"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
My first exposure to torture was the comic Nazi on the laugh-tracked POW comedy “Hogan’s Heroes” hissing, “Ve have vays of making you talk.” My second exposure was the excitement of watching Batman and Robin suspended above boiling oil. American children’s media has a surprisingly high number of references to torture, but our adult pop cult has even more — just count the gorgeous scarred chests and backs on an average episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Don’t even get me started on music videos. If you judge by our entertainment media, Americans find torture jazzy and titillating. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But what’s truly weird about it is that we love watching depictions of an experience less likely to happen to us than to almost any other population in the world. Americans are not crueler than other people, or even more sadomasochistic. Why do we so like to fantasize about the terrible things that the rest of the world — oh, for example, Central Americans, Africans, and Bangladeshis — can readily undergo without the benefit of fantasy?
Part of it is the nature of torture itself, which breeds obsessive horror in all persons, everywhere — including Africans and Bangladeshis. Like us, those most likely to be its victims also spend long hours wondering what it might be like to have mice inserted into their bodies or to rationally, hopefully wish to die.
But in this country, most of us are so distant from torture as an everyday reality that our imaginings of it have the quality of a Sensurround thrill. The poet Carolyn Forche (who was, years ago, a human-rights observer in El Salvador), wrote that the only way to get entertainment-oriented Americans interested in news about that country was:
” … to give
them what they want: Lil Milagro Ramirez,
who after years of confinement did not
know what year it was, how she walked
with help and was forced to shit in public.
Tell them about the razor, the live wire,
dry ice and concrete, grey rats, and above all
who fucked her, how many times and when.”
Dianna Ortiz is one American whose relationship to torture is different. That’s because she was tortured in 1989, during a two-year stint in Guatemala as a young, politically unsophisticated nun from a Kentucky convent, teaching children to read in a rural province. She was abducted from a convent garden one morning by a U.S.-trained Guatemalan army captain, a police intelligence officer and their campesino torture temp, and installed in the secret basement of a police training institute called the Politecnica. (This was a regular site for torture conducted on orders of the military high command.)
They took Ortiz not because she was any kind of radical but simply because she was a garden-variety Catholic missionary working with the poor at a time when the military wanted to seriously scare the church. (Priests and nuns, human-rights workers, doctors, labor activists and randomly chosen campesinos had been tortured in Guatemala for decades, not so much to get information as to terrorize entire trades and populations.)
Ortiz was held for only 24 hours, unlike many other torture victims, whose ordeals last, incredibly, for months or even years. But those 24 hours resulted in a complete loss of memory of everything in her life prior to being tortured. She had to be reintroduced to her own parents, and she still has almost no memory of her childhood, her college years, how she became a nun, or her pre-torture friendships.
But she has intense memories of everything from her abduction onward. Ortiz’s book, “The Blindfold’s Eyes,” is an extraordinary, moving, sharply focused account of what it is actually like to be tortured and what the experience does to the rest of your life.
Though the book credits a co-writer — Patricia Davis — “The Blindfold’s Eyes” has a strong flavor of coming direct from Ortiz, without the rounded sentences or empty flourishes that are the usual hallmark of ghostwriters. The first-person voice is mordant, self-aware, tender, often bitterly funny, the opposite of the common stereotype of the trauma victim as a soggy bladder-bag of ugly feelings, unable to control any part of herself or her world, traumatized into nothingness.
In fact, what Ortiz tells us later about her need to control the way her story is told makes it likely that she was intimately involved in the production of every sentence. (Of course, figuring out whether to think of oneself as in or out of control of one’s abuse is the painful dialectic of all victims. If you think of yourself as having been in control of it, you’re fucked because it’s your fault. But if you realize you were out of control, you’re even more fucked, because it’s much more painful to have been victimized and not have been able to do anything more about it than merely to have been victimized.)
Paradoxically, Ortiz is strong enough to show us the times that she was helpless — not just during her imprisonment, but through many occasions of frantic self-hatred, flashbacks and just being profoundly not OK in the years afterward. Sometimes, the torturers talk to her late at night in her bedroom, before she goes to sleep. What I really admire in this book is Ortiz’s willingness to show that although she was not damaged utterly and entirely by the torture, she was indeed damaged.
So: what happened to her. This is the hard part to write about, although it’s not the hardest part of the book to read. Part of the problem is the fear of re-creating Ortiz’s experiences by writing about them — as though torture could be enacted simply by being thought of — but the other part is the fear of diminishing them through the reviewer’s hurried paraphrase or, worse, making them into another piece of S/M porn.
Before it begins, when they’re alone, the campesino asks her to forgive him for all the people he’s tortured and killed. When she won’t, he says he could have saved her if only she’d come across with absolution. Then the head torturer starts things off by calling her “mi amor.” They burn her over her entire body — including her breasts and probably her genitals. They rape her, of course. Many times. One of them sticks his penis in her wounds. Is my account becoming pornographic already? I’m trying to resist it, but it’s difficult, for reasons I’ll go into below — which have nothing at all to do with Ortiz.
They force Ortiz, who entered the novitiate at the age of 17, to jerk them off and perform oral sex. They hurt her in other ways she won’t describe. (The most chilling line in the book is in a different section, where Ortiz, casually explaining her fear of dogs, says, “Dogs were used in my torture in a way that was too horrible to share with anyone. Even now, I don’t talk about that part of the torture.”) And they put her in a pit of dying and dead people who’ve already been tortured — including children. Most damaging of all, they position Ortiz’s hands around a machete and force the machete, in her hands, into another torture victim, murdering the woman.
Writing about this, I find my words keep turning lurid and winking, or fetishized like a horror movie — the way that Andrea Dworkin’s catalogs of violence and rape turn into ultra-graphic porn because of the obsessed and florid way she writes about them. Why is it hard to avoid this (probably for both writers and readers)? I’m not pornographizing because of some peculiarly American fascination with exotic sufferings (I figured out) but because of the very nature of torture and the effect it has on everyone — even “unaffected” observers like me.
We inevitably sexualize and sensationalize torture, because it is one of the few ways to make that recalcitrant experience fit in our brains. Torture does something to the minds of all who experience it — even fifth-hand, vicariously, through a report. (That’s why it’s such an effective means of controlling entire societies.) Making it sexual, or thrilling and distanced like a kill in a video game, is one of the few ways of making it safe enough to contemplate.
In America, we are so shielded from the real thing that many of us have forgotten the difference between torture and our adventure comix of it, or why it’s important to keep them sorted out. S/M porn can be perfectly dandy — there’s a fair amount of it on my bookshelf — but there would be no need for it if there were no violence.
And while there’s no real emotional pain in a masturbation fantasy, there’s little room for heroism, either. But in the middle of Dianna Ortiz’s torture, something distinctly inimical to torture happens. While her tormentors take a break, she finds herself alone in a room with a figure curled under a bloodstained sheet. When Dianna pulls back the sheet, there is a woman who “opens her eyes, and they are light brown in the black and blue of her face. Her teeth appear in the crack of her swollen lips. She is trying to smile. I catch a sob in my throat and gently take her hand. Her breasts have been cut, and maggots are crawling in them.” The woman asks Dianna’s name, and says “Dianna, be strong.” They hold hands. “For what seems like hours, we hold on to each other.”
Extraordinarily, even in the midst of what’s been done to them, Dianna and this woman resist the perpetrators’ attempts to make them feel and act inhuman.
For torture, as the most strategic and deliberate of all acts of abuse, tries to create a narrative in which the victim is completely ugly and impossible to identify with — if you will, a sort of hate movie in which the torturer is the only possible hero, the only role a viewer can comfortably relate to. The victim is made to seem completely animal, disgusting, inhuman. In Ortiz’s case, the torturers have the gall to make a video of what they do to her so that she can be controlled by the shame its release would cause her. (Astonishingly, they are not afraid that the video might shame them.)
And she is controlled by the shame, in many ways. After her ordeal, she spends years feeling guilty. Yes, guilty. You get angriest at the torturers when Ortiz exquisitely delineates how hard it is for her not to blame herself for her own attack. “Sometimes I wonder … if I fought hard enough,” she stammers to her mother superior. “I feel like I contaminate people.” The guilt is even more intense in her case: Ortiz also feels evil because of the secret abortion she has when she winds up pregnant from the rapes, because of her forced “murder” (with the machete) of the other victim, and because she unwittingly told the torturers some information that may have imperiled an activist.
The reality of torture is, in fact, so hard to look at that many non-victims unconsciously believe that victims indeed are to blame. Shortly after her release, Ortiz goes to an American shrink who tells her to stop going on about torture — “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself.” A fellow nun from her order informs Ortiz that because she ignored death threats when she was in Guatemala, “If it’s anyone’s fault what happened to you there, it’s yours.”
But Ortiz finally does stop blaming herself. (You want to cheer when, near the end of the book, she comes to the conclusion that no one has a right to judge women who have abortions.) An entirely different side of this book details Ortiz’s battle — through two insanely brave lawsuits in Guatemala and one in the United States — to bring her abductors to justice and uncover U.S. government documents about her torture.
There are plenty. It turns out that federal investigators and State Department officials made an active effort to cover up her ordeal and to discredit her — understandably, as the United States is the major source of funding for the Guatemalan military. Her torture stopped when a man with an American accent entered the room and said in English, “Shit.” Then he said, in Spanish, to the torturers, “You idiots! Leave her alone. She’s a North American, and it’s all over the news.” To Ortiz he says, “You have to forgive those guys … they made a mistake.”
Donna Minkowitz is the author of the memoir "Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates."More Donna Minkowitz.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)