In 2010, Herald Press published an anthology edited by Kirsten Eve Beachy, Tongue Screws and Testimonies, that contains fiction, poetry and essays which respond to the ur-text of Mennonite literature, Thieleman J. van Braght’s The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only Upon Confession of Faith, and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Saviour, From the Time of Christ to the Year A.D. 1660, or Martyrs Mirror. This anthology epitomizes the upswing of interest in the Martyrs Mirror and the subject of martyrdom in general in recent years from both creative writers and literary critics as modern-day Anabaptists investigate the role of literature in their lives.1 One of the stories in Tongue Screws, Chad Gusler’s “OMG!! Geleijn Cornelus Is Hott!!,” depicts a young Mennonite woman who is surprised to find one of the Martyrs Mirror’s illustrations erotic.
In 2011, another Beachy, Stephen Beachy, published a novel called boneyard that takes this erotic re-visioning of van Braght’s text to the extreme. boneyard uses an example of modern-day Anabaptist martyring along with some new ways of reading the Martyrs Mirror to reflect on how we should interact with both martyr stories and the ever-growing presence of violence in American society. It argues that while it is important to acknowledge martyrs’ memories, it is also necessary to focus on how to prevent violence, whether physical violence or systemic violence such as homophobia, rather than only on how to respond to it. As John D. Roth notes, the Martyrs Mirror has often been reprinted in times of political strife for use as a “polemical” text (279); similarly, boneyard takes an activist stand against violence in American society.
The memory of five Amish schoolchildren killed in a school shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, in 2006, haunts boneyard, which is ostensibly a partially-burnt manuscript written by Amish teenager Jake Yoder and transcribed by Beachy.2 The novel attempts to respond to the shooting through Jake’s tortured stories, which are presented as individual short stories, but combine to form an at least semi-coherent longer narrative. The novel’s fragmented, postmodern form is significant, as it questions whether the book even has a right to exist, or whether the tragedy it depicts is so horrible as to be unspeakable.4 It also asks: If it is appropriate to speak about the tragedy, how should we do so? Although the novel fits into the postmodern fiction tradition, which may be accused of being overly theoretical to the point of mere gimmickry and political apathy, boneyard’s treatment of a real event illustrates its status as an activist text. “Beachy’s” act of saving Jake’s writing about the shooting is an assertion that the massacre must be discussed for healing to occur, and in this way boneyard acts as a memorial for the shooting victims.
The novel draws on the Martyrs Mirror to accomplish these objectives, deriving inspiration from the big book’s status as a teaching text. As is well-known, aside from the written martyrs’ stories, the Martyrs Mirror includes 55 illustrations of its subjects by the engraver Jan Luyken,5 and most of these pictures depict gruesome deaths via methods such as drowning (1,058), being buried alive (1,094) and being burned at the stake (831). boneyard’s two halves are named for van Braght’s text, with Book 1 called “Martyrs Mirror” and Book 2 called “Bloody Theater.” Book 2 includes 12 reproductions of illustrations from the Martyrs Mirror, a fifth of the larger book’s total.6 The Martyrs Mirror’s text helps illuminate the shooting victims’ presence in boneyard, while its illustrations play a major role in Jake’s stories.
boneyard actually only mentions the five shooting victims about half-a-dozen times throughout its 300 pages. Two of these instances are in the “Note from the ‘Author’” (quotation marks in the original), which is written by “Beachy,” though all of the information he gives about the shooting is factually accurate. Three other instances occur in footnotes (62, 193, 269). The victims are hard to find in the book; they are not mentioned in the main body of the novel’s text itself. The first mention of the victims is in boneyard’s short description of the shooting. There is a single paragraph describing the location of the shooting, the timing of events in the schoolhouse leading up to the shooting, the number of students (all girls) who were shot, and possible motivations for the shooter’s actions (9-10). In other words, the information included in this paragraph is unremarkable; it simply condenses all of the facts about the shooting that could be found in any news article on the event.7
However, this description’s inclusion in the novel’s second paragraph signals the event’s importance for the text. It colors everything that comes after it. The violent sexual fantasies in Jake’s stories rub up against the real-world violence in the schoolhouse, interrogating the glorification of violence in American society. In doing so, boneyard shifts the interpretive narrative created around the shooting in its aftermath. Julia Spicher Kasdorf writes that the media chose to emphasize the Amish community’s decision to forgive the shooter rather than viewing the shooting as an example of an ongoing epidemic of violence against females in our society (“To Pasture” 331). However, the novel asks readers to focus on the violence itself rather than the response to the violence. It raises questions such as Why is it permissible for someone to easily, legally gain access to the weapons necessary for such a massacre? Why do we live in a society that has done nothing to stop the epidemic of school shootings that was already in full swing at the time of the Nickel Mines shooting, and has worsened since then? By fetishizing the Amish response to the tragedy, discourse around the shooting has chosen to ignore its broader context within a violent America, but boneyard asks us to think about this context by placing Jake firmly into the world through his sexual fantasies and membership in a rock band. He reminds readers that the shooting’s meaning is much messier than most interpretations would have it be.
The novel also interrogates the values taught by the Martyrs /irror.8 It is easy to make the connection between the self-sacrificial ethic of the figures in van Braght’s text and the victims of the shooting. For instance, one of the survivors tells the story of how her older sister asked to be shot first, apparently with the hope that this might somehow help to save the others (Kasdorf, “To Pasture” 329; boneyard repeats this story in a footnote ). While many would read this as a heroic tale, and the stories in Martyrs Mirror are often likewise read as such, boneyard questions whether the valorization of such stories and their black-and-white approach to violence fails to acknowledge how complicated violence is, and how we are all implicated in it to varying degrees. “Beachy” questions the usage of the term “hero” with regards to the shooting in a footnote (193). But at the same time, this questioning is itself questioned by the fact that it occurs in a footnote about the shooting that is completely unrelated to its referent in the main body of the text. The story of the shooting is obviously important, but here it is treated as being so unspeakable that it can only appropriately be mentioned in a seemingly irrelevant note. The text does not make it easy for us as readers to figure out what we should do. It is up to us to struggle toward an interpretation of the novel, and this struggle implies that this is how we should approach or, in the case of the Martyrs Mirror, re-approach all texts in order to make them relevant to our 21st-century lives.
“Beachy” writes that when he first met Jake while visiting Nickel Mines after the shooting, Jake, an alumnus of the school, claimed that one of the victims was his sister. “Beachy” quickly discovers that this assertion is a lie, and thus he wonders if he can “believe anything” Jake tells him (10). In immediately questioning Jake’s trustworthiness, boneyard questions its own legitimacy because it is, after all, allegedly Jake’s manuscript. Aside from being a familiar post-structuralist move highlighting the fallibility of language, this querying illustrates the problematic nature of assuming that narratives such as that of the shooting are straightforward. While the basic facts about the event can be known, the interpretation of those facts is still in question. Similarly, as will be seen, Jake discards the usual interpretation of the Martyrs Mirror, showing us that even the most traditional texts are candidates for re-visioning. The fragmented, circular nature of boneyard constantly reminds readers that there is no such thing as a simple story. “Beachy” himself even gets confused about the story he offers to the public as, although Jake has not lived in Pennsylvania for years and writes his stories while in the sixth grade in Iowa (10), “Beachy” refers to the shooting victims as Jake’s “classmates” (62n.).
boneyard’s repetitious form draws inspiration from two very different sources. The first is, again, the Martyrs Mirror, which retells the same basic story over and over, describing the unjust nature of each martyr’s persecution and extolling their steadfastness in the face of death. Each chapter in Book 1 of boneyard also retells the same basic story, with similar characters, shared names and locations, and similar sexually-infused plotlines in each chapter. Aside from mimicking van Braght’s book, this element of the novel is a nod to queer novelist Kathy Acker’s work, of which “Beachy” is a fan (114n.). Acker often repeats passages verbatim in her fiction,9 and Jake’s stories do a similar thing, most notably in the description of male authority figures as “a stern man, not without a certain appeal” (e.g., 27, 44, 127). This connection of boneyard to both a traditional Anabaptist text and to the work of one of the most important writers of postmodern fiction shows the necessity of having multiple teaching texts in one’s life, as drawing on only one set of stories is inadequate. Jake needs stories from both traditions to help him navigate his life. As will be seen, once he encounters the kind of queer, sex-infused discourse found in Acker’s work, he is able to discover new relevance for the Martyrs Mirror in his life.
boneyard’s use of repetition, which includes its reproduction of images from the Martyrs Mirror, is also a way of questioning narrative itself, and how one tells stories about atrocities. The reader keeps battering at the novel’s narrative, trying to extract truth from it, but at the same time, the truth of the narrative cannot be pinned down. The story in Book 1 of the novel just keeps getting rewashed in each chapter. As Jake says at the end of Book 1, “[w]herever you go it is the same cities and the same desert and the same river” (170). This sameness, which he echoes in his stories, may be read as indicating that there is some kind of truth contained in them, but this truth is difficult to pinpoint. The searching for this truth is the important thing, not the conclusion one makes about it.
This emphasis on the story itself rather than what the story can teach us is evident in boneyard’s portrayal of the Nickel Mines victims. The novel seemingly portrays the dead schoolchildren as martyrs in the traditional Martyrs Mirror sense: they are innocent, they choose to go willingly to their deaths instead of attempting escape10 and they die because of their religious beliefs. Although, as Kasdorf notes, the police believed that the shooting was not a hate crime against the Amish (“To Pasture” 330), the shooter would have known that the schoolhouse was an easy target because the Amish belief in nonresistance precluded the presence of any kind of security.
However, unlike the stories told in the Martyrs Mirror, which often include details such as letters written by the martyrs (e.g., 1002), accounts of their trials (e.g., 592-610) and descriptions of the weather at the time of the martyrs’ death (e.g., 992), the children’s story receives very little explicit attention in boneyard, and thus it is difficult to draw an easy moral from it. Despite “Beachy’s” brief description of the shooting, readers must bring information about the shooting from news accounts to bear in order for Jake’s despair about the shooting and subsequent loathing of his writing to make sense. The victims’ fleeting presence in boneyard pays homage to their memory but, perhaps more significantly, they serve to open up space for Jake’s much more complicated interactions with the Martyrs Mirror in Book 2, which in turn lead to the sexual themes in his manuscript, which lead to his attempted destruction of it after the shooting.
Like many of the Martyrs Mirror’s readers,11 Jake is more interested in the book’s illustrations than he is in its text. However, he is not interested in them for the artistry of Jan Luyken’s etchings or because they provoke theological reflection. He is interested in them because they involve bondage, a major theme in his fantasy life. This interest gets established in Jake’s first story from Book 1, which depicts the Jake character (who is at least similar to the Jake in Book 2, though they may not be the same; in other words, Jake fictionalizes himself just as Beachy fictionalizes himself) taking a vocabulary test involving BDSM12 terms such as “manacles,” “spread-eagle” and “spanking,” and ending up bound for several days in his language arts teacher’s barn while he is used as a sex slave (32-35). In this story, Jake‘s mother reads him the Martyrs Mirror every night before bed (26). Jake is thus aware of the traditional usage of van Braght’s book as a tool for theological instruction, but once he is able to interact with the book himself in Book 2, which is written as a memoir-esque account of his teenage years, he finds another kind of value in it. He uses the Martyrs Mirror to glean erotic inspiration for his stories. Jake writes that during puberty he would masturbate to the illustrations several times per day because they “were the only pictures of half-naked men I had access to” (191-92). Jake is gay and living in a community that is homophobic – he himself is a martyr in this sense – thus he must take whatever opportunity he can find to explore his sexuality. His desperation to explore his sexuality leads him to discover the erotic undertone of some of Luyken’s etchings.13
Readers of the Martyrs Mirror may find Jake’s reinterpretation of it shocking, but the big book’s spirit of radical transgression actually fits perfectly with Jake’s attempts to explore his sexuality, which his community views as wrong. Jake’s stories, and his use of the Martyrs Mirror as inspiration for those stories, are exercises in seeking truth in places where religious authorities claim it cannot be found.14 In this sense, his stories epitomize the spirit of Anabaptism. Jeff Gundy calls the Martyrs Mirror “an act of resistance” (43), a phrase that also aptly describes boneyard. This “resistance” in van Braght’s book makes it a kind of “queer” text in the sense that queer theorists use the term.15 That is, it is a text that questions society’s power structures and looks for inspiration in society’s margins. Thus it makes sense that boneyard, which is queer both in its political stance and in its portrayals of sexuality, would use the Martyrs Mirror as a spark for Jake’s physical and written explorations. The novel functions as a kind of literary criticism on the Martyrs Mirror, teasing out themes that most readers would miss.
Jake’s usage of van Braght’s text might seem scandalous, but his appropriation of it as pornography is an incisive commentary on the gratuitous nature of many of the Martyrs Mirror’s illustrations and the way readers have traditionally responded to them. The illustrations are titillating for those who read the Martyrs Mirror as a religious text (i.e., Amish and Mennonites, who embrace pacifism) because they depict the taboo subject of violence. Jake reveals the close relationship between sex and violence in his sexualized use of van Braght’s book. He queers the book by focusing on the “buffed” physique of the men in the images instead of on the faith-based actions that lead to their deaths (177). Similarly, “Beachy” quotes Antonin Artaud’s assertion that there is “nothing more erotically pornographic than Christ” (221), and in a footnote discusses the thin line between pain and pleasure, noting that the loss of blood can lead to feelings of euphoria (218). The Martyrs Mirror illustration that inspires this observation (reproduced in boneyard on page 219) shows an early Christian martyr, Pelagius of Cordova, having his arms chopped off.16 However, the most striking element of this picture is not the blood flowing down from Pelagius’s wounds or his severed arms on the ground. It is how androgynously17 pretty he looks. His closing eyes are framed by extravagantly long eyelashes. He is topless, and the lines of his pectoral muscles are overly rounded, sporting prominent nipples, making them look like women’s breasts. How can a teenager such as Jake think pious thoughts when confronted with such an alluring, available body? Of course Jake brings a 21st-century gaze to17th-century art; nevertheless, whether intentional or not, erotic subtexts clearly exist in some of the Martyrs Mirror’s illustrations.18 Jake merely makes them plain by documenting his sexual activities, and in doing so shows that these subtexts may be read as queer as well.
As Robert Zacharias asserts, “any engagement with a foundational communal narrative – even the writing against it – ultimately serves to affirm its importance” (177). boneyard acknowledges the importance of the Martyrs Mirror as a foundational text for Anabaptist storytelling even as it appropriates van Braght’s text for its own purposes. In doing so, boneyard places itself within the Mennonite literary tradition while also being firmly ensconced in the queer literary tradition. Its membership in these two seemingly contradictory worlds makes it an essential text in the ever-growing arena of queer Mennonite literature, which is another element of its activist nature.
There is also a model for Jake’s queering of the Martyrs Mirror in the “slash fiction” movement, which is a genre of fan fiction that, as Jane Ward writes, takes texts that are not explicitly queer and “rewrite[s] or reanimate[s them] with queer themes and images” (132). This rewriting helps make visible the presence of queer persons in settings where they have traditionally been silenced. Viewed through a slash lens, boneyard (along with the various rewritings of the Martyrs Mirror in Tongue Screws and Testimonies) may be read as Martyrs Mirror fan fiction that makes plain the presence of queers in the Anabaptist community. Pink Menno, an advocacy group for queer Anabaptists, sells a T-shirt that reads “Haunting the Church Since 1525,”19 a bold statement that claims space for the queer tradition within the Anabaptist tradition. boneyard echoes this claim in its rewriting of the Martyrs Mirror’s images.
One of Jake’s stories describes the Martyrs Mirror as being “full of pictures of men and women in pain” (63).20 While it is true that the large majority of the book’s pictures depict either torturing or executions, it is incorrect to say that it is “full” of these pictures. On average, there is approximately one illustration for every 22 pages. But this misstatement shows how for Jake the Martyrs Mirror is only about the illustrations as a form of pornography.21 He is not interested in its religious instruction even though he ultimately chooses to join the Amish church. Instead, he wants to know how he can get the most out of his body while it is on earth. Kasdorf calls the Martyrs Mirror a “[b]ook that shows us what bodies are for” (“Mightier” 68), and Jake agrees because it helps him learn about his desires. But he rejects the book’s hatred of bodies, the idea that bodies are only good for sacrificing, which Kasdorf names and also questions, instead boldly asserting that bodies are for pleasure. In his fantasies about and brief actual explorations of BDSM, Jake explores how pain can be pleasurable. Although he is unable to explicitly name what he learns, he comes to the realization that is common knowledge in the BDSM community that, aside from the physiological similarity of the body’s responses to pain and pleasure, being bound and voluntarily subjecting oneself to pain can be pleasurable because it is a form of “play.”22 It is a voluntary letting go of whatever power one has in everyday life in order to experience complete submission. In the bottom role that Jake fantasizes about, he fulfills Jesus’s command to be humble and submissive in the face of persecution, but this is a way of celebrating his God-given body instead of renouncing it. While in a sense the martyrs in the Martyrs Mirror also choose their pain in that they accept torture and death rather than recanting their subversive faith, Jake’s mimicking of their sacrifice, which ends in a happier way than their stories, is an act that affirms the beauty of life in the world and calls us to appreciate it as a gift. Jake’s questioning of the Martyrs Mirror’s ethic of self sacrifice is not new,23 but his reclamation of it for pleasure is just as radical and liberating of an act as the martyrs’ profound theological transgressions.
At another point in Book 2, Jake asks “[h]ow do you convey grief without theatrics?” when confronted with another’s death (196). This question is an essential one when considering the Martyrs Mirror because its illustrations dramatize the deaths of their subjects, (inadvertently) taking away the focus from the martyrs’ faith and instead focusing on their bodily sacrifice. Van Braght’s book is thus pornographic in that it is gratuitous and decadent, whether in its visual elements or its physical size. The martyrs become fetishized,24 and it is this spirit which is part of what makes it easy for Jake to use the book in a sexually pornographic way. Jake’s question is also relevant to boneyard’s attempt to respectfully respond to the shooting. The victims deserve to be memorialized, but does celebrating them as martyrs unfairly reduce their memories to one specific event? Jake’s text questions how martyrdom is portrayed and how we talk about tragedy.
However, Jake’s feelings about his questioning stories change after the shooting. “Beachy” explains in both “A Note from the ‘Author’” and a later footnote that Jake believes the depictions of bondage in his stories in Book 1 (which were apparently written before the shooting) “caused” the shooting (12, 68-69). Book 2 includes two stories about school shootings that are very similar to the Nickel Mines shooting, including one in which Jake escapes from the schoolhouse just before the massacre begins, which echoes the real escape of one of the schoolchildren before the shooting (231, 269). While the actual shooting is clearly on Jake’s mind, he is unable to write about it himself, instead merely mimicking it in his fragmented fiction. Even this writing-as-therapy is not enough to assuage Jake’s guilt. He cannot shake the belief that the massacre is a divine punishment for his fetish in both its written and physical forms. Therefore, he attempts to destroy his stories by throwing them into a bonfire, where “Beachy” rescues them before they are fully consumed (12).
“Beachy” acknowledges that the manuscript was so damaged in the fire that much of it was “completely illegible,” thus necessitating his own additions to the text to make it readable (12-13). This leads to the question of whether “Beachy’s” assertion that the manuscript is primarily Jake’s is true or not. It may be that Jake does not actually exist, and that “Beachy” has made the whole thing up. This possibility is raised by boneyard’s editor, Judith Owsley Brown, in an “Editor’s Note” that immediately follows “Beachy’s” author’s note (15-17). Brown then engages in an exchange of footnotes with “Beachy” in an attempt to prove that Jake does not exist and that “Beachy” is mentally unstable.25 Through this war of words boneyard questions whether it has a right to exist in light of the tragedy that it references and in light of the similarities between Jake’s BDSM fantasizing and the real-life use of bondage as a prelude to the shooting. Can one continue to write after the trauma of what some have called “the Amish 9/11” (qtd. in Burke), or is silence the only appropriate response?
In answer to this question, boneyard again takes its cue from the Martyrs Mirror. The early Anabaptist community could have fallen silent in the face of unjust, gruesomely violent persecution, but instead chose to preserve the stories of its fallen in order to learn from them. As a result, when van Braght compiled his book during a time when persecution of Anabaptists had lessened, he found no shortage of (often well-documented) stories to include.
Similarly, the real Stephen Beachy preserves the memory of the shooting’s victims by writing about them, while also acknowledging that writing about an event is not the same thing as comprehending an event, as the postmodern form of his novel shows. Ultimately, nothing is certain about boneyard other than its references to the very real events in Nickel Mines. Nevertheless, “Beachy’s” act of saving Jake’s writing about the shooting is an assertion that the massacre must be discussed for healing to occur. As Roth argues with regard to the role of martyr stories in the 21st-century Anabaptist community, there should be space for a “right remembering” of past victims (280 and throughout). But boneyard also asserts that the shooting is a symptom of America’s deeper illness: its obsession with violence and its fetishizing of guns. Jake’s queering of the Martyrs Mirror in Book 2, his insistence on reading it in a secular rather than a religious manner, is an argument that action should be taken to ensure that the modern day martyring of innocent victims such as those from Nickel Mines will end. boneyard posits that this kind of political advocacy is the best memorial we can give to those who lost their lives. Instead of focusing on martyrdom, we should focus on how to prevent the violence that brings it about.