Facing the Torturer
Publication Date: October 23, 2012
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The author of the acclaimed memoir The Gate now gives us a mesmerizing account of his personal relationship with one of the most infamous torturers of the twentieth century, and of his transformative experience observing and participating in that man’s recent trial for war crimes.
In 1971, François Bizot was researching Khmer pottery and Buddhist ritual in rural Cambodia when, along with two Cambodian assistants, he was arrested by Communist guerrillas on suspicion of being an American spy. In captivity, Bizot would establish an unlikely rapport with his interrogator, Comrade Duch, a twenty-nine-year-old former math teacher, now commander of the jungle encampment. After many long conversations, Duch would become convinced of Bizot’s innocence, finally deciding to release his prisoner against the wishes of his superiors, including one Saloth Sar—the future Pol Pot. And so it was on Christmas Day 1971 that Bizot was allowed to depart the camp but obliged to leave his assistants behind.
In 1999, Bizot would hear of the arrest of the “butcher of Tuol Sleng.” This was the nom de guerre that Comrade Duch had earned after releasing Bizot and proceeding to exterminate some ten thousand Cambodians, including Bizot’s assistants, Lay and Son. Duch’s unexpected capture after years in hiding presented François Bizot with his first opportunity to confront the man who’d held him captive for three months and whose strange sense of justice had resulted in Bizot’s being the only Westerner to survive imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge. The arrest also forced Bizot to confront a paradox: How could the man who’d been his savior have become one of the most monstrous perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide?
Taking part in the trial as a witness, with Duch the sole defendant, would return Bizot to the heart of darkness. This is the testimony of what he discovered—about the torturer and about himself—on that harrowing journey.
François Bizot is the author of The Gate. He is an ethnologist who has spent the greater part of his career studying Buddhism. He is the director of studies at l’École Pratique des Hautes Études and holds the chair in Southeast Asian Buddhism at the Sorbonne. He lives in Paris.
“Bizot bravely addresses the nature of genocide and the darkest heart of human nature.”
“An honest exploration of what it means to share moments of humanity with a man most people would consider inhuman.”
“Profound and moving.”
“A powerful philosophical meditation on the nature of humanity—and inhumanity—and personal responsibility, and an empathetic attempt to bring Duch the man out from behind Duch the monster.”
—Financial Times (UK)
“As much an account of the events in court as a passionate and eloquent memoir… François Bizot taps into his experience and feelings and explores how evil lurks in each of us.”
“François Bizot has written a book that will go down in history. He breaks one of the most hypocritical taboos: yes, the mass-murder is a man, worse still, a man like any other. An exceptionally powerful book. A crucial account, to be read urgently by everyone.”
“Ten years after the worldwide success of The Gate – the account of his incarceration under the Khmer Rouge – François Bizot revisits this devastating experience in an exceptional book. This is more than just an important historical account – it provides an incredibly precise and gripping dissection of the prisoner’s frame of mind. A profoundly literary endeavor to pull back the veils that we use to remain at a distance from mass murderers.”
“This book takes us to the edge of an abyss, alarmingly far into the depths of the human soul.”
“Without self-righteousness or affectation, Bizot unravels the thread of lost innocence and impossible brotherhoods. Thus his torturer continues to torment him, down to the vile gratitude to which he remains obliged. The book is an odiously magnificent confession.”
—Le Nouvel Obs
“A terrifying but essential read. Facing the Torturer explores the essential question of the connection between a concept and its subjective experience. It’s a touching, moving, even upsetting book... It’s luminous and grand.”
—La Quinzaine littéraire
“A gripping account. More than an eyewitness account, an anxious, troubled meditation on the mirror that can reveal the worst of murderers.”
“Thrown into the heart of the trial to testify against his former torturer, Bizot’s new book hangs on a moral dilemma: facing a torturer, is it possible that this “monster” has a shared humanity with us? And as he insists on the stand: Duch is one of us – an astounding revelation.”
“Bizot explores the surprising ties between torture, pain, truth and lies. The anthropologist delivers a profound interrogation of the proximity between monstrosity and humanity, torture and truth.”
“The ethnologist offers a troubling testimony to the memory of his lost companions, and forces himself to question the bond – if ever there was one – which he shared with his torturer Duch.”
—Le Journal du Dimanche
“A fascinating, beautiful work haunted by the enigma of Evil. An important book in which Bizot explores the ambiguity of the human soul.”
“Written with the same subtlety as The Gate, this meditative book is both enthralling and provocative.”
—Le Canard enchaîné
“François Bizot’s account is at once precise, haunted, and of such tragic intensity that it leaves no reader untouched. This book is an abyss.”
—Le Matin Dimanche (Suisse)