Caroline Brothers: How The Legacy Of Argentina's 'Dirty War' Inspired Her New Book

The brutal dictatorship stole 500 babies, who are now aged in their 40s.

01/09/2016 6:18 AM AEST | Updated 01/09/2016 9:43 AM AEST
Marcos Brindicci / Reuters
Estela de Carlotto, president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo with a brother and sister of the disappeared.

The idea of spending your whole life searching for someone is something we hear about in Hollywood fantasies and children's storybooks, but for hundreds of families in Argentina this has been a reality for the past 40 years.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the military coup that brought one of the continent's most brutal dictatorships to power and saw more than 500 newborn babies stolen, their parents tortured and killed.

It was a time known as "The Dirty War" and its effects are still being felt today as more and more children of "the disappeared" who, as babies were handed onto friends of the regime, are now discovering their life as they know it is all a lie.

A new novel by Australian author and journalist Caroline Brothers, The Memory Stones, captures the terror felt by one family during this time who after decades are reunited with the child of their disappeared daughter with the help of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.


Speaking to The Huffington Post Australia, Brothers said she first became gripped by the story after meeting Juan Gelman, a celebrated Argentine poet who had spent 23 years searching for his granddaughter, after his son and daughter-in-law were abducted in 1976.

"I was aware of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo but I didn't know about this whole other chapter where missing grandchildren were starting to reappear," Brothers told HuffPost Australia.

Gelman was in his seventies when he finally tracked his granddaughter down in Uruguay, where her mother had been taken from Argentina as a prisoner. She had given birth in jail before being disappeared.

"Juan's story was really the beginning of my awareness. He had only found his granddaughter in 2000, but didn't tell me who she was out of respect for her privacy," Brothers said.

I did one draft and realised it was much bigger and far too immense to fit into the parametres of a news story.

It seemed his granddaughter was still coming to terms with her new identity.

Captivated by his story, Brothers set out to write a news article.

"I did one draft and realised it was much bigger and far too immense to fit into the parametres of a news story," Brothers said.

After two more failed attempts, Brothers decided to pursue other work though, Gelman's story continued to bubble away in the back of her mind.

Estela de Carlotto, the president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

"I wasn't ready to write a novel and I didn't know how to approach it," Brothers said.

In the years that passed more "disappeared" grandchildren begun to emerge and by 2012, Brothers was finally ready to pick up where she had left off.

She had written another novel in the meantime, Hinterland, inspired by her own report that made the front page of the New York Times telling the story of two young brothers who fled Afghanistan for what they hoped was a brighter future in England.

Brothers said for The Memory Stones she was drawn to writing more about women, and while one of the two main protagonists is a male, it is very much about a young woman who is at war with the truth.

'Where Is My Grandchild?' A report by the New York Times.

Her research took her across Europe and to Buenos Aires where she met Rosa Roisinblit, the vice president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

"The story of the Grandmothers is a very womanly story in the sense that these are very, very brave women who have stood up to a regime," Brothers said.

Roisinblit's daughter was eight months' pregnant when she was kidnapped in 1978. She had been searching for her missing grandchild ever since and it wasn't until 2000 that she finally found him.

Like many of the recovered children now in their 30s and 40s, the reunion was far from smooth.

Journalism teaches you to be observant and it also gives you the confidence to ask questions and to go into places that you shouldn't really go.

Being reunited with their real grandparents felt more like an invasion, with many fleeing abroad not wanting to be viewed as an oddity or seeking legal counsel, choosing not to face the truth.

"Rosa had spent all these years looking for him and it took her 15 years to win over his affection," Brothers said.

Every story is different yet they each share the unique pain of longing and never quite being given the closure they so truly deserve.

In 2014 there was a memorial service held for Gelman in Paris, who had recently died. It was here that Brothers met the granddaughter she had first heard about almost a decade earlier.

"We talked about their first meeting, and she explained there was enormous empathy," Brothers said.

Brothers stopped working as a journalist last year, throwing herself into fiction, something she admits took her a long time to feel confident in and only came after working as a foreign correspondent.

Rannjan Joawn
Caroline Brothers is an Australian author living in Paris.

"Journalism teaches you to be observant and it also gives you the confidence to ask questions and to go into places that you shouldn't really go," Brothers said.

Now freed from the daily news cycle, Brothers reflects on the importance of storytelling and revisiting these painful periods in history.

"It can resurge from the depths and still have such profound impact on the lives of young people," Brothers said.

"There is this sort of temptation for extreme politics at the moment too, and this is an example of what that can lead to," Brothers said.


The Memory Stones is a novel about the stolen children of the Disappeared in Argentina. Published by Bloomsbury, it is a BBC Radio2 Book Club selection.

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