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Book challenges Nobel Prize winner’s autobiography


A report by a U.S. anthropologist claims that Rigoberta Menchú, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, fabricated key details in her autobiography.

The details of David Stoll’s book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, were described in the Dec. 15 New York Times. After nearly a decade of archival research and interviews with more than 120 people, Stoll concluded that Menchú’s 1983 book, I, Rigoberta Menchú, “cannot be the eyewitness account it purports to be” because the indigenous Quiché activist repeatedly recounts “experiences she never had herself.”

The New York Times also conducted interviews with relatives, neighbors, friends and former classmates and teachers of Menchú, who said that main episodes in her autobiography were fabricated or exaggerated.

Interviewees said that the land dispute central to the book was a family feud between Menchú’s father and his in-laws and not a fight against wealthy landowners of European descent.

A younger brother, Nicolás, whom Menchú, now 39, said she watched die of starvation, was actually an older brother, who is still alive. Nicolás Menchú said the family had two sons who died of hunger and disease before he was born in 1949.

Another brother that Menchú said she and her parents watched being burned alive by army troops was kidnapped, turned over to the army and shot when the family was not present, Nicolás Menchú told the Times.

Menchú said in the first page of her book that “I never went to school.” However, the Times interviewed four nuns affiliated with the Order of the Sacred Family who recalled Menchú as a gifted student at the school the order operated. They said she completed the equivalent of the first year of junior high school.

Because she spent much of her youth in boarding school, she could not have been working as an underground political organizer or spent up to eight months a year working on coffee and cotton plantations, as described in great detail in her book.

Menchú refused to comment for the Times article. However, in a September interview, she dismissed Stoll’s criticisms as part of a racist political agenda intended to gain publicity.

Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, told the Times that he was aware of the Stoll book but said, “there is no question of revoking the prize,” which “was not based exclusively or primarily on the autobiography.”

In his book, Stoll said that Menchú drew on common experience in Guatemala. “By presenting herself as an everywoman, she has tried to be all things to all people in a way no individual can be,” Stoll wrote.

He told the Associated Press, “There’s more at issue here than another celebrity embroidering her story. The way that you can justify her story if you want to is that it was a crisis situation and she wouldn’t have gotten the attention that she did had she told her own story, or if she said, ‘These are things I’ve heard have happened to other people.’ ”

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998