Accounting: Restorative Justice, Reparation, Repair

Warning: this blog contains some graphic descriptions of violence, only right at the beginning should some readers prefer to skip over it.

When I sat down to contemplate this week’s blog, my reverie was interrupted by a familiar and much-beloved voice, one of the comforting soundtracks behind some truly hard times in my life. It was the song of Victor Jara, the famed Chilean singer who was brutally murdered in the bloodbath of the military coup in his country, now fifty years ago, it was on “another” historic September 11th. The hideous story of Victor’s death is still seared into my memory for its sheer sadistic horror and cruelty.

Jara was a popular, pioneering leader in the then New Latin American Song movement, which combined social justice and left-leaning political messages with folk and traditional indigenous instruments and vocal style. It is also simply beautiful. I loved it and still do, and that music was a steadfast companion to me through many lonely years. Often it was Victor’s gentle voice that sang me to sleep. I still have the bulging collection of vinyl LPs, which I cannot bear to throw away even though we don’t even have a device to play them on. Victor was one of the first.

After the original shock of the military junta seizing power and the immediate death of democratically elected President Salvador Allende, the Chilean military began rounding up “dissidents” in droves. One of the temporary makeshift detention centers and torture chambers was the National Sports Stadium. Jara was one of the thousands railroaded and imprisoned there. Confined but not silenced, Victor did what he was most inclined to do, so the story goes; he sang. Of course, that antagonized the “milicos,” the soldiers more. One soldier then “retaliated” by breaking his hands, and when that failed to silence him, he went for Victor’s skull. Finally, the soldier shot him 44 times. Victor still has not been silenced. Years later the national stadium was renamed in his honor. Victor’s widow Joan proclaimed she would spend the rest of her life seeking “seeking justice for her husband and the thousands of others killed or ‘disappeared’ by Pinochet’s regime. She died in November of 2023, one month ago, at the age of 96. So, she was no longer around to receive this news.

Now some 50 years later, Victor’s two daughters, beautiful little girls at the time, must be nearly my age. The news that burst in on my peaceful morning bringing this flood of thoughts and memories, was that Victor’s killer was recently expelled from this country, the US, where he has been living for some time.

The retired Chilean lieutenant was arrested in an operation carried out by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on October 5 in Deltona, Florida. He had previously been stripped of his U.S. citizenship on July 14 for lying on immigration forms. According to the press release announcing his arrest he was to be  returned to Chile to face charges for “his involvement in torture and extrajudicial killings during the aftermath of a military coup in 1973.” (Quoted from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement website)

So, what does all this have to do with trauma and neglect? Well, everything really. Not only because Victor helped get me through some of the worst of mine. Each day I am reminded that there is no way to address the profound injuries of trauma and neglect, without attending to the larger world. So much unbearable trauma going on out there these days. We must all be mindful to regulate our news consumption carefully, to not be swamped by it all, as more orphaned, attachment-traumatized children, attachment trauma of every ilk; war trauma, natural disaster trauma, every other kind of trauma fills the airwaves of the world.


And this also brought again to mind the complex questions of accountability, reparation and repair. I remember when I was quite young, learning the big word “restitution.” when my parents started getting small checks from Germany, the German government’s meagre attempt to compensate for, if certainly not right the heinous wrongs committed by the Nazis. The payments were a pittance, but we needed the money, and it did seem my parents were on some level gratified, at least my mom was. She was the more Pacifist leaning of the two, our dad being the much angrier. I never did find out how much they were, or when they stopped coming. How does one begin to make up for crimes against humanity? But I ask myself, how do we begin to think about forgiveness and repair when it is about evil on a grand scale? Such huge and essential questions. And how do we make peace with terrible wrongdoings and morals in jury large and small?

In the US, there is currently a national conversation going on about reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans, then descendants of victims of Jim Crow discrimination and terror, and all the sequelae including generations being blocked from owning land to farm and make homes and have something to bequeath subsequent generations. “Roughly two-thirds of Americans oppose the idea of reparations”, according to 2021 polling from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Even economically they have never recovered, let alone all the other ways. After now a century and a half, African Americans are far from “catching up,” and emerging from the many-faceted setback. And how do we really begin to make up for that? There are complex issues about affirmative action, diversity hiring, and measures to correct imbalances in numbers in workplaces and educational institutions. What constitutes just corrections of past crimes, and who pays?

I have known numbers of survivors of traumatic childhoods who were repelled and proudly refused to receive/accept inheritances from abusive parents, thinking of it as “blood money,” not wanting either to need or dignify it.  Some of them could have in fact, really used it. And I do understand perhaps wanting to cut ties with a terrible history. It is rather similar to when Somehow no one seems to want to buy a house where something terrible happened as if horror intractably and permanently permeates the walls, ceilings and carpets.

I do however take some solace and view some value in gestures of reconciliation. When I have made mistakes, thankfully none as large and dramatic as the ones we are speaking about, the effort and the opportunity to do something to in the service of healing, is a comfort, and hopefully not only to me.  Jim Thorpe the historic First Nation athlete stripped of his Olympic world records and prizes did not live long enough to see the medals and trophies restored. Even though the way his life was irrevocably altered by the gross injustice of how they were stripped from him, it may have been some consolation nonetheless. The same is true for Joan Jara.  


Recently I have been steeped in thought about how to respond to, how to address, face and emerge from terrible wrongs that I may have wittingly or unwittingly committed. As a child of neglect always striving to be visible, to be “this enough” or “that enough”, I always viewed myself or worked hard to be a “good girl.” Similarly, I thought of myself perennially as a victim, at least for many, many years. We all do shadowy things sometimes, great and small. Thankfully none of mine have been too great, but I hate to look at them at all. The Twelve Step Program insists that we make an accounting. If we admit and amend, our recovery requires it. And it may demonstrate that we are at least in the process of learning to do better.

I remember when some years after the fact, I had a long-delayed flashback revealing that the most serious bicycle accident of my life, which resulted in a concussion, loss of consciousness and a night in intensive care with a brain bleed, had in fact involved a car. It was hit and run. It chilled me to realize that. And how many abuses, and childhoods of lethal neglect go unaccounted for. Where I can see the impulse to flee and avoid looking straight at what any of us is capable of, I work hard to ensure I will never do that. I continue to strive to be all about repair, however challenging and complicated.

It was challenging to choose just one Victor Jara song to be today’s song. I invite you to visit his archives of beautiful music and lyrics. This one, Manifesto, says in part:

que el canto tiene sentido 
cuando palpita en las venas 
del que morirá cantando 
las verdades verdaderas,

This song has feeling
When it pulses in the vein
Of he who will die singing
The truest truths.

Thanks, Victor!

This week’s song:


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