To coincide with the release of Granta 122: Betrayal, we asked contributors from the issue to offer up their definitions of the word and its implications.

Mohsin Hamid

Betrayal is when someone you love forces you to accept the proposition that life is not the way you most wish it to be, indeed that life never was this way, and that there is nothing – nothing – in your power that can be done to change this. Betrayal is therefore pain. And also education.

The more loved the source, the more sharp the deviation, the more lasting the desire that it be not so, the more potent the betrayal. To be born is to be betrayed by she who birthed you. That said, betrayal isn’t necessarily bad. Often, it’s essential. Sometimes it’s a blessing.


Karen Russell

Judas, Kristen Stewart, Bernie Madoff, Charlie Tuna – there are so many great case studies of betrayal, and yet I find it hard to put words to the dreadful thrill and/or agonizing stab in one’s bellypit that signals to a body: this is treachery. I do think that the best traitors must be experts when it comes to self-deceit. They learn the art at home. Chloroforming whatever internal voices suggest, better not do this, you are reneging on a deal, you are breaking a promise, you are crossing over to a shadowy frontier . . .

And I think that betrayal can often be a profound surprise to the traitor herself.

In my experience, sometimes you only learn the treachery that your heart harbours via action, transgression. So that the sting of betrayal can shock the traitor just as powerfully as the victim. In fact, we are all entering unspoken contracts with each other, all the time, negotiating these delicate, intricate webs of mutual need and expectation, and sometimes the terms of our agreements can only be revealed to us in the moment of the breach – that’s the uncanny thing about betrayal, right? Some heretofore invisible boundary flares neon red. The violation reveals the contract to both the traitor and the betrayed party: you silently vowed x to me, and you failed to deliver it. They trusted me to do y, I trusted myself to do y, and I failed myself, and them. You walk through the spiderweb and discover its existence in that instant.


Jennifer Vanderbes

I think of betrayal as a crack in the veneer of humanity, an act that reveals to us, and others, our base animal nature. That I choose John in Accounting over my husband Simon one drunken night is irrelevant; what I am really choosing is sex over loyalty. If I embezzle funds from my company, I’m tossing aside honesty in favour of greed. Betrayals haunt us (often haunting the betrayer as much as the betrayed) because they show us, in one painful flash, that this magnificent thing called civilization, the moral and collective bedrock on which we build our lives, is entirely flimsy, and that we are, at any moment, just inches from our fanged past.


John Burnside

For the Ancients, public life depended upon veritas – truthfulness in both word and deed – and fides, which is to say: the condition of being trustworthy oneself and, at the same time, having the confidence that one may reasonably trust others, (especially those with financial or political power). To say that these virtues are forgotten now is a sad understatement; ever since the Reagan-Thatcher-Chicago-School junta, they have been derided. We are now betrayed on a daily basis by so many smiling, damned villains that not being cheated is a rare, and slightly worrying experience. Banks, politicians, the legal system, corporations, broadcasters, advertisers, the police, any government-supported watchdog or ‘standards agency’ and even some NGOs – the list of traitors seems endless, while those who corrode what remains of the public good throw million-dollar parties for their friends and political minions. Qui non vetat peccare cum possit, iubet, says Seneca: He who, when he may, forbids not sin, commands it. Which I guess means eternal shame on the cheats, for doing what they do, but shame on us in the meantime, for letting them get away with it.


Janine di Giovanni

The worst betrayal is the one that you commit against yourself. It’s when you realize you did not see something obvious, you could not see, you refused to see, your vision was tainted. It means your instincts – which in my case I rely on to stay alive – betrayed you. There are people I believed in who let me down – I did not feel their betrayal nearly as acutely as I felt the betrayal of my own self – how could I not have known?

When you believe in something profoundly – whether it be a person or a political ideal – and you discover it is not what it seemed to be, not what you thought, the lingering sense of failure is like a black tide. You have been betrayed.

The worst I can think of that happened to me was in Iraq, during the time of Saddam. I made a very good friend, an intellectual. I believed, with all my heart, that he was a good man, that his love of books, his scholarly demeanour, had saved him from the regime. Much later, after the occupation, I found out he was an informant and had participated in the torture of those he had turned in.

I had shared much with this man – mostly fear, living in Saddam times – then I found out he was informing on me. He had befriended me, in fact, simply to inform on me. I did find and meet him afterwards, to ask him why. He shrugged, and said nothing, we had a tentative meal together and talked about mundane things. And I never saw him again, nor was my trust level ever quite the same.


Callan Wink

Maybe it’s a coincidence but, in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word ‘betray’ is directly followed by ‘betroth’. Probably word proximity on a dictionary page means nothing in and of itself, but, in this case, it made me realize that the most devastating betrayals are always precipitated by those that are closest to us. In fact, I think it could be said that it is impossible to be truly betrayed by someone unless you have first loved that person. Without love you could be mislead, deceived, cheated, deluded, all bad things of course, but on the surface level, less soul-crushing than betrayal. Just as the words ‘betray’ and ‘betroth’ are wedded on the dictionary page, so too in life it seems. Love the blushing bride, betrayal the shadowy groom – they walk hand-in-hand down the aisle.


André Aciman

There are two forms of deceptions, one curable, the other not. The first is what we harbour for those who have asked – and offered – and were given every assurance to expect from us: loyalty. Some of us want to be loyal and think that by wanting to be we may already have cleared the path to it. Some of us grow used to being loyal simply by aping the gestures and behaviour of those who have been good to us. But we know better. We also know that we will shed our loyalty if given the opportunity. It is the absence of opportunity that keeps us loyal, not what’s in our hearts. The other form of deception is more pernicious, because it is directed at ourselves: self-deception. Self-deception is inscribed in everything we do, say, promise, justify and uphold. We are not evil – none of us is – but we’ve learned how to lie to ourselves the way some people hide objects and then forget where they’ve hidden them. Against self-deception there is no cure. As soon as we’ve uncovered and neutralized one strain of self-deception then another is ready to take its place. But there is a virtue in self-deception: we may behave loyally without having a single drop of loyalty in our hearts, but if by behaving loyally we think we are rid of deception, well, then by all means, let’s be self-deceived.


Samantha Harvey

We think of betrayal as the point at which one, who is loved and respected, fails the other, who loves and respects. I wonder if it is really only the point at which we realize that we have been asking for something that the other could never give? In other words, that we see we have been believing in false gods.


Colin Robinson

I remember sitting around with a group of friends in a Tribeca bar a number of years ago and someone mentioned how they had just been betrayed by a boyfriend of a couple of months standing who had taken up with someone else. To me, the charge seemed hyperbolic. In my mind betrayal conjures something elemental, attaching only to matters of life and death: Jesus confronting his father on the cross at Calvary, Tony Blair pressing ahead with the invasion of Iraq, Michael Owen signing for Manchester United after he’d left Liverpool FC. I asked the group if anyone else felt they’d been personally betrayed. To my astonishment I was the only one who didn’t. I’ve certainly been treated shoddily, lied to, cheated on. But betrayed? Maybe I’ve been lucky. Perhaps my opinion of myself is so depleted that experience of others’ bad behavior rarely rises above feeling a bit let down. Conceivably, fear that I’m betraying others prevents me from recognizing it as a meaningful category when it happens to me. But the world’s a hard enough place, even without quotidian betrayal, so if I’m in a cocoon on this matter, it’s not one from which I’m bursting to be free.


Photograph © Frédéric Fontenoy

Brazilian Writers Define Betrayal
André Aciman | Podcast