Myriam Gurba Skins The Myths Of California In Her New Collection ‘Creep’

The essays in 'Creep' function as counter-narratives, exploring the cultural, political, and aesthetic conditions in which gendered violence occurs.

Myriam Gurba Geoff Cordner

My favorite bar in Los Angeles sits beneath the Santa Monica pier. But during my first ten years in L.A. I never once set foot on Santa Monica’s wide sandy beaches. “The pier is for tourists,” I’d say. Now it’s the tourists who keep me coming here. At a wobbly picnic table at Big Deans, I sip a beer and watch a girl in a pink bikini take a selfie while holding a bacon-wrapped hotdog. “Mmmm that’s gas,” she says, filming herself. I listen to a couple, one table over, talk about how they would learn to surf if they lived in L.A. “I’d get ripped,” says the one in the red Roll Tide shirt. Everywhere at the pier, people are documenting the beauty of the Pacific. They’re posing in front of the Ferris wheel. They’re Facetiming on rented bikes, wind in their hair. Together we’re steeping ourselves in the myth of California as a sun-soaked paradise.

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On days where I find myself hating L.A., I drive to Big Deans to myth-make alongside the day-trippers. I’m desperate to remind myself why I stay in California. As author Myriam Gurba knows, myths are powerful. They can protect us, allowing us to world-build and imagine other ways of living. But myths can also wreak damage. They distort our reality and leave us disillusioned. In Myriam’s brilliant new essay collection Creep, she skins the myth of California as a progressive playground. In its place, she offers a blistering portrait of life in the golden state. 

I’m awash in Southern California’s beauty as I drive to Pasadena to meet Myriam at her house. Palms and cypresses flank the streets, interrupted by pink bunches of bougainvillea and weepy yellow trumpets. The shaggy edges of the San Gabriel Mountains fill the dash. I spy two deer in her yard. Only once I’m seated on her porch do I realize the deer are fake. “I love decorating them for the holidays,” she tells me. “Christmas lights and Santa hats. The neighborhood kids love it.” Like many of California’s myths, the deer are no less intriguing because they’re not real.

Surrounded by succulents and spider plants, we sit facing the mountains, the Pacific at our backs. Myriam’s outfit is beachy: short shorts and a low-slung tank top. The ocean holds special significance for Myriam. For her, it represents other worlds. “Baptisms and death rites,” she says. For most of her life, Myriam has lived on the coast. As a girl growing up in Santa Maria, a cow town in central California, she scaled dunes and scouted for stingrays. After a stint in the Bay Area, she moved south to Long Beach, where many of the eleven essays in Creep take place. There she taught high school and wrote her breakthrough 2017 memoir Mean, a true crime coming-of-age tale that explores the intersections of race, rape, and identity. It’s also the city where she endured physical and sexual torture at the hands of her then domestic partner and fellow teacher, a man named Q. Her memories still stalk the city’s streets and sidewalks. “Long Beach became a haunted place,” she tells me. “I had to get away.” As Creep shows, domestic violence rarely stays confined to the home. Abuse not only transfigures the victim’s perception of domestic space but also whole cities, seasons, smells, and tastes.

Myriam Gurba’s 2017 memoir Mean (left) and her new essay collection Creep: Accusations and Confessions (right). Coffee House Press / Simon & Schuster

Conceived as a sequel to Mean, Creep rescripts the standard domestic abuse narrative. In classic abuse tales, the victim’s arc is cathartic: they endure, they escape, they heal. The violence they experience has a beginning and an end. Such tidy narratives offer readers a soothing sense of release. They encourage us to indulge in fairy tales of good guys and bad guys. Myriam rejects such fantasies. In the place of heroes and villains, she offers us human beings. 

Creep is a powerful antidote to toxic positivity. Few women experience one act of gendered violence in their life. By refusing to focus on a single incident of violence or a single perpetrator, Creep underscores the intimate connection between domestic abuse and the everyday violences of economic precarity, racism, and misogyny. No endpoint in sight. As Myriam reminds us, there is no such thing as a holiday from gendered violence. “The violence goes on vacation with you,” she says. 

In the title essay “Creep,” Myriam details how Q preyed upon her, slowly trapping her in a fog of confusion and abuse. It was the first essay she wrote for the collection, and its themes served as the book’s scaffolding. “I put ‘Creep’ last because I wanted to earn the readers’ trust,” she tells me. The preceding ten essays highlight the broader cultural, political, and aesthetic conditions in which gendered violence occurs. Like many victims of domestic violence, Myriam’s decision to move in with Q was not a choice. Q coerces her to move in with him after she temporarily loses her job. This newfound economic precarity delimits her options. Q has also not yet revealed himself as an abuser. He’s in full charm mode, hoarding his power, which is the power to deceive, trick, and confuse. Abusers, like practical jokers, rely on an unknowing victim to carry out their punchlines. As Creep makes clear, there is nothing accidental about abuse.

During our conversation, Myriam often referred to the experience of domestic abuse as living in a fog. “You can get lost in fog,” she says. “You can claw at it, breathe it in, but it’s almost impossible to find your way out of it.” By charting the evolution of Q’s abuse in forensic detail, she exposes how Q systematically used confusion, deception, and intimidation to erode her sense of reality. Details matter. Many of the memoirs she read about abuse during this time relied on euphemistic descriptions of violence. One of Creep’s greatest gifts is its explicitness. “When you live in a confused haze, euphemisms clarify nothing,” she says. In an abusive relationship, it’s often difficult to recognize abuse as abuse. Often we know the situation is wrong, but we’re trained to make excuses. Myriam’s commitment to explicitness is as much about ethics as aesthetics. “It wasn’t until I read detailed accounts of domestic violence in sociology books that I began to recognize the same things were happening to me,” she says. 

Myriam Gurba  Geoff Cordner

Myriam may have written Creep as a sequel to Mean, but it also serves as a poignant rebuttal to the most common question she received about the memoir: “Did writing about her assaults give her closure?” “Fuck no,” she tells me. “Publishing Mean put me in danger.” Not only did the process of writing Mean force her to relive her assaults, but the praise she received for her feat incensed Q. Days after she received a rave review in the New York Times, Q assaulted her. Artistic success did not improve her daily life or increase her freedom. In Creep Myriam details the emotional toll Mean exacted on her. In doing so, she reveals the limits of what success, ambition, and hard work can do for us in a violent patriarchal and capitalistic society.

By rejecting the false promises of catharsis and careerism, Myriam shines a light on the ultimate value of art: world-building. On the page, she could use the medium of the joke to explore traumatic life experiences. She could also take revenge on her tormentors, a practice she began while still married to her ex-wife, a struggling comedian. “Any relationship can be crappy,” Myriam tells me. Even the gay ones. Early in their relationship, Myriam’s ex-wife declared that she, and she alone, was the funny one. She forbade Myriam from making jokes around her. So Myriam started writing them down. She wrote humorous fragments about her wife, her life, and her many instances of assault. Myriam used humor for protection and as a weapon. Most importantly, humor offered her pleasure, a haven, a world unto itself.

Humor is a powerful tool of connection. On the porch, Myriam reiterates how leaving Q was not a solo affair. She relied on her community of friends to help her escape and give her a safe place to live. Alongside her friends, she built a new world to live inside. Myriam’s call for collective solutions to societal problems is rooted in years of queer community-building and activism as well as an obsession with history. Myriam majored in history in college “to fill in the gaps left by my high school teachers.” For her, interrogating history was personal. Her cousin, Desiree, was a victim of California’s carceral system. “I wanted to understand how being young and Mexican had become equivalent to being a criminal,” Myriam writes in “Locas,” one of Creep’s most devastating essays. “I wanted to know how this country fucked my cousin.” In “Locas” Myriam powerfully draws a throughline between intimate partner violence and carceral logic. Both exploit gaps between vulnerable and powerful individuals. By widening the narrative gaze to include her cousin’s experiences, Myriam shows how gendered violence can shape women’s lives in dramatically different ways. 

As girls Myriam and Desiree play-acted as “female gangsters, cholas, young women with big hair and tattooed hands.” Through their games, they built a “two-girl crime family.” They created a safe world for themselves, a realm away from adults, a “Cosa Nostra for protection, affection, and fun.” They both needed this world. Desiree, like Myriam, was a victim of sexual assault. For Desiree, the abuse began as a child, and her abusers were her caretakers and also her relatives. When Desiree tells the adults in her life about the abuse, no one believes her. The abuse continues. To protect herself, she runs away. Alone on the street, she is as vulnerable as ever, exposed to weather, hunger, assault from strangers, and police violence. She is taken in by a gang family. They give her soup, safety, and a sense of belonging. Eventually, she’s arrested for stealing. A string of carceral abuses follow.

By connecting domestic and familial abuse to the abuses of the carceral system, Creep profoundly expands the definition of gendered violence. “California doesn’t deserve its reputation as a progressive state,” she writes. “If it were so damn progressive, it wouldn’t rely on jails and prisons to take care of its problems.” Creep confronts a justice system that reproduces the racist, classist, misogynistic, and homophobic hierarchies that inspired its creation. Desiree’s story is but one example. Myriam’s futile attempts to legally stop Q’s abuses are another.

Myriam learned to question California myths of progress and paradise early in life. Her father, a deft storyteller, shared personal anecdotes that offered her alternative ways of seeing the world. “His counter-narratives taught me to question what adults told me,” she says. Her father’s involvement with the Chicano movement in the 1970s shaped his understanding of identity, family, and California’s history. “When we learned about immigration at school, we talked about Ellis Island and people from Europe,” Myriam tells me. “At home, my dad told me a different story. His family came from Mexico to the US through Union Station, then moved to Boyle Heights. Their experience wasn’t in my textbooks.”

Creep bears the traces of her father’s education. Each essay functions as a counter-narrative. In “The White Onion,” Myriam questions Joan Didion’s place as the patron saint of California letters, offering an alternative interpretation of her writings on Latin America. Myriam extends her critique of Didion in “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature,” which hilariously unmasks the 2020 narco-thriller American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Throughout “Pendeja” Myriam systematically anatomizes Cummin’s prose, showing us how well-meaning white authors routinely creep through other’s cultures for content and clout. In both essays, Myriam diagrams how artists from dominant cultures unwittingly reproduce narratives of supremacy that replicate and reinforce their own hierarchical belief systems. Creep reminds us that power protects power, leaving the vulnerable among us to fend for ourselves. Enter the work of world-building. 

As Myriam wrote Creep, it became her world. “I binge write,” she tells me. “I write in the kitchen or the bedroom. I shut out the world for hours. I sometimes black out the windows.” For her, a book can be a “protective cocoon.” If there’s anything inherently healing about artmaking, it’s the repeated act of creating other worlds. Despite the degradations and horrors Creep chronicles, it’s a hopeful book. A hopefulness shot through with anger, awareness, and unrest. A hope rooted in the steadfast belief other worlds are possible.

Elizabeth Hall is the author of the book ‘I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris,’ a Lambda Literary Award finalist. 

Myriam Gurba Skins The Myths Of California In Her New Collection ‘Creep’