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wildpotato's avatar

Can you guys help me find accounts of torture by torturers?

Asked by wildpotato (15011points) September 30th, 2009

I’m in an excellent philosophy class called Torture and Dignity. We’re trying to figure out the phenomenological structure of human experience as revealed through torture. We’ve come up with a lot so far, but all of it is predicated on victims’ accounts of torture. Our primary source so far is this incredible book. But we’re not working with any accounts of torture by torturers, and this is where I think our exploration may be hitting a wall.

I guess the problem is that such accounts are devilishly hard to find. I’ve found a story by Gunter Grass about being in the SS as a teenager, and a fiction book by Gene Wolfe from the perspective of a torturer, but neither of these really gets down to business, in terms of anything that would suggest a phenomenology of pain. So, collective, will you help me out with your mad Google skills? Things written by rapists on rape and accounts by those who participated in genocide would also be welcome.

If you want to call me out for asking a homework question, fine… but this is not me trying to get you to do my work, just me trying to do more work than necessary and asking for help in the article search. I have no interest in plagiarizing your thoughts on torture.

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50 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

Go to your Google link for your book and look to the left; there are three other books (one by Primo Levi) that also deal with this subject.

And this book at Amazon:

galileogirl's avatar

Surprisingly people who have been subjected to soul destroying degradation and unspeakable pain quite often don’t like to relive in great detail the absolute worst moments of their lives. . . anyway good luck in your search

PretentiousArtist's avatar

@gailcalled That seems like a good book. I think I’ll read that

wildpotato's avatar

Hey guys… again, not looking for accounts of tourture by those who have been tortured. We have plenty of those, actually, galileogirl, so no need to be snide about it.

I’m looking for stuff about torture written by those who have tortured others.

Jeruba's avatar

How about the books of the Marquis de Sade?

gailcalled's avatar

Most torturers probably do not write their autobiographies.

hippiechick's avatar

Not quite torture, and it is fiction, but what about Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, a disturbing-but-compelling account of a pedophile’s obsession with a young girl.

wildpotato's avatar

@Jeruba Thanks, this looks promising. I’ll also look at Venus in Furs. Sadism is something we’re also exploring in my class – Sartre goes straight from sadism into a discussion of torture, but sadism may be something else (Freud is one who thinks of it as something else). Sartre didn’t believe in the unconscious, after all, so such a jump is easy for him to make. But I’m not so sure how much sadism really does fall into the continuum we’re discussing.

@hippiechick Oh, Lolita. Hm. I suppose Humbert Humbert is indeed a torturer/rapist, though I hadn’t thought about him in quite that light before. This might be a great source for me. Thanks!

gailcalled's avatar

Lolita was the torturer.

wildpotato's avatar

@gailcalled Wow, nice! What an interesting notion. Is this something you thought of, or can you point me at a source?

gailcalled's avatar

Reread the book. I don’t think it is that obscure a concept. Use me as your source, if you like.

Strauss's avatar

@gailcalled it seemed like you said that re-reading the book is not an obscure concept!

photographcrash's avatar

not sure if this is helpful.. but for an interesting perspective on what defines torture and what can be considered an acceptable form of such.. you can read the memos that were released by the government on torture policy a few months ago. I read all of them and it really blew me away.

Here’s a link to them via the HuffPost (scroll down the bottom)

if that isn’t at all helpful then just ignore :)

DarkScribe's avatar

In an indirect fashion, the Malleus Maleficarum is a handbook that was used by witch hunters. It has some recommendations for pretty horrific torture and interrogation techniques.

CMaz's avatar

Torture is not about the infliction of pain. That is a byproduct.
It is about taking control of an individuals soul, heart and mind. Absolute access to their entire everything.

The more they ask to stop, beg you and plead. The more empowering it is.
There comes a point where they change, they accept it and if done long enough. They want it. Fighting it just brings greater pain and frustration. That part goes away.

Eventually, the torturer if not constantly keeping check on their own sense of control and monitoring the tortured, good torture is hard work. Will eventually produce irreversible damage or worse.

andrew's avatar

Look for the book “Japan At War: An Oral History”. While I don’t recall if it exactly has torture, per se, it definitely has grisly details of war crimes carried out by Japanese Officers—such as cutting the heads of prisoners. It’s a riveting book.

Jeruba's avatar

Lolita is definitely the torturer. But we don’t see the story from her point of view.

There have been some fictional treatments of the mind of the torturer/aggressor. One that comes to mind is Jonathan Kellerman’s The Bucher’s Theater. It’s not one I’d want to read twice.

Many people have written affectingly about what it was like to suffer under the regime of the Khmer Rouge. I have read 5 or 6 of those books myself, among which Haing S. Ngor’s is particularly strong. But again, those are from the point of view of the victim, not the torturer.

@galileogirl, the number of people who have felt compelled to write their memoirs of experiences in concentration camps, in the killing fields, and so on might belie your statement. Some people find writing to be a way of dealing with and working through those terrible experiences, and some people do want to tell the world what they were going through while others were warm and safe at home.

Ria777's avatar

@wildpotato: don’t bother with the Gene Wolfe book. the protagonist makes a point not to deal with his activities in the course of the book and literally comes right out and says as much to the reader. except for the first one, all his executions, etc., happen off-stage.

I wouldn’t include fiction at all, actually, except for autobiographical you might as well just have made the stories up yourself. and perhaps you should.

as far as actual relevant works, The Gates of Janus by the serial murderer Ian Brady. He does not discuss his own actions but gives mini-biographies and tries to interpolate the mental state of other serial murderers.

again, though, I really would not use fiction. it almost seems morally repugnant to me that you would use fictional representations essentially created as speculations as to what it might feel like. (not to knock the genius of some writers.)

Ria777's avatar

also on a similar tip of DarkScribe, the CIA interrogation manual. I don’t remember the title of that right at the moment.

bea2345's avatar

I think that your problem will be that such materials would have been written for very special audiences, not for general publication. I doubt even a Freedom of Information Act would get you very far.

Ria777's avatar

they listed copies in the AMOK Catalog Fourth Dispatch a bit more than ten years ago. so you can get copies somewhere, either as a torrent or on Wikileaks or for sale.

Zen's avatar

Thomas Harris: Hannibal; The Silence of the Lambs; Red Dragon; and Hannibal Rising.

wildpotato's avatar

@ChazMaz You would get an A in my class, buddy. This is what the author of that book I linked to thinks, and what my professor believes as well. According to them, torture is all about what Hannah Arendt calls sovereignity, what my prof calls an exploitation of our existential vulnerability, and what you characterize as self-empowerment through control of another. Glad you chimed in on this thread.

Jeruba's avatar

@wildpotato, I do agree that sadism is something else, but there is still a glimpse of a mind there.

Power comes into that too, but differently. That’s the power exchange.

Jack_Haas's avatar

This book created quite a stir in france when it was published, fortunately it was translated in English:

The guy who wrote it was a french general in charge of counterinsurgency in Algeria, and writes in detail about everything he and his men did there in order to stop terrorist acts.

One of the commenters says:

“The matter-of-fact, unapologetic tone of the atrocities he committed to win the battle struck me as one of the most chilling accounts I’ve ever read.”

So it looks exactly like what you’re looking for.

markyy's avatar

Sure I have a list right here. BUT YOU’LL NEVER GET IT OUT OF ME!!!

gailcalled's avatar

I have an friend from HS whose family (including him and his 4 yr old sister) were in Manilla and then interred in a camp there by the Japanese military after Japan joined the war (WWII).

My friend remembers and will until the day he dies, being forced with his sister, to watch the periodic beheadings of internees. The guards made sure that he and his sis kept their eyes opened. He was 6. It was the pivotal event of his life.

So there is the torturer, the tortured, and the innocent observers. Shooting innocents in the town square while the populace watches is also a well-known method of terrifying the rebels.

Ria777's avatar

@wildpotato: I have a new answer to your question. contact a representative of Amnesty International or some group devoted to ending torture. if anyone will know books on the subject, they will. therefore, they will know any books written by perpetrators of torture that you can obtain.

bea2345's avatar

@wildpotato – just a thought. Be sure that you want this information. There are terrible images that stay with me after more than 5 years: a report by one of the international NGOs on the Rwanda genocide. The report ran to nearly a thousand pages, left nothing to the imagination. I think it was a British charity that wrote the report.

Response moderated
wildpotato's avatar

@galileogirl Hah! You make me laugh. I’m baffled about how I gave you cause to call me a liar, though. The class is not about dignity in torture, those are just some of the themes we’re covering. It’s an ethics class, basically. I’m taking the class at the NSSR branch of the New School, where I’m a grad student. It’s taught by J.M. Bernstein. This is his second time giving the seminar. I’ll post the course description when I get a connection back on my computer, but I think you can probably confirm I’m telling the truth by checking on the info I gave you. Also, I am female.

galileogirl's avatar

Then send me a link, if you dare!

Response moderated
LostInParadise's avatar

@gailcalled , @Jeruba
Would you please explain briefly to this math major how Lolita was the torturer in the book. I read it a while back, but I did not get that impression at all. But then again I was most impressed by Nabokov’s language manipulation, (like how “the rapist” became therapist), which is pretty impressive for someone whose first language is not English.

gailcalled's avatar

@LostInParadise: Your exam essay: Do you think Humbert or Lolita was the torturer? Why? Explain in one page please. (Reread the book with the concept of Lolita as manipulative and sadistic bitch in mind. It will become clearer.)

bezdomnaya's avatar

@wildpotato That sounds like an amazingly interesting seminar. And now thanks to @MacBean, I can check it out in all of it’s reality outside of your mind.

I would recommend reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan tells Alyosha about different acts of torture he’s heard of (Book V, Chapter 4 Rebellion). This particular chapter hypothesizes about the reasoning behind inflicting pain. This is, again, not from the torturer’s perspective but still interesting (and quick if you only read this one chapter).

Another suggestion I have is to read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which has a particularly gruesome episode of torture in it with the torturer’s background and reasoning being explained during. Unfortunately, I doi not know the chapter of this particular episode.

Alas, these are both fiction and are probably not know you’re looking for. I think some of the suggestions above are probably better. Have fun in the class! It sounds like the discussion could be incredibly stimulating.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] Personal attacks are not permitted and have been removed.

bezdomnaya's avatar

Crap! I was using those links. :( Ah well, must google the school myself then…

Jeruba's avatar

@galileogirl, well, I think, for instance, Haing Ngor’s writing about being suspended for three days above a slow-burning fire of rice hulls is a description of his own torture and not a general account of witnessed cruelty. I did not get the impression that a desire to relive the experience had anything to do with it. All the first-person accounts I have read of such acts appear to have been written out of some strong personal drive that is entirely unrelated to any notion of pleasure in the recollections. I’m not sure how you would know more about what I’ve read than I do.

MacBean's avatar

@bezdomnaya—Here are the links again, without the personal attack (which I maintain was heartily deserved):

NSSR branch of New School

J.M. Bernstein

Torture and Dignity

bezdomnaya's avatar

@MacBean Thank you for the links!

It was, indeed, deserved.

Zuma's avatar

I recommend The Administration of Torture by Jaffer and Singh, by torturers documenting their own actions.

Here is a disturbing little video of some cops in a county jail torturing prisoners (some of whom are awaiting trial and have not been found guilty of anything) essentially bragging to the documentary film crew that “this how its done.” Here is a much longer compilation documenting (often from the torturer’s point of view) how torture has become commonplace in American prisons. Keep in mind while watching this that Lonnie Granier, was a correctional officer in one of these prisons and was instrumental in kicking off the atrocities at Abu Ghraib.

Here is a disturbing account of the internal logic of a beating: “It was a labor-intensive job. One fearless car thief, who did not want to confess his crime, was bound to a bed in a basement and beaten with metal rods. Describing the incident years later in the book series SIC, Stoev wrote, “We beat him black and blue, but we were careful not to break his bones. A beating has its own internal logic and psychology like any other human activity. It goes through the following stages: First, the victim feels intense pain and screams. Then he goes limp, his organism gives up, and he is ready to confess anything. He takes the punches without protest and, if he’s still conscious, wonders whether he’ll die now or later…. A beating is hard labor…. It’s a whole art in itself.” Stoev was not completely insensitive to other people’s suffering, though he tried everything possible not to think about it. “In the basement I behaved like a beast,” he admitted ruefully, “but out in the daylight I managed to forget about everything. It was my survival strategy. I existed in two parallel worlds.” It was an existence that was taking its toll on both victims and victimizers.”

Naomi Klein has a chapter on torture in The Shock Doctrine you might find interesting. It describes the methods and (even more chilling) some of the science behind modern techniques quoting from a literature which was, of course, developed by torturers for torturers.

The Lucifer Effect describes the sorts of circumstances under which permit people to give in to the impulse to torture and abuse. So too does Monstering and Standard Operating Procedure and The Language of Empire, Ordinary Men and Torture and Democracy, the last of which describes the move toward techniques that don’t leave marks, so as to evade the scrutiny of those who monitor prisons for evidence of torture.

One would think that given how much is known about the conditions that give rise to torture, there would be much more done to prevent them. But, alas, it is 2009 and we are all still barbarians.

wildpotato's avatar

@Zuma Dear Lord, this is a gold mine. Can’t thank you enough. Did you find this stuff for your sociology degree, or am I just easily frustrated by the internet?

And wait – Jaffer and Singh are themselves torturers, or the book has some accounts by torturers in it? Edit – I see, Google Books is letting me see some of the documents. Must be in here somewhere. These are very interesting.

Zuma's avatar

@wildpotato No, I found this in the course of researching a book I’m writing on prison.

wildpotato's avatar

@Zuma Wow, in that case doubleplusthanks! I’m very grateful to share your bibliography. That description you pasted of the internal logic of a beating, by that Stoev fellow, really is just perfect. And the way he says that the gangsters are ordinary people makes me wonder how ‘ordinary’ torturers might seem, when read from their own perspective. Grass’s account certainly makes joining up with the SS look like not such a deliberately evil thing, for instance. Good of you to turn me on to gangsters and prisons; there’s a lot to work with in those areas.

Oh, and you might want to take a gander at that book by Amery I linked to in my original post – not too much directly on the prison situation, but the first two chapters might have some pertinent and interesting bits for your research.

Zuma's avatar

Thanks for the reference, but I am not finding any book called “Torture and Dignity” by Amery on Amazon.

A bunch more books came to mind, since punishment so easily shades in to torture in ways that make it almost ubiquitous and banal. Quite often people’s ideas about punishment foreshadow their attitudes toward. One important book in this regard is Lorna A. Rhodes’ Total Confinement which is about the high-tech mechanized form of torture in the form of solitary confinement that about 20,000 Americans undergo every day in Supermax Prisons and Administrative Segregation Units. Rhodes is an anthropologist who does remarkable job in presenting how each side sees the other. She has a more compact article that you can access online here.

Another extremely valuable book is Making Enemies, which explores the psychology of humiliation which, as you know, always accompanies physical torture and is, in fact, the most lasting and damaging part of it, since it strikes at the person’s soul rather than the person’s body. While this book does not dwell on the mechanics of torture per se, it discusses how humiliation plays out in “honor societies” like Islam, where wife-beating is a normal and almost expected feature of everyday life and where rather horrific honor crimes are tacitly tolerated.

Looking at the same phenomenon from a more intimate perspective is Philip Greven’s Spare the Child, which is about the religious origins of corporal punishment in American child-rearing and it’s effects on children. It is very jarring to read back to back with Rhodes’ book, since the children of disciplinarians tend not to turn out very well. It does, however, give you glimpses of the religious fanaticism behind the “biblical” punishments of children from the punisher’s point of view. In any case, it certainly explains why so many fundamentalists are so screwed up in the ways they are.

I also pull some of this material together in my Commentary on Justice blog.

You might want also want to take a peek at Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which is one of the great theoretical works on the subject (although not the actual doing of torture from the torturer’s point of view). Anyway, you can find it in synopsis form here.

wildpotato's avatar

@Zuma Ah, my bad. Amery’s book is titled At the Mind’s Limits. And actually, the third chapter might be more up your alley: it’s about the experience of exile. And exile is one of the things in play in prisons.

Thanks for the other references. We are using Discipline and Punish in class already, but those others are news to me.

andrew's avatar

@wildpotato Oh, what I forgot to say about Japan at War: An Oral History is that it’s first person accounts.

flutherother's avatar

You’d get some useful information in a biography of Dick Cheney I am sure.

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