Review: Left to Tell by Immaculée Ilibagiza

Left to Tell: Finding God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust tells about Immaculée’s experience in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and how she forgave the people who murdered most of her family. I rated the book 4 stars on Goodreads, and here are some further thoughts. Lots of spoilers here.

  1. On Forgiveness

Immaculée wrote her book largely to encourage forgiveness in the world as a whole, and her experience with genocide certainly shows how forgiveness can break the cycle of hate that leads to oppression and killing.

One particularly chilling scene in the book is one in which a French soldier criticizes his country’s role in the genocide and then in the same conversation offers to murder the killers of Immaculée’s family for her. He seems to want to kill, but he justifies it as a service for Immaculée, who he’s just met.

Immaculée’s experience, both as a victim and later as one in a position to end the cycle of violence, show how easily hatred and propaganda can lead to oppression and genocide. Her solution, forgiveness, found through months of prayer and meditation, certainly seems appealing in the face of a shattered nation with a subset of people who want to take revenge on the people who killed their friends and families.

  1. On Human Nature

Much of Immaculée’s ability to forgive comes from a spiritual conviction that the murderers had been corrupted yet could be good again.

She once again shows how her experience reinforced her beliefs. One of the friends Immaculée made in the French refugee camp was a Tutsi man who’d been hidden by a Hutu friend. This Hutu friend, despite hiding a Tutsi man in his home at risk to his own life, killed other Tutsis. And the pastor who hid Immaculée seemed to regret his decision at times and harbored dehumanizing attitudes about Tutsi people.

The fact that some people simultaneously hid and killed Tutsi friends and neighbors blew my mind. I still struggle to think of anyone who hacks children apart with a machete as much else but evil, but I can’t deny that Immaculée has a point. Humans are not only capable of great good and great evil but are also capable of being both at the same time.

  1. On Genocide

This book opened my white, American eyes to the various forms genocide can come in. I realized that unconsciously, I’ve understood the precursors to genocide solely through my knowledge of Nazi Germany, as though a society needs to check the specific boxes Hitler did on a similar timetable before a genocide can be possible.

The Rwandan genocide, in contrast to the methodical deportation and murder of Jewish people and others across Europe, was a planned frenzy of hatred that accelerated into brutal torture and murder at a nauseating pace. I have to admit that I didn’t realize how close to all-out genocide any country could be at any given time.

  1. On Honesty

One thing I appreciated about the writing was the candid portrayal of Immaculée’s family members. She depicts both their denial and their bravery, their flaws and their strengths, painting a stunning portrait without eulogizing her loved ones into unrecognizable sainthood. The whole thing is very well done.

  1. On Criticism

Immaculée’s emphasis on God isn’t an issue for me like it is for some readers. Given the subtitle, I don’t think “too much God” is a fair criticism of the book.

But as much as I generally found the book insightful, the foreword (not written by the author) was so gushing and adulating that it made me suspicious of the book itself. This suspicion was mostly unfounded but came back at times, especially toward the end.

The book uses some Christianity-appropriating self-help language that made me think of the Rick Warren book cover shown on the back of my copy of Left to Tell. The association with his salesy persona led me to wonder if she was also trying to sell something. The most glaring examples are when Immaculée says that prayer is basically positive thinking and touts it as a way to overcome life’s problems and when she talks about how she got a job at the UN in New York through manifesting.

That criticism is still a little rough because “ask and ye shall receive” is an actual Christian thing. But all the same, some of the wording got a bit too The Secret for me.

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Some readers have also commented that the direct line Immaculée draws between faith or manifesting and her outcomes (such as survival) imply that others weren’t as faithful or worthy of such blessings. Given that nearly her entire family was murdered in the genocide, I’d like to think that this implication is completely unintentional, but it is there.

So in the end I did wonder what religious self-help deal might have been involved in the book’s publication, but I also appreciated the book for what it was: eye-opening, inspiring, and insightful.

4/5 stars.

 

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