A Fundamentalist Christian Discovers the Greater World
Kelly Kerney Has an Awakening in College and Follows it All the Way to Guatemala
When I arrived at Bowdoin College in the fall of 1998, my parents stepped out of their Chrysler minivan and became instant celebrities. In the parking lot full of rolling luggage, Land Rovers, and Lexus models with Massachusetts plates, they shuffled about in matching Jesus t-shirts, unloading black garbage bags of which contents—my life—exhibited the heft and shifting balance of dead bodies. Everyone stared. During the course of that excruciating day, their celebrity reached far beyond that parking lot so that when I lost my father in an orientation crowd, I asked around, describing him: short with a beard, etc. etc. Finally, I’d reluctantly confess, “He’s the one in the Jesus t-shirt.” Oh! Everyone would inevitably point, he was just right there a minute ago.
Following the sea of pointing fingers to eventually find my father would turn out to be my most successful communication with my new peers for some time. It took only a day for me to realize that I did not speak the language. English, to be clear, was my first and only language, but suddenly I did not comprehend half the words I heard. Having come from a cloistered Pentecostal household, the youngest of three children and the first in my family to attend college, I was, to say the very least, completely unprepared for the elite liberal arts college campus that would be my home for the next four years.
Looking through the course offerings, I could not even understand my options. What was Sociology? Art History? Students talked about Poli Sci and I had no idea what that was, or how anyone could ever write a paper on a painting or a building. Women’s Studies? Unimaginable. Talking to my mother on the phone, I gleefully, maliciously told her I’d be signing up for a Hinduism class and she cried. In my family, the academic study of religion did not register as a concept. Religion could only be studied by true believers. My mother thought I’d be converting to Hinduism.
Vocabulary was one problem. In my home, I had never seen anyone read any book but the Bible. A straight-A student in the Ohio public school system, I had never written a research paper. Now I sat through lectures completely bewildered. What was colonialism, avant-garde, Platonic, post-industrial, gulag, iconoclast, mutually exclusive, reeducation, moral ambiguity, imperialism, suburban sprawl, and the id? I’d never heard of The Harlem Renaissance, Captain Ahab, St. Augustine, Matisse, James Joyce, The Cultural Revolution, Gloria Steinem, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Che Guevara. What does the 19th century have to do with a book written in the 1850s? Everyone around me, even the hung-over jocks, seemed to know. Modernism derailed me. Modern, it seemed, meant something more specific than being current. In fact, modernism’s context in lectures often pointed to an era in the past. My confusion compounded once I heard the words pre-modern and postmodernism as well—is the post-past now? Or is it still in the past?—then increased exponentially when I began to suspect that sometimes, sometimes, modern did just mean current.
My cultural illiteracy, however, proved to be much more overwhelming because I struggled with it constantly. If I found my professor’s lectures inaccessible, my fellow students confounded me utterly. What was lacrosse? What was a trust fund? What was Outward Bound, pad thai, frequent flyer miles, Nalgene bottles, lox, fellowships, and graduate school? Having been strictly exposed to nothing but Christian music for most of my life, I’d never listened to Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones or Neil Young. Nor had I ever seen a person of sub-continental Indian ancestry before. Were they black? Having not even glimpsed the ocean until I was sixteen, tides confused me.
I could easily go on, but I will stop here and simply say that I was, for all this, a foreign exchange student from God’s Country. Only, by the time I started college, I was no longer religious. Traumatized and angry from a repressive childhood and somehow cognizant of the circular logic and deep ignorance of the Christian fundamentalists all around me, I’d pretty much rejected that belief system by the age of fifteen. The problem with my rejection of hardcore Christianity, however, became the lack of an alternative. So when I arrived at Bowdoin and met intellectually curious and passionate professors, I finally had a model. This is where I belong, I told myself. I must not only learn this world, but master it.
My first year, though I’d abandoned my brief flirtation with Hinduism, I decided that part of this mastery must entail taking classes I could not even imagine the curriculum of. In this way, I could hopefully fill in some academic and cultural gaps. By the end of the 1999 spring semester, I’d gone all out: Ancient Greek Philosophy, Abstract Art, and Modern (it is very possible I chose the class simply for that word) Latin American History. Chosen blindly, each one of these classes affected me, though Modern Latin American History would leave me shaken and irrevocably changed.
As a product of Ohio-approved textbooks and an unwaveringly patriotic family and church, I believed the United States to be the most benevolent country on earth. In my Modern Latin American History class, the most basic facts vaporized this notion. These facts came quickly and relentlessly and, first and foremost, they came from Guatemala.
1999 was a big year for Guatemala. Indulging a brief and quickly abandoned effort at transparency, the CIA published its own unflattering account of their 1954 coup there that ousted a democratically-elected leader whose legacy echoed America’s greatest social reforms. That spring as well the U.N. released its report on the 36-year civil war that followed the coup: over 200,000 people killed and many more tortured, mutilated and disappeared, with US-backed state forces responsible for 93 percent of the violence.
Sitting in the auditorium, I listened as the professor described American trained, armed and funded death squads massacring entire villages, burning children alive, eviscerating elderly people, and dumping hundreds of bodies into mass graves for what was named the Cold War. We read witness testimonies of gang-rapes, decapitations, and amputations. All this, I understood. Plain language, plain horror. I don’t think I’d ever understood a professor so clearly before. Hearing all this, I sat in my chair doing my best not to weep. I looked around at my fellow students and was even more shocked at what I saw: fifty students with glazed eyes, doing their best to either stay awake or take accurate notes. How could anyone sleep through this? How could anyone take notes? And then, the history turned personal.
I grew up with Pat Robertson. My mother watched his 700 Club every day, praying with him through the screen and writing down his apocalyptic prophesies. He’d even produced my favorite childhood cartoon—called Superbook—in which two kids took time-traveling trips with the help of a giant Bible. By high school, I considered Pat Robertson incredibly lame, but sitting in that undergraduate class, something much, much darker emerged. By his own words, he had befriended, promoted, and funded Guatemala’s born-again military dictator, Jose Efrían Ríos Montt, who ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983. Over half the massacres in the U.N. report—an estimated 80,000 deaths— were attributed to his 17-month term.
I immediately recognized the name of Robertson’s funding organization, called Operation Love Lift. I’d grown up with Love Lift updates playing in the background, with footage of saved brown people abroad, waving to the camera. I was fairly sure my parents had even donated to it. Love Lift’s fundraising, by Robertson’s own words, had been meant to replace the funding that Congress (though not the White House and the CIA) had finally cut off in response to Ríos Montt’s brutality.
With this, the old world I thought I had escaped merged horrifically with the new. All around me, students continued to yawn and take notes. Disembowelments of pregnant women, families forced at gunpoint to rape each other. My horror deepened.
Seeing the bored students all around me, I could not help but think: what is this new world I’ve embraced? What do I not know that something like this doesn’t faze these young people at all? What struck me just a deeply as the horror of the events being relayed and my family’s own culpability in it was the habituation to the horror. Why am I the only one crying? This was more than cultural illiteracy—words and brands and foods and socioeconomic and educational differences. Suddenly, I sensed a sinister underlayer beneath me, beneath everything in American life, from media manipulation down to the banana in my lunch. Clearly it existed, had always been there, had made itself known to all these kids long ago. And I was just seeing it.
Of course, over fifteen years later, I’m now well-versed enough in history that nothing like the Guatemalan tragedy will ever surprise and affect me in that way again. Now, I’m sure I look just like those sleepy note-takers when I hear about the latest atrocity. But still, for marking my intellectual awakening, I never forgot Guatemala. Within a year of getting my first passport, I went to Guatemala. Then I went again. Once I wrote my first novel, once I figured out how to write books, I knew I had to write about it. 20th Century Guatemalan history has been fairly well-documented by scholars, NGOs, and government reports. The basic, disturbing facts of America’s Cold War involvement there are uncontested, albeit little-known. But to understand the civil war, you need to understand the revolution and the coup that followed it, to understand the revolution you need to understand the brutal, tyrannical plantation system the people had revolted against. To bring the history to the public, to move the public, I knew I had to somehow make a novel of the entire century.
As soon as I began, I disappeared much deeper into the research than I had anticipated. To grasp this history and especially the motivations and actions of people that inhabit it, I needed context that reached beyond even a hundred years. With that, I delved back to Spanish rule. I leapt forward to study CAFTA and the immigration crisis. I even found myself studying the Mayan Empire. All these eras cast light on each other—into the past, into the future—informing the narrative in surprising ways.
The most vivid emotion I felt during this time, however, was despair. When I began the research in 2006, Ríos Montt had completed a decade-long career as the president of Guatemala’s Congress. Though overwhelming evidence of his regime’s war crimes continued to pile up, several laws passed by the corrupt power structure during and after the war granted legal immunity to public officials, plus amnesty for political crimes committed between 1982 and 1986. Systematic impunity even worked its way into the Peace Accords. After the 36-year civil war ended in 1996, the hard-won agreement guaranteed no subpoenas or prosecutions for any of the players. Several participants in the genocide had been able to duck prosecution by hiding behind these laws and/or winning appeals by courts appointed by the same power structure.
When Spain tried to bring Ríos Montt to trail, Guatemalan courts ruled the extradition warrant invalid. Shortly after, Ríos Montt then ran again for Congress and won, regaining immunity from domestic prosecution. The game appeared endless and undeniably rigged in favor of flagrant impunity. Through years of research and writing, this remained the case. Then in 2011, former army General Otto Pérez Molina won the Presidency. A member of an elite right-wing death squad during the war, Pérez Molina commanded a garrison of Ríos Montt’s army in the Ixil region in 1982—the main area of focus for accusations of genocide. Later in the war, he rose to head the state’s military intelligence apparatus, which orchestrated the murder, torture, and disappearance of thousands of civilians. As sitting President, Pérez Molina could now enjoy immunity from prosecution as well.
Despite overrules of these various immunities and amnesties by international law, the legal complexity, along with violent intimidation and even murder of those pursuing criminal investigations in Guatemala allowed many officials who had orchestrated the dirty war to remain in positions of power. From there, they easily moved into the more financially lucrative organized crime circles that, unsurprisingly, soon became indistinguishable from the government. Drug cartels proliferated. The situation soaked the country in violence so widespread as to rank Guatemala as the fifth most violent country in the world. And this was peacetime. Ironically, the people elected Pérez Molina exactly for his brutal reputation since many thought only he could fight the cartels. With all this, disappearing into the research meant disappearing into the horrors and the hopelessness of both the past and the future.
In January 2012, six years into my project, everything suddenly changed. Eighty-five-year-old Ríos Montt lost his Congressional seat, thus losing immunity. Within a month, Guatemala’s Justice Department brought charges of genocide against him. The case relied on a statue adapted from the Geneva Conventions, signed by Guatemala in 1948. A year later, after many delays—including interference from higher courts, judge recusals, lawyer-switches, and paperwork requests for non-existent evidence—and after testimony that also implicated sitting President Pérez Molina (still immune), Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to eighty years in prison. Overturned on a procedural technicality ten days later, a retrial was scheduled.
As frustrating as this felt, simply reaching the trial phase and achieving a guilty verdict had been unthinkable to much of the population, to activists, and to me just a year before. The first chink in the fortress had come loose after thirty years of hammering. With this, a population that had given up on justice long ago had been offered a glimpse of hope. They seized it. Two years later, in 2015, when evidence of President Pérez Molina’s involvement in a customs fraud ring surfaced, 100,000 Guatemalans filled the National Palace plaza, demanding a trial. The mass weekly protests, unprecedented in the country’s modern history, lasted five months and echoed the 1944 popular revolution, which ousted a brutal dictator and ushered in a ten-year interlude of democracy and American-style social reforms. It was this revolution that the United States squelched in their CIA-orchestrated coup that then sparked the civil war in the first place. Amazingly, it was happening again. Pressured by a seething populace and a looming election that might strip more legislators of immunity if they lost, the Guatemalan Congress unanimously stripped Pérez Molina of his immunity.
When friends and family and even my own partner asked about my second novel, I told them simply that I was writing a book about Guatemala. I never talked about the writing and refused to even speak of the research. During the last two years of writing, as events in Guatemala began to catch up with my accounting—the continuing genocide trial of Ríos Montt, the resignation and arrest of Pérez Molina, this year’s sexual slavery trial of army commanders, and the unaccompanied minors flooding our border, like an indictment—the unraveling proved nothing short of dizzying and fortified me in my once seemingly hopeless, solitary, eternally depressing endeavor. My isolated method, I know, often hurt those closest to me, especially since the work became not only secretive, but all-consuming of my time and mental energy for nearly a decade. But still, I could not share it. Even as Guatemala began to make the news and people asked, Wait, aren’t you writing about Guatemala? I could only nod. When I completed it, I wanted my readers and especially my loved ones to see the story fresh. I wanted them blindsided. I wanted them to feel as shocked and as outraged as I did as a naive nineteen-year-old sitting in that class. Those emotions may be impossible to replicate now in our world-weary society, but I would give it my sincerest effort. I never wanted to forget that feeling, and needed to show the world what it was, what we have lost.
Feature image: Exhumation of the Ixil Triangle, Guatemala (Wiki Commons)