In The Parrot’s Perch (She Writes Press), Karen Keilt offers a brave and detailed account of how she and her newly-wed husband Rick Sage were illegally incarcerated on trumped-up drug charges, tortured for forty-five horrific days by the Brazilian police and then forced to rebuild their broken selves without retribution from Brazilian authorities or answers from her own complicated family.
Karen grew up in a luxuriously upscale neighborhood of Sao Paolo, Brazil with a pervasive sense from her earliest years that something awful could happen at any time. Her father was a Brazilian businessman with a strong resemblance to Clark Gable and whispers of CIA connections. While he provided the family with an opulent lifestyle that left them wanting for nothing, Karen and her brother, as well as her mother, lived in fear. In addition to times when money was scarce or when they had to leave the country for months at a time for unexplained reasons, her father rarely showed the love Karen craved from him. Her stunning, American ex-pat mother deferred at all costs to her husband in return for the house of her dreams and provided little emotional support to Karen in her growing-up years. Karen’s drug-dealer brother skirted the law both in Brazil and in the United States, adding to the family tension.
The story unfolds around an interview Karen gave to the Brazilian National Truth Commission in December 2013 about the abuses she and her now-ex-husband suffered at the hands of Brazilian law enforcement. Using the interview questions to launch her powerful story, Karen describes the golden days of her privileged childhood, meeting Rick the affluent American, their fairytale wedding that she planned for a year, the police torture four months later that did not end until their families had paid the required ransom amount (just as other affluent families had done), her daunting struggle to unravel the reasons for the arrest, her repeated attempts to build her marriage and family life in Brazil with her now-damaged husband and her escape with her baby son to America to build a new life there.
Unfortunately, the lovely title has nothing to do with the image it invokes of a peaceful rainforest and its prettiest bird. The parrot’s perch was a bar on which Karen, like other prisoners who have offered similar accounts, was stripped naked and suspended from the back of her knees with her hands tied to her ankles. Once on the perch she was subjected to torture that included beatings and electric shock. Her husband endured the same. It took her weeks just to recover physically. It changed him, she says, from the confident, unassuming man with the sparkling eyes and peaceful warmth to a cold stranger who spent little time at home. The gory details of their arrest deepen the excitement and joy we feel as she meticulously disentangles her life from her husband and sneaks out of Brazil one final time with her baby in tow, hoping to make a life without fear for herself and her son.
Karen employs a concise and unemotional writing style that is easy to read. Short chapters and an organized back-and-forth between interview sessions and flashbacks provide a logical flow and satisfying pace. I was struck most by the strength this remarkable woman displayed at all stages of her life. Even in her earliest years she was not spared trauma when she took up equestrian sports and broke her neck jumping. Nonetheless, once healed she went right back to competitive riding to please and impress her father. Despite her terror of him and his rage, despite the random nature of her arrest, despite the severity of her torture (repeated rapes, inter alia), and despite the demeaning way her husband treated her in their post-arrest marriage, Karen managed to survive and eventually to thrive.
In the stark context of isolation and inhumanity that becomes entrenched within a society ruled by dictatorship, this is an uplifting tale of human resilience and undying hope. In an era where women have become more willing to stand in the truth of their experience, this is a book not to be missed. Its intimate details, delivered with courage and even-handed objectivity, will increase your hopes of a better, more just world to come, for all of us.
The Parrot’s Perch is now available.
About Karen Keilt
Born and raised in Brazil to a Brazilian father and an American mother, Karen Keilt had a childhood of luxury and privilege. She began riding horses at age five and competing at age nine. She attended University of Sao Paulo, Faculdade Objetivo. However, in 1979, she fled to the US, after being unlawfully held prisoner and tortured by Brazilian police for 45 days before being ransomed. Since coming to America, she has enjoyed an eclectic career, including serving as Riding Master at the YMCA, and the first-ever female general manager of a men’s professional RHI League hockey franchise, the Florida Hammerheads. She always gravitated back to her love of writing–first as a newspaper columnist in South Carolina, and later writing four screenplays: The Parrot’s Perch, Bethebotu, The Gnashing of Teeth, and Maracanazo. Keilt enjoys traveling, hiking, Anusara yoga, amateur photography, and horseback riding. She lives in Carefree, Arizona, with her husband, Jack, and their dog, Luna.