Book Review: The Tenth Parallel

My review of Eliza Griswold’s book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam, is live at The Internet Review of Books.

“Journalist and poet Eliza Griswold spent seven years investigating and reporting on religious conflict around the globe. That she lived to tell about it is remarkable. Her travels took her to some of the most troubled, and often violent, countries in the Eastern Hemisphere: Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.” To read more….

While I found the majority of the book to be a fairly bleak forecast due to politics, global climate change, not to mention religious intolerance, I was heartened this past week when thousands of Egyptian Muslims stood watch as human shields so Coptic Christians could celebrate their Christmas worship without fear of violence. To see a modicum of tolerance and unity among differing faiths was uplifting.

Perhaps the United States could take a cue from that event.

Betancourt Memoir

I just reviewed Ingrid Betancourt’s new memoir, Even Silence Has an End, for The Internet Review of Books. It is a story I have been waiting to read, a story I followed for six plus years while Betancourt was held captive by the Revolutionary Armed Forces  of Colombia, the FARC.

There are a couple of reasons I like reviewing nonfiction books. One, obviously, I get to read the book, but, two, more often than not I’m inclined to research the material beyond the actual reading. In the case of Betancourt’s book, I found myself shuffling through hundreds of Internet pages for days on end, fascinated by all the controversy surrounding the woman.

One of her fellow hostages, Keith Stansell, an ex-marine, called her “the most disgusting human being I’ve ever encountered.”  Wow. That’s pretty blunt. So, I went looking for more information.

Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes, and Marc Gonsalves were US defense department contractors hired to locate guerillas and coca fields in southern Colombia. Their single-engine Cessna Caravan was not suited to the rugged terrain and crashed in FARC territory about a year after Betancourt was kidnapped. Pilot Tommy Janis and a Colombian army sergeant, Luis Alcedes Cruz, were executed by the rebels, but the three Americans survived and spent five years with Betancourt before they were all rescued by the Colombian army in July 2008.

The three Americans  have written a memoir together, Out of Captivity. In the book, Stansell and Howes accuse Betancourt of endangering their lives by telling the FARC they were CIA agents. Stansell has also said he “watched her try to take over the camp with an arrogance that was out of control…. Some of the guards treated us better than she did.’’

The third American, Marc Gonsalves, does not corroborate Stansell’s accusations. Nor does Colombian Senator Luis Eladio Perez, held for over six years by the guerillas and a close friend of Betancourt’s.  Perez does say that Betancourt was a controversial figure long before she was captured by the FARC. While running for a Colombian senate seat, as a political stunt she handed out condoms to ward off corruption. A very attractive woman she used to wear mini skirts in the Senate creating jealousy among her female counterparts. Perez says she has always been savvy at manipulating men who might be slightly naive.

But why is Stansell carrying a grudge? It is true that Betancourt and Gonsalves had a close and very tender relationship during their time together in captivity, and, according to Gonsalves,  it caused much jealousy among the other prisoners. While it is almost impossible for me to imagine wild orgies happening in those gulag-like conditions, it is known from Betancourt’s memoir that she and Gonsalves wrote to each other daily describing intimate details of their lives. The guards finally separated her from the other prisoners to stop them from communicating. She was bereft.  When asked about it in an interview, Betancourt said, “It was like love.”

Psychologists say that people who have endured something horrific generally band together afterward and forgive one another for any uncivilized behavior that occurred. Betancourt writes in her memoir with insight and compassion for her fellow hostages, explaining that much of the contention between them was manufactured and manipulated by the FARC.

So one wonders what is really bugging Stansell about Betancourt? Is it purely macho ego or something deeper? Perhaps the jealousy stems from her fame. However much he dislikes her, the ironic truth is those US contractors might never have gotten out of the jungles of Colombia had it not been for their high profile fellow prisoner, Ingrid Betancourt.

She is back in the news these days, suing Colombia for 6.8 million dollars for her abduction by the FARC, lost work time, and  her physical and mental suffering. Colombians are outraged. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but, whatever happens, it keeps her in the news.