Two very different sources of inspiration shaped the writing of When Darkness Falls. The first was a dark chapter of recent world history that I (like most Americans) knew very little about—the Argentine Dirty War and "The Disappeared." The second was more personal to me—my own father’s battle with macular degeneration. Here are two stories I wrote about these influences.
When Darkness Falls:
Terrorism, "The Disappeared" . . . and Blindness
© Copyright James Grippando 2007. All rights reserved.
What should we do about terrorism? You hear that question asked every day. History provides some very bad answers. One of the worst answers ever conceived inspired me to write When Darkness Falls.
Publication of my latest novel coincides roughly with the thirtieth anniversary of an event that most of the world knows nothing about but that should be remembered forever. At 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in April 1977, fourteen mothers—in defiance of a ruthless military dictatorship—gathered in a plaza in Buenos Aires to demand an answer to this chilling question: What has the government done with our disappeared children?
Between 1975 and 1983, thousands of people "disappeared" in Argentina, with estimates as high as 30,000 victims. Among them were dissidents and even some left-wing terrorists. But they also included innocents—teachers, students, journalists, lawyers, intellectuals, laborers, priests, nuns, mothers, sons, fathers and daughters—whose only crime was opposition to the military junta that seized power in Argentina on March 27, 1976. They were abducted from their homes, the street, or their place of work. They were blindfolded and taken to one of over 300 secret military detention centers around the country. They were stripped of their identity, beaten, and tortured by some of the most sadistic state-sponsored "interrogators" the world has ever known. Many were tortured to death by electric shock or submersion in water. Others were shot and buried in mass graves. Some were even pushed out of airplanes alive, disappearing into the ocean. Thousands were never heard from again.
At the time, Argentina was a country torn by terrorism. However, as a special commission found after the fall of the dictatorship, "[t]he armed forces responded to the terrorists’ crimes with a terrorism far worse than the one they were combating." The government gave relatives of the disappeared no information about their loved ones. As neighbors and co-workers vanished in the night, ordinary citizens gave in to their fears and refused to ask questions. Many continued to give their government the benefit of the doubt, telling themselves that the military wouldn’t haul people away without good reason. And some just looked the other way—literally. One of the most disturbing photographs I uncovered in my research shows a young man on the sidewalk being beaten and hauled away by soldiers in broad daylight. If you look closely, you can also see a woman seated by the window inside a restaurant, just a few feet away from the military abduction. She is shielding her eyes.
So it was a few brave women marching in a plaza who became the eyes of a nation, and ultimately of the world. They continued to meet every Thursday at the same time, wearing symbolic white nappies on their heads, carrying poster-sized photographs of their missing children, and asking "Donde están los desaparecidos?" – "Where are the Disappeared?" They came to be known as "The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo," named for their meeting place. They found a way to bring attention to the plight of their families, and they channeled despair into action.
I hate novels that preach, and I would never write one that does. But hopefully this background will give you some understanding of how a writer gets his inspiration—and how, at least in this book, it’s no coincidence that one of the characters is blind.
When Darkness Falls—A Personal Note
© Copyright James Grippando 2006. All rights reserved.
"Ball one," I say. "Inside."
My eight-year-old son Ryan is digging in at home plate, doing his perfect Derek Jeter batting stance. My father is on the pitcher’s mound. He winds up and tries his knuckle ball.
"Ball two. High."
My son picks up the errant throw and rolls it back to him. My father winds up and hurls a fastball. Ryan swings and taps a grounder back toward the mound. My father knows the ball is near him. He bends over and gropes for it in the grass.
"To your right, Dad. Half a step."
He finds it and smiles. Baseball still makes him smile—even though he’s going blind.
My father has macular degeneration, a catch-all name for diseases that attack the critical collection of cells in the retina known as the macula. His is the more devastating "wet" form, which involves leakage from blood vessels in the eye. Every year, MD robs 200,000 Americans of all central vision and causes another 1.2 million to suffer severe central vision loss. Another case of adult macular degeneration is diagnosed every three minutes in this country, and it is the leading cause of blindness among people over the age of sixty-five. The cause is unknown.
Watching someone lose his sight—whatever the cause—is a painful process. It is especially difficult when it happens to someone you love, someone who has looked out for you all your life. I’ve seen my dad walk straight into a fire hydrant and nearly break his shins. I’ve picked him up off the street after he missed a curb. I’ve watched him stab at his food on the plate when there was nothing there, and I’ve seen him reach for a glass of wine on the table, having forgotten that he’d left it on the counter. Every time he comes to visit us, he shows up with a new bump, bruise, or cut—badges of honor in his fight against his disease.
Through it all, he manages to smile as he finds his way through our front door, and he smiles as he leaves. He lives by his motto: "It’s all about attitude, dummy."
It was this kind of courage that inspired me to create Vincent Paulo, the blind hostage negotiator in When Darkness Falls. (My father’s middle name is Vincent, and "Grippando" was either "Grippaudo" or "Grippaulo" before it was recorded incorrectly at Ellis Island). Vince is not exactly my father, but I put just enough of my father into that character to keep Vince from becoming a kind of "blind mystic"—the mythical superhero who loses his sight and magically develops a bloodhound’s sense of smell and bat’s inner radar. Sure, I wanted Vince to become a better listener, to be more intuitive, to reach inside and use all he has to better himself as a negotiator. But I also wanted him to be that guy who occasionally still walks into a lamp post and keeps smiling—like my dad.
One scene, in particular, is very personal to me. South Florida gets more than its fair share of rainfall. Usually, it’s just one more thing to complain about. But when you are blind—or know someone who is—your perspective changes. I try to convey this in one of my favorite passages in the book, as the ongoing hostage crisis begins to take a toll on Vince, and the rain starts to fall:
Rain was Vince’s new best friend. The bond had formed on his first rainy day without sight, just moments after he’d stepped out the front door and onto his porch. His mind was gearing up for the usual mental exercise, the memorized flowerbeds, shrubbery, and footpaths that defined his morning walk. But the rain changed all that. More precisely, it was the sound of falling rain that brought the outdoors and all of its shapes, textures, and contours back into his world. Where there was once only blackness, suddenly there was water sloshing down a drainpipe. The patter of raindrops on the broad, thick leaves of the almond tree. The hiss of automobiles on wet streets. Even the grass emitted its own peculiar expression of gratitude as it drank up the morning shower. A sighted person would have heard nothing more than rainfall in its most generic sense, a white noise of sorts. To Vince, it was a symphony, and he reveled in his newly discovered power to appreciate the beautiful nuances of each and every instrument. Nature and his old neighborhood were working together, calling out to him, telling him that everything was still there for his enjoyment. He heard the drum-like beating on his mailbox, the gentle splashing on concrete sidewalks, and even the ping of dripping water on an iron fence that separated his yard from his neighbor’s. Rain, wonderful rain.
So Vince has an unlikely new friend, and that’s a good thing. A guy can never have too many friends. Especially when darkness falls.