The Fearless Heart of Carolyn Forché, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance

I just finished Carolyn Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard Is True. It was brutal. It feels almost shameful to say it was a beautiful memoir because it tells the story of Forché’s time in El Salvador before and partly during the civil war there. I’m not sure why I was so surprised by the military’s brutal and grotesque killing of the poor and anyone who tried to resist the military dictatorship. I am familiar with the “Dirty War” in Argentina, and the many desaparecidos. I am also aware of the role the U.S. played in the overthrow of Allende’s government in Chile and the consequent destruction of Chile’s 250 year old democracy. But what I was not aware of was the extent of U.S. involvement in the devastation of El Salvador, and the brutality of the war itself. I realize now that saying I was not aware of the brutality of the war itself is a dangerous and ignorant thing to say. After all, war itself is the destruction of things, and in an instant humans can become just one of the things.

Carolyn Forché does not hold back on gruesome details of killing after killing by the roaming death squads. She is not only witness, but becomes deeply involved with people in the resistance and finds herself running from death squads several times. The reader does not receive a sanitized version of crimes against humanity.

So many feelings arose in my body while reading Forché’s memoir: I felt deeply sad, angry, disgusted, and fearful. I was moved by her brief encounters with Saint Oscar Romero, and while I had known he was murdered saying mass; still, I felt the sadness of his death in a more somatic way.

I was at last happy and relieved when I read that Leonel, the man to whom Forché dedicates her memoir, and, in an interesting way, is who the memoir is partially about, survives the war. I worried through the entire memoir, and carried the question inside me on most days, why and how can humans become so absolutely separated from each other that we can commit the worst crimes against each other and then on top of these crimes seek to totally annihilate a body by eviscerating it in ways most people could not imagine. I was exhausted by the truth placed in front of my eyes. Reading about person after person becoming a body falling out of a truck with its chest open or Carolyn and Leonel finding a body without ears, or eyes and limbs penetrated my body to the point that I was angry at the killers, angry at the military and angry at my government. I also felt an amazing sense of awe whenever I thought about the resistance. That people resist even when they know the cost to their life and to their body, is a miracle or a mystery that is creation in the face of destruction.

This memoir was not an easy read, but in the end, I was grateful that the author chose not to spare me the pain of knowing what goes on in the world, and worse, what goes on with U.S. involvement. This is a memoir worth reading. It’s worth coming to an understanding that we in the U.S. are not innocent bystanders and that we are not beyond being humans that have lost some piece of our humanity.

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