Excavation, by Wendy C. Ortiz. Portland, Oregon: Future Tense Books. 242 pages. $15.00, paper.
In fall of 2008, a scandal rocked my small town, Marquette, in Upper Michigan. Displayed across the cover of the local newspaper was the face of a teacher accused of sexual misconduct stemming from alleged sexual encounters with underage girls in the Nineties, while I had attended Marquette Senior High School. The male teacher later plead guilty to assault with intent to commit sexual penetration, and landed in state prison.
I was shocked. These kind of things didn’t happen in my hometown. Sexual predators were evil people far away from my safe haven. Wendy C. Oritz’s first book, Excavation, reminds us that these predatory trysts between teachers and underage students happen all the time. Ortiz calls attention to the prevalence of this abuse, explaining it is “as simple as typing ‘teacher guilty’ into a news outlet’s search field. A stream of articles featuring teachers suspected or convicted of preying on their students appears … It is any given day.”
Any given day, this kind of predatory behavior does happen. Ortiz recounts, in stunning detail, an affair she had with her own English teacher in 1980s Los Angeles, beginning when she was thirteen years old. Mr. Ivers—Jeff—it’s hard for me to know what to call him as Ortiz herself was caught between the “Mr. Ivers,” her teacher, and “Jeff,” the statutory rapist she, while underage, claimed she loved. Excavation dives into a pseudo-spiritual archeological dig into the author’s past as she attempts to make sense of, or perhaps remove, the influence Jeff forced into her life so many years ago.
Ortiz’s brilliant memoir shines because she doesn’t deny, but rather displays, her own budding sexuality, a big fuck you to the so many victim blamers who prefer their females chaste. Although disturbing, Jeff was a big part of her life and forever shaped her initial exploration of sex, and Ortiz refuses to shy away from this fact. “At thirteen, I harbored strange and beautiful conditions in the landscape of my body. Like fast-moving weather patterns, I could be embraced by a storm of arousal, experience an onslaught of brush fires that started beneath my skin and ended in a brief rush of rain, all behind my closed bedroom door, pressed against the yellow carpeted floor, panting and writhing,” says Ortiz. Oritz is curious and entranced by this man nearly fifteen years her elder, proud to brag to her friends when she loses her virginity to Jeff at fourteen.
As the enlightened college composition instructor I claim to be (calling out victim blaming when I hear it, admonishing slut-shaming when it appears in my classroom), I would be lying if, while reading Excavation, I didn’t want to ask Ortiz how she let a twenty-eight-year-old man into her thirteen year-old life? I confess, I thought, how could someone let this happen to her? And why didn’t the adults around the thirteen-year-old see and stop this exploitation?
Ortiz answers these questions thoroughly by showing us how the affair played out, with intermitted observations from her present day self. (In fact, Ortiz reveals that she did tell an adult about her relationship with Jeff, and the adult did nothing.) Excavation doesn’t ask for sympathy, nor does it lecture the reader on the evils of sexual predators. Instead, it gives the reader a teen protagonist to root for at every stage of the narrative. She is a child of alcoholic, separated parents surrounded by Los Angeles’ promise of freedom and drugs. Jeff gives Ortiz both. Jeff becomes, in a twisted way, an escape from Ortiz’s alcoholic mother. Jeff encourages Ortiz to pursue her writing and, as this novel is a testament of, set her on a path to becoming a successful writer.
Although if felt like love to a thirteen-year-old girl in the 1980s, the memoir never mistakes Jeff Ivers and Wendy Ortiz as star crossed lovers, separated tragically by time. When Jeff cold calls Oritz one weekend on the phone, saying he has a crush on her, red lights start flashing, and you wonder where Chris Hansen, host of How to Catch a Predator, is when you need him. Jeff said he “wondered what it would like to have his face between my legs, and I crossed my legs hard, trying to imagine what this must mean.” Just when you think Jeff can’t sink any lower, he behaves in a way that will make your skin crawl more and more as the memoir progresses (check out Jeff’s musings on “olfactory orgasms”). From Jeff’s constantly talking about his on again off again girlfriend in an attempt to make Ortiz jealous to abusing drugs and getting her drunk and high, Excavation paints the picture of this now-registered-sex-offender not just as a calculating statutory rapist (he is), but also as a pathetic loser.
The extent of Jeff’s douchery knows no bounds; once, he even goes so far to, in his car, expose his penis to Ortiz, explaining why he can’t have sex with her. Ortiz writes, “I looked down briefly at a patch of flesh, and then up, staring through the windshield.” Jeff explains, “[w]hile I was on vacation I fucked around with some twenty-year-old chick and I think she gave me something I’d rather not have. So I’m out of commission for a while.”
Ortiz, who became a teacher herself, sums it up best while teaching students in juvenile hall writing: “Could I ever imagine having some kind of sexual relationship with these kids, kids who had found themselves in the intimate space of sharing and writing their stories? Absofuckinglutelynot.”
In the end, this is a story of Wendy Ortiz coming of age, not just an exploitation of an underage romp. However, the book doesn’t always feel coming of age, falling a bit short of a well-rounded memoir by focusing so much on Ortiz in the context of Jeff’s web of criminal sexual conduct. The protagonist’s alcoholic mother and mostly absent father greatly influence Ortiz’s formative years; she must keep her family’s drunken secrets as well as her own. However, the book is almost completely devoid of in-depth scenes with either parent. Readers may wish to see more of other areas of Ortiz’s life, so she not to be wholly defined by Jeff.
Furthermore, every so often, the narrator voice seems to flip-flop between her older and younger self with no consistency. One can forgive thirteen-year-old Ortiz for cheesy prose like: “As I walked, I pictured the salt air and endless water stretching out … drowning out the voices of men who wish for you not to love them and the sounds of girls crying into pillows, oceans dripping from their eyes.” However, present day Ortiz must be capable of better writing than that.
Also problematic are the excessive song lyrics are often quoted at length. While these songs may be sentimental to the author or, perhaps, those familiar with the songs, they don’t do much for the average reader.
But, whatever, this is Ortiz’s story and she’ll tell it how she wants. The reader can forgive these rare meanderings for the engaging journey this read is. I read over half of Excavation in one sitting, and this experience left me dazed, disoriented, and, most shocking to myself, overwhelmingly happy. Obviously, the sick feeling of the predatory Jeff stuck with me (and still does—that’s how much impact Excavation has had on me), but Ortiz offers a catharsis in her ability to triumph in the aftermath of victimization. In Ortiz’s successes, in her strength to write her story, and in her ability to admit that Jeff did have an influence on her life and always will, this story will leave you moved and cheering for Ortiz, and, in the end, that’s the real point of her memoir.
Cameron Contois teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is an MFA candidate in Fiction.