I spent most of the summer of 1996 in South Africa, living in a small cottage, doing research, participating in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar, and talking to as many South Africans as I could. Aside from my five-year-old son telling me that he had eaten "poodle" for lunch at the Zulu preschool he was attending, my most memorable experience was attending hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

These hearings are highly structured in a liturgical fashion. Each hearing is opened with a prayer—sometimes Christian, sometimes Muslim, sometimes Jewish—and a large, white candle representing truth is solemnly lit. The audience is then asked to rise out of respect for the victims and their families when they file in. In typical court settings, spectators would rise when the judge comes in; here we rose for the victims. The seven commissioners in attendance then came down from their white linen-clad tables to welcome the victims—by shaking hands, embracing, kissing. Many of the victims were already sobbing, overcome by the mere fact that an official government representative was showing them respect.

As each victim, often accompanied by two or three family members, went up to testify, a psychotherapist sat by his or her side. Before the testimony began, one commissioner asked about the victim's family—parents, spouse, children, siblings—their names, ages, where they lived, how they were employed. This was more than a strategic ploy to put the victim at ease; rather, this ritual grounded or located the victim as a person in the fullest African sense—with a family, a community, a place.

Then the story was told. I sat for two long days, spellbound, horrified yet mesmerized ...

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