Carolyn Forché’s Powerful Reckoning

Carolyn Forché’s Powerful Reckoning

Our Shared Fate

Carolyn Forché’s memoir of the Salvadoran Civil War.


This past winter, after the Trump administration appointed Elliott Abrams as its special envoy to Venezuela, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota reminded him during a hearing that he once described US foreign policy in El Salvador in the 1980s as a “fabulous achievement.” At the time, Abrams was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration, which was funneling weapons, aid, and advisers to El Salvador’s right-wing government during the country’s civil war. Referring to the 1981 El Mozote massacre, one of the worst episodes of the conflict, Omar asked, “Do you think it was a ‘fabulous achievement’ that happened under our watch?” Abrams reacted with outrage: “That is a ridiculous question, and I will not respond to it. I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”

Many politicians and pundits rushed to defend him, mostly (but not always) Republicans. And in any case, Democrats have been responsible for many similar foreign policy evasions. What seemed to shock many was Omar’s perspective—and her memory. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in The New Yorker, Omar was saying to Abrams and the rest of the world that “the overseas crimes of America’s recent past would now be interrogated from a victim’s point of view. If Abrams had been associated with some of these crimes and nevertheless thrived in Washington, then that should not operate as a defense of him but as an indictment of us.” Even in an era of failed interventions in foreign countries and a devastating migrant crisis emerging from Central America on our own border, many Americans still have little collective memory of the civil war in El Salvador or those responsible for it, let alone the ability or motivation to see the war from the victims’ point of view. In fact, they have no sense of the victims at all.

El Salvador was ruled by a repressive military dictatorship for 50 years. Over time, the peasants and rebels who had been organizing against the regime banded together to form the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The United States saw the conflict only through the prism of the Cold War and sent economic and military aid to the government, resulting in the loss of 75,000 Salvadoran lives and horrifying human rights abuses. According to the journalist Raymond Bonner, writing in this magazine, the United Nations Truth Commission found that “more than 85 percent of the killings, kidnappings, and torture [in El Salvador] had been the work of government forces, which included paramilitaries, death squads, and army units trained by the United States.” One such unit was the Atlacatl Battalion, which in early December of 1981 brutally tortured, raped, and murdered nearly 1,000 people in and around the village of El Mozote. Yet even after the massacre received prominent coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post, the Reagan administration decided to continue military aid to the Salvadoran government. As Mark Danner wrote in The New Yorker more than a decade later, “That in the United States [the massacre] came to be known, that it was exposed to the light and then allowed to fall back into the dark, makes the story of El Mozote—how it came to happen and how it came to be denied—a central parable of the Cold War.”

It was also a central parable of American life in general: how we allow the architects of our foreign policy, no matter how criminal or disastrous, to remain in the influential circles of government, business, and society and continue to conduct themselves with the same immorality and incompetence. The celebration of former UN ambassador and secretary of state Madeleine Albright in feminist circles despite her statement that US sanctions against Iraq were worth the price of 500,000 Iraqi lives is just one of the more glaring examples of this amnesia.

The problem of historical memory, however, is not just one of forgetfulness and the passage of time. It also has to do with the absence of a more complex moral architecture, with an unwillingness to discover and confront the most horrific details of US intervention in foreign countries to the point that those countries and their people become part of one’s own life.

The effort to both discover and confront American citizens’ responsibility in their country’s foreign policy is at the center of the poet Carolyn Forché’s extraordinary new memoir of the war in El Salvador, What You Have Heard Is True. “It took me that long to mature and to process my experience,” she explained in a recent interview. “I had to think about it and have some distance on it…. I always wondered, will I ever finish this and are these events receding and far in the past? Will they still matter?” They did. After spending time in El Salvador during the conflict, Forché was transformed into what she would call a “poet of witness,” and her memoir gracefully traces her evolution from an ignorant but curious young American to a writer committed to documenting in her poetry the horrifying details of war.

What You Have Heard Is True also describes another evolution, that of a young American beginning to reckon with her connection to suffering in other parts of the world. As her guide to the Salvadoran Civil War, Leonel, says of Americans, “You believe yourselves to be apart from others and therefore have little awareness of your interdependencies and the needs of the whole.” Forché’s memoir is an attempt not only to illustrate those connections but also to provide readers with a path to a similar kind of moral evolution.

In 1977, Forché was a divorced 27-year-old poet living in California and teaching at a university. The previous summer, the daughter of Nicaraguan Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría had invited her to stay with her family in Mallorca, where Forché had the opportunity to translate Alegría’s poetry. Forché was drawn to the poetry because of these friends and familial connections, but her interest had not yet extended to the countries where Alegría had roots.

That soon changes when, one day in California, a man comes knocking at Forché’s door, she writes. His name is Leonel, he tells her, and he is also related to Alegría. With two young daughters in tow, he invites himself in but doesn’t explain why. Out of politeness, Forché welcomes him in, and before long, Leonel has spread blank sheets of paper all over her dining room table, drawing maps to help him illustrate El Salvador’s complicated history. He displays a clear sense of purpose, as well as a sense of entitlement. He is soon addressing the poet by his nickname for her and saying things like, “What are you thinking, Papu? You have a tendency to drift off. You have to learn to pay attention.” For her part, Forché appears helpless in the face of this pedagogic home invasion.

Leonel seems particularly obsessed with the mysterious death of an American man, Ronald Richardson, who had been living in El Salvador before he was murdered, Leonel says, “while in the custody of the Salvadoran government.” As he explains, “under orders of Colonel Chacón, Richardson was taken, along with a few political prisoners, for a short helicopter ride over the Pacific, and they were tossed alive into the sea.” Chacón, he continues, is stealing American aid to continue his gruesome activities. It seems odd that a man like Leonel, whose obvious concern is the oppressed people of El Salvador, would express such anguish over the death of one American. But Leonel—who we eventually learn is a human rights activist who may or may not be supporting the rebellion—has a very good reason for his concern: If a Salvadoran officer can kill an American without the United States investigating the murder or changing its policy toward the government, then that means anyone can be killed in El Salvador. “Do you understand what it means for a man like Chacón to receive such a message?” he asks. Leonel has other reasons for wanting to understand American intentions at this particular point in history. One year earlier, Jimmy Carter was elected president, in part because of his stated commitment to human rights in foreign policy, which Leonel and many of his fellow activists had hoped might mark a turning point in US support for El Salvador. “The highest ministers of the military government, and especially the president, made money through kickbacks and theft of American aid,” Leonel tells her. He is attempting to determine whether Carter’s commitment to human rights actually means anything in practice.

To Forché, Leonel’s motives are not entirely clear at first; she is not even certain who he really is. He calls himself a coffee farmer, “and later,” she writes, “when they took his coffee farm away, he would describe himself as a social critic and political exile and, finally, an investigator of crimes against humanity…and an adviser to politicians, Catholic priests, Carmelite nuns, diplomats, labor leaders, and at least one guerrilla commander.” But he is in pursuit of something else as well. By giving Forché the historical background of his country, Leonel hopes to entice her to visit El Salvador. “If you’re going to translate our poets, don’t you think you should know something about Central America?” he asks.

Leonel wants her to accompany him not only to understand what is going on in El Salvador but also to help document it as a poet. Forché decides to go. In a way, Leonel’s visit represents all of the ways in which mysterious foreign events impinge on some American lives, almost as side thoughts or annoyances. She seems to have grasped that Leonel might teach her not only about El Salvador but also about her own country.

Once they’re in El Salvador, Leonel sets up a regimen for Forché. In the mornings, he picks her up to meet with activists and priests but also former military commanders. “Be careful,” he warns her outside the house of some murderer she never asked to meet. In these early parts of her memoir, Forché captures her disorientation by not giving readers much insight into why she is meeting with these people. In one instance, she and Leonel meet a former general and paramilitary leader, Chele Medrano, but her Spanish isn’t good enough to allow her to grasp much of the conversation, and so we too feel as if we’re, somewhat terrifyingly, in the dark. (Leonel later admits he took her as a cover so that he had an excuse to speak to Medrano and ask about Richardson, the dead American.)

Leonel also takes her to meet some campesinos, to see for herself their abject poverty. “Eighty percent of the country lives that way, without a decent place to take a shit,” he says. He makes Forché squat over one of these makeshift toilets—putrid holes in the ground writhing with insects. To understand a country, he explains, one cannot just know its history; one must live as its people do. Leonel warns her that Americans will say “you must view conditions here in a context. What they mean is that poverty in countries such as this should be considered normal, the way of the world, something that cannot be helped.” Some of these poor people, after all, will one day become the enemies of the government against whom the United States will wage war. He wants her to understand the conditions that would inspire a rebellion in the first place.

Over time, Leonel begins to slip in the first of what will eventually become a steady accumulation of violent details about the military dictatorship’s methods. “There might be other things you don’t know,” he tells her one day. “Such as when these sons of bitches interrogate someone, they tie the man to a chair, put his hand on a table, cut off one of his fingers, and they flush it down a toilet before asking the first question.” As usual, Forché hasn’t asked to know such details, but Leonel continues. “And our Colonel Chacón has a friend he works with, and this friend claims to be a doctor but I don’t know. The doctor injects the spine of a victim with anesthetic, then he slices through the person’s abdomen with a scalpel, reaches in, and starts pulling out guts while the person is conscious and can see what is happening. And then the colonel gets to his first question.”

Forché is terrified by these images, but she also slowly starts to convert them into the prose poetry that builds throughout her book. She writes of “thawed human limbs in the mouths of dogs,” and that “no one wants to eat the fish from Lake Ilopango anymore the fish have been eating the dead,” and that “if you want to find a corpse, people say to watch for vultures or schoolchildren as both are drawn to corpses.” When Leonel takes her to one of the prisons—his access is made possible by his old ties to a warden there, as well as the lie that Forché is related to one of the inmates—her final transformation takes place. What she sees is so awful that when she returns to the car, she immediately vomits. “I want you to pay attention now, and feel what you are feeling, really pay attention because you can learn from this,” Leonel says. “This is what oppression feels like.”

At this point, Forché’s memoir undergoes a transformation, too. The conventional narrative disappears into snippets from her notebooks; the horrors of El Salvador become more pressing, more immediate. “The woman who went into the prison in Ahuachapán,” she writes, “left herself behind in a barrio called La Fosa, the grave.” Forché is, after all, now inhabiting a different reality as a different person. Leonel makes such a witness out of her that when she gets ill, her delirium merges with the images of violence she’s seeing and hearing about:

I awoke lying on a bed of ice like a fish or a corpse, the window flickering day, then night, then day…. On the ground in front of me there is a skull with the lower half of the jaw missing and beside it an empty jug that once held cooking oil. There is a picked-clean skeleton splayed flat as if it were dancing with the ground. A shoe filled with blood. He’s going to ask me if I know where I am. Yes, I do know. This is where they throw the bodies.

For Forché, the American and the Salvadoran and the fate of both their countries have become one. “If a thing exists in one place, it will exist everywhere,” she writes, quoting the Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz. That statement is one reason her book about El Salvador could come out in 2019 and still be as relevant as it would have been 35 years ago.

There is another reason as well: The violence in El Salvador continues. A peace agreement was signed in 1992, but throughout the ’90s, US-sanctioned policies ravaged El Salvador’s economy, exacerbating inequalities and increasing gang violence. As a result, the population of Salvadoran immigrants in the United States has tripled. Last year, as the Trump administration started separating families at the United States’ southern border, few media outlets recalled the historical connection between American foreign policy and the chaos in El Salvador today. It may be too much to expect that Americans—or the British, French, or Belgians, for that matter—will ever feel a moral obligation to allow migrants from the countries that their own nations attacked, occupied, or subjected to unjust and punishing economic sanctions.

But what is more bewildering is the reluctance even to acknowledge the policies that created this desperation or to call out the kind of rhetoric—such as Abrams’s “fabulous achievement”—that erases their criminal failures. Forché’s memoir is so meticulous and specific in her documentation of what war is—children staring in frightened fascination at corpses, a torture victim’s severed fingers flushed down the toilet—that her book becomes a necessary corrective to the cold, bureaucratic language of US politicians. No one would expect a country that endured such horrors to recover easily, and no one should be surprised that, nearly four decades later, its people might still be suffering from that devastation. A book like What You Have Heard Is True challenges us as Americans to see the people arriving at our border not only with empathy but also with the knowledge that their arrival is a manifestation of a shared history—of our shared fate.

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