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Carmen Aguirre, seen in a 1995 publicity shot, says her latest memoir addresses the question of how she healed after a devastating experience.
Carmen Aguirre, seen in a 1995 publicity shot, says her latest memoir addresses the question of how she healed after a devastating experience.

Carmen Aguirre’s new memoir is funny, despite the raw, horrific subject matter at its heart Add to ...

For eight years, beginning in 1977, Vancouver was terrorized by a man who became known as the Paper Bag Rapist. Using a paper bag or an article of the victim’s clothing as a blindfold, the man preyed on children – mostly girls. His victims ranged in age from 8 to 28, RCMP said when they finally made an arrest in 1985. He was brutal and prolific. Initially facing 51 charges, the former hot-tub salesman stood trial on 18 and was ultimately convicted of 14 sex-related offences. But it’s believed there were many more victims – more than 150.

Carmen Aguirre was one of them.

Aguirre is an award-winning actor and playwright; she has written or co-written 25 plays including The Refugee Hotel and Blue Box. Her first memoir, Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, was a bestseller that was shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize and won Canada Reads in 2012.

On the first hot Sunday of the spring of 1981, Aguirre, in a brand-new white cotton wrap-around skirt, ducked into the woods behind her school near UBC with her cousin to smoke a cigarette her cousin had stolen from her father. Then a man emerged from behind a cottonwood tree and changed their lives.

“Don’t try to run. I have a gun and I will shoot you. Do as I say. Put your hands on your head, turn around and don’t look back. Now.”

The man threatened to chop up Aguirre’s cousin into pieces, then shoot Aguirre and go to her house and kill her family, if Aguirre didn’t “make love” to him. He sexually assaulted Aguirre – the physical pain so excruciating, she thought he was using a knife.

She was 13.

The man told Aguirre that she was a hooker who had planned it. To Aguirre, he said, “Only a hooker would wear a skirt like that.” She found out years later, when she attended a parole hearing for her attacker, that he had said something similar to other victims. It was only then she realized: It wasn’t her fault.

The attack has had a devastating impact on Aguirre, becoming a traumatic thread through her life, especially invading her intimate world.

Reflecting that, Aguirre’s new memoir, Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since the Revolution, is constructed so the terrible event serves as a through line, with the assault revisited throughout the book, new details revealed each time.

“The rape was always orbiting my life until it crashes into me and then I can’t not deal with it any more. I wanted the structure of the book to mirror that,” she explained during a recent interview. “It’s orbiting, it’s orbiting, it’s orbiting – until it crashes into you, the reader.”

The book’s theme is healing from post-traumatic stress disorder – from that rape but also from living in a state of chronic terror when she was in the Chilean resistance, including the time she and her younger sister faced a firing squad in their front yard when they were little girls – the military counting to 10 and then instead of shooting, breaking into fits of laughter.

“Who knew that if one pretended to shoot a preschooler and a kindergartener, hilarity would ensue?” she writes in the memoir.

The other thread of the book is an examination of her creative life – including an acting career that has in part been dictated by her Latina background, often relegating her to two-dimensional roles, playing characters that don’t even have a name. Thus, the title of the memoir: Mexican Hooker #1.

“I think I come by the title honestly,” she says during our interview. “I have played Mexican Hooker #1, I was called a hooker when I was raped and there was a moment there when I did a stint as a phone-sex operator.”

As the title suggests, the book is funny – in spite of the raw, horrific subject matter at its heart.

Aguirre’s first memoir, Something Fierce, recounted her youthful experiences in the Chilean resistance. After the book’s publication in 2011, she heard the same question repeatedly: What happened next? Also, how did you heal? So Aguirre decided to write about her childhood refugee experience in Vancouver, her path to the stage as a theatre artist – and the rape.

Was she scared, I wanted to know, about examining this terrible event? Many years of therapy have healed her – and her play The Trigger also focused on this – but did she worry what sitting down and writing about it for this memoir might stir up?

“I have to be honest, I didn’t really,” she said. “I’ve healed from that rape and if I hadn’t healed from it, I wouldn’t have written about it. I’m a very strong believer that if you’re writing for personal catharsis, that’s journalling. And it is not for public consumption.”

That said, she did approach the subject matter with some trepidation. “There were certainly moments when I was afraid; like when I had to go right into writing the actual rape. I was like, okay, here we go. You know you can’t hold back. If you’re going to take the reader there, then really take the reader there.”

And she does.

“The gun was held to my temple during the negotiations, while I lay face down, fingers interlocked at the base of my skull, his breath hot and sour against my cheek,” she writes.

Aguirre, 48, also takes the reader back to that era with precise, evocative detail – referencing the (terrible) 1980s fashions, the popular music blasting from the radio.

We’re talking in a coffee shop on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive – the spot where she wrote much of the book, her headphones plugged in and her music on shuffle, drowning out the East Van hipster chatter around her. She tells me about a freaky experience. She has hundreds of songs in her music library, but a few times, when she was working on a passage that referenced a particular song – for instance, Winning by Carlos Santana or Sheena Easton’s Morning Train (Nine to Five) – the song would start playing as she was writing.

“I just took that as a good sign,” she says. “The universe is telling me you’re on the right track here.”

Also a bit freaky: She writes in the book about taking haven as a newcomer to Vancouver by climbing a tree close to her home near UBC. She named the tree Cedar. More than 40 years later, she still visits that tree – which has survived the development all around it. She can’t climb it any more – it’s too tall, its lowest branches too high up – so she hugs it instead (a true Vancouverite).

“The other day I went and hugged him and I’m not kidding,” she tells me, “I felt a knot inside him move. It’s like he knew I was there.”

The attack happened on a sunny day in April. And for years, April was the cruellest month for Aguirre. She would go into grieving mode – the smell of the air and sound of the birds a trigger. There were Aprils during which she wept every day.

That has not been the case for more than a decade now; therapy has been a great healer. But when I realize that as we sat that morning and talked in that café, it was the first of April, I have to ask how she was feeling.

Fine, she responds. “Although, interestingly, in late March, when the really good weather happened … I did feel an ancient pain that is directly related to the day of the rape,” she continues. “I have accepted that it will always be there; that one indeed does not ever completely get over childhood rape but rather that one learns how to integrate it.”

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