The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth by Dianna Ortiz (Marknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002)


In
Sister Dianna Ortiz’s The
Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth,
an Hispanic nun from the U.S. is kidnapped and tortured by Guatemalan
army officers with a U.S. citizen named “Alejandro” apparently
in charge. This very long, absorbing memoir attempts, among other
things, to understand who the individuals (especially Alejandro)
are, and, crucially, what Alejandro’s relation to the United
States government is. 

But
Blindfold’s Eyes is much more than a “who is Alejandro?”
political mystery, important as that endeavor is. Indeed, Blindfold’s
Eyes might be one of the best accounts ever provided
of the psychological impact and aftereffects of torture. Some torture
victims end up committing suicide because torture often eviscerates
one’s trust in life. Also, it continues traumatizing the victim
for years. Ortiz to this day sleeps with lights on and dreads the
onset of night and sleep because flashbacks of her torture and torturers
recur then, as well as the screams of Guatemalans being tortured
within earshot. She jumps when someone gets close to her unexpectedly.
Nor can she stand individuals staring at her. Climactically, she
“inherits” a shaving razor from another female torture
victim and keeps it under her pillow or otherwise close by. At one
point, several years after her November 1989 torture, she cut her
wrists. During the numerous interviews and conference speeches and
in meetings with U.S. political officials, Ortiz is virtually forced
to re-experience flashbacks of her torture and often breaks down.
Yet part of her enormous courage and integrity is that, over the
years, she continues to try to discover the identity of her tormentors
and the ultimate political or institutional context for her torture.
Pursuing this harrowing path, her scope of victims continually enlarges
as she becomes more aware of the torture and massacre of hundreds
of thousands of Guatemalans carried out by Guatemalan “security”
or army forces over decades. 

After
being burned on her back 111 times by cigarettes no matter what
answer she gave to questioning, being gang-raped by 3 Guatemalans,
hung by ropes naked over a lime-covered pit of dead and dying, groaning
men, women, and children, and having rats dropped on her head, her
faith gets ravaged. Further, the rapes led to her pregnancy. Feeling
she would have given birth to “evil,” Ortiz got an abortion. 

Now
this is an Ursuline nun who not only has made a vow of chastity
and comes from a traditional Catholic New Mexican family, but also
has to face the reaction of priests—let alone her order—to
getting an abortion (one priest informed another rape-torture nun
that her abortion was a mortal sin). She asks where God was when
she was being tortured, but gradually feels his presence through
the support community she builds, including the courageously persistent
Jennifer Harbury whose Guatemalan guerrilla-officer husband, Everardo
Bamaca, was captured, tortured, and finally executed by the Guatemalan
army, again with Washington’s knowledge, pretense of ignorance,
and tacit approval. 

Perhaps
Ortiz’s most profound form of psychic self-exploration and
networking arises from one of the most horrendous events during
the torture. Besides being filmed during the rape from angles that
falsely indicate her complicity, Ortiz cuts another woman’s
body with a machete guided by a coercive torturer’s hand and
fears that she killed her. She attempts to exorcise this diabolical
enforcement by giving archetypal status to this woman in her mind
and in all her campaigns to shed light on Guatemalan political victims
and the officials and institutions complicit in such terrorization.
Further, in an act of propitiatory exorcism, Ortiz dedicates Blindfolds
Eyes
to her “woman friend.” One of the forces that
in fact sustains her sanity and crusade is dedication to that female
image. 

 The
primary U.S. obstacle to Ortiz’s vindication is the ambassador
to Guatemala, Thomas Stroock. His office first became sensitive
to Ortiz’s account of her extreme abuse when she mentioned
that Alejandro was from the U.S., and that he might have some connection
with the State Department. Stroock’s reaction is one of outrage
that turns to assailing the basis of Ortiz’s torture, claiming
Ortiz was never burned or raped and questioned whether she was or
even is a nun. (One State Department official, Lew Anselem, claimed
that Ortiz’s burns and bruises resulted from a lesbian sado-masochistic
involvement. Anselem also claims that Ortiz kidnapped herself). 

 However,
Strooch’s rage conceals complicity. Evidence arises that Stroock
played a role in “the secret U.S. support for the Guatemalan
army.” Stroock “had supervised the CIA station chief [in
Guatemala] and…had access to the assets list.” Further,
74 arms deals from the United States were implemented by Stroock,
and some of these weapons were, according to journalist Allan Nairn,
“used in the Santiago Atillan Massacre of December 1990.”
So, this high-placed U.S. diplomat, according to Ortiz, in effect
helped cover-up a U.S.-supported Guatemalan-army genocide against
its own people. Documents would later be forthcoming showing that
Stroock as ambassador had no intention of doing justice to Ortiz’s
case. Ortiz regards Stroock as instrumental in aiding and concealing
American involvement in horrific human rights abuses by the Guatemalan
government. This, in turn, according to Ortiz, facilitated the extermination
of any critics of a brutally repressive regime favorable to U.S.
ideological and big-business interests in Guatemala.

Ortiz
sums up the cost of this dissembling by the U.S. government through
such representatives as Stroock: “…my experience [kidnapping
and torture] is a daily occurrence in Guatemala. Six people a week
are killed…for political reasons…. The army’s counter-insurgency
campaign has left an estimated 200,000 dead and another 45,000 disappeared….
Some 440 Mayan villages were wiped off the map. Hundreds of people
vanished. Their mutilated, charred remains are only now beginning
to emerge from secret mass graves.” 

“What
about the U.S.?,” she aptly asks. “When will the truth
be exhumed?”  

Two
individuals crucial to moving Ortiz’s narrative from torture
to truth are Nairn and Jennifer Harbury. At a conference in Washington
in the early 1990s on torture in Guatemala, Nairn’s well-informed
revelations about the White House’s complicity accomplished
several crucial things for Ortiz— first, it substantiated her
certainty that Alejandro was not a figment of her imagination. Second,
Nairn’s exposition of Washington’s complicity in destroying
the democratically-elected Arbenz regime of 1954 and in aiding the
Guatemalan death squads, with CIA lists targeting critics or “enemies”
of the new regime and the United Fruit Company, became liberating
and energizing for Ortiz. 

Another
significant figure in Blindfold’s Eyes is Harbury who
was on a personal crusade to save her husband from torture and execution
by the Guatemalan army. Harbury contacted Ortiz as part of a campaign
to bring together U.S. citizens who have been attacked in Guatemala
or have lost relatives there. What makes her decide to join Harbury
and further publicize their plight is her determination not to succumb
to ongoing terrorization by the Guatemalan army and, most important,
not to abandon the many Guatemalan victims whose screams still resound
in her mind. 

This
decision intensifies the psychological and emotional pressures Ortiz
has to confront for years. Ortiz is continually menaced externally
and internally. Besides the nihilistic presence of her actual torturers,
she is implicitly threatened at one point by a President of Guatemala.
Further, Guatemalan agents in dark eyeglasses track her at Washington
conferences and press meetings, as well as at a torture-treatment
center in Chicago called Su Casa. One day a box filled with dried
excrement is left at her doorstep; she also receives threatening
phone calls in Spanish from anonymous Guatemalans. She is frequently
bullied and vilified by Stroock and several other government agencies
during meetings and investigational conferences.  

It
is thus not surprising that she considers leaving the Ursulines
and keeps her “freedom” razor handy. These experiences
comprise an extremely heavy burden for anyone, let alone a nun,
to bear. 

If
Ambassador Stroock emerges as one of the salient hypocrites in Blindfold’s
Eyes
, and the mysterious Alejandro (later tentatively identified
as one Randy Capister, a CIA operative) still might roam the netherworld
of CIA-State Department covert machinations, another major scoundrel
is embodied in Guatemala-army Vice Chief of Staff Hector Gramajo,
who conducted the scorched-earth policy of the 1980s in Guatemala
and under whose tenure Ortiz’s torture occurred. This key senior
officer actually published an article in a Harvard journal (the
International Review) in which, describing Guatemalan army
maneuvers, he wrote: “You needn’t kill everyone to complete
the job…. We instituted Civil Affairs, which provides development
for seventy percent of the population, while we kill thirty percent.”
This “Civil Affairs” plan included, among other atrocities,
killing thousands of Guatemalans and annihilating over 600 villages,
which, involved murdering babies and decapitating eight-year-old
children. 

“Gramajo,”
Ortiz states, “was personally in charge of and supervised ‘the
30 percent aspect of the program’.” Asked once if his
army had a scorched-earth policy towards regime critics and suspected
opponents, he described it as a “scorched-Communist” policy. 

A
School of the Americas graduate, Gramajo, after his reign of terror
in which his death squads exterminated almost 2,000 civilians and
“disappeared” around 500 more, was awarded a scholarship
to Harvard by the United States Agency for International Development. 

This
powerful, moving memoir is not without flaws. For one thing, Blindfold’s
Eyes
suffers from insufficient use of dates. Nevertheless, this
book provides an unforgettable contribution to the literature of
the aftereffects of torture; just as valuable, it also delineates
a torture victim who develops the vitality and courage to pursue
and expose her torturers to the top levels of two savage governments.


Donald Gutierrez
has published six books and over 80 essays and articles on literary
subjects.