Bearing Witness: Because: A Lyric Memoir by Joshua Mensch

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Superlatives, like all words, lose their punch when misused. I am especially stingy with superlatives that say “major literary contribution” in capital letters because we all know we’re in a dangerous historical moment, in which equivocation has more consequences than ever, and exaggeration can taint discussion. I thought long and hard before committing to the next sentence, though I believed it as soon as I read Because: A Lyric Memoir (W. W. Norton, 2018) by Joshua Mensch: the book is a memoir in flawless verse, and a masterpiece about a charismatic sexual predator, the abuse he perpetrates on the author, and the repercussions of that abuse in the author’s life and relationships. Re-readings have not diminished my conviction.

Joshua Mensch was one of the predator’s most frequent victims, and in telling his story with such forceful courage and grace, Mensch ceases to be a victim and becomes more than a victor. He becomes a literary and political example to others. This suggests the right time to remind people that women and girls of color are far more likely than white men and boys to be preyed on so obscenely. This fact in no way diminishes the magnitude of Mensch’s achievement. Because is a call for more stories with specifics so well-rendered. Here is where Mensch begins:

1.
Were it not for a cabin
on Cape Breton Island
with only mist
to break the tree-lined
horizon; were it not
for both of us :
I was twelve
and together we read
Homer’s Iliad (not The Odyssey)-
though mostly Don
read aloud to me;
his gorgeous voice,
his bathrobe slipping off
his stiff , shiny shins,
his legs like white
radish stalks speckled
with long wiry hairs,
while outside snow
hugged the forest
and a deep fog rose
around the top of the hills,
the snow thick and wet,
ideal for throwing,
and every once in a while
the deep silence
would be interrupted
by a crack like gunfire
as another spruce
snapped under its weight,
bark shrapnel and rolling
sound ricocheting
up the narrow valley…

It was all so very pretty at first, as Don, predator-seducer, knew. But did he suspect in the sound of the “crack like gunfire,” that war was on the horizon, that a gifted boy would grow up to write the phrase “bark shrapnel” and save himself and others by bearing witness with such skill? Did he hear or see anything the twelve-year-old found as memorable as those unpleasant radish stalks? The stalks themselves function as a stand-in for distortion, since normal radishes are not stalk-like. Don was abnormally manipulative and surely too deranged to catch any of this.

A few pages after the first poem, which is placed like an introduction, the word “because” appears, as it does hundreds of times, a device that always makes the reader slow down to take in just what is being recollected and the rage that builds as predator confides in the child about his unhappy Kansas youth. Here is the beginning of a poem called “Reston, 1989—Summer”:

Because the room is the room
_____on the top floor of a house
in Virginia where we live
_____for a year until we move;
because a guest is there,
_____and it’s not my smelly aunt
but my father’s best friend;
_____because I am ten
and I have no friends;
_____because he says
he wants to be my friend;
_____because he invites me
to come to his camp
_____and my parents say yes;
because we are moving again
_____so it’s really convenient
for everybody

It is no surprise that, before this poem is finished, Don has coerced silence and committed rape. The lack of surprise does not diminish the power or the music of any compositions.

Here is an excerpt from “Maritime Bus, 1990—Fall”:

… because the bus finally makes it,
_____and seeing Don standing
under the port next to his van
_____floods me with relief;
because his wife, Lorna, is with him
_____and she is so happy
to see me, they won’t be alone
_____this winter after all
and she has so much to teach me
_____about the earth, the
environment, the building blocks
_____of the natural world;
because Don couldn’t not let her
_____come along, we have
shopping to do and she wants to
_____buy her own things…

A soon as Lorna is out of earshot, Mensch blurts the word pedophile and is hideously “corrected” by Don, who “explains” that the word is “imprecise.” Don goes on to ask, Who is society to tell us what we can and can’t do with our bodies? Then he tells Mensch to settle down, and one can hear and feel, thanks to those judicious italics, just how frightened boy and predator are, of themselves and of each other.

Mensch’s parents allowed him to be home-schooled by Don and Lorna, and every decision made by the parents, and every scene in which Lorna appears, brings to mind wisdom my cousin Robert, a neurologist, shared about fifteen years ago. We were speculating about if, and when, my mother realized that my father was gay. “Never underestimate the power of denial,” Robert said.

Denial also helps explain why a middle school teacher in my hometown was able to prey on boys. James Leonard was a pleasant presence with high standards, and when he advised the student newspaper, my sentences improved. I loved the way he encouraged me, and others, to stretch on the page. Being a serious, self-absorbed girl, I missed the rumors about his attentions to boys who were his neighbors. James Leonard committed suicide after finally getting caught with a low-IQ teenager. I learned this from a handsome classmate who modeled for department stores to pay for college. His parents, a pipe-fitter and a homemaker, helped their kids maintain distance from Leonard. I share this because (that newly charged word) part of what makes Mensch’s story so essential is the fact that surely, in the words of Charles Martin in a poem about 9/11, there are:

many others who,
Like ourselves, had no loss as profound,
But knew someone who knew someone who knew.

Loss of life. Loss of innocence. I hope I’ve made my point.

 

As Mensch miraculously matures, there is an inevitable increase in tension between him and Don. He also starts to harm his body and close himself off, refusing to share his thoughts with Don, who acts as if calmness is supplied by putting mouth to mouth. Mensch, hobbled and resistant, becomes resigned, at least in one instance: “I push him away at first but finally give in… .”

Everything in this book is both explicit and well-wrought, including what happens when flesh and soul become metaphorically cauterized, as in “Tulum,1993—Spring”:

[M]y body and my imagination
_____won’t work together,
all I see are hands and mouths
_____and a body I don’t want.

The next piece ends with suitable violence, Mensch feeling “good, almost victorious, / to have hurt him so badly,” having pushed Don away, without paying attention to the bed frame that Don’s skull will crash against, drawing much blood. The scene is corrosively riveting and satisfying.

Spoiler alerts are irrelevant, as I hope I’ve made clear. At a certain point in the book, Mensch confides in his older sister who “acts like its something that happened to her / even though the only thing that has happened to her is that you told her; because now her eyes are full of tears.” She’s weeping but she doesn’t want his hug. She wants him to help her sort out what has gone on and he knows and informs her, “there’s no one true story / I can tell that will make / her go, Oh, ok, now I understand.” He acknowledges that he has just shattered their relationship, that “the shards / are many,” and that there have been other breakings, as when he was asked to tell school officials about Don and himself and other boys:

and I need to think about
_____what’s clearly going
to happen next; because all eyes
_____will turn to me,the one
who knew him best.

We see Mensch struggle with memories and contradictions no one should have to confront:

…because
_____my mind has been
trained to make exceptions…..
_____because my mother
will blame herself in parallel
_____to everyone else…

In Because, Mensch delivers an unflinching examination that brings us as close to truth of sexual predation and abuse as possible. In summing up, toward the final scenes of this stunning creation, when Mensch is in Vienna with his father, after a courtroom scene, and the perp going AWOL, and other unforgettable testimony, Mensch brings us as close as possible to primal closure:

Because the room is a bench
_____in the baroque square
where I sit with my father
_____and his many questions;
because he wants to know how
_____he didn’t know, how he
could have been so blind
_____to the friend he thought
he knew so well; because some lives
_____are simply unknowable,
but how can that be true when
_____truth speaks for itself?

Elie Wiesel once said that there are no answers, that the questions are the answers. Joshua Mensch has produced a small but monumental classic with questions that will help become part of an answer. Let his audience be immense, from people who have no experience with exploitation, to guilty bystanders and institutional enablers in schools, camps, churches and elsewhere, to victims still trying to recover from what they were forced to endure. Because is a triumph. Let it be a bestseller for years to come. Let it be part of the permanent literary canon.

***

Photograph of Joshua Mensch © Cristian Burrows.


Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →