Saturday, June 14, 2014

Missing: Remembering Charlie Horman

It seems that the commonsense answer to “What happened?” or “What is the truth?” about some event would be more easily discovered concerning yesterday or last year than thirty years ago, but ironically as we all know this is often not the case. In the criminal courts, a recent invention, DNA forensics, suddenly makes it far easier to know the truth of things that happened thirty years ago than it was at the time. The propensity of actors in an event to actively hide information is a reason that the truth takes a long time coming out. Mislaid documents or witnesses overlooked may suddenly be found. Again, cultural viewpoints shift, those in power change, the political climate alters; history itself as it unfolds constantly bears on how it is being written and interpreted, so if events in the past recede into the mists of memory by a natural process, they may also jump into focus or reappear just as well, sometimes quite fortuitously.

At the same time, often enough it becomes clear what a lie has been. A completely accurate picture of events may still escape us, but some official version of a human misadventure becomes threadbare as some emperor or other loses his or her clothes. Whatever the truth must have been exists now in a narrower range. One version of the story stands up against the test of time better than another. The story may just disappear all by itself, for lack of some inner force, or it may suddenly grow in interest, because of some hidden reserve of power, or relevance. The story has a life or a death of its own.

My Netflix queue suddenly one day recently produced the Costa-Gavras film Missing, about the disappearance of the Harvard student Charlie Horman during the Pinochet coup in Chile in 1973. When I had decided to join Netflix last winter, I had set up a long queue of all the films I could think of at that moment which I might want to see, so Missing came as a sort of surprise six months or so later. I had not seen since it first came out. By synchronicity that we experience constantly, a blog post came over my email about some of the latest U.S. documents related to those events which had just come to light via the Freedom of Information Act. The story had come alive for me again. I bought the book the movie was made from. Charlie Horman was a friend of mine at Harvard. At once I was re-immersed in a story I have more or less thought of continually over the years.

I say “more or less” because in the seventies and eighties I was dealing with my own aftermath and emotional scars, perhaps a form of the notorious PTSD, lingering from the civil rights movement down South. Absorbing one more killing or atrocity was only just possible without investing too much emotion in it, as these things were the order of the day back then. Later as I kept hearing about the case I became more upset about it and thought about it more. Still mean old difficult life had to be lived leaving not a whole lot of energy to ponder the endless wantonness of governments. It took the popular device Netflix, not newly invented either, to bring events back into sudden focus for me, via the movie. As soon as I saw again the great Costa-Gavras movie with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, I ordered the book from which it was made, by Thomas Hauser. I had never read the book till last week.

Curious term “story,” equally applied to the realms of fact and fiction, apparently a form readily adapted to either realm, suggesting how those realms are not distinct but blend into one another (but that’s another story). The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice, the book’s original title, subsequently reissued as Missing, adopting the popular movie’s name, is written with all the tension and suspense of a noir detective novel, which in many senses it resembles, with a great many villains, some victims and no heroes. Thomas Hauser, the author, is a lawyer, and as he was a very young man when he wrote the book, the story is presented with lawyerly finesse, stone laid upon stone, but at the same time with outrage and passion. The calm deliberativeness of a prosecutor making his case remains the dominant motif, until one wonders if the most gifted noir writer could have produced a more grisly and disturbing tale. The author himself emerges as the only hero on this scene having set the story down soon after it happened, preserving it for us, so that I could suddenly access it now.

The story begins with background on the life of Charles Horman, then on the life of the nation of Chile and the election of Allende, the only socialist administration to come to power constitutionally in Latin America via the ballot box; it then moves to the hysterical reaction to this in Washington, DC, including the CIA-backed assassination of the the Chilean Commander in Chief of the military, Rene Schneider, who was not pro-Allende, but rather pro-Chilean constitution, same difference in 1970, when the first coup attempt was stirring. Now the plot moves Charlie Horman and family to Santiago, on a lark, really, then Vina del Mar, where the Pinochet coup was being hatched with the help of the U.S. The plot thickens as Charlie has the bad luck to meet U.S. operatives in Vina who say too much to him. He is arrested, disappears, and his wife and father spend a fruitless month searching for him, obstructed at every turn by the U.S. embassy. Three questions emerge: Did the Chilean military execute Charlie? Did the U.S. government do all it could to cover this up? Did the Americans have foreknowledge he was to be executed? The story ends by posing the Ultimate Question, which you can surmise or read the book to find out.

As more and more documents have dribbled out about the case, especially during the Clinton administration, and ongoing today, with masses of material still classified in the name of national “security,” we understand with all the certainty witnesses at the time have conveyed that Charlie was murdered on the “kill order” of the top official in the Chilean secret police, reportedly with an American in the room when the order was given. Another main thing that seems indisputable, on the basis of mountains of evidence, is the support and connivance of the U.S. government in the overthrow of the Allende administration and the installation of dictator Pinochet. Charlie Horman, by all accounts, was a free-lance writer in the wrong place at the wrong time, who fortuitously learned too much. At the very least the American ambassador did nothing to protect him once he was arrested and awaiting his fate. And the Ambassador’s office actively obstructed his father’s search for the truth of what had happened to his son Charlie.

This story is an old one in which powerful groups, such as America, have “business interests” they would rather keep quiet. The individual is caught up in the story who has seen too much, who has had a clarity about events thrust on him or her, by happenstance, who becomes a risk and must be destroyed. Family and friends and objective reporters arrive to try to piece together events and they must be deflected and misled. The story takes on a life of its own, becomes several stories, one of which is the search for truth. This sort of story is almost guaranteed by its nature not to end easily.

At one point the author of the book, Thomas Hauser, sums up his case with a crescendo of understatement that what happened to Charlie “is intolerable.” With this I could not agree more as it expresses the unsatisfied gnawing feeling one is left with as the years have gone by. Charlie Horman was the kindest, gentlest, most creative and honorable student in my class at Harvard. Not all my classes were that great at Harvard, but one of the really good ones was a creative writing class given by Dr. Kiely, which is where I met Charlie. I remember Charlie Horman giving me criticism on a short story I had written, probably not a particularly good one, at least in its early version, and it is impossible that anyone could have been gentler, more tactful, more helpful, more desirous of giving good criticism without being officious about it. He was such a kind, well-balanced, good-hearted guy. It was so rare to meet such a self-possessed, truly kind and modest at the same time talented person among the insecure youngsters and undergraduates. Charlie is my fondest memory of Harvard, provider by his nature and exemplary character of one of my nicest moments at school.

The movie is pretty true to the story in the book, and to what other facts have come my way by one means or another. The character of Charlie himself, who is portrayed in the movie as a somewhat wise-ass, wild spirited kid though decent and sound, is not quite right in the movie. The book gives a clearer picture of the real Charlie. Charlie Horman was modest and self-effacing and easy going but passionate about writing and learning about things. I believe there was something gentle about him that made the executioners, whether Chilean or American, think they could get away with rubbing him out. (Thousands of gentle Chileans were shortly to meet the same fate.) How wrong they were. What actors in those events are still around must be amazed as the story keeps coming after them and searching them out. This is a story that is going to keep being told as new layers and chapters are added as time goes on and more evidence comes in, as it must over time. It is one more indelible black mark on the Kissinger-Nixon administration, if another one was needed. The shady American government operative Davis who gave Charlie and his wife a lift back to Santiago where Charlie was arrested, and who barged in and looked in so lasciviously on Charlie’s bereft wife in her bathtub, in the movie and the book, has had an extradition order issued for him now by the Chilean Supreme Court (so that he can testify about events), not that it will be enforced. The next generation of Allendes are in positions of power in Chile now.

Old myths and tales of goodness and youth and innocence facing evil ogres and tyrants always have an appeal. The story Missing of Charlie Horman is a true one that also has that deeper truth of a recurring archetype. At the same time it is a true one about a real kid, a cool guy I knew at college. We always want innocence and youth’s goodness to come out on top in the end, and in real life sometimes they do over time, as the truth comes out. The old men, the evil, avaricious, callous, “realistic” enforcers are unmasked finally, and are overcome, if only after the fact as time wears them down. This dynamic is probably at work in the Charlie Horman story, and in a tiny way, as a pebble thrown into this current, I add this piece of reminiscence along with a recommendation of the book and movie. It is my considered faith that goodness and truth are the real powers in the universe and that they won’t be stopped, just held up a good deal. I often think of my friend Charlie Horman. He is more alive for me than ever.


  1. I didn't know Charlie in college, but learned about his murder in some detail when I was part of a 10-person delegation that visited Chile in February, 1974, 5 months after coup, "The Chicago Commission of Inquiry to Save Lives in Chile". (For excerpts from our report, see the New York Review of Books, As you'll see, one of our members was Frank Teruggi, Sr., father of Frank Teruggi, Jr., the other young American murdered in Chile, with the apparent approval of the CIA operative in the US embassy. Frank was of humbler background than Charlie, but also an idealist eager to contribute to the Unidad Popular's peaceful revolution. Mostly he was translating Chilean left articles for the US public. His father, a typographer, union -member and LBJ Democrat, had not seen eye-to-eye with his son's socialist convictions, but the murder of his son shocked him into much wider political awareness. He was tireless and fearless in his insistent investigations in Santiago neighborhoods and government offices (at a time when inconvenient people were being disappeared). We had to keep close track of him. He did finally get a good idea how his son had been killed, was deeply indignant when he couldn't get his Congressman to react.

    1. Most interesting, Gef, that you were on top of events then in an official way, and actually went to Chile. Must have been a white knuckle trip, and terribly sad with Teruggi's father. That must have taken some nerve to go to Chile at that time, man.
      So Terrugi Sr., a democrat, and Charlie's father, a republican, both came to look in the eye of the Beast. I suppose it was the end of any faith in the American government for them both, absolutely and more.
      Both the book and the movie deal a lot with Teruggi's murder also, and he is a fairly major character in the movie. I suppose for dramatic purposes, or perhaps because Hauser knew Charlie, they both centered on Charlie.