Fear And The Word

Even where speaking out can be fatal, the truth gets told. What’s our excuse?

One morning in early September of the year 1983, I found myself in my brother-in-law’s small house in Santiago, Chile, urgently speaking into a phone. Although General Augusto Pinochet was still at that point the absolute ruler of my country and I had only been back home for two days after a decade of forced exile, I was already trying to inform the world about my impressions. On the other side of the phone line was a machine in a faraway office at The New York Times that was recording words of mine that would be published the next day on the opinion page.

My article, hurriedly scribbled that very dawn, tried to explain to foreign readers, and to myself, the strange experience of returning after such a long banishment: how the same birds of yesteryear awoke me in the morning and the same familiar smell of bread drowned my senses and yet how everything had also changed irrevocably, the dread in the streets, the country plundered for the sake of a tiny minority, the signs of resis-tance that were spreading everywhere. My words were harsh, blunt, calling things by their names, lamenting the blood and the pain and accusing the military of murder. This was the way I had written, outside Chile, for the last 10 years — it was, after all, to be free in expressing myself with unequivocal clarity that I had left my country. I told myself that now, when the dictator had allowed me to rejoin my homeland, I should not let any changes creep into my style or my vocabulary. I had to prove, more to myself than to others, that I could not be silenced.

I was able, of course, to express myself so openly because my audience and my mind continued to remain abroad. I was trying to reach not my fellow countrymen, but the rest of the world. Imprudent and denunciatory words, such as I was dictating to that recording device in New York, were forbidden in my land. Similar indictments could be found in clandestine journals that had circulated ever since the military takeover in 1973. But those underground reports, besides being dangerous to those who wrote and printed and distributed and eventually read them, had a limited scope of influence. True, they provided necessary information to opponents of the regime, keeping alive the ideas of freedom in the midst of terror and bonding together a small community of hidden heroes; but they did not touch the immense majority of the Chilean people. In the gray light of the country’s day-to-day life, everyone seemed to agree with the regime and its official lies. And dissidents know all too well that they must find ways of bridging the gap between what is thought privately and what is said publicly, must destroy the schizophrenia that a dictatorship can create in the psyche of those subjected to its dominion.

By the time of my return to Chile in 1983, an array of alternative media, legal and semi-legal radio, newspapers, magazines, had cautiously made their appearance in the country. Because they were constantly being shut down, harassed, confiscated, because the journalists were threatened, jailed, murdered, or sent into internal exile, those who worked in these noble enterprises had to be extremely careful with their words. It was a process of steadfastly testing how far they could go in their critiques, of pushing back the borders of what was permissible and facing the consequences when they overstepped the limits. The challenge was to find a way to cultivate a language of double-speak, saying one thing and signifying another, outwitting the censors and creating second and third and fourth meanings below the apparent innocence of what was being expressed. In the last few years, I had also participated marginally in such work, sending supposedly innocuous commentaries from abroad that readers in Chile could decipher and decode.

But what I was now dictating into the phone in Santiago was not at all ambiguous: It was seditious and rebellious, calling for the overthrow of the regime. As I spoke my lethal words into the receiver, I caught the eye of my eldest son, Rodrigo, who was 16 at the time. He was standing in the threshold of that tiny room, looking at me with a mixture of admiration and alarm. Suddenly, I realized where I really was. These words were meant for the world beyond Chile, but I was spouting them in Santiago, where some secret police agent might at that very instant be jotting them down not far from where I was sitting.


I waved my hand nonchalantly, trying to calm my beating heart and convince both my son and me that I was protected. If the authorities in Chile tried to do anything to me, they would incur the wrath of the international press; any action against me would be perceived as a reprisal for my opinion in The New York Times.

But my efforts to reassure myself disappeared as soon as I had finished my dictation. “I’m sorry, Mr. Dorfman,” the man in charge of the recorder said, “but something went wrong with this machine. Would you mind repeating the words one more time?”

The next 15 minutes were hell. I repeated my commentary word for word, but this time I was sweating and trembling as I listened to myself accusing the generals of torture. My confidence had evaporated: An inner voice hissed at me that if Pinochet’s agents rushed into the room and captured me, that article would never be printed and I would have no shield. It was absurd and egocentric to suppose that the secret police were that interested in me, but I could not deny my inner apprehension.

My panic persisted even after my comments had been properly recorded and I could hang up. I felt somehow naked, exposed — as if this sudden experience of fear had really returned me home, as if I could now really connect like lightning with what so many Chileans had been living, day in and day out, during my 10-year absence. This is what it meant to live under the dictatorship, this crawling dread, this certainty (or was it the uncertainty that shook me so deeply?) that at any moment men in ski masks could burst into your life and take you away for the sin of having said out loud what you believed. This is what people risked when they continued to speak out in spite of their fear, most of them unsheltered by The New York Times or CBS or human rights activists from abroad. Most Chilean dissidents were alone with their conscience and their skills and their cunning and their luck. It was, in a way, a true homecoming for me, a way of understanding how repression can shape the shadow of our every word — a lesson in fear and what it does to us.

A lesson that now, in the long aftermath of the criminal acts of terror perpetrated against the United States in September of 2001, many of us may need to learn all over again.

This story could be misconstrued as suggesting that beyond the countries that suffer dictatorship all is fine and easy for journalists and writers. As we sadly know, this is not the case. In the nations where there is freedom of the press and where you won’t be beaten up or imprisoned because of your opinions, there has always been a more insidious pressure put on those who write and investigate to tone down the truth. This pressure is ever more dangerous as democracy finds itself under siege from murderous enemies inside and outside its frontiers.

The newest forms of censorship should be understood against a backdrop of constant corporate muzzling of information and the countless hidden ways in which those in powerful positions (economic, political, religious) exert undue influence on who and what gets published. Fear is not confined to the knock on the door at midnight: There is the fear of losing a job, a promotion, advertising revenue, or access to power; the fear of ridicule; the fear of appearing too militant and crusading; the fear of being denied access, perks, and prizes. How many journalists in what we call the free world write everything they want to, speak the same words in public as they mutter to themselves softly in their own minds? How many bite their tongues, accommodate their views to those with more power? How many buck the trend toward infotainment, dare to disturb and transgress?

These dilemmas are only likely to deepen in the coming years, as humanity tries to figure out how to preserve the many forms of freedom — and not only of expression — that it has taken us millennia to conceive, legislate, and defend.

This is a critical moment for those of us who, having been given the enormous responsibility and privilege of using words to try to understand our current predicament, live in lands more fortunate than my Chile used to be. This may be precisely a time when we need to remind ourselves of the struggle carried out by those brothers and sisters of ours who, in some nearby or faraway nation, know they are risking their lives every time they write the truth. Maybe we need to tell ourselves that, if we do not speak out now when we can, we may soon, all too soon, find ourselves sharing the quandary and quest of those writers and journalists who, in countries that may not be so distant after all, are facing the possibility that they could die because they refused to remain silent.

Ariel Dorfman, a poet and novelist, lives with his family in North Carolina and teaches at Duke University. He is the author of Desert Memories (National Geographic) and Other Septembers, Many Americans, forthcoming from Seven Stories. Adapted from Autodafe (#3/4), a cultural journal based in France and published in several languages by the International Parliament of Writers. This double issue, titled “A Manual for Intellectual Survival,” features writers from around the world commenting on the social and political changes since 9/11. The English edition first appeared in 2003 and is available for $17.95 from Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts St., New York, NY 10013.

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