What Does it Feel Like to Be Tortured?

What Does it Feel Like to Be Tortured?

What Does it Feel Like to Be Tortured?

Unless you’ve experienced it, you can never really know. Here are five books that come closest to conveying the horror.


What does it feel like to be tortured?

Now that the Senate report on CIA interrogations and abuse is out, there must be millions of Americans who are asking themselves that question.

Unfortunately, the answer is that, unless you have lived through that demonic experience yourself, you cannot ever really know.

I wish it were otherwise.

I have been shadowed by torture and its imminent possibility for over forty years, ever since a military coup on September 11, 1973, overthrew the democratic government in my country, Chile. So many friends limping into exile, sharing tales of how their bodies were violated in so many ways with so many sharp and blunt instruments. So many nights listening, with my wife, Angelica, by my side, to what happened to them, step by step, horror after horror. And so many times the despair at my own innocence, the safe cocoon of distance, both physical and mental, protecting me from evil, so many times realizing that I was unable to understand, truly understand, what it means to  be stripped naked and forced onto a cot covered with the vomit of previous clients. So many times, wishing and not wishing to surmount the gulf yawning between me and the victims, wanting and not wanting to be contaminated by that knowledge of perversity.

And yet, though I was aware that pain cannot, by definition, be transmitted through words or translated into the rational chronology of spoken or written language—that pain is, literally, unspeakable—even so, I have tried over these decades to access, through a series of remarkable books, a certain obscene familiarity with that extreme form of suffering. Some of those who survived that ordeal had managed to shatter that innocence and distance, invite readers to picture the vulnerability and agony of being at the utter mercy of some cold, taunting, omnipotent god who can decide, at the flick of a finger or the whiplash of a command from a tongue, whether you live or you die, whether your body is torn from you like an earthquake or if you are allowed to subside into the dreadful calm of awaiting the next bout of agony.

Perhaps the most famous of all these harrowing accounts is Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number (1981) by Jacobo Timerman, an Argentine journalist imprisoned and tortured by the military of his native land. The author spares us nothing, has no pity on himself or his readers, will not let us escape the systematic way, day after day after night after night, in which he is dehumanized—the brutality and hatred of his tormentors augmented by their crass anti-Semitism. What is most sobering about Timerman’s memoir is that these practices were far from new, reminding him of what the Nazis had perfected against other humans just a few decades earlier.

By alerting the world to the repetition of such tribulations in Latin America, Prisoner without a Name joined such classics as Arthur Koestler’s 1940 classic, Darkness at Noon (where Communist interrogators extract confessions from dissidents) and Henri Alleg’s foundational text The Question, published in 1958 and promptly banned by the French authorities. Alleg, a French journalist arrested during the Algerian War, began to write clandestinely while in prison the story of how he had been beaten, waterboarded, sundered apart by electricity, an indictment which, once his pages were smuggled out of jail, created a sensation in France, helping to shift public opinion and end the colonial war against the Algerian independence movement.

Other books focus more on the after-effects of torture, how the agony never ends, replicating itself over and over in the mind, in the body that cannot help but relive and remember the nightmare that is never past. The most moving of these is perhaps The Railway Man (1995), recently made into a film, in which British prisoner of war Eric Lomax relates his torture at the hands of the Japanese during the building of the Thai Burma Railway in 1941. What makes Lomax’s life fascinating is that he tracked down the interpreter who had been instrumental in those fierce interrogations and found, instead of the devil, a Japanese Buddhist who had spent the rest of his existence trying to atone for having participated in such inhumanity. That interrogator had leapt across the infinite remoteness that separates perpetrator and victim and discovered their common humanity. And Lomax, though damaged beyond repair, responded with forgiveness.

If I had to choose, however, one book of those I have read in pursuit of knowledge, it would be Tejas Verdes: Diary of a Concentration Camp by the Chilean novelist Hernán Valdés, published in 1974. Valdés plunges us, as no one else ever has, into his body, his blindfolded eyes, his burnt skin, his waterlogged lungs, his genitals shocked with electrical current. He reproduces mercilessly the vulgarity of his captors and the coldness that makes him shiver under the hottest sun, a coldness at his core that will never again go away. If I had to recommend one book that comes closest to transporting those who are uninitiated into the chilling abyss of Hell, it would be Tejas Verdes.

Sadly, ironically, significantly, it is out of print.

I guess not enough people wanted to discover what it felt like to be tortured.

I guess not enough people were ready to open their imagination to that experience. And it is the compassionate imagination that we now desperately need at this dire moment of revelation, so that none of us will ever dare to justify, out of fear or out of expedience, cruelty that is inflicted upon our fellow humans on a planet that should, by now, know better. 

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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