is to illustrate that evil is not something you can necessarily read on a person, that there is no ability to determine whether or not a person has a capacity for gender-based violence until they perpetrate it. Often that perpetration is going to happen in secrecy and privacy. What I’m attempting to do with some of my work is to separate people away from certain habits around consuming gender-based violence and sexual violence narratives that not only don’t serve us, but injure all of us.
You write about the popular writers—including Joan Didion—exploiting Mexican culture for their writing. In particular, you argue that Jeannine Cummins, while claiming to want to help migrants, reifies racist stereotypes in her popular novel American Dirt. How do you believe Cummins’ work shows self-identified saviors can be especially insidious?
The project of Creep is sort of to name various creepy figures I’ve encountered across my lifespan, the full range of contexts where I’ve seen abuse, exploitation. And I’m attempting to sort of flesh out my relationship to Cummins, where my essay that’s critical of American Dirt, in the context of the broader theme of Creep, is to demonstrate how a creep figure can present as having humanitarian intentions even as they do harm. I wanted to illustrate that in particular, as it relates to the self-identification of an individual, in this case, an artist or a writer, as the savior and the representative of a marginalized community. I think it’s especially problematic when a person self-appoints as a representative of a community they not only don’t belong to but that they’re wholly unfamiliar with. Because then you become a mouthpiece for stereotypes.
Finally: Through all these very creepy stories, how did you approach injecting humor into Creep?
I like to include humor in much of my writing in order to be able to give the reader a bit of a break. To allow the reader to breathe. Because sometimes when we read about violence, we hold our breath. I know that’s something I do. So, I need sort of an excuse to begin breathing again. Humor is the way that I encourage breath to return to the body. I also think humor is sort of an ideal vehicle for storytelling regarding gender-based violence in its own weird way, because I do think that gender-based violence is a type of horror, right? And the closest relative to horror is humor, at the absurdity. To me, it makes perfect sense that those two phenomena often travel hand-in-hand.