I’m reading Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? Goldman is a novelist, but this isn’t a novel, it’s about the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala in 1998. This is absolutely not a book I should ever read.
When I read Bury My Heart and Wounded Knee, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse I noticed a curious effect the books had on me. Aside from the anger, frustration and pain the stories in those books made me feel, I found myself walking around in fear, nervous as I turned corners on the street or walking out of a building. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, what had me so freaked out. Then I recognized it: I was identifying too intensely with the people in the books. I was walking in the street, expecting the US Cavalry or an FBI agent to come round a corner and shoot me, expecting to be ambushed as I stepped out of my apartment building.
I mentioned this to a woman I worked with at the time, and she was certain it meant I had been a Native American in a past life and that I was reliving my past experience of being persecuted by the American government. Yeah, well, maybe, but I don’t think so. I actually think there are other reasons for my fear, but the fact is I know that I have this reaction to stories of violence, true stories of violence. And not just in books. I have this response to watching Goodfellas (which hasn’t kept me from watching it several times, but the feeling is definitely there), to watching Wonderland.
I mostly spare myself from taking in stories that will trigger this intense fear. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me until I started turning the pages that this would be a story I shouldn’t read. Goldman starts us off with facing-page maps of the neighborhood in which Gerardi’s murder takes place and the house in which the murder takes place. Boxy line drawings like I might make using MSWord, no real images. Those maps were the flashing red “DANGER!” light for me, the signal that I should close the book.
But the book is this month’s selection for the reading group I’m in, and I’ve been such a slacker in the group lately, showing up the last two months without having finished the chosen book (two months ago I hadn’t even finished reading the foreward!), and I had decided that wasn’t going to be true this month.
I am a quarter of the way through the book now. And feeling gutted. Last night I came home terrified, as if I was going to walk into my house and find a thug waiting to beat me to death, as if I would turn on the light in my living room and find Bishop Gerardi’s body. This kind of irrational fear isn’t very ‘calmable’ for me: leaving the lights on makes me a target, turning them off means I can’t see when the killers come for me.
Right. Don’t try to make it make sense. It doesn’t. I’m not a high-profile investigator of human rights violations. I haven’t just published a report that names names and documents my country’s horrifically violent recent history. Oh, and I’m not in Guatemala, and it isn’t 1998. Right. It’s really just unlikely that I will meet Gerardi’s fate. Of course. Explain that to my fear response.
I passed a miserable night, getting maybe two hours of fitful sleep (with lights out but the classical music station keeping me company). And by this morning I was fine. Not sure how tonight will be, but probably a bit better.
How on earth could I have enthusiastically voted for this book as our January selection without realizing what I’d be getting myself into? In this way, I know myself extremely well, but where was all that self-awareness when I needed it? I’ve let myself get mired in a painful, ugly story that’s keeping me up nights, and somehow I didn’t see it coming.