Behind an author’s yearslong journey writing about her experience with sexual abuse


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

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

A long way from the moment she first described in words how her uncle, a respected former police sergeant, had crept into her room in the middle of the night and laid on top of her, to the day. from the guilty the verdict nine years later was harrowing.

On December 26, a local court in Argentina found Claudio Marcelino Sarlo guilty of a “serious sexual assault” committed against the minor López Peiró and sentenced him to ten years in prison. The judge concluded that Sarlo repeatedly assaulted his niece between the ages of 13 and 17 in Santa Lucia, a small community in the province of Buenos Aires where she sometimes spent summers with her uncle and aunt. The court also ruled that Sarlo will have to pay approximately 78,000 dollars and that he cannot maintain contact with her.

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

“Finished,” López Peiró wrote in El País newspaper. “That’s it. It’s over. C’est fini. I’m free.”

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

The author has detailed her struggle against her uncle in two books, and has earned praise in literary circles for López Peiró’s innovative narrative approach to both her own experience of sexual assault and the law enforcement process. Her work also helped spark a national debate about child sexual abuse and the failures of the justice system, which dovetailed with a national feminist movement that pushed the country to give more credibility to victims’ testimonies.

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Although the legal resolution brought López Peiró the long-awaited relief came at great personal cost.

López Peiró said she endured the pain of having to face her attacker in court, the re-sacrifice that came from repeatedly testifying, being treated by a callous prosecutor who asked her “how do you feel when you’re abused?” She felt she was on trial, not him.

When asked, was it all worth it in the end? If justice can actually heal? López Peiró admitted that the answer still eludes her, but the decision to accuse her uncle led to her books.

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

“And I will never regret it.”

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

“After all these years of seeking and not being in control of justice, realizing that I felt the most victimized and vulnerable in justice, I understood that my relief and comfort had to come from somewhere else,” she said.

The words are where she found them.

In the books “Porque Volvías Cada Verano” (“Why did you come back every summer?”) and “Donde No Hago Pie” (“Where there is no permanent position”), the author condemned not only her uncle, but also her family for neglect and bad conduct. She also criticized the legal system and the prejudice and social stigma that often surrounds those who dare to speak out.

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

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“Writing these books helped me get out of that place of ‘victim,'” she told The Post, “and gave me a sense of having some control over something, in this case over words, which allowed me to say exactly that , what I wanted to say. , no less, no more, and express all this anger and say all those things that have shamed my family.”

Although the books resonated in literary and feminist circles in Argentina, their greatest impact was inspiring other women to speak up.

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

In several television interviews, Fardín credited López Peiró because it inspired her to press charges against her alleged assailant, sparking a spike in book sales and sparking a national conversation about the issue, said Leonardo Rodriguez, an editor at Madreselva Books.

“Although it was not the first book published in Argentina that touched on the issue of sexual abuse, it was perhaps the first time that a book focused only on it and went to the very center and created this kind of mass discussion and debate. ,” Rodriguez added.

Soon López Peiró was invited to speak at public universities, high schools and libraries.

The case also illustrated the shortcomings of Argentina’s justice system, where victims often “sacrifice a lot and are forced to take the burden to convince the authorities to gather evidence and push the case forward, and they are the ones who have to row and row,” María said Piqué, federal prosecutor.

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Luli Sanchez, López Peiró’s lawyer echoed the criticism, pointing to the nine years it took the court to find Sarlo guilty, a period she said was “horrific and inhuman, but not unusual.”

Sanchez said that in Argentina there are many challenges in prosecuting cases of sexual abuse, especially of minors, due to stereotypes of the victims, and judicial institutions often do not take these cases seriously.

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

“Not so long ago, when a person accused of being a victim of sex crimes and there was no physical evidence or direct witnesses, prosecutors could easily dismiss it,” Sánchez said.

That has changed over the past decade, according to legal experts, who say prosecutors and investigators have been trained in empathy and avoiding victim-blaming behavior entrenched in Latin American countries.

“There is a widespread societal demand that survivors be treated as actual victims of serious human rights violations, in other words, to be heard,” Sanchez said. “Neglect and mistreatment have been infinitely worse and huge strides have been made, but there is still a long way to go,” she added.

While López Peiró acknowledges the battles won by the feminist movement and the importance of striving for legal justice, the written word has remained her staunchest ally in her quest for self-renewal.

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

As for herself, she said she’s ready to move on and finally write about something else.


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