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Thu

07

Jun

2007

Torture’s Long Reach - Chile & Post-Traumatic Stress 34 Years Later
Thursday, 07 June 2007 10:03
by Shepherd Bliss

“We are looking for Mr. Shepherd Bliss in order for him to travel to Chile to testify in the case of Frank (Teruggi)” a Chilean attorney inquired last week. He is gathering testimony in a slow-moving court case against those who kidnapped, tortured and assassinated my young, idealist friend Frank and another American, Charles Horman.

I worked in Chile on a church-funded project soon after graduating from divinity school, during the government of President Salvador Allende. On another Sept. 11, 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet toppled that democratically elected government, with the documented support of the United States. I have thought often of returning to Chile, but my body does not follow those travel directives from my mind.

Yet I have unfinished business in Chile. My returning to the scene of that terrible crime and the massive trauma that it caused could support justice and promote my own healing.

Frank and Horman were among the thousands slaughtered during the coup’s brutal aftermath, which continued for years and still haunts the surviving families and friends of those touched by such state terrorism. Horman’s story was told in the award-winning l982 film “Missing” by Costa-Garvas.

What was I doing in Chile, you may ask? I had recently finished seminary and been ordained a minister. Part of my theological studies had been in Latin America. I was working in Chile on artistic and journalistic projects funded by the church and Frank was one of my closest associates. I wrote articles about Chile’s opening to democracy for the “Christian Century” magazine and other publications, attended college classes there, and worked with a theater group of enthusiastic young adults from around the world called Los Saltamontes (the grasshoppers).

I remember Frank and think often of him — a playful and creative artist. Memories return. The request to return to Chile now brought tears to my eyes. Then I froze, stopping the feelings. I shivered and shuddered, though it was not cold outside on that California May day.

Thirty four years ago I remembered walking toward my office at Harvard University when I first heard of the military coup. Crushed, I fell to my knees on the sidewalk, knowing that some of my friends may have been hurt. Sept. 11 has been a Memorial Day for me since.

When I learned of Frank’s death, much of my life came to a halt. His family invited me to be a pallbearer at his funeral in Chicago, but I initially did not respond. When a plane ticket from his girlfriend Annie arrived, I realized that I had to go and carry Frank’s body. It had been so butchered that the casket was closed. What was this twenty-something doing carrying the tortured-to-death body of his good friend?

One might expect that I would appreciate such a request to return to Chile to contribute to a long-denied act of justice. But my response was in the body—a body that partly had shut down.

My tongue even lost its fluency in Spanish and my mind no longer thought clearly in the Spanish that I had begun hearing as a child living in the Panama Canal Zone with my military family.

Psychologists call such a defense mechanism “psychic numbing” — a protection of the psyche from feelings too powerful to endure. My memories of Frank and others were in Spanish, so by losing Spanish I was being protected from that terrible loss and enabled to continue living at least a partial life. Only decades later, when giving a paper at a psychology conference in Spain, did my Spanish begin to return.

The Chile invitation opened my heart to the most painful experience of my 62 years of life. I write about this personal experience to dilute its continuing hold on me. Perhaps speaking my truth may help educate and remind others about that fateful Sept. 11, l973.

You may not have consciously met anyone who was literally tortured by a professional. You can read about torture by the U.S. military going on right now, but that is different from feeling it in the body. The multiple effects of torture reach far beyond the immediate victims to their families and friends, even to the torturer and his (or her) family members and to the nation itself that sponsors or tolerates the torture. By writing my story I seek to expose and speak out against the long-term traumatic effects of torture on its multiple survivors.

The Chile request came a couple of days before our Veterans’ Writing Group met again. We’ve gathered regularly for nearly 15 years, told our stories to each other, and wrote the award-winning Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston. The veterans supported me to go to Chile, though I still feel some resistance. I want to face my fears and feelings and the ghosts I have from that time. Perhaps writing this essay can help prepare me to gather the courage to go and deal with whatever demons may be there.

I lost more than Frank; part of my soul perished, which I seek to recover. As I hear stories of veterans returning to Vietnam and finding healing there, I am inclined to go to Chile. I want to complete some things there. It is time to release and express more of my feelings and speak more of my truth, especially at this time when the U.S. government admittedly engages in torture, thus staining our nation.

I will carry Frank with me to Chile, since he is always with me. I want resolution about his death and to remember the playful times we shared before this young, idealistic man was killed. The torturers have gotten away with murder and worse for too long. Justice should be the consequence of their crimes.

(Dr. Shepherd Bliss, sb3@pon.net, owns Kokopelli Farm in Sebastopol and teaches college. The website of the Veterans’ Writing Group is www.vowvop.org.)

Dr. Shepherd Bliss, sb3@pon.net, has contributed to 22 books on a wide range of topics, including politics, literary criticism, psychology, health, theology, gender, poetry translations from Spanish, war and peace issues. He teaches college and has run an organic farm in Northern California since 1991. His articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Utne Reader, Grist, and numerous online publications, including commondreams.com, counterpunch.org, tompaine.com, dissidentvoice.org and energybulletin.net. He has an essay in the new book “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” edited by Maxine Hong Kingston (www.vowvop.org).
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