ON JOSHUA MENSCH’S BECAUSE: A LYRIC MEMOIR
New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
128 pages. $22.95. ISBN 978-0-393-63522-5.
I still remember the first time I read Because, Joshua Mensch’s lyric memoir about childhood sexual abuse. It was a summer morning, children were playing quietly somewhere in my house, and I was sitting at the kitchen counter. Joshua and I knew each other a little then and have since become friends. He is a founding editor of B O D Y, one of my favorite literary journals and one where some of my own poems have appeared. I had planned to be somewhere and intended to read just a few pages and then to finish later, if I liked the book. Instead, I read it straight through, audibly weeping, and then I just sat, stunned, for the longest time until the rhythm of my daily life finally gathered me back up.
Because might be a compelling read even if it weren’t so well-written. The story it tells is dramatic, harrowing, and transfixing. A10-year old boy is preyed upon by a man named Don who is his teacher and camp leader and his father’s best friend. The child is groomed meticulously, expertly. He is brought along, through kindness and attention, in a gradual, elegant seduction, until he is fully in sexual and emotional thrall to his monstrous suitor, where he remains for the next five years. That Mensch imbues so ugly a story with such ache and beauty is a testament to his skill and daring as a poet.
Joshua Mensch does not just tell us this story. By way of brutal honesty and masterful writing, he allows us—requires us even—to step into it, room by room by room, to lie on this bed or in that tent while Don ravages his small boy’s body, his fragile life. In an early scene, after extracting the classic, vital oath of secrecy from him, Don masturbates the boy, using his sister’s lotion, ostensibly to show him how the inside of a woman’s body feels, and we catch devastating sight of the aftermath, through the eyes of the child:
Because Mensch is so deft a writer, because each line is honed and gleaming as a blade, and because he has spared no one’s feelings in this book— especially not his own—we are granted full entrance into the funhouse-mirrored world of an abused child. We grapple alongside the child with notions of agency and blame and guilt. We are allowed, for the space of 128 pages, to live in the flurry of possible, heartbreaking reasons why. Not why Don was abusive. Not why he victimized this child. Why, rather, was the boy unable to resist his advances? Why did he go along? If it’s devastating that Mensch asks these questions, it’s positively flattening when he answers them:
I was struck (and stricken) by the haunting, recurring images of flooding throughout Because, of people and things being swept up in and swept away by currents. There is a flooding engine, and Times Square is lit up, a glittering / current of bodies / and glass. The boy releases his held breath, when he is alone with his abuser, like a river, like a flood. There is a river / whose rush sounds like traffic and one roaring, unstoppable / on its way to the sea. The boy’s nose pours blood like a left-open spigot when he’s being tormented at school, and at the end of the book, when the child has become a man, he wakes up next to a woman who asks him what he was dreaming of because he seemed to be trapped, beneath water, in his sleep. Even years later, he is still trying to escape the rush and sweep, the breath-sucking waters of his abuser.
Because is a brave and important book, arriving as a crucial contribution to this cultural moment when keeping quiet has become untenable for so many. Carrying old secrets is as damaging to people as being overburdened by snow is to the trees in Mensch’s narrative: and every once in a while / the deep silence / would be interrupted / by a crack like gunfire / as another spruce / snapped under its weight.
As we begin to come more fully to terms with the sexual abuse and harassment perpetrated against girls and women, as we begin to more fully assess the scale of the sexual bacchanal Catholic priests have been throwing themselves for years—not exclusively, but overwhelmingly at the expense of boys—I wonder what sort of seat at the table will we offer to male survivors? Will we allow their stories to join and amplify those of women and girls? Will we finally be willing to name them victims?
There is a staggering but unsurprising moment toward the end of Because, after the adult Mensch has finally shared his childhood traumas with his family, when his older sister asks him, point blank, whether he will pose a risk to her future children. Boys, even victimized boys—no, especially victimized boys—are feared, even by their sisters, to be perpetrators-in-waiting. Studies show that, though many abusers were abused, only 1 in 10 abused boys will go on to become predators. Yet even as they are being abused, boys are assumed to be already guilty of future crimes, a further, painful inducement to maintain their costly silence. The voices of male survivors have much to contribute to our cultural journey. Because is a perfect place to begin to at last prepare ourselves to hear them.