Friday, July 20, 2007

Guilt and Self-Loathing on the Torture Trail

One of the consistent claims of this blog is that torture is a moral (and spiritual, if one accepts such things) abomination because it aims to "malfigure" the torture victim's self: to break her will, erode her identity, and fragment her ability to relate normally with others even if she survives and returns to society.

The longterm physical consequences of torture are horrendous enough: chronic and frequently severe pain caused by nerve damage, broken bones, permanently damaged tissue. But the psychological effects are even worse: a sense of lost identity, chronic anxiety and panic disorder, sleep disturbances and nightmares, depression, suicidal ideation, uncontrollable anger and aggression, decreased memory or outright amnesia, lack of concentration, and PTSD-related flashbacks.
There's also one more common psychological symptom suffered by torture victims, and it's the focus of today's post: guilt and self-loathing. It's one of the true tragedies of torture that people who survive it frequently come away thinking that they're no better than their torturers, and consequently fear and loath themselves as much as they do their tormenters.
To those of us who have never experienced abuse, it may seem strange and even slightly perverse that torture victims would feel guilt. But it makes sense if one keeps in mind that the fruit of torture is malfiguration. The torture victim is subjected to violations that, if "successful," result in deep humilitation. The victim is trespassed upon in every imaginable way: orifices are violated with penises, fingers, and objects; bodies are violated with pain-causing instruments and techniques; psyches are invaded with terror and agony; resolve is broken with each and every blow; taboos are thrown to the winds as victims are forced to do unthinkable things such as eating excrement.
Under these circumstances, it's surprising if a torture victim doesn't develop a negative self-image. She loathes herself for being so weak, so cowardly, so pliable. She feels dirty, filthy, disgusting, because of the sexual invasions she's endured. She comes to hate her very body because of the pain and humilitation it's brought her, her very mind because it couldn't block the agony, her will power because it shattered under pressure. Every virtue she once thought she possessed has failed the test. How could she not despise herself?
Once the self-loathing sets in, the guilt isn't far behind. The torture victim may experience survivor-guilt, for example: she's survived only because she wasn't as strong as her comrades. They resisted to the death. She broke. It's they who deserved to live, not she. The torture victim may also feel guilt because she's been so traumatized that she's unable to experience appropriate emotions such as compassion or pity for other victims or rage against their tormenters. Some victims report that after a certain point they witnessed the torture and even execution of their friends dispassionately.
Other victims feel guilt because they've been forced by their torturers to perform horrible acts. Sister Dianna Ortiz, kidnapped by Guatemalan security forces in 1989, reports that one of her captors forced a machete into her hand, closed his fist around hers, and forced her to chop a fellow female prisoner to death. Raped repeatedly, Sister Dianna was impregnated and, after her release, obtained a medical abortion. Both of these acts haunted her as much as the actual abuse she herself endured. "You're no better than we, your torturers, are! You're just like us!" For years after her torture, Sister Dianna heard these words echoing inside her.
Horribly, most torture victims are psychically impregnated by their tormenters. Victim after victim reports that their torturers continue to "live inside" them. They associate their torturers with filth, agony, brutality, and hatred. But because these powerful emotions have been internalized and self-directed, the torturers remain with the victims. How unspeakably awful it must be to fancy that you've become what you most fear and loathe.
As I've said in earlier posts: torture doesn't end in the torture chamber, and anyone who seriously thinks that the ethics of torture is up for debate doesn't know the first thing about torture.
Photo credit: "The Guilt" by resquin, for the Emotions 6 contest