BEYOND THAT: WENDY C. ORTIZ In Conversation with Laura Jean Moore:by Laura Jean Moore
Wendy C. Ortiz
EXCAVATION: A Memoir
(Future Tense Books, 2014)
Wendy C. Ortiz’s new memoir, Excavation, is a beautifully wrought unearthing of the complicated power dynamics that emerged between herself and her English teacher, Jeff Ivers, during a years-long affair that began when she was in 8th grade. True to life, but quite unlike the common stereotype of creepy predator, Jeff was a charismatic and charming young man, 15 years her senior and armed with the trust of other students’ parents and his peers. He pursued Ortiz first by lavishing compliments on her writing and later with the intensity of his sexual obsession. The narrative alternates between the present-day woman and the past child’s experiences, bringing us a unique perspective on who the girl became, while offering a nuanced look at the internal world of a child in an adult world that served as both a refuge and hell away from the alcoholic home she grew up in. At times the dialogue and childhood observations are almost too real to bear. Ortiz draws heavily from the journals she kept at the time, and the combination of a girl’s sexual awakening with her own victimhood creates a potent and fascinating drama.
While this is not light beach reading, the narrative is fast-paced and hurtles through the years with candor. One of the ironies of Ortiz’s story is how mundane the relationship with her abuser becomes; as the years pass their conversations and escapades take on the sterility and boredom of any stale relationship that has outlived its prime. Ortiz experiments with lovers her age and Jeff makes no secret of having a girlfriend who remains unaware of his ongoing trysts with his former student. He moves. Ortiz grows up.
Above all, Excavation is brutally honest. Ortiz presents the evolving relationship between her and Jeff alongside her own coming-of-age in a tangle of elegant prose and harrowing experience. The familiar world of teenage concerns and milestones—first concert, first joint—pulls the reader into easy complacency, while Jeff’s persistent attentions unnerve and upset. Even while the narrative avoids drawing harsh moral lines, the trepidations and confusions of the child are clear and the manipulations and clichés of the perpetrator are obvious. Ortiz buries no hard truths, but lays bare each conversation and interaction with a spare intensity that beckons: look, see what was done, see how this happens, and understand what you do not want to face.
I sat down with Wendy to discuss Excavation and its unique narrative structure, how time changes one’s perspective on past events, the age of consent, New York law regarding sex crimes, power dynamics in relationships, and how to build better communities. This is our conversation.
Laura Jean Moore (Rail): One of the things I thought was really interesting is that the book is itself an excavation; it is you as an adult looking back on your experience as a child and then moving forward and backward in time again and again. I wonder if you could talk about how you chose / why you chose to do that and what you feel having an adult perspective brought to what you were able to illuminate in this story.
Wendy C. Ortiz: Well, the first draft of this book was a straight, chronological narrative. It was much longer. I included a lot more detail from my journals and the act of writing it was like an exercise in telling a story chronologically. But over the last 14 years as I’ve been editing it, I have given it to other people, and my own perspective has changed as well—I ended up teaching for a while—so suddenly it became important to me to give the narrative a new dimension by showing what happened to this person as an adult. I wrote the contemporary chapters in the last few years and then fit them in where they made the most sense. It was especially important to me to include a chapter about my experience teaching kids half my age.
Rail: That chapter comes fairly early in the narrative. You’re talking about how as an adult teaching at-risk kids, you couldn’t imagine how anyone in your position could ever have a sexual relationship with his/her students. How did that change your perspective of your own experience?
Ortiz: I think it was really important to me as a teacher to reflect on that role, while still giving myself as much space as possible from the teacher who committed these acts against me when I was a teenager. As a teacher I had to constantly remind myself, we are not the same. I don’t understand who this person was and how he did this. I still don’t understand how he was willing to break what he called “the cardinal rule of teaching.” I was working with kids who were definitely at-risk, and maybe on the surface when I was kid, I wouldn’t have looked at-risk because I was in a private school, but I was, and I think people like Jeff are going to take advantage of the most vulnerable kids they can find. At the time, I felt like I didn’t have any power in my life and so I was investigating how to get power. My relationship with Jeff was a part of that. As many teenagers might believe they know what is best for them, I believed I was capable of making informed decisions about who to have sex with, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t anywhere old enough to be making those decisions.
Rail: I think one of the things you’re bringing up is our idea of the age of consent. In my research, one of the things that has been curious to me is that every state treats the age of consent differently. In California the age of consent is 18. In New York it is 17. In some states it is as low as 16. How do you think these laws reflect the reality of consent?
Ortiz: You know, I definitely believe a defined age of consent should exist, but what I’ve learned both personally and professionally is that we don’t really become adults at 18, or 17, or 16. Something doesn’t just switch and now we’re adults. It’s an arbitrary line. I think communities need to approach protecting their children more holistically. Pay more attention to what is happening around each child. I was around plenty of other teachers and students at the time, and no one seemed to catch what was going on. People don’t want to see; they don’t want to believe this could possibly be happening. I think if kids felt like the adults in their lives would actually stand up for them, they might tell us more. I’m a mother now, of a daughter with a very strong will, and it has made me really think about how we send our kids to school and believe everything is going to be safe, but clearly that doesn’t happen. We need to be more diligent in creating communities of trustworthy adults for our children.
Rail: In the book there are several instances of other adults witnessing you with Jeff, like his friends at his house and all the parents at the kid’s confirmation party, and yet no one seems to get what is going on.
Ortiz: Yeah, it’s weird because his friends had to have had some knowledge that something unusual was happening, but nobody said anything. And they didn’t really engage with me that much—probably because they were afraid to. In the case of the confirmation party, where I’m dancing with him and then we disappear for a while, you know, I had a sense that another kid noticed what was happening, but somehow no adults knew. There was no radar. Maybe in the ’80s our radar was a little different, but then again, maybe not? I think there are a lot of reasons why people check out and don’t pay attention to things happening around them. It’s really up to a community and its members to decide: this is not going to happen anymore. I make an effort to surround my daughter with adults she can trust, and I want her to feel like she can tell me if anything doesn’t feel right, and that she can trust her own instincts—that is definitely something I didn’t learn until much later. But the fact is that people are constantly averting their eyes.
Rail: You mention in the book that this happens all the time. We quite literally have an epidemic of teachers raping their students. All you have to do is type teacher guilty into Google and case after case appears. How these cases are prosecuted is different by state though, just like the age of consent. In New York, for example, we have a law that puts a strict statute of limitations on when civil claims for sex offenses committed against a child under the age of 18 can be prosecuted. Child victims of rape or sexual assault must mount a case before they are 23 years old (5 years after turning 18) or completely forfeit the right to prosecute in a civil court. One of our legislators, Margaret M. Markey is trying to change that, but so far her bill has failed to pass in the state Senate.
Ortiz: Wow. Yeah, that makes no sense to me. Based on my own experience, I was 23 when I started therapy, but I still wasn’t at an age where I would have been comfortable going to court with a case. I was not emotionally prepared or mature enough at that point in my life. How does a statute of limitations actually benefit victims? If a crime just disappears after a period of time, then it seems like it just benefits abusers because the abuse is being forgotten. People come to their realizations about what happened to them and their bodies many, many years after things actually happened. Putting an arbitrary box around when sex crimes can be reported, and beyond that when it becomes unreportable, doesn’t change what the perpetrator did.
Rail: I saw in the promotional materials for the book that Jeff is a registered sex offender now. Were you involved in any cases that were brought against him, or was that something you found out later?
Ortiz: That was something I found out later. When I first started writing the book, back in 2000, you couldn’t look up sex offenders online. I would have had to have gone into a California police station, asked them for a database of sex offenders, and given them a reason why I was there and why I was asking. That was just too much for me to handle at the time, so I abandoned the search. I couldn’t even imagine going through that. But in the last couple of years, the database in California has become accessible because of Megan’s Law, and one day I just looked him up and there he was. I had heard, third hand, that he’d been busted and I was like, wow, okay. When I heard that, it obviously had an impact on me. But I wasn’t involved in any case, no. I don’t know how many there are. I just know about his registration.
Rail: It’s pretty well-known that most sex crimes go unreported, like your own. In some ways is the book your own coming out about what happened to you?
Ortiz: I suppose it is a coming out to people who are not close to me, but everyone who has been close to me for the last 20 years certainly knew this was a big part of my history. I’ve left clues in various essays that I’ve written. I couldn’t write about that period of my life without having Jeff somewhere there in the background if not the foreground. He was always present somewhere in those years. Then again, it might be a coming out to a lot of people I went to school with at that time. I’m friends on Facebook with many of them and my relationship with Jeff may come as a real shock. Or maybe it won’t. I don’t know.
Rail: One of the things that’s really present in the narrative—and it touches on something you mentioned earlier—is how power functioned in your relationship with Jeff. I wonder if you could talk a little about how power works in a relationship that is heavily separated by age and position—in this case teacher and student.
Ortiz: You know, someone was interviewing me for a blog and she, herself, is a teacher, and one of the things she said was that in getting her teaching credential, they said that teachers are in loco parentis. That means that when you’re a teacher, you are in place of a parent. And she went so far as to say, that if that is the case with teachers, then what happened between me and Jeff was incest. I’ve really been grappling with that idea for the last couple days. Incest is usually the technical term we use for the violation of a biological tie, but when you look at teachers, or even all adults, as being there in place of a parent, then the boundaries become really clear. It’s a really intense way to frame our relationship, yet I feel like it isn’t so unbelievable. This was about an adult violating the trust of a child. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t feel like I was a child, or if I didn’t look like I was a child, I was still a child.
Rail: And yet there are many instances in the book where you as a child were trying to create a space to exert your own power in your relationship with Jeff.
Ortiz: I feel like that’s what I was really trying to get at in this book, actually. To show what it is like to be a younger person who is trying to figure out power and how it works. And here is this teacher, in a position of power, who is constantly trying to control the situation. You know, he never made actual threats, but he would chastise me and say, you better not be doing that, you better not be writing about us. It was his weird way of exerting power in these small acts. He would also withhold affection as another, frankly, immature way of negotiating power. He’d tell me he wasn’t going to kiss me, or that I shouldn’t fall in love with him. It’s almost as though he were another teenager. And here I was, wanting some sort of power and validation because I wasn’t getting it anywhere else, while I was also investigating how to be powerful. I would find his sore spots and try whatever I could—making him jealous, cutting off communication for a period of time—to use what power was at my disposal and feel out whether or not I was cared for. I wanted to know that this person loved me the way that he insinuated that he did. And in the book I definitely wanted to show this is what happens—this is what happens when you have a child who wants power and an adult who is ready to take advantage of that.
Rail: One of the good and challenging parts of the book is that Jeff is a well-developed character. He is not static, and you see a lot of his humanity. You do not tell your story in all black and white. I wonder if it was difficult to see things from his perspective or understand the motivations of someone who pursues children—in this case girls—for sexual relationships.
Ortiz: That’s hard for me to talk about, because I feel like it was important for me to acknowledge all the ways that Jeff and I are not the same, especially since I was a teacher. But I have heard third-hand information that basically said Jeff had been a victim in his life too—a sexual victim that is—and while I have no way of knowing whether that is true, when I heard it many years ago, I immediately thought: well, of course, this is how it works. Someone who carries out this sort of activity with lots of victims, chances are this person was also a victim himself. But I have to acknowledge that is just speculation, because I heard it third-hand.
Rail: Based on your experience, is there any insight you have for adults who work with children or work with adults who work with children on how to see or spot any kind of behavior that might be unusual? Do you have any insights into what people should watch for when they are trying to create safer communities for kids?
Ortiz: You know, I recently completed my Masters in Clinical Psychology and I’m working as a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist intern right now, which means I’m a mandatory reporter, so this is still a super sensitive subject for me. It’s more than just watching for adults that you have an instinct about. I think we have to figure out a way to create more open communication between adults and children. With my own daughter, my hope is that I have a different relationship with her, so that she feels comfortable approaching me. There’s a lot that goes into how to watch out for this, so many different elements and moving parts. But like I mentioned before, I think it really starts with building communities where we really care about and trust children. We have to be vigilant and ask our kids questions and not be afraid of the answers. We have to bewilling to hear what they have to say straight on.
ContributorLaura Jean Moore
LAURA JEAN MOORE's award-winning stories, essays, and poetry have been featured in VICE, The Brooklyn Rail, PANK, The Electric Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is a regular columnist at Change Seven and formerly an assistant editor at NOON. She holds an MFA from Columbia University.