Truth and Consequences

David Stoll's expos of a Nobel Peace Prize winner has made him unpopular with many academics. He likes it that way.

May/June 1999

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Truth and Consequences

Photo: Jeffrey Titcomb

Call it a contrarian streak. David Stoll knew he was likely to stir up trouble when he began looking into disturbing inaccuracies in Rigoberta Menchú's first-person account of brutality at the hands of the Guatemalan army. After all, Stoll would be questioning an internationally acclaimed book that had become a mainstay of the multicultural canon. He'd be criticizing a woman whose harrowing story made her a symbol of oppression and led to her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

But Stoll plowed forward with an inquiry into the events described in I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (Verso, 1984). Starting in 1989 when he was a PhD student at Stanford, he scoured mountain villages in Guatemala's Quiché province, a region whose Mayan peasants were devastated by that country's 36-year civil war. Eventually Stoll interviewed more than 120 of Menchú's neighbors and relatives and reviewed thousands of pages of Guatemalan government documents.

His conclusion: Menchú fabricated some of the most horrific details in her story, manipulating it to create a work of propaganda that would be useful to the anti-government guerrillas she joined in 1981. Stoll also excoriates American academics for naively buying Menchú's story, an account of villainous soldiers and noble peasants that neatly fit the preconceived notions of many professors. "Books like I, Rigoberta Menchú will be exalted because they tell many academics what they want to hear," Stoll writes in Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Westview Press, 1999). "Such works provide rebels in far-off places, into whom careerists can project their fantasies of rebellion."

Stoll's 336-page book has touched off a furor played out on the front page of the New York Times (which sent a reporter to Guatemala to confirm his charges), in full-page college newspaper ads and in outposts of intellectual discourse like the New Republic and the New York Review of Books. The controversy has dredged up old arguments from the campus culture wars of the 1980s -- questions about the political motivations behind revamped reading lists and the slippery nature of truth itself.

Now a professor of anthropology at Middlebury College in Vermont, Stoll, MA '87, PhD '92, is watching this spectacle unfold with a mixture of anxiety and pride. The anxiety, he says, comes from the way his work is being used as a political football by opposing camps. Conservative critics of higher education like Dinesh D'Souza and David Horowitz have pounced on his findings to push their claim that the academy is held captive by politically correct professors. Liberal academics have denounced him for writing the book at all, insisting that he doesn't understand Latin American traditions of communal testimonio and suggesting he is endangering Guatemala's fragile 1996 peace by questioning Menchú's credibility. "I don't mind having to defend my arguments," Stoll says in an interview from his book-strewn office at Middlebury. "That's part of the deal in scholarship. I do mind the personal attacks."

Rigoberta Menchú's journey from anonymous Mayan peasant to international peace crusader started during her childhood in the 1960s and '70s. It was the height of the government's guerra sucia, the dirty war. The Guatemalan army was torturing and "disappearing" thousands of peasants suspected of helping Marxist guerrillas fight the right-wing government. Eventually more than 100,000 people were killed. (The Clinton administration in February acknowledged that the United States helped train Guatemalan army units involved in the violence.)

Half of Menchú's family, Stoll verified while researching his book, was wiped out by government troops. As a result, she joined an anti-government faction and, in 1980, the 20-year-old Menchú fled to Mexico with the help of nuns. Tiny and plain-spoken, the young Menchú had a gift for mesmerizing audiences with the story of how her family and village were destroyed. In 1981, she joined a European tour to help raise awareness and money for her people's plight. In Paris, she met Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, a left-wing Venezuelan anthropologist interested in writing a magazine story about the violence in Guatemala.

The book I, Rigoberta Menchú emerged from 18 hours of taped interviews that took place over a week's time at Burgos's apartment. Burgos turned the transcript into a book, had the Spanish manuscript translated into French and made a deal with the publisher Gallimard to bring out a French edition in 1983. A Spanish version -- never reviewed by Menchú -- followed later that year. The book was published in English in 1984.

Almost from the beginning, I, Rigoberta Menchú was hailed as the authentic testimony of a third-world victim of violence and oppression. It has been translated into a dozen languages and sold more than half a million copies worldwide. Propelled by her sudden celebrity, Menchú began campaigning for Latin American human rights in Europe and the United States. For her efforts to bring attention to the slaughter in Guatemala, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. But even before that, she received especially warm receptions on American campuses.

And no wonder. Many in her university audiences in the 1980s and '90s had read her book as a class assignment. In fact, I, Rigoberta Menchú was published just as American colleges and universities were searching for ways to broaden their curricula to include texts from outside the traditional canon. Menchú's autobiography quickly became required reading in anthropology, women's studies, Latin American history and political science courses across the United States.

Stanford was in the forefront of this trend. In 1988, I, Rigoberta Menchú was placed on the reading list for one of the tracks in Cultures, Ideas and Values, the series of courses freshmen were required to take. Through 1997, when the introductory sequence was revamped, about 1,000 undergraduates enrolled in the Europe and Americas track read the book. It has also been used in anthropology, history and women's studies courses at Stanford.

Stoll has been a tough-minded contrarian throughout his career. Before arriving at Stanford in 1985, he spent a decade as an independent Latin American researcher focusing on the rise of Protestant evangelism in Central America. At the time, most academics assumed that Catholic liberation theology was the most politically influential religious movement. In his Stanford dissertation, expanded into a 1993 book, he argued that the violence in Guatemala was not simply a product of the government's mindless hatred of the Maya. Instead, he said in Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, the guerrillas often deliberately provoked army atrocities as a tactic for galvanizing popular support. Nonpartisan villagers -- a group mostly overlooked by other academics -- were the war's most tragic victims, Stoll said.

It was while he was working on his dissertation that Stoll first stumbled on information that made him wonder about the veracity of I, Rigoberta Menchú. In June 1989, he was in the town of Chujul, near Menchú's village of Chimel, interviewing peasants about their experiences with army violence. He mentioned one of the area's most horrific events, an episode recounted in Menchú's book in which a group of prisoners -- including Menchú's brother Petrocinio -- were doused with gasoline and burned alive by soldiers in front of a group of locals. To Stoll's surprise, his interview subject, who happened to be a relative of Menchú's but hadn't read her book, had never heard of the immolation. "As soon as he opened his mouth, he contradicted Rigoberta's story," Stoll says. By interviewing witnesses, he eventually learned that Petrocinio, along with a group of other prisoners, had been shot by the army and left on a road near the village.

These discrepancies were enough to spur Stoll to dig deeper into the claims in I, Rigoberta Menchú. As he did, the inaccuracies piled up. For example, Menchú describes herself as an illiterate peasant who worked under abusive conditions in coastal coffee plantations. "I never went to school, and so I find speaking Spanish very difficult," her book says. "I didn't have the chance to move outside my own world and only learned Spanish three years ago [1979]." Stoll discovered that Menchú had in fact attended convent schools in Guatemala City and Chiatla, Huehuetenango. She received the equivalent of a seventh-grade education, an unusual achievement for a Guatemalan Indian girl.

Even more serious, Stoll uncovered evidence showing that a central pillar of Menchú's book is subject to serious question. I, Rigoberta Menchú describes a lifelong fight Menchú's father waged to keep the community's property out of the clutches of neighbors of European descent. But by tracking down government land-office records filed by Menchú's father, Stoll learned that the father's dispute actually had been with another group of Mayas led by his own in-laws.

Such recasting of history, Stoll says, fits into a pattern of distortions and exaggerations throughout the book. The aim, he writes, was to "drastically revise the prewar experience of her village to suit the needs of the revolutionary organization she had joined." Menchú, in other words, had become a propagandist.

Confronted with Stoll's charges, Menchú has given ambiguous, contradictory explanations. According to a front-page New York Times story published in December, she described her book as "part of the historical memory and patrimony of Guatemala," adding, "I don't deny or contradict what is said in books about me." But at a February 11 press conference in New York, Menchú conceded she had embellished her story. "The book that is being questioned is a testimonial that mixes my personal testimony and the testimony of what happened in Guatemala," she said. "The book that is being questioned is not my biography."

Her defenders in academia -- at Stanford and elsewhere -- have picked up on these themes. Mary Louise Pratt, a Stanford professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and her husband, Renato Rosaldo, an anthropology professor, have long assigned Menchú's book in their classes and plan to do so in the future. They see it as an example of the Latin American tradition of testimonio, a blending of personal and community history -- a concept they say is not well-understood in academia or by the media. "In the classroom, Menchú's work has made vivid both the Mayan traditions and the more recent trials of Mayan peoples in the face of genocidal military incursions," Pratt and Rosaldo wrote in response to the uproar over Stoll's book.

Others say the controversy serves as a distraction from what students ought to be learning when they study Central America. "Whether her book is true or not, I don't care," Marjorie Agosin, head of the Spanish department at Wellesley College, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "We should teach our students about the brutality of the Guatemalan military and the U.S. financing of it." If anything, the factual discrepancies raised in Stoll's book make Menchú's story a richer subject of study, says Timothy Brook, a Stanford history professor. "The best teaching devices are those which are gently flawed," says Brook, who also has assigned Menchú's book. "The ambiguities and nuances are great teaching tools." One good way to teach a slice of Latin American history, he suggests, would be to assign Stoll and Menchú's books side by side.

Still, Pratt worries that the cloud cast over the book may cause it to go out of favor. That, she says, would be a shame. "I think it likely that Stoll's attack will indeed succeed in removing I, Rigoberta Menchú from many college and high school reading lists," Pratt says. "If so, it will join the company of many distinguished books that have been banned in America."

He might not call it book banning, but conservative Dinesh D'Souza agrees that Menchú's book is likely to start disappearing from American syllabi. D'Souza took on I, Rigoberta Menchú in his 1991 book Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. In a chapter titled "Travels with Rigoberta: Multiculturalism at Stanford," D'Souza cited her work as an example of "affirmative action for books." Now, he says, "her usefulness to the multicultural left is going down. They are not going to want to hitch their wagon to a work whose flaws have no defense."

For his part, Stoll worries that the larger point of his scholarship -- that the voiceless majority of poor Guatemalans suffered at the hands of the government and the guerrillas -- is missing in the debate. Until now he has kept his reaction to the uproar largely to himself. But he's getting ready to defend his research against an expected onslaught of criticism in the slow-moving world of academia. He's already been invited to write a defense of his book for a special issue of a San Francisco State journal.

Meanwhile, Stoll is casting about for a new subject. "I would hope that my next project will also focus on some issue my colleagues may want to avoid," he says. "It may be at the cost of popularity, but it is really a good line of work for me."

Robert Strauss is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. 

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