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"In terrible moments, in moments of revolution, of war or repression, of illness or death, people react with incredible strength."
Isabel Allende is a widely acclaimed author whose book, The House of the Spirits, was made into an epic movie starring Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder. Yet in the ever more glaring light of fame, she remains emotionally available and authentic. She is, above all else, straightforward and modest an author who couldn't bring herself to say she was a writer until she had published two books.
Raised in the deeply patriarchal society of Chile, as a young woman Allende was on the vanguard of a risky feminist movement. She became a recognized journalist and television personality and repeatedly risked her life helping people she didn't even know get to safe houses and embassies following the military coup that left her father's cousin, Salvador Allende, brutally murdered and her country in the throes of unspeakable atrocities. Yet she found her greatest test of strength on a less grand stage.
I have had a very hectic life. Very often, what may have seemed like courage was really something that came about because I didn't have a choice, there really was no option. I just had to face what came.
The difficulties started very early in my life, when my father abandoned my mother and we moved from our home in Lima, Peru, to my grandfather's housein Santiago, Chile. It was the beginning of a very difficult life because Chile is strictly Catholic, a country with no divorce. So, as children, we were often rejected, and there was much aggression against my mother because she had separated from her husband instead of properly carrying on as though he would return. It took courage for her to do this. She had three children, she wasn't prepared for work, she had no money, and Chilean society told her she could not have a life outside of the one with her husband. Later, she was even more courageous when she again challenged the very society in which we lived in order to carry on a love affair that was forbidden.
During this time, I developed a very private universe where I dwelled. In a way, it protected me from the real world. We had no television at that time and children were not taken to the movies. So, I read and invented my own games, and I lived in that private world. But then, things changed. My mother married the man of the love affair. He was a diplomat, and we started traveling. The rest of my childhood was spent moving, changing places, adapting to new countries, new languages, new friends, saying good-bye to people and places. And again, I think I found in that private world of mine a safe haven where I could be myself. I was a very silent and solitary child.
All through childhood, I went to British schools where we were taught self-control. It was the utmost goal of our education. The only emotion we were allowed to express was a little surprise. I was grateful for that kind of education because I come from a family of very dramatic and tragic people, and my schooling gave me tools for self-control. The most severe school I attended was in Lebanon. Our uniform, for example, didn't have buttons. It had strings that we had to tie, because buttons were considered frivolous. It was extreme, but I loved it. I think I needed that very tight structure because I had such an unstructured life. And the discipline helped temper my character, because I tend to be exaggerated all of that comes out now in my writing and not in my life.
When I was fifteen, I discovered love. It was a revelation. I realized that I had a body, I realized that you could touch people. In my family, nobody touches. I love my mother, we're very close to this day, but we never touch. I was a child with no physical intimacy of any kind. And, all of a sudden, I discovered that you could touch other human beings. That opened up a whole other world for me. I came out of the cocoon I'd inhabited all of my childhood. I became a person really.
I got very involved in things that were external to my family and my life ... news, poetics, the community, everything that happened in the world was interesting to me. In my twenties, I became a journalist, both print and television. It was an exciting time in Chile. It was the beginning of the sexual revolution in a country that was very conservative, the beginning of the feminist movement. Very few women had ever heard the word, let alone become feminist. I embraced it from the very beginning. I was one of few. Chile is a very patriarchal society. By this time I had married Michael, and I found myself having to stand up to him, to my mother, to society. But, I never thought I was brave for that, I thought it was just an act of intelligence and there was a sort of humorous challenge about it. The worst thing that could happen was that people would talk behind my back, but it didn't matter to me.
During this period, socialism was a growing force in a country that had been very right wing. When Salvador Allende was elected in 1970, he represented a coalition of parties of the center and the left. I got involved in so many things because they were fascinating to me. I never thought that any of it would be risky or put me in danger. I lived in a long state of innocence in that sense. I didn't really become aware that there is evil and violence in the world until 1973, after the military coup. The right reacted violently to Salvador and they used all the errors of the government to sabotage and undermine the socialist experiment in Chile. We had a very serious economic, political, and social crisis that created a state of violence and hatred.
I was thirty-one when the military coup happened. Until then, I had been convinced that evil was a sort of accident, that it happened very seldom and only because something went wrong. But I believed that we were, by nature, good and that everything should turn out right if we did the right things. Then, everything changed. Within twenty-four hours. Even language changed. As a journalist, I knew what was going on, but I couldn't write about it or speak about it because the truth was censored. Many people needed help, and I wasn't allowed to help them.
In the beginning, we didn't know the rules, nobody did, because the rules were changing every day. I don't think the military even knew what was going on, what the rules were. It was all very confusing. We had never had a military dictatorship in Chile. So, we didn't know what was happening. Everything was chaos. News was censored. Nothing was confirmed.
As I got involved in helping more people get to embassies or find asylum across the border, or in hiding people, I became more aware of the repression. But, I still didn't think that by helping people I was risking my life. I became aware of that much later and, by then, it was too late to get out. I was already too involved. But, I was scared all the time. As repression became more precise and more targeted, it was more difficult to get through the loopholes. I knew now that if I was caught, I would be killed or tortured or my children would be tortured in front of me. For the first time, I had to confront my ideals and ask myself, "Who am I?" and "What do I want?" But, even then, things were happening so fast, I didn't really have time to consider too deeply, to make conscious choices. I stumbled into situations and somehow confronted whatever came, more by instinct than reason. Later, I would realize that I'd been in danger or that I'd done something I shouldn't have done because it was very risky. But, I did not make a conscious decision to be courageous or brave.
If you ask me what has been the most difficult moment in my life, the moment that has required the most strength and courage to endure, I would say it was the illness and the death of my daughter, Paula. That was far and away the worst experience in my life.
Paula was living in Madrid when she got sick. I moved to a hotel there, and stayed at her bedside for six months until finally the doctors admitted that she had severe brain damage and she was never going to wake up, she was in a profound coma. I brought her to San Francisco, an incredible trip on a commercial airplane, and from there in an ambulance to a rehabilitation hospital where she stayed for a month while I prepared my home and myself to take care of her. In every step of that ordeal, there were no alternatives. It was not a question of putting Paula in an institution, as some people thought I should. It was not a question of anything, there were never any choices.
My mother thinks that I behaved very courageously, but I was scared and in pain all the time. And I did what I had to do because there was no way out. If I could have escaped, I would have. But there was no way. I'd never known what that was like. Even in the worst situations in my life, I'd always had a way to escape. From the horror of the military coup, I could escape into exile. From a rotten marriage, I could escape through divorce. But, in this situation, there was absolutely nothing I could do. I was totally trapped, as was Paula. She was trapped in her body, and I was trapped in a situation that was worse than death.
In the beginning, I prayed that she would die before I did, because if something happened to me, who was going to care for her? And then, I started praying that she would live because I couldn't bear the idea of separating from her. I thought, let her live and when I'm dying I'll kill her and kill myself. I had this fantasy that we could both go together. And then, in the end, I finally accepted that she was in pain, and then I wanted her to die for herself, not for me, but because she was trapped.
I have seen that when people confront situations like this in which there is no alternative, they are usually very brave. It's like we have hidden resources of strength that we never use; we don't even know that we have them because we don't need them. It's just sort of an immunity of the system that is never challenged, and when it is challenged, our inner resources emerge. In terrible moments, in moments of revolution, of war or repression, of illness or death, people react with incredible strength. All those women in the concentration camps in Bosnia, raped over and over, the little girls raped in front of the grandmothers ... and they survive. We are incredibly strong. I received hundreds, thousands of letters after I wrote Paula from women who are terrified of the idea of losing a child. And they say, "If something like this happened to me, I would die." And I say, no you wouldn't, you go on living and you carry the child inside you. You go on ...
Listen Paula, I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost.
I wrote Paula without knowing that it would become a book. It was the journal I kept as I sat in the dark corridors of the Madrid hospital, trying to ward off the specter of death.
... You have been sleeping for a month now. I don't know how to reach you; I call and call but your name is lost in the nooks and crannies of this hospital. My soul is choking in sand. Sadness is a sterile desert. I don't know how to pray.... I plunge into these pages in an irrational attempt to overcome my terror. I think that perhaps if I give form to this devastation, I shall be able to help you, and myself, and that the meticulous exercise of writing can be our salvation. Eleven years ago, I wrote a letter to my grandfather to say good-bye to him in death. On this January 8, 1992, I am writing you, Paula, to bring you back to life.
I don't know if I would have been able to survive without the writing. It gave boundaries to something that was so awful it had no boundaries, that seemed so overwhelming that it occupied every space in my life and in my soul. When I wrote, I gave words to the pain, it had limits and boundaries and shape and color and texture, and then I could describe it and when I could describe it, it no longer occupied all the space, it became something else, something with which I could deal.
This is a book I wish I had never had to write. Paula died on December 6, 1992. I start all my books on January 8. So, a month after she died, I was supposed to start another book, but I was in such pain and shock that it was impossible. And my mother said, "If you don't write, you will die. You have to write." I had planned a novel before Paula got sick and I thought I would try to write that novel. One day, I was with a friend who is a Buddhist monk, and we sat together in meditation for a long time. I was deep in meditation when I heard his voice say, "Tell me the first sentence of your next book." I did not speak. My voice spoke for me. I said the first sentence of the book, Paula. It wasn't the other book I had intended to write. This book was pushing to be written. I said, without even thinking, "Listen Paula, I'm going to tell you a story so that when you wake up you will not be so lost." And I knew that was the book I was going to write. I didn't have the choice of writing or not writing it. It was there.
When I was finishing Paula, my assistant would come into my studio and find me crying every day and she would say, "Why are you writing this book, you don't have to write this book, just stop." And I would say, "No, on the contrary, this is helping me. All these tears I will have to cry anyway, but by writing I can control them, I can control the pain." In the beginning, when Paula was very sick, I had this feeling that I was standing in the middle of a hurricane with all this wind around me and I couldn't hear anything, I couldn't think, I couldn't talk, I was totally immersed in pain. And then, when I started writing, I could step out of the center of the hurricane and I could describe it, and by describing my pain and Paula's condition, I could breathe again.
When something happens in our lives that forces us to reach deep into the storage room where we have these hidden strengths and resources, and we use them, we become incredibly confident because we know that if this didn't destroy me, what can? It's not that I'm looking for trouble, but I have a feeling now that I can face pain in a better way. I always had the capacity. I just didn't know it. Whatever happens now, I am strong enough to face it.
Until now, I have never shared my past; it is my innermost garden, a place not even my most intimate lover has glimpsed. Take it, Paula, perhaps it will be of some use to you, because I fear that yours no longer exists, lost somewhere during your long sleepand no one can live without memories.
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Isabel's most recent book is Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses.
Excerpted from Women of Courage by Katherine Martin. Copyright © 1999 by Katherine Martin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.