Taking A Stand Against Torture


Dr. Julie Kuck & Larry Siems

Taking A Stand Against Torture: The Clinical Effects on Us All
Dr. Julie Kuck
 
The landscape of torture is a harsh and desolate terrain where I do not work. However, as a clinician at Survivors of Torture International (SOTI), I am deeply privileged to work with incredible beings of light, the torture survivors who have walked through that terrain. So, I want to try and give a voice to the experiences of torture tonight by blending science with a clinical perspective. I’ll share some stories about survivors of torture with whom I have had the honor of working and talk a little about the brain and our capacity to move out of “survive” and into “thrive” responses.  Ultimately, what I want you to take away from this talk is that the brain and gut are potent forces to be integrated into the strength of our hearts, which is the universal wellspring of true courage and compassion. Our lives are always about learning and the only knowing that I have to date, largely from neuroscience, is that torture ends with compassion, which is the integrated state of brain-gut-heart or, said another way, mind-body-soul.
 
First, I’d like to share a poem that those of you who work in the field undoubtedly know well. Written by 1996 Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, who also is known as the “Mozart of poetry” in Poland and is a poet laureate there as well as a PEN prize recipient, this poem is her take on torture. Her poem Tortures is translated from Polish and collected in a volume entitled Poems: New and Collected 1957-1997 (Szymborska, 1998).
 
Tortures
Nothing has changed.
The body is a reservoir of pain;
it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
it has thin skin and the blood is just beneath it;
it has agood supply of teeth and fingernails;
its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
In tortures, all of this is considered.

Nothing has changed.
The body still trembles as it trembled
before Rome was founded and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are just what they were, only the earth has shrunk
and whatever goes on, sounds as if, it's just a room away.

Nothing has changed.
Except there are more people,
and new offenses have sprung up beside the old ones--
real, make-believe, short-lived, and nonexistent.
But the cry with which the body answers for them

was, is, and will be a cry of innocence,
in keeping with the age-old scale and pitch.

Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.  
The gesture of the hands, shielding the head
has nonetheless remained the same.
The body writhes, jerks, and tugs,
falls to the ground when shoved, pulls up its knees,
bruises, swells, drools, and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.
Except for the boundaries of rivers,

the shapes of forests, shores, deserts, and glaciers.
The little soul roams among these landscapes,
disappears, returns, draws near, moves away,
evasive and a stranger to itself,
now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
whereas the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.

From:  Poems New & Collected (Szymborska, 1998)

 
Her words resonate with me, as our survivors have told us how the body rested on a floor, or was beaten, or was restrained, or was fed a single piece of bread crust, just one at a time. They have told us how the body was released or ransomed, or how it fled in fast steps away from gunfire or towards freedom. They also have told us of their souls as they talk about their dreams, or wishes, or hopes. And in this way, they talk about their resilience and rights to thrive.  Except when they don’t.  I recall one survivor who was quite angry. As a teenager, he was plucked out of harm’s way by his mother, who flew him directly to Mexico after he was “invited” to join a militant organization. His friend, who had also been invited, declined and subsequently disappeared.  When I asked what clan he was from, the teenager said, “The one everybody hates.” He would not connect with me. He was mad, which is to say he was afraid. “What do you hope to do here?” I asked him. “How should I know,” he said, “I didn’t want to come here.” I was stumped. How can one connect with an angry adolescent who doesn’t want to be here?  I don’t do kids. I interview adults.  Then I saw that he was beating a very intricate beat with his pencil on the table top in detention. I watched for a minute and then asked, “Do you like music? Do you drum?” His smile was hard for even him to contain. So we dropped down into that universal language of music, which created an opening for him to envision his life and future in a place where he did not speak the language and never intended to come to, leaving his peers behind.  In the end I told him, “I have no idea what you will do here, but I can promise you that it will need to involve music.” He opened up into that universal language to begin to consider a safe place for him to create a new life.  
 
I want to be careful in sharing stories, for these are the survivors’ stories to tell.  Yet, I also feel it is important to share some of what I know, as these are very common and necessary stories that help restore humanity following this discussion of torture. So here is another story, with some details changed to protect the survivor’s story as her own.  This is a story of a woman who grew up dealing with civil unrest between many warring clans and who was then assaulted by a subculture of religion, waging its own fearful war. Within all that internal chaos, this survivor said, “I always understood, even as a small child, that my family was not equal to humans.”  Despite this “less than” understanding, she also knew that she lived life anyway, going to school when she could and learning life skills.  By the age of 20, she had experienced the murder of relatives traveling on a bus that was bombed. Their deaths are not considered torture by a legal definition, as they were simply victims of war. The legal definition of torture is far too narrow in my opinion and should include victims of war and interpersonal violence who have no capacity to escape.  The woman also experienced the deaths of her father and sister from crossfire conducted between clans at the local market.  Her fiancé was abducted for his religion and never found. She was left to raise younger siblings and help her mom, forcing her to open a business at a time when women were not allowed to run businesses, or to be in public unescorted by men.  She said it had been impossible for her to accept the death of her fiancé, so she continued without him as if he were still alive in a terrible delusional fantasy of grief.  After being ordered to close her business, but continuing to run it to support her family, she was abducted, assaulted, tortured, and gang-raped to teach her and her surrounding community “a lesson.” She told me she believed she would die until the civil war came to the neighborhood where she was held and she was able to flee after the neighborhood was overrun and her own captors had fled. The hated civil war became the miracle that was her release. It gave her an opportunity that she seized and literally ran away with.
 
As we talked, the clear fact emerged that, despite multiple traumatic losses, gang rape, and torture, she was alive, an intelligent survivor who had experienced a lifetime of hardship as a minority under both ethnic and religious conflicts. Her main question for me was whether we had a clan system in the United States, as she hoped someday to be able to bring her remaining family here and did not want them to experience clan hardships. Impossible question to answer.  I told her that I had learned from some of the other asylum seekers that they are giving up allegiance to clans, except for the growing clan of fellow refugees. 
 
My client’s trauma had a living sequelae of nightmares, intrusive thoughts, avoidance of others, avoidance of talking or thinking about her disturbing experiences coupled with bereavement, insomnia, survivor guilt, and a fearful hypervigilance - all developed as a response to torture. My client’s trauma was alive and well in her brain and was created by the brains of her captors.
 
Her sense of thriving was alive and well in her brain too. This is the beauty of the brain. The same neural tracts that go between the brain and the gut can help us either fight or talk socially, laugh, and engage. These tracts also help make it possible for us to both flee from and avoid something undesirable and to move towards and pursue something desirable. The brain and gut also can achieve a primitive state of freeze (commonly known as “playing possum”) or can achieve a state of full emotional overwhelm, which in its more adaptive state helps us profoundly rest and digest in order to fully live. Like primitive fishes that rest on the bottom of the sea, our rest and digest functions enable us to fully restore our lives.  Connecting my client with her natural laughter and state of aliveness was my purpose in the evaluation with a sub-purpose of helping her present her experience of trauma and her diagnoses of PTSD and bereavement to the judge who heard her case for asylum.
 
In an almost identical story to this first one, I worked with another woman who survived detention, gang rape, and torture by one majority clan as she was attempting to flee from another majority clan.  She went from the proverbial frying pan in to the fire.  She had nightmares of men breaking into her room and said, “My body is out of control.” Describing the panic attacks, she said she would feel shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dizziness, flushing, sweatiness, and feelings like she might vomit or perhaps even die from a heart attack.  This client told me she felt “worthwhile in the eyes of God,” but had struggled with shame since childhood for her minority clan status.  Knowing she had been an abducted minority who knew her life had little value to her captors, I asked her what helped her survive.  She said, “In my country we have a saying, The shade always passes to the other side of the tree.” I told her the saying was “brilliant,” and we both laughed at the word play, translatable across cultures.  I also told her the saying worked no matter which side of the tree you were sitting on. Either respite might be coming from an unrelenting sun-or a darkness might be passing to be replaced by a much needed light.  We laughed and talked of universal wisdom like the saying, “This too shall pass,” attributed to Sufi mystics and also to the Judaic legend of the saying being inscribed in King Solomon’s ring and even to the work of other poets in ancient Persia or Turkey. Universal sayings are simple truths that help us through life, as her culture’s saying helped her survive minute by minute.  I am a huge fan of universal truths that connect us. I do not care for the euphemistic phrases that I heard tonight, such as “enhanced interrogation,” a term I have not heard before. I am a huge fan of Will Rogers, and I don’t know what he would say about that phrase. But what I would say is that intelligence coupled with inhumanity only makes for even greater ignorance, of a kind not seen since the Crusades or perhaps the Spanish Inquisition or any other period of past historical tortures that one might conjure up. We need to speak clearly about torture and name it as it occurs.
 
From my perspective, the human brain can be the universally known instrument of torture. It is the parent of all the instruments on display in the current exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man. It is the instrument we use to devise torture and the instrument that is used in the torture of ourselves as well as others. I say the brain “can be” an instrument of torture, as I hope these vignettes show that the brain has a capacity not only to react to trauma or to plan torture, but also to respond in a flexible way in its thought and mood processes. In these women’s own awareness of their survival, one woman was able to recall both that she always had been “the underdog” and had survived anyway, while another woman was able to hang on to the fact that lightness in being is coming after darkness has ended. Both women were able to find compassion for themselves in their experiences of survival. They were able to integrate what I will call a “heartfelt awareness” of both their brain’s fear and their gut’s survival.
 
As a society we are slowly learning that while the brain can be the architect of torture, there is a universal tool that can destroy torture, which is the tool of compassion. Torture begins with an individual mindset augmented by situations and systems that only self-compassion and reflection can cure. Self-compassion becomes the method of developing compassion for others. It is hard to have hatred towards others if one truly loves the self.  In the conquering of self-hatred, we conquer torture, one individual at a time. The end of torture rests in the individual and that individual starts with each of us in this room.  The Dalai Lama calls us to action when he says, “The real test of compassion is not what we say in abstract discussions but how we conduct ourselves in daily life” (Dalai Lama, n.d., The Global Community: Universal Responsibility, para. 7)
 
I personally find this to be the challenge of a lifetime, for it forces us to confront when we are behaving from brain-driven gut survival mechanisms of fight, flight, or overwhelm fueled by fear that we then tell ourselves is either justifiable anger or merely compliance with what is expected by others or justified on the basis of what we have done for some perceived “common good.”  The perception of common good is one perception that can permit torture. The brain has other perceptions, well-documented in the work of social psychologists, such as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, among others. This work requires reflection if we are to circumvent the risk of turning those perceptions into behaviors of torture. Zimbardo ran the now infamous prison experiment at Stanford University, where he watched healthy volunteers become powerfully humiliating guards and saw their counterpart prisoners descend into pain and humiliation. The experiment was stopped when his girlfriend told him he had become someone else and she would leave him. In that moment of realization of his loss of identity, he ended the experiment. He eventually went on record as an expert witness to explain the atrocities at Abu Ghraib.
 
As a neuropsychologist and trauma therapist, I have become deeply interested in what connects humanity rather than in what divides us. Our brains tend to devise and support fight behaviors when we feel we live under threat. We also can move into flight behaviors and run away from that which we need to do. We finally can slip into the overwhelm or frozen state and lose our own individuality and even humanity when we are under extreme threat. From old social psychology experiments that now would be considered unethical, estimates range from 30-70% of healthy volunteers would comply with torture under certain circumstances that involve particular situations and/or perceptions of authority.  The brain’s easy propensity to react to fear signals through fight, flight, and overwhelm behaviors has made me modify a pop culture saying: Of all the things I fear, I fear my mind the most. When the mind is unchecked by reflection and the heart is not engaged in self-compassion, almost all of us are able to be torturers. 
 
When I work with survivors, I want to help them move beyond the overwhelming experience of past torture by having them simultaneously feel and notice their inherent resiliencies that have given them the heart to continue to live despite their experiences.  There is a language that we speak, the torture survivors and I. This language is common to us all - one that we understand together. The language we speak is one of “being,” since we all are alive. The language we speak is one of feeling, since we all have felt moments of terror. We do not need to linger in those emotions longer than a minute to know that they are the same. The language we speak is one of the now, since we have not been together in the past and may not be in the future. The language we speak is the universal tongue. It is a language not of torture but of compassion. Even though we start our work in torture, we always seem to end up in compassion. That’s really the goal of what we want to achieve. The goal is the affirmation of our shared connection to life, in our beings and feelings. We seek being and feeling alive in the now. The work is lyrical and addictive. It fuels the sense of vivacity in what Dr. David Gangsei, our former clinical director at SOTI, and his colleagues have described as the phenomenon of vicarious resiliency (Hernandez, Gangsei, & Engstrom, 2007). When we talk with survivors, we connect deeply with gratitude and with the reality of our being.
 
Jack Kornfield, one of our noted Buddhist teachers in the United States, has said that we have “an epidemic of self-hatred and criticism in this country.” He challenges us to move into forgiveness, describing this process as a “tearing of the… closedness of the heart” (Kornfield, 2011, “What Forgiveness Means,” video).  In contemporary neuroscience, we are understanding brain-based ways to move into what UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel (2007) calls a coherent way of being. For me, that coherence, necessarily involves integrating our three minds of brain, gut, and heart.  We are encouraged in Siegel’s neuroscience model to develop a sense of connectedness–  the sense that we belong in the world and the openness to accept who we are. We are encouraged to stay in a state of harmony and engagement with the world, to be receptive and invite in what is emerging. We strive to work in noetic, compassionate, and empathic ways that foster our knowing and resonance with others.  Working with survivors of torture is doing this work. Doing this work is starting with the self.  Starting with the self is emerging into life and that work is the passion of a lifetime-your lifetime.
 
References
 
Dalai Lama. (n.d.) The global community: Universal responsibility [Messages quotation, para. 7]. Retrieved from   http://www.dalailama.com/messages/world-peace/the-global-community
Hernandez, P., Gangsei, D., & Engstrom, D. (2007). Vicarious Resilience: A New Concept in Work With Those Who Survive Trauma. Family Process, 46: 229–241. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2007.00206
Kornfield, J. (Speaker). (2011, August 23). The ancient heart of forgiveness: What forgiveness means [Video excerpt]. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_ancient_heart_of_forgiveness/
Siegel, D.  J. (2007).  The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. NY: W.W. Norton Company & Inc.
Szymborska, W. (1998). Tortures (S. Barańczak & C. Cavanagh, Trans.). In Poems: New and collected 1957-1997 (pp. 202-203). NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Zimbardo, P. (Speaker). (2011, August 20). The Stanford prison experiment [Video]. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_ancient_heart_of_forgiveness/
Zimbardo, P.  (2013). The situational awareness model: Situations, individuals, systems.  Retrieved from http://heroicimagination.org/public-resources/situational-awareness/situations/

 

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