Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Perhaps its the things I read as part of coursework, perhaps its because its a year since I realised I needed help and sought it, or perhaps its just the way the whole chaotic synchronicity of the universe just works sometimes, but one of the themes asserting itself in my life right now is that of recovery.

On a thematic level it’s the week I read Lawrence Weschler’s masterpiece on Brazil and Uruguay [see sidebar]. The theme: recovering from torture, as a newly-formed nation state, as a person released from fourteen years of solitary confinement, as people who kept their heads down and looked the other way, as the man who runs into the man he intricately tortured several times, as the citizens who fled their homeland when it mutated.

The book is part of the course I’m doing on International Human Rights in Latin America, taught by a rather film-star-like nauseatingly Disney professor who brings out the most cynical and abrasive side to me. His question: is the glass half full or half empty? My answer: half-empty and evaporating fast. The man, whom I think of as Bambi in my head, often makes me want to scream in frustration and SHAKE him, if only to burst that bubble of “love…..and tolerance…..and compassion” that he lives in and therefore believes we all have hidden away inside our mean little souls. But this week I was forced to agree with him.

Compiled from three articles in the New Yorker, the book is excellently written, engaging the reader and, much like the eye in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, in refusing to actually give shape and form to the deep horror that lies at its heart, i.e. the torture and disappearing* of innocent civilians by repressive authoritarian regimes, does not permit you to pin it down and move past it, but leaves the details up to the mind of the reader, making it your very own little hell that you then have to think about getting over.

But, I digress. It’s hard not to, it isn’t very often that work with these kinds of impulses can affect me so much.

Anyway, the point of the book, and of many of the texts [including clips from documentaries] that we’ve dealt with so far in this course is the dilemma that is recovery from these things. The main conclusion arrived at across several countries and ideologies is that the only course of action that will grant peace to the people who remain while ensuring the stability of the political situation is a truth commission, that will investigate what happened, and publicly acknowledge the horrors so that people can attain closure, both collectively and individually.**

And thence to the next thought, that of victimhood. The importance of rehabilitation on an individual level is its ability to empower people to elevate themselves from the status of agency-less victim to survivor and agent. Ugh, bad sentence. I mean that the most insidious aspect of torture or abuse is that it takes away your agency. It makes you believe that you have no voice, and even if you were spouting the Truth*** no one would believe you, so why bother? In the act of seeking validation, seeking a figure in/of authority to hear you, to acknowledge that you have a voice, you are empowered, and are no longer a victim, but become a survivor.

It is the same process that underlies therapy. To stand up and say all the terrifying thoughts out loud, to have them heard and acknowledged, is the single most rehabilitating thing about therapy. Some people go through their own personal little hells; maybe because a boy told you you’re unattractive, maybe because your parents are divorced, maybe because you were systematically lied to as a child, maybe because someone molested you, maybe because you were forced to grow up too fast. The acknowledgement of the issue is the hardest step, acknowledging it to yourself first and then, in the act of seeking help, acting to obtain affirmation. It doesn’t matter if there was a reason, if things were done in error, if the people who did them are sorry; the biggest relief comes from the fact that you can yell, IT HAPPENED.

I suppose my point, when I began writing this, was that acknowledgement is the cornerstone of recovery, even if it is only acknowledgement of the damage done, of the existence of the injury, whether you’re talking about the blood of a civilization, or the fears of a child.

*The verb is used in a special way in the context of Latin America, coming from the Spanish desaparecido or disappeared, which referred to the way people were made to disappear by the government, and would vanish without a trace. Any trace. Ever.

“¿A dónde van los desaparecidos?
Busca en el agua y en los matorrales
¿Y por qué es que se desaparecen?
Porque no todos somos iguales
¿Y cuándo vuelve el desaparecido?
Cada vez que lo trae el pensamiento
¿Cómo se le habla al desaparecido?
Con la emoción apretando por dentro

Where do the disappeared go?
Seek them in the water and the pyres.
And why is it that they disappear?
Because we are not all equal.
And when does the disappeared return?
Every time memory brings him.
How does one speak of the disappeared?
With emotion tightening you inside.
- Maná "Desaparecidos"

**In Uruguay, the government granted a blanket amnesty to everyone – both those imprisioned for their “crimes” againt the repressive military government, and the military themselves, for the atrocities they committed. This was out of fear of the still powerful military, whose strength threatened the very fragile new democracy.

In Brazil, a Presbyterian minster and the Catholic Archbishop of Sao Paulo organized a team of people to photocopy the records of abuse and violation that the military had, and then privately published a book Brasil: Nunca Mais. The book was named after Argentina’s own revelation from its dirty war – Argentina: Nunca Más.

Greg Grandin, history professor at NYU wrote a book called The Blood of Guatemala about the 200,000 people killed in the US sponsored and supported civil war.

In the Republic of South Africa, they came up with the most successful rehabilitation attempt, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. People who wanted amnesty would have to apply, their cases would be reviewed to see if they really did act under duress themselves, if they were contrite, and if they could aid the commission in finding other people implicated in worse ways – the Generals who organized the troops, the ministers who ordered the Generals, etc. They did not always get amnesty for their crimes, but the victims got closure.

In December 1981, the US Army trained Atlacatl regiment of the Salvadoran army proceeded to systematically and brutally massacre about 900 people across several hamlets in the guerilla-controlled Morazán district. El Mozote has only 2 survivors. Groups of people were herded off and shot in the back of the head, or decapitated; for days later the corpses just lay there mummifying in the sun. [The Massacre at El Mozote by Mark Danner, if you’re interested. Stay away from food.] Nobody has ever been held accountable.

I’d go on, but it’s a whole post one day, country by country, the bloodshed in Latin America.

***for a given value of Truth of course


  1. The human race horrifies me sometimes. But you re right, acknowledgement is the first step. Then, who knows?


    does the above qualify as an example for "acknowledgment"?

  3. no
    well i mean noone is denying slavery ever happened!
    its another example of political correctness and the idiotic im sorry policy of the west gone crazy.
    sorry im a little hostile to this kinda crap.