I was born and raised in a wealthy Brazilian/American family in São Paulo, Brazil and had lived a very privileged life there for the first 27 years of my life. But a few months after our marriage, my husband and I were pulled from our beds, imprisoned, raped and tortured for 45 days by the corrupt government under the premise of drug trafficking, released only when my family paid a $400,000 bribe. Not long after this traumatic experience, Brazil passed a law in 1979 that gave carte blanche indemnity from prosecution to any government officer who tortured. This new law was anathema to me. I had an infant son and my fledgling marriage had fallen apart.
Told through my sworn deposition to the Brazilian National Truth Commission in 2013, my memoir The Parrot’s Perch recounts our kidnapping, as well as the aftermath, and my eventual road to recovery. The excerpt below explores the pivotal moment I realized that in order to survive and continue living, I had to flee to the United States as I no longer had the support of my family, my marriage, or my country.
The time had come to ask my parents for help. I was 26 years old. I needed love and happiness in my life. I couldn’t live like this. I’d given my marriage my best shot, but felt I had to leave Brazil if I was ever going to be truly happy again.
“I can’t stay with Rick and pretend we have a perfect marriage,” I told my father. “Please. I need your help.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” my father boomed scornfully. “That’s exactly what you need to do. Stay. This is the way things are. Period. Look at your mother.” His voice was thick with contempt. “She knows I have an apartment downtown, and yet she’s never been there or even asked about it. That’s the way it is. How can you be so fucking naïve? You would be a fool to leave Rick. He’ll never allow you to take the baby, and you’ll never have a life like the one you’re accustomed to. No. I will not help you and I forbid it.”
Although her anguish was evident, my mom sat quietly tickling my son’s belly and smiling at him throughout my father’s tirade. I couldn’t tell if her sorrow was for me or for her own situation, but I knew that she would be unable to help. It seemed neither of us had ever had a choice. I couldn’t help but be angry at Mom, too. How many times would she let me down? Why hadn’t she ever protected me against this tyrant?
“All I want is a normal life,” I tried to explain. “Everything’s different now. I can’t live here. It scares me for Little Rick. We’ll never be happy or safe. None of us. What if they come for us again? They tortured us in there. Did you know that? They raped me! Do you want to know how?”
Fury flashed in my father’s eyes and for a second I thought I might have reached him.
“Happiness is overrated,” he said dully. “There’s nothing wrong with this country. This country has paid for all of this. What I do pays for all of this!” He stretched out his arms as if to encompass the entire house. “There are times when you just do what you have to do. That’s life. That’s just the way it is.”
I didn’t know if he was talking about himself or me, but it didn’t matter anymore. I turned in defeat, gathered Little Rick in my arms, and started to walk away.
As if reading my mind, he shouted, “If you do anything stupid you won’t get a dime from me. Ever. You’re on your own.”
My mom hung her head. I couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking. Had she ever thought about leaving my father, or was she too weak? Dad had always been so jealous and controlling. His drunken rages and his abuse would forever be imprinted on my soul. I knew they must be imprinted on hers as well. I flashed on an image of Chris and me sneaking into our garage late one night. We were just kids, 12 and 9, maybe. We had hidden in our bedrooms until the last door had slammed and our father’s shouting had drowned out our mother’s crying. We’d spoken about a plan to tamper with his car, causing it to crash and kill him to end all the screaming and shouting, the belts and beatings, but as we stood there with the hood up looking into the engine compartment without a clue about where to begin, we realized that we were powerless to change our lives.
Well, I wasn’t powerless anymore. I was done with being acquiescent.
“I wouldn’t accept a dime from you!” I screamed at my father. “It’s probably blood money. Don’t worry, I know what you really do. Chris told me. I don’t want any part of that money or how you earn it.”
As usual my father had to have the last word. “You think you know everything. You’re still wet behind the ears. You’re looking for happiness, and you think you can find it, but you won’t. No man will ever want you again. You’re damaged goods.”
Those words were like a knife to my heart. I almost dropped to my knees. But I would not let him see my tears. He would view them as a sign of weakness. I walked out the door. His tirade had settled matters in my mind. Though I was shattered and afraid, I also felt vindicated.
On the way home, I realized the depth of my predicament. I’d been doing a lot of crying. Agonizing over my situation. If I left Rick, I would have to do it on my own. I’d never worked a day, nor had I ever lived alone. I didn’t know how to cook, clean, shop, make a budget, or do any of the other things most people do every day. How could I possibly manage on my own with a baby? Even worse, how could I get us out of Brazil? All of our bank accounts, both of the houses and the cars were in Rick’s name. I received a monthly allowance like every good wife; enough to cover anything my heart desired and then some. If I needed anything else, all I had to do was ask. But Rick took care of all the bills and managed our money. I didn’t even know our net worth. If I started asking questions, it would raise a red flag. Rick already knew I was unhappy and that we would most likely separate, but he could not know that I planned to leave Brazil. If he found out, he would surely stop me. I was so confused and afraid. It seemed as if any decision I made would be the wrong one. But I had to do something. I was done crying. Done.
I made eye contact with Ms. Mezarobba and spoke in a clear strong voice as I continued. “The next day I realized I had no choice but to leave. Fate and Brazil had decided for me. I’d always known Brazil was corrupt. As a teenager, my father had taught me to carry money in a case that contained my driver’s license so that if I got stopped for a traffic infraction, all I had to do was hand the money over. Corruption had been as deeply ingrained in me since birth, as it was in every Brazilian.”
The investigator nodded. She knew as well as I did that Brazil was systemically corrupt.
“There were many other ways we learned corruption as kids. If we didn’t want to stand in line for hours to get a drivers’ test, we paid someone to do it. Wanted better seats to a show without waiting in line? We paid someone to do that too. We could also pay someone to get us through customs with contraband. You’d pay someone to pass you through the line. Put a bottle of scotch or a Playboy magazine on top of all the items in the bag and the officer who opened your bag knew it was for him. The list of things you could ‘pay for’ was endless. As a result, though, the cops were ruthless. They knew they could get away with just about anything too. Torture and rape? Those things happened every day.
“A few days later on February 12, I read that the Brazilian government would soon be passing a law granting immunity for all government employees who tortured. This meant torture and human rights abuses could continue unchecked. And I knew I could no longer live in a country that would allow that to happen. And I most certainly didn’t want to raise a family there.”
Ms. Mezarobba nodded in agreement. “That’s why I’m here, Karen. We hope this commission will gather enough evidence to overturn that law.”
I sighed deeply and went on. It was why I was there too; reliving all the horror had to make a difference.
That night I gave my life as I knew it one last-ditch effort and tried explaining my fears to Rick. We’d been sleeping in separate rooms and were barely talking. I followed him into the library and sat on the couch a few feet away from him.
“Have you ended things with Bête?” I asked.
“Yes. I told you, she means nothing to me. She was just a release. She drinks with me and doesn’t bust my chops about it. That’s all it was. If you’d just stop bitching, we’d be fine.”
“Did you know that Brasilia is passing a law that will protect torturers from prosecution?”
Rick slammed his glass down on the table so hard an ice cube jumped into the air and slid down across the coffee table. Rick stood shakily and hovered inches from my face speaking through clenched teeth. “Jesus, Karen! Enough. All you have to do is get on their radar again as some kind of radical hippie protestor and you’ll disappear for good. Haven’t you learned anything from being held in that miserable dungeon?”
“Don’t you understand what this means? They can do whatever they want and never be held accountable!” I had lost my patience and could no longer understand or accept the apathy.
“Leave it alone, Karen. All we have to do is toe the line and keep away from trouble. Just worry about yourself.”
“We have a family now. What about Little Rick? What if he ever makes a mistake?”
“You’re his mother. It’s your job to make sure that never happens.”
Following a last-ditch effort to resurrect my marriage and to find a trace of humanity in my father, I made a decision that I knew would forever change my life. Alone, unsupported, but determined to be happy, I fled from Brazil with my infant son, settling in California where I knew no one and no one knew me. I never spoke of my past and worked at various menial jobs struggling to support us, but eventually I fell into a pattern of illegal drugs use and illicit sex to get me through my daily life. The events that followed my testimony at the Brazilian National Truth Commission would change my life again, finally giving me the courage to speak out, not only about the horrors I’d experienced—and that still go on in Brazil every day—but also to fully heal, allowing my past to become nothing more than a shadow in my life.
Excerpted with permission from The Parrot’s Perch: A Memoir by Karen Keilt. © 2019 by Karen Keilt. She Writes Press, a division of SparkPoint Studio, LLC.
Born and raised in Brazil to a Brazilian father and an American mother, Karen Keilt had a childhood of luxury and privilege. In 1979, she fled to the U.S., after being unlawfully held prisoner and tortured by Brazilian police for 45 days before being ransomed. Since coming to America, she has been a Riding Master at the YMCA, the first-ever female general manager of a men's professional RHI League hockey franchise, the Florida Hammerheads, a newspaper columnist in South Carolina, and written four screenplays. She lives in Carefree, Arizona, with her husband, Jack, and their dog, Luna.