Skip to contents
SunLit

Sunlit Excerpt: Is “The Gringa” an international terrorist, or simply a dupe?

Author Andrew Altschul's writer/narrator struggles in his search for the complex truth about his ex-pat protagonist, imprisoned in Peru, in this novel inspired by the real-life story of Lori Berenson

Leonora Gelb hated America.

She hated its heart and its soul, its sick mind and its flabby, diseased body. She hated its dreams of itself, its fantasies about the rest of the world – paranoid, arrogant, weaponized – and she hated its waking realities: the sprawled, filth-strewn cities and prim, stingy towns, the metastatic freeways and supersized cars, the factory farms and clear-cut hills and amber waves of subsidized grain. She hated its festering landfills and its first-class hotels, its frenzied shopping malls and all-you-can-eat buffets, hated its fast-food abattoirs and five-star, whites-only restaurants, the elegance of its ivory towers and the proud ignorance of its gun-toting, flag-waving patriots – ignorance fostered in crumbling public schools and enforced by corporate media all too happy to dance to the hegemon’s tune. She hated America’s wage-slaves and its business overlords, its gated subdivisions and wasted ghettos and its shared national pastimes: the gladiatorial sporting events and disgusting beauty pageants and goose-stepping parades, the idiot sitcoms and smug TV news anchors and its movies – god, its movies – about intellectual dwarves with superior firepower who heroically, democratically slaughter everything in their path.

Leonora – “Leo” to her family, “Comrade Linda” to her friends in the revolution, – hated American culture as much as its gunboat economic policies. And what, really, was the difference? The Dirty Harrys and the Marlboro Men who brandished their big dicks and dared you to read their lips, make their day. The pop sensations, barely pubescent girls taught by men to pantomime a grotesquerie of sex for money. The murderous video games and diabetic soft drinks and breakthrough pharmaceuticals to cure phony ailments the populace had to be taught to suffer. All rammed down the throat of the developing world, safe delivery ensured by nuclear submarine, by armed battalion, underwritten by Chevron and the World Bank and relentlessly promoted by lie after slavering lie – lies that she knew would never be punished, because in America it’s not a lie if it turns a profit; not a lie if it upholds the racial hierarchy; not a lie if it oozes from the mouth of someone we admire: soldier, sexpot, self-made tyrant.

When I look at her photograph, that’s the first thing I see: her outrage, her refusal to believe the lies. Certainly you’ve seen this photograph, taken at the infamous press conference in Lima, Peru on August 25, 1998, three days after her arrest. You’ve seen fury in the shape of her mouth, stretched in a wet scream; disgust in her broken arm, her piss-soaked jeans. You’ve noted, in the way she leans toward the reporters – a Doberman on a leash – her contempt for a press that whistled while thousands were rounded up, held in secret prisons, subjected to all manner of abuse; a press that branded as disloyal any who insisted upon the truth. Who hasn’t seen this image, nor wondered at the small figure surrounded by soldiers with impressive weaponry, against the backdrop of a foreign flag? No one who’s viewed the footage can forget her gale-force anger, the threat conveyed by her every gesture. No one can ignore her clenched fist.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

But her eyes tell a different story. When I look into her eyes – small and gray behind thick glasses, open shockingly wide – I don’t see the violent criminal so many have described. I see vulnerability, the pain of betrayal. I see innocence of a kind.

How to explain this incongruity, to bridge the gap between that bedraggled figure and her iron fury? How to sort out the truth from the lies? 

It’s been ten years since that disastrous press conference. I’ve been asked to find the real Leonora Gelb – a task for which no one could be less qualified.

“People think they know something about my daughter, but they don’t know a damned thing,” her mother told Newsweek, in September, 2000, on the second anniversary of the military trial. “They think she’s some kind of radical, but that’s just what the Peruvian government wants them to think. If they could only see the real Leo, they’d know my daughter would never hurt a fly.” 

But who was the real Leo? The “sweet, brilliant child” her mother described? The diligent student, lover of animals, hard worker, caring neighbor, fitful gardener, champion of the needy, role model for her younger brother, Matthew? Or the hardened revolutionary, a soldier of fortune who came to Peru to foment violence in a country that had known far too much of it? Was she the clueless dupe her lawyer made her out to be? A naïve young woman blinded by love? Or a cold-eyed conspirator, the “Gringa Mastermind” behind a plague of deadly crimes?

The 1998 press conference was the first time most Peruvians had seen her: eight hectic minutes in which her fate was all but sealed. Raw-eyed, hoarse, she marched into the room without an introduction, turning upon the reporters her battered, vengeful gaze. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“The real danger to Peruvians is not the Cuarta Filosofía, it’s their own government! The worst violence in this country is state violence! Ask the campesinos whose land was stolen, whose children are dying. Ask the people whose brothers and husbands have disappeared.”

It was a Tuesday morning, the ragged end of a restive, clammy winter. The basement room stank of shoe polish and spilled coffee. Three days earlier, the house she was renting in the leafy Pueblo Libre neighborhood had been sacked by Special Forces, ravaged, its windows blown out, its white walls strafed. They’d dragged the bodies of six militants from that house, flaunted them to reporters while the President walked through the wreckage and shook soldiers’ hands. A demon, he’d called her, flapping her passport at the tv cameras. A psychopath. For three days she’d been locked away while the press stoked public fury. Now she stood surrounded by nervous soldiers, their rifles at the ready – as if to sell her, to sell the idea of her: someone who required such precautions must be dangerous indeed.

But the demon was doll-sized, something farcical about her wild, wiry hair, her wet pants. In her powder-blue sweatshirt and granny glasses she looked more like a third-grade teacher than a murderous subversive. They could not match this figure to the footage the whole country had seen: the burning house, the smashed gate, smoke whirling up into searchlights like a vision of apocalypse. They did not see a monster – until she opened her mouth to speak.

“No one can deny the terrible inequality! No one can deny the racism and exploitation that keep millions in poverty while a tiny group enriches itself.” Her Spanish was perfect but her accent gave her statement a mechanical, robotic air. “This country was founded on violence! Built on violence! The wealthy protect their privilege –”

“Just shut up, already!” someone called out. There was low laughter, a ripple in the crowd. They could see steam on her glasses, the stain creeping down her thighs.

“Why were there guns in the house, Leo?” another voice called. And then a deluge: “Who stole the military uniforms?” “Leo, why did you have blueprints of Congress?” “Were you working with the Cubans? Leo?”

“Is this justice?” she cried. “Is it democracy –”

“Leo, were you the girlfriend of Augustín Dueñas?”

“Do you work for the C.I.A.?”

“Where is Mateo Peña, Leo?” “Did you know Angelica Ramos was in the Shining Path? Did you know she was a killer?”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“Are you a terrorist, Leo?” At this she pulled up, blinking. The room took a breath. “Leonora, are you a terrorist?”

Her eyes scanned the back wall as though looking for a familiar face. The question came again and she licked her lips, a whole country waiting for her answer.

Years later, in the forsaken silence of her prison cell, she would still lie awake contemplating a word. She would turn it over in her mind, try to understand its nature, to find her reflection in its empty depths.

“Leonora, are you a terrorist?”

The present work is, among other things, an attempt to answer that question. It was begun in April, 2008, ten years after her arrest, trial, and conviction. It was begun under circumstances that are somewhat cloudy – even, or especially, to me – but in the most concrete sense it began as an article for My.World, the self-styled “online omnivorous media behemoth” launched five years prior by Jackson Durst. From the start it was a poor fit for that outlet, owing to the complexity of the subject matter and the attention span of the target audience – to say nothing of the limitations of its author. Put simply, it should never have been assigned to me. But it was, and I’ve done what I could. What was it Donald Rumsfeld said about going to war with the Army you have?

Subsequent events further hindered my progress. Which is to say, I had neither the experience nor the skills necessary to the undertaking. (And yet you insisted, Jack!) Anyone might have predicted this; many in fact did. But poor preparation and a general lack of knowledge rarely dissuade the powerful once they’ve set their course. Quite the opposite, actually—as our country’s recent misadventures once again make plain. Once fate pointed its palsied finger there was no turning back—the story, it would seem, was doomed from the start, destined for this sorry, unsatisfying form. 

I suppose it’s also true that my background, my obsessions and personal concerns, played a role, whatever my best intentions. Detachment, objectivity, qualities natural to responsible journalists, seem not to be my strengths. If they were, I might never have left the U.S. I might have stayed to enjoy the ongoing calamity of our own dirty war, with its unsavory protagonists and hideous mistakes. But for all that I set out, if reluctantly, to tell Leonora’s story, not my own. I set out to understand her, to say something valuable and true. I knew there was more to her than a photo, more than shocking headlines—of course I knew. What I didn’t know, what I could not have known, was what her story would come to mean to me, nor how badly I would need to see it through. 

So was she, or was she not, a terrorist? In these pages, I’ve tried to sort through the evidence, to determine what she wanted, what she might have felt. From disparate fragments and glaring absences, I’ve tried to build a coherent narrative, one that does justice to the history and its many victims. I’ve tried to keep my own feelings out of it. I’ve tried to consider all sides.

But it’s been more than a decade. The words – terror, freedom, democracy, war – don’t mean the same things anymore.

“Leo!” the reporters shouted. Her hesitation had made them predatory. “Answer the question!”

A man stood on a chair and yelled, “Fuck you, Leo! And fuck the Philosophers!”

“How many of them did you have sex with, Leo?”

“Leo, why did you come to this country? Why do you want to kill Peruvians?”

“How are they treating you in jail, Leo? Have you been raped?”

The soldiers moved to quiet them. Leo’s breath came heavily, a shadow of alarm playing across her face. Everyone waited. Just as it seemed there would be no answer, the prisoner cleared her throat.

“The Cuarta Filosofía is not a terrorist organization,” she said.

The sudden crush caught the soldiers off guard. Tape rolling, flashes exploding – “Leo!” they called out. “Leo!

“Is it terrorism to love freedom? Is it terrorism to hate injustice, to feed people who are hungry?”

She lifted her broken arm as far as she could, the hand white and clammy, clenched with effort. When I watch the clip I see her trying to quiet the crowd, to finish what she wanted to say. But the press told a different story, repeated it until it became its own truth: La Leo raised her fist in defiance. She made a gesture of militant solidarity. She dug her own grave.

“There are no terrorists in the Cuarta Filosofía,” she said. “It’s a revolutionary movement fighting to improve the lives of people who’ve been forgotten.” She craned her neck, voice cracking: “If it’s terrorism to help poor mothers and sick children, then I am a terrorist. If it’s a crime to stand for workers and the oppressed, I accept whatever punishment I’m given!”

There it was: the red meat, the money shot. Every newspaper in Peru ran the photo the next morning – the hysterical savage, the white girl brandishing her fist – and the identical headline:

¡YO SOY TERRORISTA!

It was a disaster, a kind of suicide. Her captors could not believe their ears. At the U.S. embassy, lawyers smacked their desks. In a room at the Lima Sheraton, where they’d waited three days to see their daughter, David hunched on the bed and sobbed; Maxine, standing, swore under her breath. Five days later she was sentenced to life in prison for treason and leadership of a terrorist group. The prosecutor stood before the judges in their canvas hoods and shrugged, the matter out of his hands.

“Señores,” he said, “the prisoner has already confessed.”

Now, all these years later, you want me to make sense of it, to explain the inexplicable: how a person of good intentions becomes an enemy of the people, how a child of privilege ends up in torment and squalor. You want me to explore her inner life, to make the connections, show you someone you can recognize. 

You want me to tell a good story. 

It starts like this: Leonora Gelb hated America. Not for its belligerence or its greed, not for its garish displays of wealth or callous disregard for those in need, not for the appalling body counts its every undertaking achieved, but for its hypocrisy, its galling insincerity, the unswerving insistence that America is a force for good. She hated America because it would never be what it claimed to be, would always mean something other than what it claimed it meant. It was a tragic sleight-of-hand, a disgrace—to be an American was to participate in the worst kind of metaphor: it meant someone, somewhere else, was dying for you.

Published by Melville House, 2020; copyright Andrew Altschul.


Andrew Altschul is the author of the novels “The Gringa,” “Deus Ex Machina” and “Lady Lazarus.” His short fiction and essays have appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s, The Wall Street Journal, Ploughshares, Fence, One Story, and anthologies including Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best New American Voices, and O. Henry Prize Stories. He is a contributing editor at ZYZZYVA and directs the Creative Writing program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.


We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.