Wendy C. Ortiz has written a book that someone long ago told her never to write.
From ages thirteen to eighteen, Ortiz survived the sexual advances and manipulations of her middle-school English teacher, who was fifteen years older than she was. She has chronicled this experience in a new memoir called Excavation, from Future Tense Books. Using her old meticulous journals as a guide, Ortiz mines the memories from her dynamite years: the sexual discovery, the thirst for validation and visibility, the deep need. It’s all there, laid bare on the page. In a voice that’s frighteningly honest yet controlled, she publicly and artfully discloses the secrets she felt compelled to bury as an adolescent.
Excavation is a book about power, and the ways we grab onto it when there’s a deficit in our lives. It’s about danger and the mighty attraction toward harm. Ortiz’s wisdom, her understanding of the cycles of power and control, is evident. (She’s now studying to become a licensed therapist, which has doubtlessly helped her understand the primal needs that draw people toward risk.) We see exactly what attracted her young self to alcohol and drugs, we understand the burgeoning sexual appetites, and we empathize with her position.
Now a mother, columnist, and curator of the Los Angeles reading series Rhapsodomancy, Ortiz is many years out from the experience that’s central to her memoir. She talked with me about how excavating those memories was a therapeutic and cathartic process that has made her ready for new projects.
Lauren Eggert-Crowe: In this memoir, despite the difficult subject matter, your voice is so controlled and so clear-eyed. I think the reader feels taken care of because you are taking care of the young self you are writing about. Does that make sense?
Wendy C. Ortiz: I have to imagine that with the amount of time that has passed, the amount of therapy I’ve been in, and then my own path toward becoming a therapist—I have to imagine that all of those things probably lend themselves to the voice. But it’s hard to say, because when I started working on the book, the form was different. In the very beginning, I was much more ambiguous. I was still only ten years out from the experience. What I was writing was really slippery and highly sensual, but ambiguous. There were plenty of times I put the book in a corner and didn’t touch it for a few years. Over time, with all of the therapy and becoming a therapist, and certain relationships, all of those things probably had some kind of impact on the voice. That’s not always how the voice was throughout the writing of it.
Eggert-Crowe: Did you also struggle with, not just the voice, but the structure?
Ortiz: Yes. Initially, in the first few drafts, there were no scenes of the contemporary me. Nothing juxtaposed. It was simply a chronological telling. That was actually something that my very first mentor at Antioch, Bernard Cooper, told me. He said, “You need to just write this out chronologically. Do not play around, do not try to do anything interesting with form, just write it out. That’s your first exercise here.” So that took a long time to do, beyond my mentorship with him. It was only in the last few years that I thought, The contemporary me has to come into play here. And so I started writing those chapters, in the last three years. I decided we need these chapters in here to break up the story and tell you who this person is now.
Eggert-Crowe: So writing it all out chronologically was like excavation. First you dig through everything and bring it all up. What did that process entail?
Ortiz: Initially, it was a lot of looking back at my journals. I wrote highly detailed journals. They’re painful to read. Sometimes it’s funny. I wrote about the things that I thought were important and needed to be chronicled somehow. I basically gave myself time and space to really look back at all of those journals because there are hundreds and hundreds of pages. For this period of time, it’s two thick binders of loose-leaf paper. So I looked back through all of those pages and that helped me put it together. It also corrected me in a lot of ways. It’s really hard, and I wished that I had someone to help me decipher all this handwriting and index it. Instead, it was reading and rereading these pages of messy handwriting and trying to get into that headspace again.
Then, thinking about the ways that, like the chapters where I’m thinking about myself as a teacher, teaching kids half my age. That was pretty present for me when I was teaching, so I thought that had to be a chapter in the book. And then the chapter about reading stories in the L.A. Times about teachers and students. That’s always happening for me. I always stop and read those stories.
Eggert-Crowe: Did you always know you wanted to write about this story?
Ortiz: I would say unconsciously, yes. I was writing about it when it happened, but in community college, I was taking this fiction workshop, and I was much more comfortable, like many people are, bringing my stories as fiction. Or I would write these fiction stories about these young women with men who were fifteen years older and how they navigated that. So I was always writing it at some level. But it was fiction.
Then, once I was in the MFA program at Antioch, I knew: This is what I was doing. I’m doing nonfiction, I’m going to write this story. It’s my project. I honestly don’t even remember how it was decided. But I certainly was talking a lot about it with my therapist at the time. So it was a pretty common topic for me. Twenty-three to twenty-eight is when I really started working it out, and twenty-eight is when I started writing it.
Eggert-Crowe: What brought you to decide on the excavation metaphor?
Ortiz: That’s a late metaphor for me. I’m learning new things all the time with my kid. There are things that I don’t care about and things that just occur in the world that I suddenly have to have all these answers for. In the last couple of years, she has really been into vehicles, so we have all these books in our house about diggers, excavators, cranes, dump trucks. All the different types of vehicles. We also have the Curious George book about looking for bones. And she’s really into dinosaurs. On our trips to the La Brea Tar Pits, I started thinking about these things that are trapped in the tar. I think all of those things just made me think, Oh, this is an interesting way of looking at it. That’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last twelve years now, since I really started writing it.
Eggert-Crowe: It’s also very much like therapy, and I know you are training to become a therapist. Do you have a particular modality of therapy that you prefer to use?
Ortiz: At the moment, I am embracing the eclectic. If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said I’m really into Jungian, because I was seeing a Jungian analyst. A lot of the Jungian territory appeals to me. It’s about the dreamwork, the archetypes, symbology. I’m really into the idea of synchronicity. I feel like I see it when I look for it. That’s basically what other people would call coincidence. I think calling it synchronicity gives it a little bit more power. The people that you keep running into over and over again but never connect with. Eventually some kind of relationship will form or something will shift. I like to pay attention to those kinds of things. So having a language around that seemed like, Oh yeah, of course, this is what I’m drawn to.
But I also have had some exposure to Gestalt therapy, relational therapy, the idea that I’ve always carried that when I’m sitting with a client, I am not the expert. The client is the expert. Whatever answers or concepts or ideas that they’re looking for, they have them. My job is to help facilitate finding them. We all have answers, but they get buried. Maybe if I ask questions and am genuinely curious and interested, we can help excavate those answers. That’s where I start from.
Eggert-Crowe: That reminds me of a section in the book where you wonder what you would do, what others would do, if they talked to a teenage girl going through the same situation you went through. You said you would ask careful questions and listen.
Ortiz: I wanted to imagine sitting with someone who told me that. If they did tell me, I’m a mandated reporter, so I’d have to report it. Since I’ve never sat with somebody telling me the same story, I think that my feeling about being cautious around it is not wanting them to run away. Not wanting them to feel like I’m someone they can’t trust. That’s a really tough place to imagine, and unfortunately, it’s where I would be because I’m a mandated reporter.
Eggert-Crowe: I did work with teenagers, and I remember seeing how much pain and confusion these girls were in, and because of the structures of nonprofits and bureaucracy, not knowing what your own role was. And also, even where they are minors, they have bodily autonomy. You also wonder in the book if anything, anyone, could have saved you. Do you think anything could have kept you from going back to Jeff?
Ortiz: I was getting something very specific out of it. My feeling is, if people—anyone of any age, including my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter—if they feel like they don’t have any power, they’re going to push back. How can we give them enough power that’s still going to keep them safe, but still try to warn them about how to use that power, and who might try to come in and impinge on that power? It’s really complicated. That was my goal with this book. This is a book about power. I feel like everything that I write ends up being about some kind of power differential. This experience imprinted that. Once I was in my twenties, I fought against the power that I saw in a totally different circumstance.
Eggert-Crowe: You outline that so clearly in your book. Reading your intense passages of your sexual discovery, I couldn’t help but remember my own formative romantic experiences, and the feeling of only feeling powerful when I was wanted, when I had something I could bestow or deny. Most of the time, as women, we are the ones who end up looking for validation and trying to find it in weird backdoor ways.
Ortiz: Yes. Yes. Working on all of these things in therapy, starting at twenty-three, was about figuring out how I wanted to actually have power. It wasn’t in the same ways that I had power before. I wanted to shift the center of my power and use it in a different way. But first I had to figure out what my power really was. This was not a true power. This was not something I wanted to carry with me. It wasn’t something that I wanted to represent myself in the world.
In my twenties, the power that I was fighting against was the government. I was really involved in a lot of small political movements. It’s really interesting to work out power in those situations, and to discover micro and macro versions of power differentials. The stuff that’s happening out here that you’re fighting against is also happening right here in the room with all of your allies. Formatively, I had to go through that too, to discover a different kind of power.
Eggert-Crowe: In the book, you say that you came into your own when you found a family in politically active queer circles. How did you come to find yourself there?
Ortiz: Since my teen years, I have been politically active. My first wake-up call was when I was in community college, and I thought I was going to be an English major. I remember sitting in a British literature class, and my teacher was talking about serfs. And landlords. He made an off-the-cuff comment like, “Isn’t it great that we don’t have this system anymore?” I was like, “Wait a minute, what are you talking about?”
Then we had a speaker come to campus, Philip Agee, the author of Inside the Company: CIA Diary. He came to our campus and spoke, and that was the first time I learned about COINTELPRO. I was like, What am I doing in English literature? This is not my life. A friend of mine told me, “Hey there’s this state school in Olympia called Evergreen.” I wanted to get out of L.A. and experience something totally different. I was only going to Olympia for two years, and then maybe move to Seattle. And I ended up in Olympia for eight years. It’s a super politically active town. I just naturally ended up where I felt like I belonged, which was with a lot of other like-minded people. I wrote for Works in Progress, their small progressive newspaper.
When I went to Evergreen, I started in Political Economy and Social Change. I didn’t know what that meant or what I was going to do with it. But I knew this was where I belonged. And so being among that crowd made me think, Oh yeah, this is the kind of work I want to be doing. So I was pretty involved in Olympia. That’s where I got radicalized. It was another way of dealing with power. Olympia is the capital, so a major portion of the population are state workers. I would never say that Olympia is conservative, but there was a sense of, This is where bureaucracy happens.
Eggert-Crowe: Well, and they still represent the interest of the established power dynamic because they work for it.
Ortiz: And I did too for a time. I was a state worker for a few years. That was a job where I negotiated a twenty-eight-hour workweek. I don’t know how I did that. So I worked part-time for the state. Eventually I ended up getting a different state job, which was working for the college in the library. For that job, I worked eleven to three, Monday through Friday, and it was a state job with benefits. It was the best job ever. In Olympia, it was enough money to live on. It was pretty sweet. It was a great time. I wasn’t doing as much personal writing. I was doing a lot of writing for Works in Progress. It all felt very natural to me, until I started getting really in it and realizing that in these small groups of people we are dealing with these issues, even on the micro level.
Eggert-Crowe: What kinds of issues?
Ortiz: Sexism was a huge one. Definitely racism. At the same time, it was really difficult there because Olympia is very, very white. I’ve never felt like more of a minority anywhere. There were hardly any other people like me in Olympia. That was tough. There was still something that told me I needed to go back to Los Angeles and do some of that work in the place where I came from. I knew we needed help here. But life happened, and it became harder to invest as much time and energy in the same things I was doing in Olympia.
Eggert-Crowe: Are you involved in any political activism here?
Ortiz: Not for many years. Part of it has been my own personal stuff about getting involved with groups. I’ve had some pretty harsh experiences with groups. But again, it was what led me to thinking about doing therapy with people. I thought, If people came to these groups with some of their shit figured out, these groups might work so much better. For me, that meant working one-on-one. For other people, that means community psychology. Working one-on-one with people has almost been its own healing process from all the groups that I’ve worked with.
I also experienced major disillusion when I was in a big protest in San Francisco for Mumia Abu Jamal. It was the biggest protest I’d ever been in at that point, and it got no news coverage at all. It was like it didn’t happen. That experience was something that made me think, Wow, this is really the power of the news media. They can just erase things from happening. As if it only happened for us. That kind of shocked me and made me ask if there were other ways for going about this work, where we will be seen. We will be heard. That’s really hard when you’re up against something as huge as the media. It’s hard to keep up that momentum. It can be draining. It is all about capitalism. We’re still working under that system.
Eggert-Crowe: How do we negotiate our lives in response to that? I think about that a lot. We have these big structures that are felt in small, interpersonal ways. And how do you negotiate your life in relation to that? How do you live as an ethical person and make the right small, personal choices every day?
Ortiz: That’s why I feel my interest has been taking it from the group level to the one-on-one. How can I be with people? How do I show myself as someone who, yes, lives in a capitalist system, but I still resist it, and I find it very problematic? It feels like a weird straddle all the time. That is always what it comes down to for me. As long as we’re living in this system, there are going to be fucked-up things happening over and over again. How can I make personal shifts so that we feel something different, and maybe bring that to our next relationship or the next group that we’re a part of?
Eggert-Crowe: What are the ways you find to resist it?
Ortiz: Right now, I feel like there’s a lot happening around raising a kid in this culture. There was a period of time in my life where I thought I would only have children to raise them as radicals.
Eggert-Crowe: We all wanted little radical babies.
Ortiz: I was gonna homeschool. It was gonna be full-on. Then I got older and realized that all those things are possible, but it’s harder to do. I feel like in some ways—this sounds really surface—but thinking about how I raise my kid and what I want her to be exposed to, and what I really resist her being exposed to, that’s how. That’s where I feel like my work is right now. How do we subvert that in some way so that she’s exposed to other things and appreciates them the most? It’s really hard. It feels like it’s a constant conversation between my partner and me. I don’t think my parents talked about me as much as my partner and I talk about our kid and how we’re doing this. There’s so much consciousness involved. It’s really tiring.
Eggert-Crowe: Do you feel like you have more resources than your parents did?
Ortiz: Oh, yeah. Certainly emotional resources. Financial resources, for sure, in the last few years. And it’s like having the capacity to decide that you’re going to take all of this on. I understand the exhaustion of it. It’s hard to live in resistance all the time. I remember there was a period of time where I thought I’d get a black armband tattoo that signifies my resistance to whatever. And then over time I thought, What would it be like to shift that into not so much “I’m resisting” but to embrace the things I want to embrace? Be open to the things that I want to have in my life. What if we just do that? But that’s also hard. When that’s not how you’ve been brought up, it’s an ongoing exercise.
Eggert-Crowe: How do you feel now that you’ve finished the book?
Ortiz: Relieved. It’s hard to go beyond relief at this point. It closes something for me. It closed that portion of my life. I feel like I’m ready to jump into the next books. I definitely want to write something about the period of time I lived in Olympia. I very much see that as a gestational period. Twenty to twenty-eight. That is when adulthood happens. They were super-formative years. All about Olympia and what that experience was like, and how I had to integrate this part of my life into that part of my life, and see things in a different way.