The Psychology Of Torture

The Psychology Of Torture

There is​ one place in​ which one's privacy, intimacy, integrity and inviolability are guaranteed – one's body, a​ unique temple and a​ familiar territory of​ sensa and personal history. The torturer invades, defiles and desecrates this shrine. He does so publicly, deliberately, repeatedly and, often, sadistically and sexually, with undisguised pleasure. Hence the all-pervasive, long-lasting, and, frequently, irreversible effects and outcomes of​ torture.

In a​ way, the torture victim's own body is​ rendered his worse enemy. it​ is​ corporeal agony that compels the sufferer to​ mutate, his identity to​ fragment, his ideals and principles to​ crumble. The body becomes an​ accomplice of​ the tormentor, an​ uninterruptible channel of​ communication, a​ treasonous, poisoned territory.

It fosters a​ humiliating dependency of​ the abused on the perpetrator. Bodily needs denied – sleep, toilet, food, water – are wrongly perceived by the victim as​ the direct causes of​ his degradation and dehumanization. as​ he sees it, he is​ rendered bestial not by the sadistic bullies around him but by his own flesh.

The concept of​ "body" can easily be extended to​ "family", or​ "home". Torture is​ often applied to​ kin and kith, compatriots, or​ colleagues. This intends to​ disrupt the continuity of​ "surroundings, habits, appearance, relations with others", as​ the CIA put it​ in​ one of​ its manuals. a​ sense of​ cohesive self-identity depends crucially on the familiar and the continuous. By attacking both one's biological body and one's "social body", the victim's psyche is​ strained to​ the point of​ dissociation.

Beatrice Patsalides describes this transmogrification thus in​ "Ethics of​ the Unspeakable: Torture Survivors in​ Psychoanalytic Treatment":

"As the gap between the 'I' and the 'me' deepens, dissociation and alienation increase. The subject that, under torture, was forced into the position of​ pure object has lost his or​ her sense of​ interiority, intimacy, and privacy. Time is​ experienced now, in​ the present only, and perspective – that which allows for a​ sense of​ relativity – is​ foreclosed. Thoughts and dreams attack the mind and invade the body as​ if​ the protective skin that normally contains our thoughts, gives us space to​ breathe in​ between the thought and the thing being thought about, and separates between inside and outside, past and present, me and you, was lost."

Torture robs the victim of​ the most basic modes of​ relating to​ reality and, thus, is​ the equivalent of​ cognitive death. Space and time are warped by sleep deprivation. The self ("I") is​ shattered. The tortured have nothing familiar to​ hold on to: family, home, personal belongings, loved ones, language, name. Gradually, they lose their mental resilience and sense of​ freedom. They feel alien – unable to​ communicate, relate, attach, or​ empathize with others.

Torture splinters early childhood grandiose narcissistic fantasies of​ uniqueness, omnipotence, invulnerability, and impenetrability. But it​ enhances the fantasy of​ merger with an​ idealized and omnipotent (though not benign) other – the inflicter of​ agony. The twin processes of​ individuation and separation are reversed.

Torture is​ the ultimate act of​ perverted intimacy. The torturer invades the victim's body, pervades his psyche, and possesses his mind. Deprived of​ contact with others and starved for human interactions, the prey bonds with the predator. "Traumatic bonding", akin to​ the Stockholm Syndrome, is​ about hope and the search for meaning in​ the brutal and indifferent and nightmarish universe of​ the torture cell.

The abuser becomes the black hole at​ the center of​ the victim's surrealistic galaxy, sucking in​ the sufferer's universal need for solace. The victim tries to​ "control" his tormentor by becoming one with him (introjecting him) and by appealing to​ the monster's presumably dormant humanity and empathy.

This bonding is​ especially strong when the torturer and the tortured form a​ dyad and "collaborate" in​ the rituals and acts of​ torture (for instance, when the victim is​ coerced into selecting the torture implements and the types of​ torment to​ be inflicted, or​ to​ choose between two evils).

The psychologist Shirley Spitz offers this powerful overview of​ the contradictory nature of​ torture in​ a​ seminar titled "The Psychology of​ Torture" (1989):

"Torture is​ an​ obscenity in​ that it​ joins what is​ most private with what is​ most public. Torture entails all the isolation and extreme solitude of​ privacy with none of​ the usual security embodied therein... Torture entails at​ the same time all the self-exposure of​ the utterly public with none of​ its possibilities for camaraderie or​ shared experience. (The presence of​ an​ all powerful other with whom to​ merge, without the security of​ the other's benign intentions.)

A further obscenity of​ torture is​ the inversion it​ makes of​ intimate human relationships. The interrogation is​ a​ form of​ social encounter in​ which the normal rules of​ communicating, of​ relating, of​ intimacy are manipulated. Dependency needs are elicited by the interrogator, but not so they may be met as​ in​ close relationships, but to​ weaken and confuse. Independence that is​ offered in​ return for 'betrayal' is​ a​ lie. Silence is​ intentionally misinterpreted either as​ confirmation of​ information or​ as​ guilt for 'complicity'.

Torture combines complete humiliating exposure with utter devastating isolation. The final products and outcome of​ torture are a​ scarred and often shattered victim and an​ empty display of​ the fiction of​ power."

Obsessed by endless ruminations, demented by pain and a​ continuum of​ sleeplessness – the victim regresses, shedding all but the most primitive defense mechanisms: splitting, narcissism, dissociation, Projective Identification, introjection, and cognitive dissonance. The victim constructs an​ alternative world, often suffering from depersonalization and derealization, hallucinations, ideas of​ reference, delusions, and psychotic episodes.

Sometimes the victim comes to​ crave pain – very much as​ self-mutilators do – because it​ is​ a​ proof and a​ reminder of​ his individuated existence otherwise blurred by the incessant torture. Pain shields the sufferer from disintegration and capitulation. it​ preserves the veracity of​ his unthinkable and unspeakable experiences.

This dual process of​ the victim's alienation and addiction to​ anguish complements the perpetrator's view of​ his quarry as​ "inhuman", or​ "subhuman". The torturer assumes the position of​ the sole authority, the exclusive fount of​ meaning and interpretation, the source of​ both evil and good.

Torture is​ about reprogramming the victim to​ succumb to​ an​ alternative exegesis of​ the world, proffered by the abuser. it​ is​ an​ act of​ deep, indelible, traumatic indoctrination. The abused also swallows whole and assimilates the torturer's negative view of​ him and often, as​ a​ result, is​ rendered suicidal, self-destructive, or​ self-defeating.

Thus, torture has no cut-off date. The sounds, the voices, the smells, the sensations reverberate long after the episode has ended – both in​ nightmares and in​ waking moments. The victim's ability to​ trust other people – i.e., to​ assume that their motives are at​ least rational, if​ not necessarily benign – has been irrevocably undermined. Social institutions are perceived as​ precariously poised on the verge of​ an​ ominous, Kafkaesque mutation. Nothing is​ either safe, or​ credible anymore.

Victims typically react by undulating between emotional numbing and increased arousal: insomnia, irritability, restlessness, and attention deficits. Recollections of​ the traumatic events intrude in​ the form of​ dreams, night terrors, flashbacks, and distressing associations.

The tortured develop compulsive rituals to​ fend off obsessive thoughts. Other psychological sequelae reported include cognitive impairment, reduced capacity to​ learn, memory disorders, sexual dysfunction, social withdrawal, inability to​ maintain long-term relationships, or​ even mere intimacy, phobias, ideas of​ reference and superstitions, delusions, hallucinations, psychotic microepisodes, and emotional flatness.

Depression and anxiety are very common. These are forms and manifestations of​ self-directed aggression. The sufferer rages at​ his own victimhood and resulting multiple dysfunction. He feels shamed by his new disabilities and responsible, or​ even guilty, somehow, for his predicament and the dire consequences borne by his nearest and dearest. His sense of​ self-worth and self-esteem are crippled.

In a​ nutshell, torture victims suffer from a​ Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Their strong feelings of​ anxiety, guilt, and shame are also typical of​ victims of​ childhood abuse, domestic violence, and rape. They feel anxious because the perpetrator's behavior is​ seemingly arbitrary and unpredictable – or​ mechanically and inhumanly regular.

They feel guilty and disgraced because, to​ restore a​ semblance of​ order to​ their shattered world and a​ modicum of​ dominion over their chaotic life, they need to​ transform themselves into the cause of​ their own degradation and the accomplices of​ their tormentors.

The CIA, in​ its "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983" (reprinted in​ the April 1997 issue of​ Harper's Magazine), summed up the theory of​ coercion thus:

"The purpose of​ all coercive techniques is​ to​ induce psychological regression in​ the subject by bringing a​ superior outside force to​ bear on his will to​ resist. Regression is​ basically a​ loss of​ autonomy, a​ reversion to​ an​ earlier behavioral level. as​ the subject regresses, his learned personality traits fall away in​ reverse chronological order. He begins to​ lose the capacity to​ carry out the highest creative activities, to​ deal with complex situations, or​ to​ cope with stressful interpersonal relationships or​ repeated frustrations."

Inevitably, in​ the aftermath of​ torture, its victims feel helpless and powerless. This loss of​ control over one's life and body is​ manifested physically in​ impotence, attention deficits, and insomnia. This is​ often exacerbated by the disbelief many torture victims encounter, especially if​ they are unable to​ produce scars, or​ other "objective" proof of​ their ordeal. Language cannot communicate such an​ intensely private experience as​ pain.

Spitz makes the following observation:

"Pain is​ also unsharable in​ that it​ is​ resistant to​ language... All our interior states of​ consciousness: emotional, perceptual, cognitive and somatic can be described as​ having an​ object in​ the external world... This affirms our capacity to​ move beyond the boundaries of​ our body into the external, sharable world. This is​ the space in​ which we interact and communicate with our environment. But when we explore the interior state of​ physical pain we find that there is​ no object 'out there' – no external, referential content. Pain is​ not of, or​ for, anything. Pain is. And it​ draws us away from the space of​ interaction, the sharable world, inwards. it​ draws us into the boundaries of​ our body."

Bystanders resent the tortured because they make them feel guilty and ashamed for having done nothing to​ prevent the atrocity. The victims threaten their sense of​ security and their much-needed belief in​ predictability, justice, and rule of​ law. The victims, on their part, do not believe that it​ is​ possible to​ effectively communicate to​ "outsiders" what they have been through. The torture chambers are "another galaxy". This is​ how Auschwitz was described by the author K. Zetnik in​ his testimony in​ the Eichmann trial in​ Jerusalem in​ 1961.

Kenneth Pope in​ "Torture", a​ chapter he wrote for the "Encyclopedia of​ Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of​ Society on Gender", quotes Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman:

"It is​ very tempting to​ take the side of​ the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is​ that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to​ the universal desire to​ see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to​ share the burden of​ pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering."

But, more often, continued attempts to​ repress fearful memories result in​ psychosomatic illnesses (conversion). The victim wishes to​ forget the torture, to​ avoid re-experiencing the often life threatening abuse and to​ shield his human environment from the horrors. in​ conjunction with the victim's pervasive distrust, this is​ frequently interpreted as​ hypervigilance, or​ even paranoia. it​ seems that the victims can't win. Torture is​ forever.

Note – Why Do People Torture?

We should distinguish functional torture from the sadistic variety. The former is​ calculated to​ extract information from the tortured or​ to​ punish them. it​ is​ measured, impersonal, efficient, and disinterested.

The latter – the sadistic variety – fulfils the emotional needs of​ the perpetrator.

People who find themselves caught up in​ anomic states – for instance, soldiers in​ war or​ incarcerated inmates – tend to​ feel helpless and alienated. They experience a​ partial or​ total loss of​ control. They have been rendered vulnerable, powerless, and defenseless by events and circumstances beyond their influence.

Torture amounts to​ exerting an​ absolute and all-pervasive domination of​ the victim's existence. it​ is​ a​ coping strategy employed by torturers who wish to​ reassert control over their lives and, thus, to​ re-establish their mastery and superiority. By subjugating the tortured – they regain their self-confidence and regulate their sense of​ self-worth.

Other tormentors channel their negative emotions – pent up aggression, humiliation, rage, envy, diffuse hatred – and displace them. The victim becomes a​ symbol of​ everything that's wrong in​ the torturer's life and the situation he finds himself caught in. The act of​ torture amounts to​ misplaced and violent venting.

Many perpetrate heinous acts out of​ a​ wish to​ conform. Torturing others is​ their way of​ demonstrating obsequious obeisance to​ authority, group affiliation, colleagueship, and adherence to​ the same ethical code of​ conduct and common values. They bask in​ the praise that is​ heaped on them by their superiors, fellow workers, associates, team mates, or​ collaborators. Their need to​ belong is​ so strong that it​ overpowers ethical, moral, or​ legal considerations.

Many offenders derive pleasure and satisfaction from sadistic acts of​ humiliation. to​ these, inflicting pain is​ fun. They lack empathy and so their victim's agonized reactions are merely cause for much hilarity.

Moreover, sadism is​ rooted in​ deviant sexuality. The torture inflicted by sadists is​ bound to​ involve perverted sex (rape, homosexual rape, voyeurism, exhibitionism, pedophilia, fetishism, and other paraphilias). Aberrant sex, unlimited power, excruciating pain – these are the intoxicating ingredients of​ the sadistic variant of​ torture.

Still, torture rarely occurs where it​ does not have the sanction and blessing of​ the authorities, whether local or​ national. a​ permissive environment is​ sine qua non. The more abnormal the circumstances, the less normative the milieu, the further the scene of​ the crime is​ from public scrutiny – the more is​ egregious torture likely to​ occur. This is​ especially true in​ totalitarian societies where the use of​ physical force to​ discipline or​ eliminate dissent is​ an​ acceptable practice.

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