For more than 50 years, Isabel Gonzalez, 84, has been visiting a particular roadside ditch near her village in the Castilian hills, surreptitiously leaving flowers. The bodies of her brother and brother-in-law were dumped there on November 5, 1937—eight hours after they surrendered to the Nationalist forces of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Asuncion Alvarez, 87, has a similar story. She drew a map for her children leading to a spot in a field near her town. She was afraid that when she died, the location of her brothers' secret grave would die with her.
All over Spain, the bones of Franco's victims are rubbing their way to the surface. For the past two years, the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory has been working to map and excavate the hidden mass graves that dot the Spanish countryside. As the graves are opened, relatives and friends step forward. "They have been unable to speak of these things for 60 years," says ARHM spokesperson Santiago Macias. "It is difficult for them to break the silence, but they will."
But why? In an era when uncovering graves, establishing truth commissions, opening military files, and documenting survivor testimonies are used increasingly as mechanisms for obtaining social justice, it seems worth asking whether "breaking the silence" is always a good thing. After all, some compelling arguments can be made against it.
Truth-telling—on the scale of a family or a nation—may disrupt precarious power dynamics. In a family, it could lead to separation, divorce, abandonment, or loss of intimacy. In a nation, truth-telling may jeopardize a tenuously negotiated peace and plunge the country back into social chaos.
There is also the issue of endangering others. Exposing the truth usually doesn't affect only the truth-teller. It has ramifications beyond the individual—some of which are beyond control. Bringing painful realities into public scrutiny might destabilize those who have coped with the truth through denial. Or there may be retaliation against the truth-teller or her family or her social group.
Yet, telling the truth or breaking the silence of "false truth" persists as a basic human need—probably because telling the truth is often (but not always) related to achieving justice.
As truth commissions become more popular as a tool for social healing, two schools of thought have developed about their purpose. The first perspective sees truth-telling only as a step toward achieving justice in a recognized court of law—for example, the criminal prosecution of proved human rights violators. In this case, truth is a tool for gaining justice, and if justice is not gained then exposing the truth had no purpose. In reality, however, getting to the stage of legal prosecution rarely happens. When populist reformer Cerezo Arevalo was elected president of Guatemala, he reportedly said, "We are not going to be able to investigate the past. We would have to put the entire army in jail."
The second perspective sees truth as its own reward and as integrally related to social, rather than strictly legal, justice. In his book Testimony, psychotherapist Dori Laub says of his work with Holocaust and torture survivors, "repossessing one's life story through giving testimony is itself a form of action, of change, which has to actually be passed through in order to complete the process of survival."
In this case, simply exposing the truth provides personal and social benefits, as well as contributing toward societal justice. However, the cost of this approach is often amnesty for horrendous human rights abusers. Chile paid this price when the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet handed over power in 1990. He made a deal with the incoming administration, which campaigned on a truth-commission platform. "No one touches us," said Pinochet. "The day they touch one of my men, your rule of law ends."
Despite the wrangling of international power politics, we are still left with a simple question repeated in examples around the world. Why did Isabel Gonzalez carry flowers to a roadside ditch for more than 50 years? Why did Asuncion Alvarez draw the map to her brothers' secret grave? Because, in their bones, these women knew the truth. Holding that truth gave them spiritual power. Exposing that truth gave them freedom.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.