Guerrero’s ‘Crux’ is a Story of Self-Discovery & Cross-Cultural Mental Illness (REVIEW)
[Review first published with Latino Rebels at https://www.latinorebels.com/2023/01/19/jeanguerrerocrux/]
Originally published in hardback in 2018, Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir, will be re-released as paperback on February 7. I read Crux on vacation in 2020, and wanted to provide a review for those thinking of picking up the paperback in the coming months. Spoiler: you should.
Written by journalist Jean Guerrero, Crux follows Guerrero’s quest to better understand the life of her father, Marco Antonio Guerrero, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia when Guerrero was 11. Marco Antonio–a “genius at fixing, creating, and conjuring”–slowly slipped deeper and deeper into manias and hallucinations, eventually relinquishing his family responsibilities and fleeing to Asia and Europe before returning to Mexico.
Using the full range of her journalistic talents, Guerrero decides to learn all she can about her father’s schizophrenia diagnosis. Her investigations take her deep into Mexico, where she meets with other relatives known for their clairvoyance and mysticism. Crux is a beautifully written book about how mental illness is perceived and treated across cultures and the inevitable self-exploration that comes with loving, protecting, and learning about your family and its history.
In Crux, Guerrero writes in short, crisp sentences that makes the book easy to put down and pick back up. The short sentences, however, never come at the expense of rich scenes full of engaging characters and tense and moving interactions between them. The writing is visceral, sensory, and transportive, and Guerrero is able to write blood, pain, and violence as well as she can write calm, resolution, and acceptance.
Impressively, Guerrero is aptly able to write the metaphysical as she is the physical. The book is divided into seven sections, with each part corresponding to different parts of the Popol Vuh, or the ancient Mayan creation story. Through each section, Guerrero explores the blurring borders between realism and mysticism, science and magic, gifts and curses, and ultimately, the distance between one family member and the next.
Crux is Guerrero’s first book. She is also the author of Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda. Notably, Guerrero’s second book is quite different then her first. While Crux is a memoir, Hatemonger is certainly not. Hatemonger tracks the early life of Stephen Miller–a policy advisor and speech writer to former President Trump–through his time with the white supremacist and right-wing groups who helped him perfect his skill of twisting rhetoric into exclusionary policies. I read plenty of books focused on policy and politicians, mostly to be informed in my own work and writing, and I appreciated Guerrero’s writing style so much that I went back and picked up Crux to see what she could do if she was less inhibited by the genre (you tend to get much more freedom to write how you want in a memoir than you do in a political nonfiction bio). If you enjoy Crux, I’d certainly recommend Hatemonger as well, though while Crux is disturbing but ultimately heartwarming because of how Guerrero handles Latino families, Hatemonger only goes from disturbing to more disturbing, ironically perhaps, for the same reason: how Miller ultimately handles Latino families.
Who should read this book:
- Those interested in cross-cultural perceptions of mental illness. Crux is ranked #161 on Amazon for books about schizophrenia. While Guererro’s quest seeks answers to her father’s schizophrenia, what she finds is a complicated mixed perception of what mental illness means in different cultural contexts. While on one side of the border, it’s called schizophrenia, on another, it’s more akin to shamanism. Crux will push the reader to think about who defines mental illness, under what circumstances, and how this shapes our treatment of it and other mental illnesses.
- Writers who want to write more sensory scenes. Crux is rich in visceral descriptions of tastes, sounds, and smells that provide context to the occasional scenes of violence and tension (the frog autopsy scene really got me). While the writing was smooth and sometimes lyrical, it was the descriptions of environments that most stuck with me and could serve as writers wishing to hone their scene-writing craft.
- Journalists who want to integrate their identities into their writing. Guerrero is an Emmy-winning investigative reporter who currently writes as a columnist for the LA Times. While her investigative writing is exemplary, there are two aspects of her writing that I also appreciate. First, she continues to have her finger on the pulse of issues of race and class, often taking on complex topics like indigeneity, Blackness, and Latinidad (I particularly enjoyed her essay on Namor, the Mesoamerican anti-hero in Wakanda Forever). But secondly, Guerrero is one of a handful of journalists who openly engages with her own views and perspectives–specifically as a Latina– in her writing, instead of pretending to maintain some magical objective distance. There continues to be a growing awareness that one is always writing from some point of view and with some sort of life experience. Acknowledging this can be a struggle for authors, but Guerrero navigates it well in both her books and columns.