In the Time of Butterflies (1994)

By Julia Alvarez

The film Heavenly Creatures begins with a terrifying scene of two young girls, both covered in scratches and blood, running through the woods screaming. “Help! It’s Mama!” one of the girls cries. I’m reminded of the film because, like In the Time of Butterflies, it manipulates its audience by introducing them to the tragedy of the story before developing its characters. As I sat, on the verge of tears, in the library finishing Alvarez’s novel, I was struck by how powerfully these two works had affected me. It would seem that by preparing the reader, or viewer, for the inevitable violence, that the blow would somehow be softened. “I saw the marks on Minerva’s throat,” recounts Dede, “fingerprints sure as day on Mate’s pale neck. They also clubbed them, I could see that when I went to cut their hair.” Only one paragraph is reserved for the murder. So why was I crying?

Heavenly Creatures cuts directly from the young girls screams to a typical day in a 1950s New Zealand school. We instantly recognize one of the students, although she is now combed and cleaned and properly attired in her school uniform. She (we learn her name is Pauline) is then introduced to a new student. Juliet is the daughter of a noted Oxford professor and, like Pauline, has a penchant for story telling and trouble making. The remainder of the film is a disturbing look at the development of their friendship. We are told the story through Pauline’s diaries, which we are informed are not only true but were also the most damning evidence in the trial against the two girls. Knowing their fate, knowing that they would be convicted of killing Pauline’s mother, changes our perceptions as viewers. Instead of laughing at the bizarre, imaginary world of their childish games, we are repulsed by the dysfunctional homes that drove them to it. Instead of being charmed by the innocent love shared by the two girls, we are disgusted by its overt sexuality. The film’s ultimate and inevitable violence rivals that of A Clockwork Orange for its abhorrent realism. We have been expecting it for 90 minutes, but we’re still unprepared.

“Why, they inevitably ask in one form or another, why are you the one who survived?” (page 5). Before meeting the sisters of In the Time of Butterflies, before even learning their names, we know that they have lived lives and died deaths worth telling. Then, through Dede’s stories and Mate’s journals, through Patria’s and Minerva’s voices, the women begin to take form. We see their home, their family. We hear them laugh and watch them play games. Each woman develops a unique personality, becomes an individual. There are jealousies and rivalries. There are volleyball games and graduations. Each woman loves and begins a family of her own, but their stories are tainted — “the one who survived.”

Anxiously awaiting their tragic deaths, I became much more aware of the injustices in the Mirabal sisters’ lives. Lina Lovaton’s fall seemed their destiny. History books with “you-know-who’s” face on them and the mandatory portraits of him in every home made me claustrophobic, made their plight seem inescapable. The SIM smoking cigarettes outside the Mirabal home. The political sermons in local churches. The black Volkswagens around every corner. Even Lio and Manolo troubled me. “Stay away from them,” I kept thinking to myself. “Why must you kill them with your revolutionary ideas?”

As an undergraduate, I took only the required Western Civ and geography classes. My interests rarely strayed from my own small world. Apathy, I guess. Boredom and comfort, as well. But I do believe that I was also driven away from world events by the lifelessness with which they were presented. Perhaps I’ve been desensitized to suffering (as many sociologists and politicians, I’m sure, would agree). But there seems to be a power in story telling which conquers that apathy. Though the Mirabal sisters are fictionalized, Alvarez’s one paragraph account of their brutal murders affected me more than countless hours of evening news coverage have. The piles of bodies and the weeping mothers become broadcast images from another world completely disconnected from my own. But Dede’s worry and hysteria and guilt become mine. Alvarez’s stories force me to confront the lives and deaths rather than switch the channel.

Trinh, T. Minh-ha mentions a tale by Leslie Marmon Silko of a witch who, while at a contest of witches, frightens her audience by simply telling a story. “It isn’t so funny. . . Take it back,” they ask. “It’s already turned loose / It’s already coming / It can’t be called back,” she answers. Trinh writes that a story is not just a story. “Once the forces have been aroused and set into motion, they can’t simply be stopped at someone’s request. Once told, the story is bound to circulate; humanized, it may have a temporary end, but its effects linger on and its end is never truly an end.” Humanized. The answer. The power to know someone, “to revive. . . the forgotten, dead-ended, turned-into-stone parts of ourselves.” The Mirabals have become friends lost to a struggle that I know nothing about. Their story is a voice that I had never heard. And they’ve left me asking questions.