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book review

Author Carmen AguirreDARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

For those who've suffered trauma at the hands of someone else, daydreams of retribution can be a salve.

Words left unsaid, verbal daggers sharpened after the fact, the things we'd confidently articulate should the source of our suffering somehow appear in front of us.

"I'm Carmen. Nice to meet you again."

This is how Carmen Aguirre, one of the so-called Paper Bag Rapist's estimated 150 victims, greets the man whose tactics were so torturous and sadistic many believed him to be a myth concocted by parents to scare their daughters into obeying curfew. (Thirty-three years after Aguirre was raped at gunpoint, a restorative justice organization arranged for her, and fellow survivors, to meet the man who terrorized them.)

Aguirre's second memoir, Mexican Hooker #1, is not a book about rape per se, nor is it a book about the man who raped her. Her suffering, though, engineered the way much of her future would be felt: "He was always present in my bedrooms of love and sex, in the four chambers of my heart, my guts, my womb, in the childhood forest I hadn't returned to since the rape, present in the booming recital hall of my skull," she writes of her rapist, whose real name is John Horace Oughton.

Aguirre's family fled the rule of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1973, then returned to Chile in 1978 to join the Chilean resistance. When she was 18 she moved to Argentina, later to Santa Fe, N.M., and California, and eventually to Canada, where she would go on to become a celebrated playwright. (Her play The Trigger is based on this rape, and her first memoir, Something Fierce, won CBC's Canada Reads competition in 2012.)

Aguirre retells her experience living as an activist in South America with brutal clarity and understated courage. She lived in chronic fear of being caught and punished for her affiliation with the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria – MIR, known in English as the Movement of the Revolutionary Left – a far-left guerrilla organization that resisted the 1973 coup. To reduce the political portion of her memoir to only a few sentences in this review feels all too minimizing – Mexican Hooker #1 is devastating in its succession of deflated ideologies, peace and democracy being the first to go.

But it is the story of that rape she suffered as a 13-year-old girl that haunts the entire book. When one has endured trauma of this magnitude, everything that follows is often interpreted through the pain it left behind. "Sex was not the problem; intimacy was," she writes. At the time of the book's conclusion, Aguirre had been single for nine years, and mostly celibate for that duration. Otherwise decent relationships crumbled under an emotional burden she had nowhere to shelve. There were spells of crying every night; there were spells of physical violence toward her partners. (Aguirre also suffered a previous assault on a bus from Arica to Santiago when she was 12.) Though the rape and its aftermath are told in graphic, vulnerable detail later in the book, the first half contains just quick mentions of it, perhaps to tell the reader Aguirre is not a maniac, but she experienced the maniacal. There is a difference.

Much like her faith in democracy after the coup, other faiths fall away: her faith in the legal system, after learning no one bothered to test her rape kit, and in the police that asked her whether her rapist had "hurt [her] in any way," and whether she, a child at the time, in the summertime, was perhaps not wearing enough clothing. Even the theatre world proved to be oppressive. "I had thought the theatre was a utopia free of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism. It had never crossed my mind that the theatre was just like every other place in society," she writes. (During a mid-term evaluation, program administrators at her theatre school said she'd only be offered "Mexican hooker and Puerto Rican maid roles.")

"Themes of invisibility seemed to weave through my life," Aguirre writes. "To have my immigrant story disbelieved by the mainstream since arriving in Canada, to have hidden my true identity during my underground years in South America, to have the man who changed the course of my intimate, erotic life deny that he was the antagonist of one of my key narratives."

Oughton had been charged with 18 offences but was convicted of only 14. When the two met face to face, he replied indignantly, "You are not my victim." Aguirre's case was one of the four cases that were unsuccessful in court. There was no physical evidence brought against him, because the investigative team had not been informed of the rape kit. When Aguirre met Oughton at the Bowden Institution in 2014, he spoke constantly of his new-found Buddhism, claiming to be a Buddhist teacher and a student of compassion. He offered her Orange Crush and crackers, citing the gesture as Buddhist custom. At a parole hearing in 2013, he sat in the courtroom with a Tibetan shawl draped around his shoulders, declaring that he'd taken a vow against violence. At the same hearing, Oughton told the room that he'd grown up with buckteeth and that kids made fun of him for that. "White females always humiliated me," he explained, Buddhist beads dangling from his fists. (At their meeting, Oughton denied memory of having raped Aguirre, saying that all of his victims were white.)

Knowing she was a celebrated writer, Oughton remarked that Aguirre should write his story some day. Almost certainly, Oughton will read Mexican Hooker #1 in prison; perhaps he'll even read this review and delude himself into thinking she has. But Aguirre's words are not a gesture. They are a powerful victory, an uprising of the spirit, for survivors of abuse, and most importantly, for herself.

Carly Lewis is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Maclean's, The Walrus and The Guardian.