March 19, 2024

Abu Ghraib
Fiction by Aixa de la Cruz
Tr. from the Spanish by Jacob Rogers

Dear R.,

You may not know this story; I heard it from one of the ETA militants the other day. It has to do with The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, a novel about the life of Gary Gilmore, the first prisoner to be executed after the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States in the late 1970s. As a teenager, Gilmore was in and out of juvie. He stole cars, I think. And held up liquor stores. He ended up with a fifteen-year sentence for being a reoffender. After he got out on parole, he moved in with a distant cousin in Utah. Instead of signing up for pottery classes at the local community college, he went back to his old life of drugs and petty crimes. While he was committing one of those, his wires got crossed and he murdered two people. He was executed by firing squad the following year. He spent the last years of his life demanding that they get it over with, refusing to appeal, and being angry at his lawyers and anti-death penalty associations.

Mailer interviewed Gilmore’s family and friends to recreate him for his novel. After publishing an excerpt in the newspaper, he received a letter from a Utah prisoner. In it, the prisoner says that Mailer’s vision of prison isn’t very realistic and he offers to write more letters explaining what things are like inside. The guy (I don’t remember his name, but I’m sure you could track it down easily on the internet) had literary talent, or at least that’s what Mailer thought, because he helped him publish the letters they wrote to each other in a collection called In The Belly of the Whale or something (I’d really like to read it — do you think you could send me a copy the next time you write?). He also intervened to help the man get approved for parole. Like Gilmore, he had a long rap sheet. His most recent sentence was for murdering a prisoner, and the warden had classified him as highly dangerous. But how bad could he be if he wrote so well? He got out and spent a couple weeks rubbing elbows with the stars of the New York literary scene. Then one night, he got it into his head that a waiter had looked at him the wrong way and stabbed him to death.

Let me sketch something out:

  1. Gary Gilmore gets out on parole and murders two people.
  2. Norman Mailer researches Gilmore’s life for a novel.
  3. Prisoner Two (I’ll call him that since I don’t know his real name), locked up in the same prison that Gilmore had been in, writes letters back and forth with Mailer, which end up being published and helping shorten his sentence. While he’s out on a provisional release, he murders a waiter.
  4. In sum: five men dead (including Gilmore and Prisoner Two, who committed suicide in his cell), two books published, and one Pulitzer Prize (for Mailer).

Now you might be thinking this anecdote made me think about you, and our correspondence, and that I’m going to ask you to help me launch my literary career, or put in a good word for me during my trial, or both. But that’s not it at all; don’t worry. It’s just that the story about Mailer and the prisoners, the way reality inspired fiction and fiction took a waiter with it, has a lot to do with what you’ve asked me to write; there’s no point beating around the bush — you want me to explain how I ended up here. That’s why I thought it would be relevant to start with that story; that, and the fact that everything feels relevant in here. You tell your cellmate that you fell down the stairs and go into so much detail that the conversation can occupy the whole day. We have too much time on our hands and we’ve learned to express ourselves differently, so that the hours will pass more smoothly. That’s why, and I promise I’m going to make an effort to get to the heart of the matter, I ask only for your understanding. You can’t imagine how boredom changes a person. 

I’ll tell you what started it all: a rock band. A few kids in the neighborhood got together in the basement of the old bread factory and had everything they needed — two guitars, a bass, a drum kit — except for a singer. This was back when Rock Radical Vasco was still going, and they thought they’d “make it big doing something like Su Ta Gar but with a female singer”: that would be their distinctive touch, their selling point. At the time, I was studying lyric singing at the conservatory. I come from a family of musicians. My parents are flutists and my grandfather was the director of the municipal band for twenty-five years. I only knew the boys in Sukalki (that’s what they’d christened their band before I entered the picture; it’s the name of a ragù) by sight, from playing foosball at Bar Salina, a tiny, seedy spot (dirt floor) in the Old Town where the whole city bought its speed. The bar didn’t call attention to itself, which is how it lasted so many years. It’s the flashy narcos that always get caught. Well, them and the impoverished. If this place is full of anyone, it’s people who’ve gone hungry.

Now that I think of it: did the legend of Bilbao speed become a thing in the ’80s or ’90s?

What I remember of the ’90s are the tabloid shows like Paco Lobatón’s, the gruesome details of the Alcàsser murders, and the quicklime-covered corpses of Lasa and Zabala; our morbid fascination less with the content than the phrase “forensic report.” Because everyone wanted to know if the Alcàsser girls’ limbs had been hacked off while they were alive or dead, if they’d been sodomized, if they’d been used for a snuff film. And although not everyone took an interest in the gritty details of José Antonio Lasa and José Ignacio Zabala’s final days, those too came to light, though less comprehensively, of course, so our imaginations filled in the rest. “Given the lamentable state the boys were found in, General Galindo ordered their transfer to Alicante province, where they would ultimately be executed.” The litany of torments implied by “lamentable state” depended on how wild your imagination was. And mine was particularly lurid. 

I remember a lot of it. I remember almost everything about that period of time, when I became the singer in the band. It’s so easy to get used to change. We went from rehearsing in a half-destroyed gaztetxe to playing gigs every weekend and filling up town squares, which isn’t quite the same as filling a stadium, but it was the highest we could reach in our league. We learned what it was like to be famous in the regional festival circuit. Unsurprisingly, I lost my spot at the conservatory. While my classmates were taking vows of silence in the days before their recitals and avoiding air conditioning like it was the plague, I was out chain-smoking cigarettes. But I still think it was worth it. We were better than most because we copied better and with more variety. A speed metal foundation, the occasional melodic song reminiscent of Stratovarius, lyrics lifted from Hertzainak, a touch of traditional Basque music, and my voice, like Nightwish, made us perfect for any crowd. We never would have made it to the first division, but we would still have had guaranteed free cocaine for life. Our big hit, “S.O.S.” sounded like “Paranoid” but with a handicapped drummer and a mezzo-soprano on the mic. Just to give you an idea.

We lasted five years. That’s not terribly long, but it’s more than enough time to get used to any kind of lifestyle. Including prison. The first few months here fly by. There are lots of visits: lawyer, social workers, psychologist…Little by little, you get used to the routine. Six months in, the bad part, the true suffering, begins. If you’ve ever run a marathon, you’ll understand; the first five miles are easy, but once you get past that, your legs start to shake, you lose your focus, and all you can think about is how far you have left to run. You think: all this effort for what? A refrigerator magnet to remind you of the time you crossed the finish line? But if you can stay strong and persevere, by the tenth mile you’ve forgotten all about your tiredness and you could run forever, until you’ve worn your soles down to nothing. Not out of endurance, but sheer inertia. People here say that five years is enough to resign yourself to prison, and that after ten, there’s a part of you that will never want to walk free again. 

Sukalki broke up (we set aside our instruments, we surrendered) in the spring of 1999. According to our web page, it was due to “musical differences” between band members. The truth is that Julen, our lead-guitarist and songwriter, joined a sect of radical vegan green-heads and moved into a hamlet just outside Gernika, where thirty people still live in a commune that doesn’t consume anything from the outside world. At his farewell, he gave me a recycled jam jar with some strange white organisms that grew like gremlins when you gave them milk. It’s been nearly ten years since we last saw each other.

After the band broke up, I enrolled in university and did the things everyone does. I chose a degree path with my mind on a job I’d be willing to do for the rest of my life, met new people, got a boyfriend. It was in 2001, on the day the twin towers fell, that I set foot on campus for the first time. I completed my degree in prison, through the National Distance Learning University.

I like distance learning; you don’t have to put up with the professors. There were lots of odd characters at the Jesuit university where I started my law degree. In the third year, a few days after the Abu Ghraib scandal had exploded, the tenured professor of International Law suggested we read the latest gem by Alan Dershowitz, an ultra-Republican American lawyer who advocated for the legalization of torture in interrogations. In extreme situations — imagine there’s a bomb about to go off and you’ve captured the perp who could stop it — torture is a necessary evil, he argued; the global situation post September 11 is an exceptional one, he insinuated. I was shocked by the proportion of my classmates who supported this reasoning. I didn’t see them as legitimizing what the CIA did thousands of miles away with Islamic terrorists; I saw them in Intxaurrondo with a Guardia Civil’s three-pointed hat, throwing salt into a wound. I arrived at the continuation of the debate in the café with my jugular about to burst; this always happens to me when I’m indignant, the artery (or is it a vein?) swells and it looks like there’s a leech under my skin. “It’s like in 24, there are situations where there’s no time for philosophical or legal debates; you just have to act. A lot of lives would be saved if there were people like Jack Bauer making tough decisions,” some idiot said through a mouthful of mass-produced chocolate pastry. 

You may not remember the show 24. It was very popular back then, and it was a far more effective defense of utilitarianism than Dershowitz’s book because, unlike him, it was entertaining. It unfolds in real time; every season contains twenty-four hour-long episodes that depict, minute by minute, a day in the lives of the agents of the Counter Terrorist Unit, or CTU, with Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) as its main character. He became an emblem for “everything goes” in the fight against terrorism, especially when it came to the use of “unorthodox” interrogation tactics; the show writers were obsessed with that. To give you an idea, I remember a season that started like this: a man confesses that there’s a nuclear weapon in Los Angeles after he’s had repeated electric shocks applied to him in some secret prison in the Middle East. Jack Bauer ultimately neutralizes that threat by pretending to murder the family of another suspect so that he’ll lead him to the bomb. Meanwhile, there’s a side plot where the president of the United States watches a screen that shows a secret agent — under his orders —  torturing a team member who turned out to be in on the plot. A fixation, 24 had a total fixation (as did Bush, and the CIA, and the entire civilized world after September 11th) with torture. And that pissed me off.

I’ll admit that I lost my cool that day, and not just over my classmates’ ethical relativism: it was hot, exam time was coming up, and a music magazine had just run a story listing Sukalki as one of the worst bands of the ’90s. They’d called it “Gone for Good,” how hilarious. I’ve never stopped Googling our band; I still do now, through my mother: whenever we talk on the phone I ask her to read me the headlines of the most recent articles we’ve been mentioned in. There’s always something new, because the news of my arrest brought us a massive surge of popularity. They’ve started playing “S.O.S.” on the radio again; since last month, our first album is available on Spotify; I responded to interviews that came out in newspapers; last week, Rolling Stone mentioned me alongside Snoop Dogg in a list of musicians with murder charges…I’ve become a minor celebrity again; I even get fan mail here. Some people think I’m Charles Manson and justify what I did because I had no motive; as the song goes: I didn’t like Mondays. They’re not going to like it one bit when you publish your article. 

But as I was saying:

A few weeks after our heated debate over torture and American TV shows — I apologized for it later on, but I left the café shouting “you’re all fucking psychopaths,” — two classmates approached me saying they had something wild to tell me. Apparently, ever since the lecture on Dershowitz, they’d been looking into torture practices in the Spanish state, and they’d found a report by a local human rights organization that had collected the testimonies of a hundred Basque prisoners over the past decade. In one of them, a woman said she’d been held prisoner for forty-eight hours, unable to communicate with anyone, naked, soaking wet, in a pitch-black soundproof room where they deprived her of sleep by playing the same song over and over again at full volume. That song was “S.O.S.”

After they said it, they stood there stock-still, reflective, looking at me as if they’d just informed me of the death of a family member and were waiting for me to collapse. A slight laugh escaped me. “This is a prank, right?” “You can check it with the original source on the link written in the margins.” They handed me a red folder and ran off. They were chubby and weird, like the kids in American high school movies who get bullied and always end up exacting revenge on the blonde cheerleaders and sadistic football players. And they get a pass. Now they’re judges. I stood there with the folder in my hand, thinking: “could they be implicated?” I didn’t even look at what was inside it until I got home that night after a long day at school; I could have lost it. I used to lose dozens of things every day: pens, notes, notebooks. And, a couple times per year, my cell phone. Every five or six months, my wallet. I’m absent-minded. If I’d just forgotten that red folder in any of my classes none of this would have happened, but the universe has its whims and adversity is like a gigantic magnet that pulls everything toward it; a black hole. 

I remember the text — which was very concise — word for word, so I’m going to copy it out here, in case it’s of interest to you. It started abruptly, with no introduction:

On the way to Madrid, they tore off my clothes and threatened to rape me. They kept on threatening me with that. They drove me there, naked from the waist up, insulting me and grabbing my breasts the entire time. Later on, they forced me to lay back against a table and tossed cold water onto my crotch. But most of the time, I was alone. They gave me back my clothes — completely soaked — and I had to put them on. They turned off the lights in the room I was in and a metal song came on at full volume. Once the song ended, it played back from the beginning, and it went on like this for two days without a single break. I shouted and couldn’t hear my own voice, but I could feel the sound waves climbing up my throat; they tickled my trachea and after so many hours locked up, it made me laugh. 

The song, by Sukalki, was ironically called “S.O.S.” I hadn’t heard it before, but years later, I was at a bar with friends when the song came on, and they identified it for me. I heard the first chords and my heart stopped; I thought I was dying, but it was a panic attack, that was all. They’d also threatened to go after my little sister. They said they had something on her but that wasn’t true. They showed me a set of doctored photos. They shouted: ooh, she’s the hot one, she’s the one we really want to fuck. My sister isn’t even involved in politics; she works in IT and was only nineteen at the time, but they make you question everything. It’s like in that old joke: they could make an elephant think it’s a rabbit.


Here’s the joke: a Spanish, French, and British policeman are in a hunting contest where whoever captures the biggest rabbit wins a prize. The French policeman shows up with a magnificent catch, at least the size of a large housecat. Then the British policeman appears and outdoes him; the audience cheers. Then comes the Spanish policeman with a glum, gravely wounded elephant. The judges don’t understand: “This was a contest for hunting rabbits, not elephants.” The elephant responds: “I’m a rabbit, I’m a rabbit, I’m a rabbit.” 

The first time I read the testimony I tried to convince myself that it was fake. After all, that’s what the authorities have always claimed: terrorists make things up to delegitimize the forces of order. But that didn’t pacify me. There was something messed up about disavowing a story simply because it was uncomfortable for me, so I changed my line of thought: assuming the testimony was true, why should that have any bearing on me?

In ’94, we were number one on Euskadi Gaztea’s weekly chart. Our song was on the radio every day. Now imagine that…
  • A group of twenty-somethings are on their way home from a party when they cross paths with a kamikaze driver headed in the opposite direction and they lose teeth, and arms, and all die within seconds, while the driver listens to my voice.
  • A taxi driver has a heart attack as he’s changing stations.
  • Someone at a bar in Old Bilbao — that’s where our audience congregates — dies from alcohol poisoning and we’re the soundtrack to their demise. 

These situations are all hypothetical, but plausible. I’m in one place, our song can be in hundreds. People don’t just dance, drive, run, fuck, and study; people also get in accidents and die while music is playing. Was I supposed to feel bad about that?

Obviously, the answer was no, but there was a difference between being a soundtrack — circumstantial — and being a weapon, an instrument of torture. I couldn’t stop asking myself, why our song? Why my voice? I know how self-centered this sounds, but the honest truth is that a series of aggressions that I’d never witnessed, against a woman who I knew nothing about besides her initials, had become a personal attack against me. I needed to understand the reasons. The thought that they’d chosen it at random never entered my mind, and how could I be sure whether what they did to E.M. was an isolated incident, or their common practice? A practice that they might still be using, and one that we may have inspired. I let my imagination fly like a boomerang never to return.
  • A list of common torture methods: plastic bags, waterboarding, rubber balls, they fell down the stairs and we performed an emergency life-saving maneuver.
  • Therapy groups comprised of ex-prisoners who have developed a social phobia where they avoid any place that music could come on, out of fear of hearing our song. 
  • Dozens, maybe hundreds of people walking the streets, who are triggered by my voice into a panic more intense than finding a rattlesnake in their bed. 
  • Sukalki in the bull’s-eye on one of the pro-ETA posters that normally feature People’s Party politicians. 
  • A survivor’s association. 

And once again: why my voice? 

It was a Friday near the end of the semester. That night I was supposed to go with my boyfriend to the yearly class dinner, but I wrote him a message making an excuse not to go. Then I turned off my phone. I dug out our first demo from a massive bin where my mother kept her trading cards: my school grades; participation certificates from football tournaments, summer camps, and language classes; craft projects; my university acceptance letter; Sukalki’s albums and all the newspaper articles I’ve appeared in. I left it lying on the hallway floor, only to be confiscated fifty hours later by the forensic police because a tiny piece of brain had ended up inside it. We never got it back. I wonder if my mother would have completed her collection with souvenirs from my life in prison. 

I turned on the speaker system, inserted the LP, and sat on the floor to listen to “S.O.S.” as if I’d never heard it, as if the singer’s voice weren’t my own; as if I’d forgotten. I needed to understand what was special about it, why it had won the selection process that I imagined as a casting: songs that are good for tearing down psychological walls. I listened attentively, but got no answers. I stood up to start it over again, and no clarifications came this second time, but I accidentally pressed the loop play button. And that’s how I spent the next forty-eight hours.

I don’t have much to tell you about what happened during that time. I must have fallen into some kind of trance. When the noise came back after the three seconds of silence between the end of one playback and the beginning of another, I cried. It seemed like I’d forgotten that I could get up and turn off the speakers whenever I wanted; that no one was stopping me. But I must have reached that point after many hours of listening, and I can’t remember what brought me to it when I was still in my right mind (if I ever was). I have a hunch that my mirror neurons staged a coup; that I had to put myself in E.M.’s place at any cost. I wasn’t in the control seat.

There were moments when I fell asleep, because I remember jolting awake from the change in rhythm that comes after the first chorus. Whether I was waking up from a long slumber or had only managed to shut my eyes for a few minutes — the three-minute-fifty-second duration of the song, for example — is impossible for me to say. 

All of a sudden, on Sunday afternoon to be exact, though I wouldn’t have known it because I’d been out of time, lost in an endless, three-minute-fifty-second loop, the sound of the doorbell ripped me out of my delirium. Whoever it was was buzzing so insistently that I couldn’t ignore it. I got up, and for a few seconds the walls were moving. I held onto the coat stand that seemed like a person because of my blurred vision and gradually regained my balance. I immediately turned off the music, but the noise didn’t stop completely; my eyes were pulsating and my heart was beating at a pace scarily close to that of the drums in “S.O.S.”

I walked towards the entrance and my face must have been a wreck because the first thing my boyfriend said in the doorway was: “You weren’t lying, you really were sick!” But I didn’t understand any of it. I rubbed my eyes in an attempt to wake up, but I wasn’t sure I’d fallen asleep in the first place. “Sweetheart, you look terrible. But you turned your phone off on Friday and I haven’t heard from you since, so I thought you were mad at me.” He was talking very loud and very fast, and all I wanted was for him to leave. “Mad about what?” I asked the question and my voice sounded distorted. “About the prank. It didn’t hurt your feelings, did it? It was Luis’ idea; he came to me first and I thought it was genius. You got so intense that time at the café that we thought it’d be funny. But maybe it didn’t feel that way to you. Sorry if…”

I stopped listening; my mind had fogged up again. I was inside a dream dreaming that I was inside a speaker and that was why everything around me was pulsating. And you’ll think this is nothing more than a convenient excuse, the one my lawyer wants me to stick to, but I swear that I have no memory of what happened after that. I woke up squatting over my boyfriend’s body, with a heavy, blood-drenched bookend in my hands. There was a strange expression on his face, and several wounds on his head, white tissue visible in some of them. The coroner said that I struck him twenty times with the edge of the bookend, a small bronze sculpture of Alfonso the Wise on his throne. Eighteen of those blows were likely redundant; I killed him immediately. That’s what I know from the report; what I still can’t explain to myself is how I managed to knock him down in the first place. To think that I was the real danger, that I spent half my life switching sidewalks and speeding up anytime I crossed paths with a man. If I was born on that end of the scale, on the side of the violent, I should have at least been afforded the privilege of living without fear. But no. My actions were so unconscious that I still think I couldn’t even kill a rat; nothing has changed. I’m terrified of half the other prisoners. I walk through the prison with my head down; I’m a miniscule murderer.

It was a few hours before I called the police. The first thing I did was undress and get in the shower. Once I was confident that I’d eliminated any traces of blood from my body, I went back to my room and locked the door. I hoped that if I let enough time go by, I could open the door and the corpse would have disappeared. I know that I have these kinds of thoughts because of my childhood, and the sheer amount of times I was told things like: “go to sleep, and when you wake up, the living room will be full of toys.”

I turned on my computer. I stared at the screen like a zombie. I opened Google. I opened the news. I opened a joke website. I was incapable of processing anything that I was seeing. And then I noticed the red folder containing E.M.’s testimony next to the screen. It was in the same spot I’d left it two days earlier, after I’d read it for the thousandth time; it contained the same words; nothing had magically changed, just that this time I looked at the web address scrawled into the margins and typed it into my browser. The page loaded and the first chords of “S.O.S” rang out. All the hairs on my body stood up, like a cat. I started to sweat. It was only after a few seconds of trying to find the button to turn off the sound on the page that I understood its content. It was a blog with a single entry, and an animation of a clown dancing to the music.


Below, next to the bouncing clown, they’d added a laughing emoji. Nowadays, lots of people will find it hilarious that I committed a murder not over money, drugs, spite, or after a psychotic break, no; it was because I had no sense of humor. They’ll still find the comedy in this absurd prank. “She was always too serious,” they’ll say. That’s what I hate the most.

I was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for extreme cruelty (the eighteen redundant blows), which means I won’t be out until I’m fifty. Does that give you an idea? I know that people deal with getting older by weighing what they’ve lost — muscle tone, sex, options — against what they’ve gained — children, business, Athletic Bilbao matches with their friends. I’ll leave here without having had the chance to build myself a life. In other words, I’ll leave here to become an old lady, that’s all. I do hope that my doctoral thesis will help me kill time, and with a bit of luck, give it some purpose. I think I told you about the project in my last letter; I want to analyze the degree to which televised fiction during the Iraq War helped to spread the idea that torture is a necessary evil in the war on terrorism. Watch 24, watch Lost, watch Battlestar Galactica…The pattern is clear as day.

I know you must have questions after reading this, and as you know, I’m willing to satisfy your curiosity, but it would be wonderful if we could discuss it in person. I’d also be curious to hear more about the details of your work. If you call the public support number at Penitentiary Institutions, they’ll give you all the information you need for the process of setting up a visit. This place is a world apart, as you know. I’m sure it’ll provide you inspiration.




Aixa de la Cruz (Bilbao, 1988) holds a Ph.D. in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature, and is the author of the novels Cuando fuimos los mejores (When We Were The Best, 2007), De música ligera (Of Soft Music, 2009), and La línea del frente (The Front Line, 2017), as well as the short story collection, Modelos animales (Animal Models, 2015). Her breakout success came with the collection of auto-fictional essays, Cambiar de idea (Changing My Mind, 2018). Her newest novel, Las herederas (The Heiresses, 2022), landed her on the front cover of the most important literary supplement in Spain, and has solidified her place as one of the most outstanding voices in contemporary Spanish literature.

Jacob Rogers is a translator of Galician and Spanish. He has received grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and the PEN/Heim translation fund. His translations have appeared in The Offing, Arkansas International, Asymptote, Words Without Borders, and Epiphany, among others. His translation of The Last Days of Terranova, by Manuel Rivas, came out from Archipelago Books in November 2022 and was a finalist for the 2023 Spain-USA Translation Award. His translation of Berta Dávila’s The Dear Ones was published by 3TimesRebel in 2023.