Unsettling Accounts

Neither Truth nor Reconciliation in Confessions of State Violence

Unsettling Accounts

The Cultures and Practices of Violence

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Book Pages: 392 Illustrations: 22 illustrations Published: January 2008

Author: Leigh A. Payne

Latin American Studies, Politics > Political Science

An Argentine naval officer remorsefully admits that he killed thirty people during Argentina’s Dirty War. A member of General Augusto Pinochet’s intelligence service reveals on a television show that he took sadistic pleasure in the sexual torture of women in clandestine prisons. A Brazilian military officer draws on his own experiences to write a novel describing the military’s involvement in a massacre during the 1970s. The head of a police death squad refuses to become the scapegoat for apartheid-era violence in South Africa; he begins to name names and provide details of past atrocities to the Truth Commission. Focusing on these and other confessions to acts of authoritarian state violence, Leigh A. Payne asks what happens when perpetrators publicly admit or discuss their actions. While mechanisms such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission are touted as means of settling accounts with the past, Payne contends that public confessions do not settle the past. They are unsettling by nature. Rather than reconcile past violence, they catalyze contentious debate. She argues that this debate—and the public confessions that trigger it—are healthy for democratic processes of political participation, freedom of expression, and the contestation of political ideas.

Payne draws on interviews, unedited television film, newspaper archives, and books written by perpetrators to analyze confessions of state violence in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and South Africa. Each of these four countries addressed its past through a different institutional form—from blanket amnesty, to conditional amnesty based on confessions, to judicial trials. Payne considers perpetrators’ confessions as performance, examining what they say and what they communicate nonverbally; the timing, setting, and reception of their confessions; and the different ways that they portray their pasts, whether in terms of remorse, heroism, denial, or sadism, or through lies or betrayal.


Unsettling Accounts is a bold contribution to the literature on deliberative democracy and on transitional justice in emerging democracies. . . . Payne’s book serves as a difficult reminder of the societal divisions that linger after periods of political violence.” — Rebecca Bill Chávez, Latin American Politics and Society

“A powerful book. . . . Payne has written a remarkable book that will influence the field profoundly.” — Jeremy Adelman, International History Review

“[A] wide-ranging, nuanced and provocative contribution to the literature on transitional justice. . . . Payne has broken fertile new ground in this compelling book. The novel use of confessions to bridge the experiences of transitional justice and democratic consolidation across national and cultural boundaries provides important insights into these processes that could fruitfully be applied to the dozens of additional countries grappling with the aftermath of highly repressive or state terrorist regimes.” — Thomas C. Wright, Journal of Latin American Studies

“[A]n important contribution to the literature on memory in transitional societies in three key areas: silence, political participation, and the media. . . . [I]nteresting and important analyses of the role of memory and how memory is addressed in the building of new democracies.”

— Michelle D. Bonner, Journal of Third World Studies

“[T]he author creates a sound narrative showing that the transition from authoritarianism to democracy has helped lessen the levels of impunity in Latin American countries.” — Ivani Vassoler, Perspectives on Political Science

“[T]he author successfully links heterogeneous realities and confessions to deliver a solid theoretical frame to the particular case studies.” — Pablo Martínez Gramuglia, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“[T]his book is a valuable contribution to social science and justice literature on the work of truth commissions. In the work of truth commissions, justice has been exchanged for reconciliation, and this book indicates that the results are not obvious and immediate, and that they come out of a complex process.”
— Ankica Kosic, Peace & Change

“This text is productive and can be used in a range of comparative politics, international relations, performance studies, and transitional justice courses of all levels. It contributes valuable methodological insights that are conducive to renovating academia, activist, and policy communities’ theoretical engagements with violence. Payne’s text encourages the reader to consider deeper theorizations of violence and survival within the frameworks of the state.” — Heather M. Turcotte, International Studies Review

“A popular assumption is that once a torturer confesses, that will be enough to satisfy or even to forgive; once a confession is made, the power that the torturer once had over the victim will then be transferred from the torturer to the victim and their family. What Payne finds in this fact-rich, academically-centered, book is far more complex, illuminating, and troubling. . . . Sometimes it seems, the best people can hope for is to advance public knowledge of a former regime’s crimes. The truth can be good to know, but it does not always heal.” — Richard Hellinga, Popmatters

“Beyond its potential for underscoring the polemics involved in national reconciliation after state violence, this is a profound work because of its comparative, multidimensional, detailed, and nuanced analysis of what permeates post-conflict societies. Those who will benefit most from this volume are students of peace and conflict studies, practitioners, and general readers. The book is both thought-provoking and engaging in terms of its details and very useful framework.” — Earl Conteh-Morgan, American Historical Review

“Payne has provided an innovative and provocative addition to transitional justice and reconciliation literature. . . . The strength of Payne’s argument thus lies in her emphasis on embracing the complex and emotional nature of post-conflict, conciliatory politics. . . . Payne suggests that when mediated such contention is precisely the place where democratic politics begins. Payne’s book thus provides important insight that could be applied to many other countries that are grappling with legacies of conflict. At the very least, her turn to confessions to bridge violent experiences with democratic consolidation could keep the memory of horror and human rights abuses alive, therefore preventing further hostility and violence.” — Emma Hutchison, Millennium

“Payne provides a rich and original perspective on these historical processes in Argentina, Chile, Brazil and South Africa through a detailed analysis of the confessions of individuals responsible for past state violence.” — Alexander Wilde, A Contracorriente

“Recommended. General readers, upper-division undergraduate students, and graduate students.” — M. Tétreault, Choice

“This book makes a significant contribution to the fields of transitional justice and democratization by examining what happens when the institutional silence and denial of past crimes is broken by individuals. Payne’s important point here is that, whatever the motivations of the perpetrator who confesses, the stories open up debate and help challenge the political consensus of supporters of the past repressive regime.” — Michael Humphrey, American Journal of Sociology

“This is an excellent book and its high quality, given the brutal material, was hard earned.” — Marguerite Feitlowitz, EIAL

Unsettling Accounts is an extremely valuable contribution to social science scholarship. Leigh A. Payne’s complex and nuanced analysis of when, why, and how perpetrators confess is far more sophisticated than any other research that I know about.” — Lesley Gill, author of The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas

Unsettling Accounts is unique in transitional justice literature in its extended focus on individual perpetrators and on confessions. Leigh A. Payne links individual stories to some of the most pressing questions in transitional justice scholarship.” — Kathryn Sikkink, author of Mixed Signals: U.S. Human Rights Policy and Latin America


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Leigh A. Payne is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of Uncivil Movements: The Armed Right-Wing and Democracy in Latin America and a coeditor of The Art of Truth-Telling about Authoritarian Rule and Business and Democracy in Latin America.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations xiii

Introduction: The Political Power of Confession 1

1. Confessional Performance 13

2. Remorse 41

3. Heroic Confessions 75

4. Sadism 107

5. Denial 141

6. Silence 173

7. Fiction and Lies 197

8. Amnesia 229

9. Betrayal 251

Conclusion: Contentious Coexistence 271

Notes 293

Bibliography 343

Index 353
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4082-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4061-4
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