Several days ago I compared Dan (“I, Dan”) Rather’s and CBS’s defense of the forged Bush National Guard memos to the controversial defense about five years ago of Rigoberta Menchu’s factually challenged “autobiography,” I, Rigoberta Menchu, the bible of the multicults that won a Nobel Prize in 1992. Now that the New York Times’s use of “Fake But Accurate” in a headline to describe the memos has given that description a wide currency, I think it worth fleshing out the “I, Rigoberta” comparison.
I, Rigoberta Menchu purported to be the autobiography of a poor Guatemalan Indian who overcame extreme poverty (a younger brother starved to death, etc.) and violent oppression at the hands of Guatemala’s brutal right wing oligarchs, mainly the descendants of Europeans. Rigoberta was seen as the voice — indeed, the very embodiment — of the ignored (except when they were repressed) indigenous people of Latin America, and she quickly became a vertible icon of the multicultural left. Her book, composed from tapes recorded by E. Burgos-Debray, an ethnologist who is the wife of French Marxist theorist and revolutionary (he was in Bolivia with Che Guevara) Regis Debray, told its gripping story in moving and telling details.
Alas, many of the most dramatic details never happened. In the course of his own research in Guatemala, David Stoll, a Middlebury College anthropologist, was in the town where one of the most brutal massacres reported by Rigoberta had occurred. Make that allegedly occurred. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Mr. Stoll happened upon the town plaza of Chajul, which is near Ms. Menchu’s village of Chimel. In passing, he mentioned a key passage in Ms. Menchu’s autobiography to a villager. Wasn’t this plaza the place where the army burned prisoners, including Ms. Menchu’s brother, asked Mr. Stoll. The elderly villager looked puzzled, recalls Mr. Stoll, and told him that the army had never burned prisoners alive in the plaza. Six other townsmen told Mr. Stoll the same thing, yet Ms. Menchu’s book claimed she was an eyewitness to the torture and burning of her younger brother, Petrocinio, in that very place.
Prof. Stoll investigated further, and found that indeed most of the famed Nobel-winning “autobiography” was not fact but fiction. His results were published in 1999 as I, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Westview Press, 1999), .
In his 336-page book, Mr. Stoll painstakingly details what he says are inaccuracies in Ms. Menchu’s account. While she claims she was never formally educated, Mr. Stoll says she was, in fact, quite privileged, compared with other peasants. Vicente Menchu, writes Mr. Stoll, sent his daughter to a Catholic boarding school in Guatemala, where she was educated by nuns, receiving the equivalent of an eighth-grade education.
Ms. Menchu’s book offers up horrible stories of life on Guatemala’s plantations, where she says that as a child she was forced to work for up to eight months a year, and where she claims to have seen her two older brothers die of malnutrition. But Mr. Stoll writes that Ms. Menchu was away at school while her family worked on the plantations. Not only did she not witness her brothers’ deaths, he writes, she never set foot on the plantations as a child.
Central to Ms. Menchu’s tale is a 30-year-long struggle for land she says her family and their indigenous neighbors waged against ladinos or light-skinned Guatemalans of European descent. The ladinos subjugated her family, she says, depriving them of land to live on and farm. Mr. Stoll, however, says the land struggle Ms. Menchu points to as the catalyst for her political involvement was remembered by other villagers as a battle between Ms. Menchu’s father and his in-laws.
Stoll’s book created something of a bombshell, leading to small dose of anthropological introspection about facts, truth, politics, etc. But for the most part Menchu’s defenders did not miss a beat in defending her work. Her facts might be all wrong, they admitted, but her truth remained. In short, they sounded just like “I, Dan” Rather: the documents may not be “genuine,” but the story they told is still true. Daniel Levine, a political science professor at Michigan, pointed out that (also like “I, Dan,” in my opinion), “[p]eople don’t want to discuss this because Rigoberta Menchu is an icon.” As the Chronicle pointed out,
Most of them plan to go right on teaching it, although many will add material on the controversy. They say it doesn’t matter if the facts in the book are wrong, because they believe Ms. Menchu’s story speaks to a greater truth about the oppression of poor people in Central America.
The Chronicle’s article quotes some representative responses to Stoll’s discoveries (discoveries that were confirmed by the New York Times):
“I think Rigoberta Menchu has been used by the right to negate the very important space that multiculturalism is providing in academia,” says Marjorie Agosin, head of the Spanish department at Wellesley College. “Whether her book is true or not, I don’t care. We should teach our students about the brutality of the Guatemalan military and the U.S. financing of it.”
If Ms. Menchu sounded then just like “I, Dan” Rather now — criticism of her work, she said, amounted to nothing more than “political provocations by academics to try to discredit me” — her publisher, Robin Blackburn of Verso, sounded just like Andrew Heyward at CBS News. He stands behind Menchu’s book, he said, because it is “a very accurate and eloquent statement of how things appeared to this young woman.”
Anyone who expected scholarly organizations to be both dismayed and outraged by fiction masquerading as fact (like people today who might have expected CBS to be outraged that it has been used in a political hit) would have been sadly disappointed. Joanne Rappaport, then president of the Society for Latin American Anthropology, was indeed worried, but what worried her was Prof. Stoll’s book.
Mr. Stoll’s book, she says, is “an attempt to discredit one of the only spokespersons of Guatemala’s indigenous movement.” A professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Georgetown University, Ms. Rappaport says that Mr. Stoll is going against the grain in cultural anthropology, which no longer advocates studying indigenous people as objects. “What I find is that I am increasingly engaged in a dialogue with people I used to study,” she says. Mr. Stoll, on the other hand, she says, risks cutting off “the possibilities of dialogue” between researchers and their subjects by discrediting Ms. Menchu and establishing himself as the ultimate authority on what happened to her.
What matters, professors say, is that the kinds of crimes she wrote of were committed by the military, and indigenous people such as Ms. Menchu bore the brunt of the violence. “Even if she didn’t watch her little brother being murdered, the military did murder people in Guatemala,” says Ms. Agosin of Wellesley.
The response to Stoll’s book was so intense that the Chronicle invited comments on the controversy, published in this Colloquy. Following are some typical contributions.
Despite the fact that some of the events narrated in the book are either untrue or impossible to verify, and despite the fact that the author engages in what many historians have found to be whitewashing, self-aggrandizement, and outright falsehood, I think the book remains important to the history of anti-imperialist nationalism in this hemisphere, and I think its considerable intellectual and emotional appeal is not contingent on its status as a factual record. For these reasons I will continue to teach the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
Most of the rest were far more pedestrian.
Prof. John Peeler, Bucknell political scientist:
… the Latin American tradition of the testimonial has never been bound by the strict rules of veracity that we take for granted in autobiography. Since colonial times, testimonies have rather consistently embroidered the strict facts of the case in order to elicit sympathy from the audience.
Prof. Karen Jaimie, NYU
The problem lies in the differing opinion of the goal that this book was trying to meet. For example, if the purpose of the book was to tell a story and recount events regarding a people that would otherwise be ignored, then yes it should continue to be taught. If it was a book written to tell only the truth regardless of what effect it may have on the greater society, then no it should not continue to be taught. The point is that the effect that the book has had on outsiders who had no idea that Guatemala was facing these hardships and to what degree has been tremendous. Does it really matter that some of these events did not occur to her but have occurred to someone else? Not really…We need to globalize our perspective and not try to minimize the relevancy of the book regardless of some fabrications that may or may not exist. The experiences related were all within the realm of the possible.
A. Aristides Gamez, Professor of Spanish
I am a native from Guatemala. Although I have many doubts concerning Rigoberta’s veracity, I am inclined to defend her status, since very little has been done to recognize minorities in this world. I have heard Rigoberta speak on more than two occasions, her speech seems to me to be that of an intellectual. Therefore, it led me to believe that she knew Castillian before she became a leader that represents the many voices of Indian life. Besides, she is capable of writing intellectual poetry, which she does very well. Nevertheless, she deserves the recognition, even though her testimony may be somehow false. If her testimony is false, it, however, is based in true facts, for many of the events that she narrates, one can confirm it in any international news paper. My comments here are done in the spur of the moment, but I would like to submit a more complete statement for publication, I also would like to discuss the possibilities for reading a paper at the MLA convention
Magdalena Garcia Pinto, Director of Women’s Studies, Univ. of Missouri
I agree with Marjorie Agosin in considering that what Rigoberta Menchu is representing is not mendacity. Rather, it is a narrative about how large communities in the region are/have been oppressed. In Guatemala and other regions. Her account helps those who have not lived these experiences to imagine what our fellow Latin Americans have lived. We all wish that this portrayal of indigenous people’s experience were not as terrible, but, unfortunately for all of us—Latin Americans and North Americans—it is not. Contesting Rigoberta’s account of her and her people’s experiences, even with some hyperbolic accounts, has been challenged before. Not much came out of that. It is fictional truth, if you will, that speaks eloquently about a reality that smacks at our faces. Let Rigoberta live her life and continue seeking support for her people. We all need more humanity in our feelings and more Rigoberta’s in the world.
And what would a conversation over mendacity be without some word from the French?
Francois Lapelerie, University Librarian, Universite de la Mediterranee, Faculte de Luminy Marseille, France
This controversy is very strange for French people. Rigoberta Menchu wrote a book about her personal history, and by the way about the history of her people, the Mayas. Her book has a very high symbolic value; she, herself, is a living symbol of the fight of all oppressed people not only in Central America, but all over the world. Everybody knows that. So when we read Menchu, we don’t care about what really happened. When Thomas Edward Lawrence wrote The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, lots of facts were distorted. Shaw told us: T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was “a perfect liar”. Maybe Rigoberta is a perfect liar, too; but her book will remain a great book.
Perhaps in the twilight (or even evening) of his career “I, Dan” has become “a perfect liar” as well.
Upon further reflection it occurs to me that perhaps we are being too “judgmental” (if you’ll pardon the expression) about “I, Dan” and his defenders.
In many respects the embattled and dwindling tribe of post-modern American Democrats bears some striking similarities to the pre-modern Guatemalan Indians represented by Ms. Menchu. Formerly indigenous to the entire United States, they have suffered great attrition in the political wars of the past decade or two as their traditional folk tales propagated from above through centralized iconic establishments have proved no match for the more modern, widely distributed, participatory truth-telling techniques (blogs, talk radio, cable tv) of the marauding Republicans.
Indeed, if we approach the Tribal Democrats with the same sensitivity as Prof. Peeler (quoted above), who noted that “the Latin American tradition of the testimonial has never been bound by the strict rules of veracity that we take for granted in autobiography,” we can see that they too have their own quaint conception of truth and veracity. (That conception has been eloquently expressed by one of the leading tribal shamans, Stanley Fish. [Shaman: A member of certain tribal societies who acts as a medium between the visible world and an invisible spirit world and who practices magic or sorcery for purposes of healing, divination, and control over natural events.] For discussion of Chief Fish, see here, here, here, and here.)
Annie Ross, identified in the Chronicle Colloquy cited above as a Professor with the Institute American Indian Arts, tells of an indigenous peoples’ approach to truth that is, again, reminiscent of our own indigenous post-modern Democrats:
Indian people tell their own stories, and bear witness to events, to history, which happened to them and their family members. The concept of an inner circle of knowledge is alive and well among many Native American people. Oral histories and visual arts are means for remembering. Denial to outsiders is a means of keeping information intact, and often, to ensure safety of witnesses, or privacy.
This theme was struck over and over in Colloquy comments. Thus Anne Ewing, identified as Sanctuary Worker with the First United Methodist Church:
It seems strange to me that so many eminent scholars insist that the Mayan culture should be identical to the Euro-American, science-based, linear one to be valid. Maya is a very old culture, much battered in the last centuries, but its world view is quite different from the one in which most of us were raised….
It seems to me we are cheating our students if they only have linear, factually proved things to read. By the way, does factually proved mean recorded in the newspaper? Students need to see things that are different, world views that are radically different from theirs. If they never see anything outside their own narrow culture, where we are far surer of “fact” than ever we should be, they will have no perspective, no judgment and little learning. Ask them to find the “truth” in such a book, not just the historical narrative. That should keep them hopping for a while.
Or Dennis Seager, Assoc. Prof. of Spanish at Oklahoma State:
it would seem that [Stoll’s] book will set the discipline of anthropology back 30-40 years. Many of us in the humanities thought that such anthropological methods had ended thanks to Claude Levi-Strauss. I’ll certainly read Stoll’s book; it will provide fodder for my current project on “The Discourses of Testimony,” which include ethnography. The most glaring problems seems to be the imposition of a Western epistemology on a fundamentally non-Western (in spite of deBray’s mediation) account of events. The ontological status of testimonios is fundamentally different than that of “autobiographies” and “memoires”. All of the apparent contradictions or lack of confirmation indicated by Stoll are anticipated by Menchu’s account which she emphasizes that she and her people don’t reveal all of their secrets to outsiders (deBray and Stoll). If academics are guilty of only hearing what they want to so that they can “project their fantasies” (like Margaret Mead in Samoa to mention an anthropologist who confused the fictions told her by her informants for fact) Stoll is apparently equally guilty of listening only to those informants who confirm what he wants to hear.
Or Nancy McAndrew, Assistant in the Office of Multicultural Services.
Ms. Menchu tells a story not solely her own, nor does she claim to. She opens up to scrutiny the experiences of the Maya people. During my time in Guatemala I met people whose tales were identical to tales in Menchu’s work. Though Menchu herself did not perhaps watch her brother burn or toil under coffee plants fearing to break a twig – the Maya DO. How could a professor not present this work to his/her pupils? The custom of telling the story that belongs to many people is one that is indelible in Latino culture. Rigoberta may not be a malnourished Maya girl from the hills of Quiche, but she is the mouth of those who are.
Like Rigoberta, “I,Dan’” may have given us fraudulent documents, but, again like her, he should be studied sympathetically as an iconic mouthpiece for our embattled tribe of indigenous Democrats and their “inner circle of knowledge” that he is trying valiantly to defend against the dreaded invaders who worship the strange and alien gods of fact, linear thinking, veracity, etc.