Writer’s Warning: This is not a good read for the feint of heart. This is the introduction to my book, which is coming soon, Testimony.
“I am writing this letter to you because I found your views on trauma particularly interesting. As a prisoner of war in Vietnam, I was tortured for two and a half years. Because of some of my treatment, I have permanent damage and I am forced to change careers. I am finding this social work stuff interesting and therefore, I attended your conference.
I found your comments about the difference between children and adults profound. While I was starving to death, being tortured, humiliated, and ridiculed, I watched fellow prisoners die around me. So much of my survival is related to my ability to detach myself. I could always focus on other things and keep my perspective. Don’t let it sound like what they did to me didn’t hurt. It’s not what I am trying to tell you. The difference in my survival and the death of others was in the way I thought. So many of them were like children, believing what our torturers told us, hoping and then being betrayed. It reminded me of your lecture on sexual trauma to children. They were dependent on those people and those bastards loved it.”
Excerpted from a letter written to Jan Hindman, included in her book, Just Before Dawn.
This is a book about the connections between the torture of children and the torture of adults, between torture and abuse performed in the private world of the family and the more public, though often hidden, world of political abuse and torture. The people I interviewed speak eloquently of the interconnections, as does the man in the above quote. These realities of political torture and family abuse so often lay side by side, made of the same fabric, but because they are labeled differently, and because of a wish to deny the similarities, their inter-relatedness is not noticed. There are several people who have made the connections, throughout this book I will refer to their thoughts, I owe a debt to these people. Their words and thoughts have given me encouragement. I believe for much of the population of, at least the United States, the inter-relatedness of political and family violence has not been well understood.
So, what are the similarities?
In the statement above the survivor of prison camp and torture understands the similarities between the experience of politically motivated and rationalized torture and familial child abuse. The human child is dependent on the nurturance, consistency, and kindness of his or her primary caretakers. Dependence is a key factor in abuse. The child cannot easily leave home if the home is a place of chaos and cruelty. Even with the relatively modern inventions of Child Protective Services, removal from the home may only expose the child to the family of origin’s rejection, or abuse from a foster caregiver. In 1993, 2.9 million reports of child maltreatment were reported nationally, over 1 million of these children were confirmed as victims of child maltreatment. These numbers are enough to overwhelm the resources allocated to provide for these children. In 2018, the needs are far greater, the number of children in distress higher and the resources consequently strained. (Of the 3.5 million children who were the subject of an investigation or alternative response in Fiscal Year 2016, a national estimate of 676,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect, representing a 1.0 percent decrease from Fiscal Year 2015.) While the numbers of children abused varies from year to year, it does not go down significantly over time. In the United States there is no guarantee of safety for the average dependent child.
Dependence is also a key factor in the torture and abuse of adults. The prisoner of war, the ‘Re-Education Camp’ detainee, the revolutionary or counter-revolutionary (more about adults who have a political cause later) who are held against their will, deprived of food, sleep, physically and sexually abused is made helpless and dependent on their torturer. Often the adult who is tortured is reduced to the status and the dependence of a small child. This, of course, is the point.
In addition to dependency on the perpetrator, both the adult and the child experience in abuse a loss of control of their environment. The child that is locked in a darkened room ‘until they mind,’ and the prisoner locked in solitary confinement experience the same inability to control the most basic attributes of their environment. There are few experiences more frightening than to lose the control of the physical space one occupies. “The accused was taken by surprise in the home of his parents by a veritable swarm of police; that said, individuals invaded the house, handcuffed his parents, and initially, took the accused to one of the rooms of the house; in said room, the police tore off the clothes of the accused and placed his feet in a basin of water, and using wires from an electrical apparatus, proceeded to apply shocks…that the accused was then taken to the door of the room where his wife was and there he saw that the same process of torture was being administered to her..”. Being tied up. gagged, beaten, raped, electrically shocked, waterboarded, all practices used in both child abuse and the torture of adults have a loss of control as part of the cruelty. In these situations, it is understood that someone else has the ultimate power and that the victim can do little to protect themselves.
Another feature of both the torture of adults and of children is the element of anticipation prompted by the perpetrator. Anticipation is a significant factor in creating fear. According to Richard Kluft, who worked with victims of severe child abuse, the average patient with a dissociative disorder (because of childhood trauma) has experienced one thousand violations over the course of a ten to eleven-year period. For these young victims, as for the man threatened with future interrogations, the individual concerned has time to dread the coming assault. Jan Hindman, an educator and psychotherapist, writes of Tony, “Tony would often go weeks without being abused by her father. Suddenly, during the evening, her father would say the code word, tomorrow morning. Tony knew that she should walk into the alley rather than getting on her school bus. She was to wait there for her father who would eventually take her to the family butcher shop where he would have intercourse with her. The most painful time period for Tony was the night long anticipation, sleep disturbances, and rage that occurred anticipating her father’s abuse.” Jan Hindman also tells the story of a father who would tell his two young daughters, who he repeatedly sexually abused, “Wait, he would get to them next.” The terror of knowing the abuse is unavoidable and anticipated is a commonality in the trauma of many victims in both political abuse and familial child abuse.
One of the most potent and destructive of the similarities between familial and political abuse is the shame both adults and children carry with them from the time of the abuse on. “Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.” In this inability to speak about what happened the victims of trauma never get to learn the truth: that they were not responsible for the behaviors of their abusers.
“The felt sense of being damaged, ugly, bad, is the result of the breaking of the interpersonal bonds between parent and child that is a basic fact of abuse.” It is the same with an adult who is the victim of domestic violence or political torture. The bonds between people of simple respect for another’s humanity are shredded in the process of torture. It is the victim who feels the shame of the abuse, not the abuser. It is the victim who feels to be damaged and only worthy of contempt.
What is held in secrecy is allowed to continue. Shame and secrecy are close cousins. “Does the society rally around a child who courageously endures anal intercourse at the daycare center from age two to four? Will our society applaud another little Jessica or Janie or Jennifer who states, He stuck his peep in my pooper? Will we cheer for the child who is forced to take a stool softener for the rest of his life due to the damage caused through anal intercourse by the Boy Scout Leader? Each morning as he reaches in the medicine chest for a laxative, will he be secure that he can discuss his courage and his survivorship ….Or will the world say to the sexual victims, Hush, hush, forget about it. Don’t embarrass me, don’t talk.” At this time, it is only slightly permissible to speak of atrocity. The dinner party conversation comes to an awkward halt when I have mentioned either what I do for a living, or the book I am writing. It is an unacceptable socially to talk about child sexual abuse as it is to talk about the young girl who was gang-raped as a part of her government’s systematic use of torture.
Over one hundred countries use torture routinely as a part of the political process of those countries. From 1820 to 1945 some 54 million human lives ended, often brutally and in genocidal wars and atrocities by humans murdering each other but currently the greatest threats to a child’s safety are often within his or her own family. We have a ban, often subtly enforced by silence at the dinner table, on talking about this. This ban is what creates the belief that the victim’s experience must be kept the shameful secret that it is. For to believe otherwise means that this kind of cruelty could happen to any of us. Denial perpetuates secrecy, secrecy reinforces shame.
I imagine and wish for the day that it is acceptable and supported for the victims of trauma to speak at the dinner party. That their audiences, fellow diners, will listen with compassion, knowing that these things could have happened to them. I commend those who are willing to speak about their experiences in whatever settings they choose to, and I am delighted when I find people who thoughtfully listen. “Atrocities refuse to be buried. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. The ghosts will out. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.”
The silent censure at the dinner table is part of the same process that includes the silence of nations in response to known atrocities. The genocide in Rwanda was ignored for almost a year before action was taken, and then too little and too late. If society claims to be civilized, it has a responsibility, both collectively and in its components, to oppose and act against the slaughter of innocents. As Jarod Diamond states, “Acknowledgment that one is in crisis,” is the first step to dealing with a crisis (regarding the individual), National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis” is essential for addressing the crisis. In denial, neither the individual nor the country addresses the situation. Nothing changes without acknowledgment.
National shame is analogous to family shame and to individual shame. The defeat of Germany at the end of World War I is one example of national shame. Germany was not only defeated in war. It was humiliated as a nation. It’s national identity (ego strength) was damaged. That climate of national shame (coupled with severe economic upheaval) set the stage for strong man, a dictator. A society unwilling to face crisis honestly (minus blame and scapegoating) is open to tyranny.
In my counseling practice people come to see me for anxiety related problems. For many the anxiety is not related to having to chair a challenging meeting at work, or a specific conflict with their spouse but it is a gnawing sense of impending doom that has been their background sense of reality for years. Anxiety is a polite word. It is so much nicer than saying fear. Fear is reserved for running into a bear on a hike, airplane crashes and other large events but really anxiety is a lower volume of fear. It is a low grade, background noise that steps forward at unpredictable times to dominate the stage of awareness. With a small scratch on the surface of anxiety often a troubled history emerges. The client remembers being locked out of the house for hours by an overwhelmed mother, having to pick the switch that would be used to beat them and parents that were busy fighting or drinking and did not fix dinner. For a child the threat of abandonment and an absence of care is a serious threat. One does not have to be sexually abused to suffer consequences from a less than ideal childhood.
The child who, as an adult, has not faced the fears of her childhood, grows up to be an adult seeking safety above all. There is nothing wrong with a desire for safety but really, how safe can we be? We are mortal but if we have been raised kindly, we have a basic sense of connection with people. This protects us from the challenges of life. Children who are abused do not have this protection.
If fear and a desire for safety are the dominant drivers for adults, there is a lot they won’t do. Sometimes what they won’t do is face their fear, at other times they won’t stand up for their beliefs and ethics. Being fear-based can keep an adult in paralysis, or conversely boost aggression so that all outside their immediate known world are the enemy.
The person who has suffered what was legitimately an awful childhood is ripe for the desire to avoid uncertainty, to be fear and shame based and to be vulnerable to the first person that comes along and promises certainty and well-being. There are exceptions to this, the people whose lack of a stable childhood creates a hearty skepticism about the leader who promises all manner of wonderful things but for many, they remain vulnerable to the leader who will save them. This is the crossroads of where family and political violence and abuse meet. Vulnerable and uncertain people scapegoat and enemies are appointed. The child becomes the adult who repeats the abuse they experienced.
There are those who don’t torture but are by-standers as society’s deteriorate and national situations worsen. The linkage between what an uncertain childhood creates in the adult and the adult who is vulnerable to propaganda, whether it comes from the internet or from the smooth talker of a guy she is dating, is based in the same lack of grounded ego-strength. Ego strength does not reject out of hand what any authority states or promises, and does not view all people as the enemy but has a good enough sense of self to calmly question, to analyze, to measure words with actions and make decisions politically and ethically that would avoid the dictator or the con-man. If you are tortured as a child it is a difficult feat to develop this sense of self, this ego-strength. All torture is designed to eliminate either the development of this strength or to undermine and destroy it. Torture in childhood or in adulthood is developed and practiced to make a more malleable person.
Often the rage, fear and shame of the torturer begins in the family. Whether the torturer is assaulting the child or the political enemy, the torturer is venting his or her emotion on a surrogate. “One may attack someone else or the whole world in the noble pursuit of returning one’s loyalty by not blaming one’s own parents. The parent’s alleged harmful acts get revenged in absentia.” The adult in denial of the abuse they experienced is vulnerable to repeat the same abuse. It is vital to remember that all abused children do not abuse but it is abuse that creates the fearful, distrusting and rage filled adult. What is learned in the family is then practiced in adulthood either with one’s own children or with the enemy. “The abused child’s existential task is equally formidable. Though she perceives herself as abandoned to a power without mercy, she must find a way to preserve hope and meaning. The alternative is utter despair, something no child can bear.” Without help or support the child has no hope and sees all humans as dangerous, not to be trusted. This is the medium from which the torturer emerges.
The leap from the individual person scapegoating to a society scapegoating is not as large as many would like to believe. The indicators of pending Genocide become evident in fearful responses to social problems. As Isreal Charny, a psychotherapist and former executive director of the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide summarizes:
- Man learns to be destructive in his own unhappy family life experience and then plays out the emotional destructiveness he suffered in the destruction and killing of others.
- Man seeks to destroy others lest he destroy his own family.
- Man escapes from the terrible hurts he suffers in family life by sacrificing others to the destructiveness he fears for himself
Those victimized learn to perpetrate. Not all victims perpetrate but all learn how to.
If the victim of child abuse does not have a mitigating factor, a loving aunt or neighbor, the possibility of the child learning the lessons of cruelty and repeating them are good. This reality plays out politically and familiarly. “Obvious examples of this process can be drawn from Nazi concentration camp experiences, during which some inmates mimicked their captors to the point of wearing swastikas to cover their State of David insignia and walking with a goose step.” The act of becoming the terrorist, the perpetrator, nullifies the fear of being the victim. Identification with the perpetrator is the psychological equivalent of a magical spell warding away harm. This may be why it is so easy to blame the victim, after all who would want to be one?
Throughout history there are many examples of where shame and fear of others can lead. As one woman in Bosnia-Herzegovina stated, “Serbian soldiers were telling me ‘Croatia needs to be crushed again. Balijas need to be crushed completely. You are half this and half that. You need to be crushed to the end. Because you’re a Croatian, you should be raped by five different men- and because you’re a Bula, you should be raped by five more.” Balija and Bula are derogatory names for Muslims. Xenophobia and misogyny merge here. Ethnic hatred is sexualized, bigotry becomes ejaculation. The genocider is created out of biased attitudes. “These social indicators include attitudes such as defining other peoples as inferior or not deserving equal rights; defining people or minority groups as dangerous; and taking a ruthless attitude toward national warfare rather than accepting humanitarian principles of combat under international law.”
Why are the political climate and social dynamics important? When people are afraid, they can act cruelly, whatever personal demons they may have are projected into the body politic. From bias, demagoguery and political repression come. The connections between what is unresolved with the individual in terms of abuse, shame, fear, and a lack of positive connection to others gets acted out socially in political repression and vulnerability to the rise of a new genocide.
Violence is a learned behavior. The child gets abused and she or he learns to be both a victim and a perpetrator. The people who speak of their experiences in this book are very clear on this fact. They are telling the truth. If one is abused, one learns to abuse, whether this knowledge is exercised in the same manner it was learned is up to the individual. Alice Miller is right, the methods of the genocider are learned in the home, are learned in the humiliation and cruelty that the adult experienced as a child. The inherent and profound betrayal that the child experiences being abused by a caregiver creates a distrust and adversarial relationship with all humanity. The soul of the child is murdered. Would it be a surprise to anyone that the child could then grow up to administer torture dissociated from the pain of their victim? “Men who rape are ordinary Joe’s…Victory in arms brings group power undreamed of in civilian life.” What the group sanctions is okay. The torturer is not an extraordinary person or necessarily a psychopath. A torturer is simply a person who is too frightened of authority to refuse the job or distanced from her or his humanity by the victimization they experienced as a child. The connections between child abuse and adult violence, in any setting, is this disconnection from the ability to have compassion and relationship with the humanity of another. A child who learns to survive childhood by chronic dissociation and distrust of other humans is primed to wield the penis or the electrodes as a weapon.
Violence does not stop violence. If it did the millennia of humans inflicting suffering, punishment and the most horrible of violence on one another would have stopped violence. We would currently be living in a peaceable world. Moving forward demands that we get creative and introspective. A solution to our current cultural problems will necessitate nuanced and varied responses. Solutions for violence demand that we undo the thought patterns that demand that someone must be wrong. With respect for diversity of viewpoint there is an increased chance to negotiate toward solutions. If as individuals and as a culture, we continue to use violence we will simply recycle the old solutions that did not work.
The people here interviewed I believe have a great deal to teach and they were kind enough to attempt to do so. Trauma is not a condition to be sought out or glorified. However, in the experiences of those who have survived this particular human experience, we may all learn to be more thoughtful, less willing to condemn or judge. We could become more able to see the impulses in our psyches that could lead us to become the torturer, and more motivated to seek non-violent solutions. One of the people interviewed, P, made a statement that I have thought about a lot. He said that, “Assassination is the withdrawal of love.” All human brutality toward others is assassination, a withdrawal of love. If we have the self-awareness to recognize how and when we wish to withdraw love, we have another tool to pull back from violence.
An acquaintance of mine, when I mentioned the subject of the interviews, said to me, “Mary, no one will read this, who would want to read about torture?” Stated in that way I suppose she may be on to something. I have often wondered at my state of mental health in wanting to write this book. I started the interviews with this thought in mind, expecting to be drained and saddened by the stories I heard. I work as a psychotherapist and daily hear about child abuse, often severe and particularly gruesome abuse, so I had my doubts about how I would proceed with this work, adding the interviews of survivors of torture to my full caseload. I was surprised at what happened. I did not expect to have people telling me stories of awakening and transcendence. They did. I am mindful that there may have been a desire to soften the blows of the horrors they lived through, both for me and for themselves, but I believe, their stories of awakening are essentially true. It is my job as a psychotherapist to encourage people to go into the very bleakest of their pain, in order to leave it behind, but in the interviews, I had a different role. There were many times when I saw the opportunity to push for the details of the horror that they were omitting, and I didn’t. This was deliberate. I was a stranger and many of these people had nowhere to go after they talked with me to talk with a supportive listener about the buried horrors the interview process itself brought out. I avoided pushing for those buried details. I believe many of the horrors these people lived through are left out of these interviews and I believe they told me the truth about their transformations.
The other reason for the omission of certain details was not a result of my reserve. The reserve was on the part of the interviewees. In truth, I can only guess at the details left out, or their reasons for leaving them out, but I believe it has something to do with a belief. This is the belief of many who have been abused and tortured that no one will believe them. Or perhaps worse, will believe and not care. In an interview with a young American nun, who had been raped and tortured in Guatemala (Nightline, May 1996) the young woman stated that her torturers had told her that no one would care what had happened to her and she had believed them. This is not an unusual experience for the victim. This is another of the abuser’s tactics common to political and familiar torture: convince the victim that no one will believe them and that no one cares.
The people I interviewed have told us part of the story, presuming that we might not believe the whole of their experience. They have reason to doubt our willingness to hear the entirety of their experiences. An acquaintance’s remark, “Who would want to read that?” reflects the dislike we all have for certain facts. It is natural to shy away from horror and grief. What could be more horrible than the details of the torture of children, in their families, or adults, by members of their communities? It is normal to be afraid to examine human cruelty but if we can believe that people do these things to one another, and we chose to face this fact, we step in the direction of bringing this behavior to a close.
In the spirit of moving toward a kinder future, I invite you to read these people’s experience.
July 4, 2020
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