Next Wednesday night the neighborhood book club (described in a previous post) will be discussing Left To Tell:  Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, a dramatic tale of courage, deliverance, and forgiveness from the killing fields of Rwanda in 1994.

This book was “written with” Steve Erwin.  By now you know that I am not a big fan of ghostwritten memoirs, but this one may be an exception.  A powerful story in the hands of a sensitive writer can sometimes take precedence over the reader’s desire to hear the author’s own voice.  In this case, I felt I was listening to the author directly as I moved from exciting episode to episode, following an almost unbelievable story.

Immaculee Ilibagiza is the daughter of two victims of the genocide and the sister of two talented young men who also were murdered.  Her family was deeply religious (Roman Catholic), loving, creative, joyous, and committed to education.  Immaculee was 22 years old and studying at the university when war broke out between the Tutsi Rebels and the Hutu-led government.  Ethnic rivalries had never been a source of tension in Ilibagiza’s childhood because her family was deeply engaged in education and good works, helping others regardless of whether they were Protestant or Catholic or Hutu or Tutsi.

When the killing started, Ilibagiza and seven other women sought refuge in the home of a Hutu Protestant Pastor Morinzi.  He overcame his fears of retaliation and agreed to let the women stay in one small bathroom next to his own bedroom.  There, in a space 3′ X 5″, they huddled together without speaking for 91 days.  The pastor brought them food–table scraps–that had to be taken in and out very carefully.  The women flushed their toilet only when the other toilet was being flushed.

Drunk, drug-crazed Hutu killers entered the house often during the 91 days.  One of the hardest parts of the ordeal was not knowing what was happening to family members on the outside and hearing former friend and neighbors say hateful things about all Tutsis, even about Ilibagiza’s saintly father and mother.

Those were the psychological challenges on top of excruciating physical deprivations.  But the spiritual battle raging inside Ilibagiza mattered more than anything else.  She entered into a deep prayer life based on promises she had memorized in the Bible:  ask and ye shall receive.  If you have faith, you can move mountains.  Negative thoughts, angry, vengeful thoughts and doubts often crowded out the prayers, but Ilibagiza took refuge in the last gift her father had given her–a red and white rosary–and prayed for 18 hours or more on most of those days.  She also had the memory of his words to the crowd of Tutsis that gathered in fear outside her famiy home:  “Love will always conquer hatred.  Believe in yourselves, believe in each other, and believe in God.”

Sometimes people in great pain disassociate from reality.  Most people try to ignore or repress their suffering.  Some just find a place above the fray to look down on what they cannot endure.  Ilibagiza found a safe, warm place inside herself.  God gave her images of the future–of herself talking about her sufferings at the United Nations, in English, a language she had never studied.  She asked the Pastor for a French-English dictionary and any books he had in English.  Using the grammar section in the dictionary and the books, she taught herself rudimentary English in that crowded bathroom!

This memoir belongs to the literature of survival through spiritual strength–The Apostle Paul’s letters from prison,  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham jail, Corrie Ten Bloom’s The Hiding Place, Linda Brent’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave, and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning come to mind.

When Ilibagiza comes to the place where she can forgive the killers of her family, she not only finds release from pain, she also receives her life mission:  to help others forgive the unforgivable.

Since I share the same convictions from which Ilibagiza writes, I admire this memoir.  I admire it all the more because the convictions did not come easily.  The story does not seem pious; instead it seems real.  It challenges me to ask, “could I have the same courage?”  No one knows the answer to this question unless tested, but one can practice in everyday life some of the habits that made it possible for Ilibagiza to draw on her faith while under fire.  She memorized Bible promises, she had a habit of prayer, and she had the capacity to listen for the still small voice that gave her the blessing of images of her future.  She recognized negative thoughts as the enemy.  Without fighting them, which only makes them stronger, she shifted her mind to the positive promises of God’s presence and power.

Here Ilibagaza shares some convictions similar to Viktor Frankl, a Jewish holocaust survivor.  Frankl’s psychologocial theory he called logotherapy explains our need as humans for meaning and says that there is tremendous power in inserting our will in the small space between a stimulus and a response.  A Buddhist would agree.  The one thing we can control when all else is taken from us is our attitude.  Such are the lessons of prison camps–and of our own mental prisons–if we prepare ourselves to learn them.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Jerry Waxler on September 22, 2008 at 5:21 am

    Hi Shirley, What a great topic for a blog. Have fun with it! I have been reading memoirs for a couple of years and I'm not sure exactly how many I've read but I'm up to more than 130 essays about memoirs on my blog. Let's keep in touch. There is a sort of “virtual community” of memoir folks in the blogosphere, some of whom you can find on my blogroll.Best wishesJerry Waxler<a“> Memory Writers Network

  2. shirley on September 22, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Jerry,I went to your blog and found amazing resources there. Thanks for this comment and for helping me to find the community you and others are building online. What has your experience been with the National Association of Memoir Writers?

  3. shirleyhs on September 23, 2008 at 12:20 am

    Jerry,I went to your blog and found amazing resources there. Thanks for this comment and for helping me to find the community you and others are building online. What has your experience been with the National Association of Memoir Writers?

  4. […] Waxler commented on my post about the memoir Left to Tell a month ago.  He introduced me to the memoir community online.  Here’s his blog.  I have […]

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