2016-06-30
In November 1989, Ursuline sister and American citizen Dianna Ortiz was abducted in Antigua, Guatemala, and brutally tortured. After escaping--with over 100 cigarette burns on her back--she returned to the U.S. In the years following, she worked to demand the declassification of material related to her case, and founded the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition. Here, she recounts her spiritual journey over the past 14 years, as narrated in her recent book "The Blindfold's Eyes."

In your book, you say that one of your torturers told you "your God is dead." And for many years after your horrific ordeal, you write that your faith was tremendously shaken--understandably. What was your concept of God before the torture and in the first few years after the torture?

I imagine I viewed God as the protector, the shepherd who guided his sheep and protected them from danger. If they were faced with danger, the shepherd would not abandon them but shelter them and give them the strength to face whatever was to come. I made the decision to stay in Guatemala. I was convinced that despite the death threats, nothing would ever shake my faith. But on Nov. 2, 1989, the day of my abduction, I realized how wrong I was. Because in that clandestine prison, held hostage by evil in human form, my faith crumbled as if it were nothing more than a sandcastle hit by a giant wave. It was simply washed away. The Policeman told me that my God was dead, and he was right, because in that clandestine prison God died and I died as well.
It would be years later that I would come to understand that God was very much alive in that dark, cold, clandestine prison. I believe God had made Herself known to me through the visit of a fly, as well as through other things.

Could you talk a little more about the fly? At one point, I was left in the cell by myself and just felt so alone, completely estranged from God and the human family. I don't know if you've ever experienced total silence. I know silence is good, it's healthy. Silence, I've learned through the years, is a way to quiet oneself, to refocus, to encounter God. But the type of silence that I experienced in that cell-I don't know how to describe it. The only thing that comes to mind is just being in presence of evil, where there's nothing that represents life or goodness. And being immersed in that type of "environment" is enough to drive a person mad. But there was a point when I heard the buzzing of a fly.

And that was sound breaking through. Yes. And for me it was almost like music. To help me come back to reality and not to lose hope. [On that day], there was a part of me that fought so hard not to break down in tears. I didn't want my perpetrators to get the best of me. But eventually I did break down. And the fly returned. I know this sounds odd, but just having the fly on my cheek by my eye-it was like the fly was wiping my tears. And to me that represented-seen years later-that perhaps that was God. God's presence there. So for me today flies are very sacred.

A striking part of your book describes attending the Stations of the Cross a few months after your abduction. You asked yourself "why are we adoring this act of torture?" Yet later you seemed to be able to identify your own ordeal in Christ's suffering, and to have found some solace in that. To the best of my knowledge, Christianity is the only religion founded in the name of someone who was tortured. Jesus prayed to have the cup taken from him, but it wasn't--for a reason. I prayed not to be tortured. I prayed to die. And I still recall crying out to God, "Why have you betrayed me?" And slowly there evolved in me the feeling that perhaps I had not been betrayed, that perhaps I was tortured and survived for a reason. This didn't happen overnight. I was angry with God for a long, long time. It was years before I began speaking to God again or perhaps listening to God again. In describing the ripple effects of torture, you say it breaks faith with the whole world, destroying a fundamental kind of trust between people. The human race is a web of interconnection. For those of us who have survived torture, we've seen with our own eyes how torture tears apart these webs of relationships, by planting seeds of terror, indifference, and numbness. When that happens, we live with the reality that the worst form of brutality can happen to anyone at any time for no reason at all, other than to terrorize. A society where trust is destroyed loses its very humanity. There is no place for the spiritual. The very foundation of human decency has been shredded. In your book, you repudiate a facile reference to "turning the other cheek." Many people say there are unforgivable crimes. How do you respond to people who talk to you about forgiveness?

I cringe inside. I am often asked if I've forgiven my torturers, and I find it of interest that many people are fascinated with this issue. Forgiveness is a complex issue, one that I'm not sure I fully understand. Furthermore, I'm not sure if we as a people know what it is to forgive. I'm frequently told, "Dianna, you need to forgive, and then you will be healed." First, I think it's important to comment on the issue of healing. As I say in the book, no one ever fully recovers from torture--not the one who is tortured and not the one who tortures. Forgiveness does not just happen. It's a process that happens gradually when a person is ready-spiritually, mentally, and physically. It is a process that in some circumstances calls for directly confronting one's perpetrators or offenders. Well-intentioned people have said "You, as a Catholic nun, have the responsibility of setting a good example by forgiving your torturers." It's also been suggested to me that by not forgiving my torturers, I will not heal, that I will become a bitter and spiteful person. Years have gone by since my torture, and I'm still unable to say if I have forgiven my torturers. Do I feel guilty? Yeah. I have a wonderful case of Catholic guilt. However, the fact that I'm able to acknowledge this truth to myself and to God has been great. Guilt no longer has a death grip on me. At this time in my life, forgiveness for my torturers is irrelevant. What does matter is that I focus my energy on confronting torture, working to end it. Forgiveness is only one third of the equation. Truth and justice are the other elements. When we are told the truth about the torturers and those who give them their orders, maybe I'll be able to start talking about forgiveness. Torture is done by governments. It's part of the system. I may know how to forgive individuals, but how do you forgive a system? How do you forgive people who have committed horrible crimes and don't believe they've done anything wrong?

For some time after the torture, you stopped receiving Communion and bound up a Bible you had. In the book, you said you felt ashamed for some of the things that happened during the torture and that you were guilty before God. When did that start to change? When did religious practices start to bring you comfort?


I carry the memories of my torture every day of my life. There are days when the memories become more starkly etched in my mind and my life. Those are the days when I sense the presence of my torturers. I cannot see them, but I can smell them and hear them. This is a time when I'm reminded of the people I've left behind, people whose lives were discarded into the open pit. Then I start to blame myself for not being able to save their lives, for abandoning them, for not doing more. Those are the days when I feel unworthy to receive Communion, to be part of the Eucharistic family. The days when I wish I had not survived my torture.

As for my Bible, I no longer have a dark cloth around it. I guess you could say I've chosen to remove its blindfold and to find comfort in the words from scripture.

Which passages? "I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly" [John 10:10]. The Psalms. Ironically, Psalm 23-the Good Shepherd. Those words are very important to me-about not having fear, and walking in the valley of darkness. Because I have to admit it: I'm very afraid. Fear still shadows me. Each time I speak, my fear intensifies. Because I don't know how Alejandro and my torturers are going to respond. I don't know where they are. I don't know if they're in Washington, D.C. Will they retaliate? Will my government retaliate each time I speak out? In the years following your abduction, you and the Ursuline community received strange threats and packages. And occasionally I get strange calls too. And I think, "How do I respond to this?" Part of me says, "Stop what you're doing. Just go back into a typical classroom and teach children." And that's where my heart wants to be. That's where I want to be: with children. But I know that as long as torture is being practiced, the children are not safe. If I can make a small dent to make sure their world is safe, then I'm willing to give up my dream of being back in the classroom. What else has helped you heal? Taking the risk to trust people. That's been a form of healing. I always believe that I have drawn strength from others. There have always been people around me who have been very compassionate, loving, and accepting.

One of the objectives of the torturers is to ensure that even if you survive, you will never trust again. Therefore the issue of trust is also an issue of confrontation with my torturers. Each time a survivor is able to reclaim some ability to trust, we demonstrate to our torturers, and those who masterminded this evil technique, that they have yet to destroy the human spirit. [Another thing that helped me] was going to the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture, in Chicago. When I left Guatemala and returned to the States, I really felt like I was losing my mind. The whole issue of [losing] my memory. I felt like people didn't really understand what was going on, and I couldn't explain to people "This is what's happening within me" because I myself didn't know how to deal with it. I had never been in a situation where I was saturated with nightmares. Flashbacks-I had no idea. Why was I having these reactions when I would see a squirrel? Because a squirrel for me resembled a rat. People smoked cigarettes, and the smell of them took me back to the clandestine prison. When I was being tortured, my perpetrators said even if I survived, no one would believe me, no one would care. Those words remain with me even today. But what was not said was that no one would understand. I think this lack of understanding accounts for why people have a difficult time believing, grasping what torture is and what it does. Torture is spoken of so seldom. Silence encloses it in a cocoon so that most people don't have even a minimal understanding of how destructive it is.

So I think being able to find a network of people who were trained to walk with survivors, to help us understand the whole psychological aspect of torture was very important to me. I always say that if it weren't for the Kovler Center I would not be here today.

You have almost no memories of your life before the torture and remember little about your decision to become a nun. What led you to stay in religious life following 1989? Did you have to "grow back into" being a nun?

I often ask myself what led me to stay in religious life following my experience in Guatemala. I have no answer. My torturers stripped me of everything. I had no memory of what had led me to the Ursulines in the first place. So often I felt like an impostor, a fraud. I didn't belong in the community, but at the same time I did. I knew that the Ursulines were my family, even when I couldn't remember the sisters, even when some of the sisters didn't seem to understand me at all. There was something deep inside me, a feeling that I truly belonged there. Towards the end of your book, you say you stopped blaming God for not intervening in your torture with a miracle. How would you describe your faith--in humanity and in God--now?

I would describe my faith in humanity and God as a miracle. I know that my relationship with God is more mature. I despise what I have been through. I know what it's done to me personally, and to my family, and community and friends. I could dwell on the dark side of that experience. But I refuse to allow that to happen, because I feel in doing so, the torturers win. I will not let them get the best of me. So I try to use my horrible experience as a way to bring good to the human family. From that horrible experience I have grown so much, I have learned so much about people, about life, about God, about nature, about what it means to be human.
I think I was quite naïve and unrealistic in thinking and believing that God would intervene and protect people from harm. When that did not happen, I blamed God. What I've been able to learn through my journey is that God is not responsible for man's actions. We each have a conscience. I think that realization has helped to mature my relationship with God, and not see God as the person who has the answers. Each of us is created in God's image. We are brought to this earth to care for each other, to bring compassion, justice. That new understanding, that new love relationship with God helps me to stay focused and helps me to be gentle, but yet challenging of people.

My image of God has changed. For a long time, the God I had known was the God I had encountered in scripture. God as the Shepherd. God in the Eucharist. And I'm not saying that God does not exist in those two forms. But the God that is visible to me is the God in people who act to make a difference. To bring the new creation: A world that is safe for everyone. Not just human beings. Animals. All of life.

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