Suicide Museum

Ariel Dorfman

September 8, 2023 
The following is from Ariel Dorfman's The Suicide Museum. Dorfman is a Chilean-American author, born in Argentina, whose award-winning books in many genres have been published in more than fifty languages and his plays performed in more than one hundred countries. A prominent human rights activist, he worked as press and cultural advisor to Salvador Allende’s chief of staff in the final months before the 1973 military coup, and later spent many years in exile.

“Does the name Geoffrey Davis mean anything to you?” Joseph Hortha asked.

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I didn’t respond to his question right away, even if I knew -or thought I did – the answer. Joseph had the bizarre habit of never getting to the point right away, dodging this way and that before revealing what he really wanted, where he was really going. He had come to visit me in Durham, he announced, to ask for my help in something that was important, really important, very important, but, typically, did not elaborate further. And now, as we sat on the porch of my North Carolina house in the dusk of a late, hot Spring, instead of coming out and telling me directly what was on his mind, he had asked about….

“Geoffrey Davis,” I finally said, because the silence was getting uncomfortable. “The photojournalist, if that’s who you mean. Stunning pictures from the war zones, Pulitzers for his work in Vietnam and . . . and Colombia? Whatever happened to him? He suddenly disappeared, no?”

“He became a wedding photographer. An extremely expensive one. Because he guaranteed that if a couple paid for his services they would not get divorced. A warranty good for eight years.”

“Like a car?”

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“Well, yes. He couldn’t promise that things wouldn’t break down eventually, but most couples who get through the first eight years go on to a long-lasting relationship. If they did get divorced before that deadline, he’d give them their money back, that’s how sure he was.”

“I never heard of anything like this.”

“As I said: extremely expensive. Catered only to the superrich.” Hortha did not need to explain that he was one of that elite. He had more money than he knew what to do with and I had resorted to him to ask for funds for artists in Chile, support them in the struggle against General Pinochet, and he had invariably said yes, over and over again, so that when he suggested there was something that I might help him with and he was willing to fly down to Durham from New York to explain what was so important, really, very important, I had said yes, of course, by all means, yes.

“Well, no wonder I hadn’t heard about that turn in his career,” I said.

“Right.” Hortha snorted. “Word of mouth only. So in demand that you had to jump through a series of hoops to secure his services. A preliminary photo shoot of the bride and bridegroom, and if he liked what he saw, brief sessions with members of the family and closest friends And last, more meetings with him, a month before the wedding, with the future husband, then the wife, then both together, in which he dispensed advice, pitfalls to avoid, relatives to trust or be wary of, what secrets the lovebirds needed to reveal to each other before they tied the knot—expensive, he conceded, but cheaper than therapy and much cheaper than a divorce.”

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“It seems a long process,” I said.

“The only way, according to Davis, that he could predict if the couple was bound for happiness or for hell.”

“And you paid for this, you jumped through these . . . hoops?”

“No, because he turned us down after our first session, Tamara and me.” He looked at me with those inscrutable eyes. “Tamara, you know, my wife, well, we were going to marry. Tamara.”

He waited for me to say something, indicate that I realized he was venturing into a region of darkness, wanted to gauge how much I already knew.

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“Tamara,” I said, lowering my voice a bit in sympathy, as if I were at a funeral, a way of signaling that I knew quite a bit, that I knew she had killed herself many years ago. As if I were at a funeral, because, in a way, I was, he had brought up the dead and I had to acknowledge that somehow. It was what he expected, or what I imagined he expected.

Hortha nodded, ready now to go on.

“Geoffrey Davis called me in to see him, very nice, very gentle. Didn’t break the news to me right away. Do you know, he asked, do you know what made me such a great war photographer? I had, he went on—I still have—this uncanny ability to tell what is about to happen a few seconds before it does. A picture of the future in my head coexists with my experience of the present moment, allowing me to guess—though not a guess, it flashes inside with the irrevocability, he used that word, irrevocability, of a lightning bolt. So in the most chaotic moments of combat, for instance, I’d see a little boy at the edge of my vision, there on the outer margins of the shot I was setting up in my mind, but I had the absolute certitude that he was going to walk past that corner there and be killed by that soldier there, they had not met yet, they did not know each other, no association beyond the fact that one of them would be killed by the other, but in my head, in my eyes, I already could forecast how they’d cross paths fatefully, be forever united by my camera in a common destiny. And then, one day, he said—Geoffrey Davis said to me that afternoon in his Manhattan studio—one day, he said, I quit. Of course, I had been disturbed by what I was seeing, by what I was registering, but precisely because there was nobody but me registering those images, because they would not be known to the world if I had not been there with my foresight and my camera, precisely because I was denouncing that murder, keeping that little boy alive in the photo, using his death to cry for justice and memory, I managed to deal with the horror of what my camera was capturing. Soothed myself: I’m just a spectator who observes and records what will happen anyway, thousands of similar scenes are playing out across the Earth and they only matter, they only become something more than a number, and often not even part of the statistics, they only exist for posterity if someone like me is present. Except it was a lie. As the dead piled up, I came to ask myself if it was not my presence itself that had triggered that encounter, maybe if I had not been there to predict the bullet that would shatter the boy’s brains he would have taken a different route, the soldier would have aimed a little higher and hit a window, or they would have passed by and never impacted each other at all, or maybe affected each other in a less lethal way. I was the factor, I told myself, that had conjured that atrocity into existence. I was probably wrong, Geoffrey Davis said to me that afternoon in his studio, the grief continues everywhere without my eyes to immortalize it, but if I felt that way with such conviction it was because I needed a reason to get out, I could not continue to frame each shot for maximum effect, choreograph the scene for utmost beauty and balance and filtered light, could not continue to make a work of art out of someone else’s suffering, someone else’s crime, I could not be praised by the global elite for exporting that suffering and those crimes, I had to refuse to be an accomplice. He was silent then, Geoffrey Davis, waiting for my reaction. I said: Even if it means no one will know about the boy? Because the boy will die, he’s being killed right now, he’ll be killed tomorrow. And he said: I will not be part of it, I will not risk that child or another child dying because of me, I wager that someone will be alive because I refused to participate in this celebration of sorrow.”

Hortha stopped, looking out onto the deepening dark of Durham. A fixture on the porch automatically switched on, bathing us in a pale patina of sickly light, making him more like a ghost than ever, silhouetted against the dying, incandescent sky.

“Quite a story,” I said. “Sort of unbelievable, in fact.”

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“That’s what I thought. So I said to Davis: And you are telling me this, I said, because . . . Because, said Geoffrey Davis, I cannot photograph your wedding. I only accept clients if my talent for foreseeing the future can bring joy, harmony, peace. That is how I atone. All those photos of bodies and pain, not one of them stopped one killing, one disaster. Better to mend the world one by one by one, make sure that couples make it through the first eight difficult years of marriage, one bride plus one bridegroom plus one happy child somewhere down the road, who knows what that happy child can accomplish, how my work made him into a ripple that reached others, changed things. Happiness can be as contagious as pain, Geoffrey Davis said to me. Now I play God in the fields of love, not Vietnam, not the jungles of Colombia, not the streets of Detroit. And we do not qualify, I said, Tamara and me, you cannot take us on as one more project, one more godlike artistic project? And he said: No, I cannot. I won’t lie to you. Let me give you some advice. Even if he knew I would not follow it. Free, in any case, he said, returning the ten-thousand-dollar . Tamara, he said, is a wondrous woman, I get why you are in love with her, I would fall in love myself with someone like her if I were so lucky. But she is too damaged and you are too damaged to help her repair herself. You think you will be able to, it may be what attracts you to her, that you can rescue her in place of the mother you were unable to rescue, the mother who died in Treblinka. But you will fail. You are the wrong person for Tamara. Even if you think that because you both survived the Nazis as children you understand each other as nobody else can. Understanding someone does not save them. You will accelerate what ails her. I asked: You are saying we will divorce? And he said: Worse than that, at some point she will become so desperate that she’ll—but I will say no more. Just this: your marriage will not heal this woman, she needs somebody else, your very intervention in her life will worsen her condition. And what if you are wrong? I said, and I feared that he meant suicide and I did not ask for clarity, I was scared that he might confirm my fears. I remember how my voice trembled, I felt like striking him, that’s what I felt, me, a man who is never violent. I hope I am wrong, he said. But tell me. Have you heard about Odysseus, about Aeneas, how they descended into the underworld and, having drunk from a bowl of human blood, were able to see the future that the dead know but is forbidden to the living? Well, that is why I can tell the future. I supped on that blood for so long that I was given this ability to forecast what will come. But that ability, that conscience, now demands that I no longer be complicit. I cannot take photos of what is supposed to be a jubilant occasion if I am all the time aware of the tragedy looming ahead, I cannot be responsible or an accessory, no more, no more, Geoffrey Davis said, my pact with the future and with the blood and dead of the past depends on my bringing about happiness or, at least, contentment. I wish my message to you were different, I know the depths of goodness inside you and her, but just as I could not deny that the little boy would meet the bullet waiting for him, I cannot deny now what I foresee, what I wish I did not foresee.”

A train shrieked by a few blocks away, blowing its whistle with all the melancholy of an evening in the South, saying hello and then good-bye and then mere distance and silence, only the last pink and red clouds dissipating into the darkness of magnolias and hyacinths.

Hortha waited for the sound to die down completely before going on. And then:

“I married Tamara, of course. And of course Geoffrey Davis’s predictions about how deeply damaged she was turned out to be right, more, in fact, than he had suggested. A survivor, like me, of the Second World War, though four years younger, but her survival had not been followed, as mine had been in Amsterdam, by a period of serenity, a stable childhood. The parallels between us were startling: her mother killed by the Nazis in Babi Yar, her father a militant communist who had fought the invaders. But he had fallen out with the party, was executed in one of Stalin’s postwar purges, Tamara had spent several years in a gulag with her grandparents, only escaping thanks to an uncle in the United States who had negotiated a visa for them. The experience hadn’t soured her on social change, I’d met her at a rally against nuclear weapons in New York. She reminded me, strikingly, of my mother—so maybe it was oedipal or whatever, that attraction, and Davis was right, I wanted to save her because I hadn’t been able to save my mother. I was smitten, ignored every sign that she was unbalanced, would go from fits of rage to absolute sunshine, back and forth without rhyme or reason, but I thought that I could vanquish her ailment with my love, I thought of her as I thought of my chemicals, that the right combination would lead to the right results, as if a human being, a woman in particular, could be reduced to a series of atoms or particles. We decided to marry soon after we met.”

“You ignored Geoffrey’s advice.”

“Two years,” Hortha said. “Two years after we married, Tamara drowned herself. August 26, 1970. And I felt responsible of course, felt like killing myself. ”

“But you didn’t.”

“If it hadn’t been for Salvador Allende, I think I – but a few days after I buried Tamara, on September 4th, I heard the news from Chile, that Allende had won the election, the first time in history that someone, a whole people, a whole country, trying to build a socialist society without violence, without eliminating those who opposed that process. And here I was, contemplating suicide. When you hate yourself so much, have failed so drastically, that you can’t stand sharing the same body, the same room, the same world with yourself, that you would rather die than . . . Or the world, you hate the world so much that . . . And then, that victory, as if some god were waking me up, I say some god, me, who doesn’t believe in spirits or the afterlife, but that’s what the hope felt like, a divine intervention. Except it came from a real, historical human being. Allende. Because if a country could do this, advance toward justice without shedding blood, if a social movement could change things radically without slaughtering those who disagreed, then what right did I have to despair, to use violence against myself, no matter what had happened to me, what I . . .What I…”

“And here you are. Allende would celebrate that he helped to heal you.”

“Yes. I stayed alive. You know who did kill himself a decade later? Geoff Davis. They hushed it up, the obituary in the Times spoke about a bomb or something in Beirut, but I ferreted around for the truth: he had fallen in love with one of the brides he photographed, ended up manipulating those clients with bad advice so the marriage would fail. And when it did, he returned the guarantee, slipped his way into the divorced wife’s life and absconded with her. Somehow she found out, left him—and then there must have been remorse, hard to keep on helping couples toward happiness when he had shown himself to be feloniously unreliable. So he went back to Lebanon, one of his previous haunts, apparently without a camera this time, went back and got killed. Blown up, a bullet, crossfire, he had to have been looking for death, and it found him. He was good at doling out advice to others, but didn’t see what was coming for him.”

“You sound, almost, what—that he somehow deserved that ending. Do you resent that he told you the truth?”

Hortha shook his head. “Not at all. I wish him well, in fact. I hope that he died for some purpose, trying to save a child from being killed on a road in Lebanon, maybe the road to Damascus. Putting himself deliberately in harm’s way, not to snap an exquisitely composed photo, but to save a life. Probably inevitable. He had a date with the dreadful world he’d been trying to escape.”

“So, at times knowing the future is not enough,” I said. “He didn’t foresee his own misfortune.”

“But he did see mine,” Hortha mused, swatting away a mosquito that was about to alight on his cheek. “And I determined that if I was ever again given the chance of knowing something terrible, something probable and terrible, that the future would bring, I would heed that prediction, do what I could to prevent a tragedy like the one I went through. Prevent the worst. If we’re ready to listen, of course.” He breathed deeply, drinking in the smell of magnolias and hyacinths. “No regrets this time, don’t you think?”

“I think,” I said, “that you’re being too harsh on yourself. It’s natural to turn a blind eye to appalling predictions that we’re powerless to prevent. Maybe your wife would have killed herself even sooner if you hadn’t married her.”

“Let me ask you something,” Hortha responded passionately. “If you had met someone who was going to kill themself, had a certainty, would you ignore the signs? But wait, have you? Ever met such a person? Been in that situation?”

He seemed to be implying that I could never really understand what he had gone through, and I searched for some sort of experience, and though I found nothing, of course, equivalent to his tragedy, I did light upon something, an encounter that might illustrate that I was not totally oblivious.

“Bruno Bettelheim,” I said. “Just now, in March. I was shocked.”

“Right. He put his head in a bag, suffocated. Survive the Holocaust, write wonderful books about enchantment and fairy tales and then kill yourself. With a plastic bag, for God’s sake. You met him?”

“In 1980. I was a fellow at the Wilson Center in DC, and we had dinner one evening. At some point I asked him why there were so few suicides among the inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald. He answered without wavering, We didn’t want to give the jailers the pleasure. I would never, ever, not ever do anything of the sort, he said. I’m sure you’re aware by now, Joseph, that I am not good at reading people, not like you—”

“Not me,” said Hortha. “Tamara is proof.”

“That’s different. She was too close for you to—no, I mean, nobody gets as rich as you have without knowing how to look under the surface of people, conjecture their thoughts, it’s not just a matter of inventions or acquiring properties or whatever it is that’s made your fortune. That ability is essential for anybody who begins from zero and is so successful. An ability I lack. But on that occasion, something in Bettelheim’s voice, an excess of passion, made me wonder, made me think, it’s not true. This man will someday take his own life. The intuition came to me and I dismissed it, but when I heard what he’d done to himself—”

“With a plastic bag.”

“With a plastic bag or whatever, when I read the news, I kicked myself for not having—who knows, intervened, consoled him, I should have—”

“Helped him, that’s what you feel now, felt when you found out that your intuition had been right. But you hardly knew him, and he was not going to admit there at the Smithsonian—over what?—tuna and—”

“Filet mignon—”

“Not going to admit that a bomb was ticking inside. But if he had broken down, sobbed, what if he had sobbed in your arms, desperate, would you have found the words?”

“Tried, I would have tried, I would have—I don’t know what one can say to a man in that kind of situation, I can only pray the right words would come.”

“And if it were all of humanity? If we are committing suicide and need help? Would you want to lament, years later, as you now do with Bettelheim, that you did nothing? Could you ever forgive yourself in such extreme circumstances? Not me. I made that mistake once, won’t make it again. I didn’t read the damn signs that the future was sending me, ignored them – well, not this time, this time I am going to do something, more than something about what I can foretell.”

And that is when Joseph Hortha told me about The Suicide Museum he was already building, The Suicide Museum that would awaken humanity to the danger we were facing, that would save us from the approaching apocalypse, the collective suicide we were committing.

And that there was just one piece missing from the design of that museum.

Salvador Allende was missing from the museum. Salvador Allende who had died in the Presidential Palace of La Moneda in Santiago during the military coup that had overthrown him on September 11th, 1973.

“Salvador Allende,” Hortha said. “The man who saved me from death. I need to know. I need to know if he was murdered. Or, as the Chilean Armed Forces immediately claimed, he killed himself. I need to know. I need to know if I can include the man who saved me from committing suicide, I need to know if he can be part of my Museum that will save not one man, but all the men and women and creatures on this Earth. That’s why I have come to you, Ariel. Because you were working for Allende at the Presidential Palace, you were there, close by him, when he died that morning.”

I sighed. Because it was true that, as a young thirty-one year old revolutionary, I had worked for Allende during the last months of his Presidency, true that I should have been there that fatal hour when he and democracy died in Chile. But not true, my presence at La Moneda that day. A series of incredible, random events had stopped me from getting there, had saved me. People kept assuring me that I had indeed been by Allende’s side, witnesses swore to it, I had been asked over and over again what it like to have fought heroically by the side of Salvador Allende in his final hours.

“I wasn’t there,” I said now, echoing words rehearsed by my throat and mouth during the seventeen years my exile had lasted. “I had prepared myself to take a stand, to die by Allende’s side if there was a coup, but it didn’t happen that way. I’m not sure if I should celebrate my survival or regret it, that’s something I haven’t figured out yet, maybe never will.”

“I like your modesty, Ariel. I really do. But my sources – and they are more than one – assure me that you were indeed there.”

“Well, the main source is me, and I never made it to La Moneda that morning, though I had sworn to defend Allende and our peaceful revolution, I had sworn I would die rather than surrender. Instead, here I am. Like you after Tamara’s death. Here you are, here we are.”

Hortha paused for a few seconds. Then: “Alright. I believe you. But tell me. Do you know how Allende died?”

“Some say suicide, some say murder, some say stray bullets in combat. I haven’t made up my mind. If I had really been there maybe I—”

“Good,” Hortha interrupted me. “Better still. It doesn’t, in fact, matter if you were there or not. You’re still the person I need, the only one I can trust.”

“For what?”

“You need to know, don’t you?”


“You need to know, for reasons different than mine, how Allende died. You need to go back to that day, don’t you, complete the journey to La Moneda which history or chance for whatever stole from you. So here’s my question. I am like Geoffrey Davis. I can see the impending disaster and I need help to avoid it, I can’t do it on my own. I once had a chance to change my future, my wife’s future, and I did not seize the moment, act on that warning. My question, then. Will you go to Chile and find out the truth. Can you do that, for me, for the world, for yourself?”

He did not need to ask. Of course he knew what I would answer. He knew, damn him, bless him, that I had my own reasons for wanting to know how Salvador Allende had died, he knew I would say yes, of course I said yes, damn me, bless me, of course I said yes, I will find out the truth no matter the consequences.


Excerpted from THE SUICIDE MUSEUM by Ariel Dorfman. Used with permission of the publisher, Other Press. Copyright 2023 by Ariel Dorfman.

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