We Have Not Lived It

by Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager

Following our Public Program panel discussion on writing and exile,  Matilde (a Guatemalan torture survivor, activist, and a new friend of mine) left a gift from her homeland Guatemala with a note that read:

“Thank you for being a voice for survivors of Torture.”

That’s a big word, isn’t it? Torture.

It rings loudly in television, films, and literature. And in stories, it is sometimes sensational and seemingly permissible.

Every time I hear it, something stirs within me, and the incomprehensible rage, sadness, and confusion can never be put into enough words. In conjunction with Victory Gardens’ production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, it’s this very word – weighted in history, violence, and oppression – that stirs even larger questions and conversations within our patrons during our Afterwords (post-show) discussions and Public Programs events:

How can we even begin to comprehend the magnitude of torture? Is there a point where torture survivors might be able to forgive and let go? What is true justice for a torture survivor, and will they ever be whole again?

The only answer I’m ever able to give during these difficult yet necessary conversations is –

We can’t. We don’t know. And we’re not sure… because we have not lived it.

In crafting Victory Gardens’ most comprehensive public programming to date, I immersed myself in Chicago’s anti-torture movement because I wanted an opportunity to take the work that is already being done out in the community, and bring it to Victory Gardens for Death and the Maiden. I attended rallies and marches, vigils and film screenings, and met the most inspiring individuals along the way – all with a story to tell, and all with a passionate mission to end torture.

We wanted to create an opportunity for our audiences to share in this advocacy and activism, and to have an opportunity to bear witness to the real testimonies of torture survivors walking and living in this city every day. We wanted to find entry points for different communities and groups, who might not inherently identify with those experiences. We wanted to find a way for us to stand in solidarity with survivors of torture, and use Death and the Maiden as a springboard toward solution building for an international concern that can sometimes feels insoluble.

If you were to bump into Matilde or any other torture survivor on the street, you wouldn’t know the weight of the past they carry on their shoulders from those experiences just by looking at them. It isn’t until you hear their testimonies – their bold, uncensored, unapologetic testimonies – that you might start to gain some insight to the slightest idea of the effects of torture on our neighbors, friends, and strangers on the street.

I, much like most of our audiences for Death and the Maiden, will never know what it is like to be a torture survivor. But with the help of our public programming, and with new friends like Matilde, Mario, Darrell, and many others, we can be one step closer to being better advocates, better allies, and better artists.