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Behind an author’s years-long journey writing about her experience with sexual abuse

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When the verdict came, the Argentine author Belén López Peiró sighed with relief.

The man who had caused her so much pain, who had sexually abused her as a young girl “when she didn’t even know what love was,” she recently wrote, was finally found guilty.

The long journey from the moment she first put down in words how her uncle, a respected former police sergeant, used to sneak into her room in the middle of the night and lie on top of her, until the day of the guilty verdict nine years later, had been excruciating.

On Dec. 26, a local court in Argentina found Claudio Marcelino Sarlo guilty of “grave sexual assault” committed against a minor, López Peiró, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. The judge concluded that Sarlo had assaulted his niece repeatedly between the ages of 13 and 17 in Santa Lucia, a small community in the province of Buenos Aires where she used to spend the summer at her uncle and aunt’s house. The court also ruled that Sarlo will have to pay roughly $78,000 and that he cannot maintain any contact with her.

Sarlo’s attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“It’s done,” López Peiró wrote in El País newspaper. “That’s it. It’s finished. C’est fini. I am freed.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, the 30-year-old described the “torturous” judicial fight, during which she was forced to testify eight times, and was subjected to repeated psychological and medical evaluations. The years-long process also shattered her own family, she said, who saw details of their lives made public.

The author detailed her quest to have her uncle prosecuted in two books, earning praise in literary circles for her innovative narrative approach to both her own experience with sexual assault and the criminal prosecution process. Her work also helped spark a national debate about child sexual abuse and the failures of the judicial system, becoming intertwined with a national feminist movement that pushed the country to give victims’ testimonies more credence.

Although the legal resolution brought López Peiró much anticipated relief, it came with great personal costs.

López Peiró said she endured the pain of having to run into her attacker at court, the revictimization that came from testifying over and over, of dealing with a callous prosecutor asking her “how does it feel to be abused?” She felt it was her, not him, on trial.

She was asked if it was all worth it in the end, and if justice can actually heal. López Peiró confessed that the answer still escapes her, but the decision to accuse her uncle led to her books.

“In that process I found a new dimension of the power of words that marked my destiny and my literary path,” she said in an interview from Barcelona, where she lives.

“And that, I will never regret.”

López Peiró filed the initial complaint in 2014. A few years later, while deep into the trial, she attended a literary workshop and realized how deeply the experience had influenced her own identity. She then decided to reclaim her trauma.

“After all those years of seeking and not finding justice, of realizing it was in the judicial sphere where I felt the most revictimized and vulnerable, I understood my relief and solace had to come from somewhere else,” she said.

Words are where she found it.

In the books “Porque Volvías Cada Verano” (“Why Did You Come Back Every Summer?”) and “Donde No Hago Pie” (“Where There Is No Standing”), the author denounced not only her uncle, but also her family for neglect and mistreatment. She also criticized the legal system and the prejudice and social stigma that often surround those who dare to speak out.

“Why Did You Come Every Summer?”, first published in 2018, narrated the abuse through multiple points of view and voices: her mother, a prosecutor, psychiatrists, her aunt and Sarlo’s wife, who admitted that although she believed abuse had occurred, she would not leave her husband — a literary technique rarely seen in novels or autobiographical nonfiction, where a first-person protagonist narrator is common.

“Writing these books helped me to leave that place of ‘victim,’” she told The Post, “and made me feel I had certain control over something, in this case, words, that allowed me to say exactly what I wanted to say, nothing less, nothing more, and express all that anger and say all those things that embarrassed my family.”

While the books resonated in literary and feminist circles in Argentina, their greatest impact was inspiring other women to come forward.

One was renowned Argentine actress Thelma Fardín, who accused Brazilian actor Juan Darthés of sexually assaulting her when she was a minor. Darthés has denied the allegations in an ongoing trial..

In several televised interviews, Fardín credited López Peiró for inspiring her to denounce her alleged attacker, which led more people to the books and stirred a national conversation around the issue, said Leonardo Rodriguez, editor at Madreselva, the book’s publishing house.

“While this was not the first book published in Argentina to touch on the issue of sexual abuse, it was perhaps the first time that a book solely focused on it and went to the very center of it and generated this kind of massive discussion and debate,” Rodriguez added.

Soon, López Peiró found herself invited to speak in public universities, high schools and libraries.

The case also illustrated the shortcomings of Argentina’s judicial system, where victims often “make great sacrifices and are forced to take on the burden to convince authorities to gather evidence and push the case forward, and it’s them who have to keep rowing and rowing,” said María Piqué, a federal prosecutor.

Luli Sánchez, López Peiró’s attorney, echoed the criticism and pointed at the nine years it took a court to find Sarlo guilty, a period which, she said, was “although terrible and inhuman, not unusual.”

Sanchez said that in Argentina there are many challenges to prosecuting sexual abuse cases, particularly of minors, because of stereotypes toward victims and that the judicial institutions often don’t take these cases seriously.

In a 2022 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit analyzing how countries respond to cases of child abuse and exploitation, Argentina ranked 50 out of 60 countries.

“Not long ago, when a person denounced being victim of sexual crimes, and there was not physical evidence or direct witnesses, prosecutors would easily dismiss them,” Sánchez said.

This has changed in the past decade, according to legal experts, who say prosecutors and investigators have received training on empathy and avoiding victim-blaming behaviors, which are entrenched in Latin American countries.

“There has been a widespread social demand to treat survivors as actual victims of serious human rights violations; in other words, for them to be heard,” Sanchez said. “The neglect and mistreatment were infinitely worse and there have been tremendous strides made, but there is still a long way to go,” she added.

While López Peiró recognizes the battles gained by the feminist movement and the significance of pursuing legal justice, the written word has remained her most loyal ally in her quest for self-restoration.

“I want other victims to know that words help, they help process, untangle, and restore — because I don’t think you can heal because this is not a disease, you can restore your memory, your body and your identity which is so often stripped from us,” she said.

As for her, she said she is ready to move on and finally, write about something else.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.