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Psychology of Torture Victim

Uploaded 1/25/2012, approx. 9 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

Family, home, personal belongings, loved ones, language, name, territory, all dissipate in the process of torture.

Gradually, the victims 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 torture enhances, on the other hand, the fantasy of merger with an idealized omnipotent, though malicious, other, the inflictor of agony.

The twin processes of separation and individuation are reversed. In other words, as the torture is being inflicted, the victim identifies with her with the offender. She wants to merge with her torturer.

Torture is the ultimate act of perverted intimacy. The torturer invades the victim's body, pervades her psyche, and possesses her mind. Deprived of contact with others and starved for human interaction, the prey bonds with the predator.

Traumatic bonding, as it is known, 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 or home or abused place. 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 her tormentor by becoming one with him, by 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 diode, a shared psychosis, in collaborating the rituals and acts of torture.

For instance, when the victim is coerced into selecting the torturer implements and the types of torment to be inflicted or to choose between two events.


The psychologist Shirley Statton offers this powerful overview of the contradictory nature of torture in the seminar titled The Psychology of Torture. She says, 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 being manipulated. Dependency needs are elicited by the interrogator, but not so that they may be met as in close relationship, 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 outcomes of torture are a scar, an often shattered victim, and an empty display of the fiction of power, so says Shirley Statton.

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, interjection, and cognitive dissonance.

The victim constructs an alternative world, often suffering from depersonalization and derialization, hallucinations, a case of reference, delusions, and finally in extreme cases, psychotic episodes.

Sometimes the victim and some victims come to crave pain, very much as self-mutilators do, because it is a proof and a reminder of her individuated existence, otherwise blurred by the incessant torture.

Pain shields a sufferer from disintegration and capitulation, preserves the veracity of her unthinkable and unspeakable experiences, proves that she is alive, that she is here, and that she exists.

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 evil and good and all truth. The torturer is about reprogramming the victim to succumb to an alternative interpretation of the world, preferred by her abuser.

Torture is an act of deep, indelible, traumatic indoctrination. The victims, the abused, also swallow a bone and assimilate the torturer's negative view of themselves.

As a result, the victim is rendered suicidal, self-destructive, or self-defeating. The victim sees herself, from the torturer's and abuser's point of view, as worthless, subhuman, trash.

Torture has not cut off late. The sounds, the voices, the smells, the sensations, reverberate long after the episode has ended, both in nightmares and in waking moments, and in post-traumatic stress disorder.

The victim's ability to trust other people, in other words to assume that their motives are at least rational if not necessarily benign, this ability is irrevocably undermined.

Social institutions are perceived as precariously poised on the verge of an ominous Kafkaesque mutation. Nothing is safe, nothing is credible, nothing to a large extent is real anymore after torture.

Victims typically react by undulating between emotional numbing and increased arousal, insomnia, irritability, restlessness, and attention deficits.

Recollections of traumatic events intrude in the form of dreams, night terrors, flashbacks, distressing associations. The torture victims develop compulsive rituals to fend off these obsessive thoughts.

Other psychological sequelae include cognitive impairment, reduced capacity to learn, memory disorders, sexual dysfunction, social withdrawal, inability to maintain long-term relationships, inability to have intimacy, phobias, a ease of reference, superstitions, delusions, hallucinations, psychotic micro-episodes, and emotional flatness.

Depression and anxiety are very common among torture victims. These are forms and manifestations of self-directed aggression.

The sufferer, the victim, rages at her own victimhood and at the resulting multiple disruptions. She feels shamed by her new disabilities, responsible or even guilty somehow for her predicament and the dire consequences borne by her nearest and dearest. She detests the helplessness, her sense of self-worth, self-esteem, are crippled.

In a nutshell, torture victims suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Their strong feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame are also typical of victims of childhood abuse, domestic violence, and rape.

Torture victims feel anxious because the perpetrator's behavior is seemingly arbitrary and unpredictable or mechanically and inhumanely regular.

Torture victims feel guilty and disgraced because to restore a semblance of order to their shattered universe, the modicum of dominion over their chaotic life, they need to transform themselves into the cause of their own degradation and to make themselves, to render themselves the accomplices of their tormentors.

If they can convince themselves, falsely, that they have initiated their own torture, that they are responsible for it somehow, that they have brought it upon themselves, at least they can still believe that they are in some control of their life.

The CIA, in its Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, dated 1983 and reprinted in Harper's Magazine in 1997, summed up the theory of coercion and torture this way.

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, says the CIA, 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, so says the CIA.

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.

Victims of psychological torture, verbal torture, are disadvantaged compared to victims of bodily torture because they cannot produce visible, photographable proof. Language cannot communicate such an intensely private experience as pain.

It speaks again, makes the following observation.

Pain is also unbearable 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 indexed, a new word.

This affirms our capacity to move beyond the boundaries of our body into the external, shareable world. This is the space in which we interact and communicate with our environment.

But when we explore the interior states, 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 simply is and it draws us away from the space of interaction, a shareable world, inwards. It draws us into the boundaries of our own body.

Bystanders resent the torture because these victims make them feel guilty and they are ashamed for having done nothing to prevent the atrocity.

The victims threaten the sense of security and the 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.

Torture chambers are another galaxy.

This is how Auschwitz was described by the author K. Setnik in his testimony The Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1961. He called it Another Planet.

Kenneth Pope in Torture, a chapter he wrote for the Encyclopedia of Women and Gender, quotes Harvard psychiatrist Judith Berman.

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 of the world 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, process called conversion.

The victim wishes to forget the torture, to avoid re-experiencing the often life-threatening abuse and to shield very human environment from the horrors.

In conjunction with victims pervasive distrust, this is frequently interpreted as hyper-vigilance or even paranoia.

It seems that the victim cannot win. Torture is forever.

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