Elizabeth Abbott is a graduate (M.A. and PhD) of McGill University in Montreal. From 1991 to 2004, she was the ‘Dean of Women’ at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, one of University of Toronto’s federated colleges, where she was charged with the care of female undergraduates. But I came to know about her from one of her many published books ‘Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy‘.
“Haiti: The Duvaliers and their Legacy asks and answers different questions about the Duvalier presidencies. What was Duvalierism and how did it operate? What was life like under Papa and Baby Doc? What was it in Haiti’s history that allowed the Duvaliers to emerge and remain entrenched in power for almost twenty-nine years? These are crucial issues to consider because, over two decades later, the infrastructural chaos and domestic and international power dynamics of Duvalierism continue to dominate, a toxic legacy that must be understood if its consequences are to be eradicated.”
So I reached out to her for an interview because I want you all to know her writing.
What inspired you to become a writer?
I have wanted to be a writer ever since I was seven when I learned to read! My first literary production was a crayon-illustrated booklet of eight pages sewn together. Now I have a less holistic approach, and leave the book crafting to my publisher!
You write a lot of books about history, why do you feel it is important to keep people remembering things of the past, that they might want to forget?
I’m a historian with a Ph.D. from McGill University, and I love historical research and
writing history, and thinking about the past as an integral part of what came later and even what is yet to come. As William Faulkner so astutely observed, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
In regards to your books about The History of Celibacy, Marriage, and Mistresses, what made you research them?
These three books are my exploration of a history of intimacy. As scholar Mark Kingwell noted in his comments on A History of Marriage, “Can we really understand celibacy or mistresses without considering marriage, the socio-sexual bond that convention tells us is the heart of love? Elizabeth Abbott’s new volume of accessible social history completes a sparkling trilogy about human intimacy.” This is the crux of these three books, linked studies of historical relationships and intimacy.
What life experience made you become an advocate for animals and the horrors of factory farming?
In 1992, I read two books, Diet for a New America by John Robbins and Animal Liberation by Peter Singer in two days, and became an instant vegan. I’ve never found it challenging because as soon as I became aware of the horrors of eating sentient beings, I’ve never wanted to. I love cooking and I eat mostly plant-based whole food. I do not eat or wear or use any animal products. For the past twenty-five years, animals in the sea and the air, as well as the land, have been safe from me!
What motivated you to tell that story about ‘Haiti: The Duvaliers & Their Legacy’, were you afraid the Duvaliers were going to come after you?
First, here is how I came to write this book. In the 1980s I was the wife of Haitian hotelier Joseph Namphy, and the sister-in-law of Lieutenant General Henri Namphy, who headed Haiti’s interim government after Jean-Claude Duvalier fled to France in February of 1986. Those relationships and my job reporting for Reuters News Service provided me with unique opportunities in researching my book, opening doors otherwise closed and allowing me glimpses into the private workings of the Haitian government. The bulk of my research, however, consisted of interviewing hundreds of people and of ferreting out written materials, not so easy in Haiti’s woefully undersupplied libraries and without the not-yet-invented internet.
When I conceived this book, the Duvalier regime was tottering to an end, and Henri Namphy was a little-known military figurehead. Although he (briefly!) became a national hero in taking over from Duvalier, I assumed as did most people, that his tenure would be short and transitional, and that a democratically elected president would soon succeed him. I never imagined that two years later his government would preside over Bloody Sunday when Tonton Macoutes massacred thirty-four citizens trying to vote in elections than widely believed to be the last chance for democracy.
I wrote Haiti: The Duvaliers and their Legacy for non-Haitians, to try to convey through the perspectives of Haitians what Duvalierism was and what legacy it left in that suffering nation just 700 miles off the coast of Florida. My decades as a professional historian in Canada and two years as a journalist in Haiti shaped my work, not my relationship with a brother-in-law suddenly infamous as a brutal dictator. In the chapters dealing with him, I wrestled with the temptation to overstate the case and prove my impartiality by painting Namphy as a monster of deceit and calculation. In fact, the evidence points to an impulsive man overwhelmed by the Duvalier legacy and by the pressures of the Haitian presidency, who metamorphosed into the tyrant who was complicit in the Bloody Sunday massacre. The man who swore the oath of office on February 6, 1986, was not capable of saying, as he did two years later, “Haiti has only one voter. The army. Ha ha.”
Rereading my book was painful. Its publication had brought me tremendous personal anguish. It had embittered my in-laws, who accused me of having “told the truth fifty years too soon.” It had ended both my marriage and my life in Haiti and deprived my son of his beloved stepfather.
Our sorrows have faded and we have rebuilt our lives. But most of the people featured in my book could have had no such lucky outcomes. Haiti remains a bitter reminder that most of them, like me, had once been deeply hopeful that with the fall of the Duvaliers and the dismantling of Duvalierism, Haiti would finally offer its long-suffering citizens a chance at lives of fulfillment, safety, and pride. Instead, fractious and corrupt governments and international interference and intrigue have ground the nation down so far that some people (erroneously!) recall the Duvalier era as safer and more prosperous.
At the end of the road, the earthquake and its aftermath revealed (and were consequences of) all that was wrong with Haiti. The post-earthquake mantra – Building Back Better – can inspire Haiti’s betterment only if the rot at the core of its social and governmental structures is targeted as an enemy as lethal as parched soil, bleached riverbeds, bare mountainsides and shattered cities.
Haiti: The Duvaliers and their Legacy is, in large part, a narrative told from the perspective of individual Haitians, and I have made only a few revisions and added a few references to newer sources that clarify or in other ways elaborate on my text. The original version of the Epilogue, however, ended in 1990, and so I have written a new one that summarizes what I believe are the key issues involved in understanding and so helping Haiti.”
You can check out Elizabeth Abbott’s work on Amazon.