During her recent publicity tour for Even Silence Has an End, a riveting memoir of her experience as a political hostage, Ingrid Betancourt has sometimes been hailed as a hero. Dissenting voices, which include her estranged husband and several fellow hostages, have challenged that designation. The truth, I suspect, is a complex one. Sometimes heroism is thrust upon one, bestowing heroism despite oneself. Sometimes the heroism consists in simply surviving the challenge and continuing to live. Both of these may be the case with Ingrid Betancourt.
This one-time candidate for President of Colombia was kidnapped by guerrillas in 2002 and kept imprisoned in the Amazon jungle for six-and-a-half years. In a dramatic rescue which electrified the world in 2008, she and fourteen fellow hostages were liberated by the Colombian military. Betancourt has since mostly lived in France. In an incomprehensible move, this year Betancourt sued the Colombian government for economic and moral damages resulting from her captivity, a suit she then quickly dropped. In Colombia, widespread enmity against her has ensued as a result.
It is not surprising then that the reviews of her book are divided into two opposing camps. And yet, Betancourt’s experience as a captive offers insights into the nature of heroism. Who can imagine what it is like to live chained by the neck to a tree for months on end? Who has the courage to defy her captors by attempting to escape four times while imprisoned in the deepest Amazon jungle? Who can say what it is like to live for years in hot and primitive conditions, cheek to jowl with incompatible fellow prisoners and bullying jailers? To survive that with any shred of dignity is heroic all on its own. And, despite what her detractors say, Betancourt did use her experience in the jungle as an opportunity to hold a mirror to her own darkness.
“I did not want to emerge from the jungle as a shriveled old woman, ravaged by acrimony and hate …. I looked at myself in the mirror of other people and saw there all the defects of humanity—hatred, jealousy, greed, selfishness. But it was in myself that I observed them. … I did not like who I had become. … I decided to monitor myself … [but] ended up doing just the opposite of what my good resolutions dictated. My only solace was that I’d become aware of it."
Whether in freedom she has managed to follow her good resolutions is still an open question. Her actions since her release, both in having sued the government which rescued her and in shunning the husband who spent six-and-a-half years working for her freedom, might suggest otherwise. Her well-written memoir at the very least shows a self awareness of her defects of character. What she does about them in the remainder of her life may well decide whether she deserves to be called a hero.
Of potential interest: other posts in the A Hero’s Journey series.