Torture: The Catastrophe of a Bond

  • Carlos Alberto Arestivo
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Life Writing book series (PSLW)


Drawing on his personal experiences of torture in Paraguay as well as his training as a psychiatrist, Carlos Alberto Arestivo explores torture’s interpersonal dynamics and its embeddedness—as a political strategy, a set of techniques, and lasting scars—in societal institutions and ideologies. That the focus of torture is on dissemblage of the victim’s social world and the destruction of his or her personality reveals that in its terrible, intimate encounters, torture makes personal the desire of one worldview to vanquish another. Perhaps most devastatingly, Arestivo’s essay concludes that when all other social bonds have been destroyed through torture, the last one remaining to the tortured is the one that has involuntarily been made with the torturer.

Drawing on his personal experiences of torture in Paraguay as well as his training as a psychiatrist , Dr. Carlos Alberto Arestivo launches this volume with an overview of what torture is, how it works toward the dissolution of the subject, and its broad social implications. His dual perspective as a survivor and clinician, and his ability to navigate between those positions, reflect the ways in which his understanding of his own experience is profoundly shaped by his medical training. In addition, he situates his experience in the context of the Stroessner dictatorship and connects his analysis of that repressive regime to the larger apparatuses of torture worldwide. Arestivo’s attention to both the psychological dimensions of torture and its political contexts affords an examination of two crucial dimensions of torture’s rootedness in the larger social matrix: torture’s interpersonal dynamics and its embeddedness (as a political strategy, a set of techniques, and lasting scars) in societal institutions and ideologies.

Arestivo’s description of how torturers learn their craft, as well as how their techniques dissemble the victim’s social self, underscores the psychosocial effects of torture on individuals—perpetrators and those they torture—and their societies. That the focus of torture is on dissemblage of the victim’s social world and the destruction of his or her personality reveals that in its terrible, intimate encounters, torture makes personal the desire of one worldview to vanquish another. Perhaps most devastatingly, Arestivo’s essay concludes that when all other social bonds have been destroyed through torture, the last one remaining to the tortured is the one that has involuntarily been made with the torturer.

* * *

The concepts set forth in this work are based upon bibliographic references to the situations of torture in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Greece; direct testimonies of torture survivors; an improvised consultation in the actual prison of “The Ambush,” Paraguay, where I was imprisoned for three months in 1978; and my own direct experiences in the torture sessions of the Department of Investigations of the Capital Police.

Torture is a cruel and inhuman act, produced by one or more perpetrators who find themselves in a situation of absolute power of life or death over another person, who finds him- or herself submitted, without any defense or any chance to impede the torture, flee, or defend him- or herself. That person can only endure or suffer, according to his or her psychological and physical resistance.

Many torture survivors manifest psychological repercussions that may be predictable according to variables such as his or her history, identity, or social and political ideals, or that may be extraordinarily random because of his or her organic capacity and particular life circumstances. Torture seeks to produce torment, all types of pain and suffering, vexations and humiliations, and, on the most basic level, fear. Torture attacks all the vulnerable aspects of a human being in this systematic and severe way in order to break the sufferer’s defenses.

In effect, torture of political prisoners or prisoners of conscience has as its goals extracting a confession and, above all, destroying the prisoner’s personality. At the same time, torture aims to have a psychosocial effect through the commotion that it produces when a member of a determined social group is captured and tortured. The climax of fear and terror expands like waves, maintaining the population in a state of permanent tension and collective fear, generating distrust as well as isolating families and social groups.

The Subculture of Fear: The Irresponsible Subject

The Paraguayan people suffered many decades of repressive government under the Stroessner regime, which was characterized by the instauración, or what might be called strategies of generalized terror and cruelty against the regime’s political opponents. When we read the words of François Roustang in “Vincolo di libertà” [“Bond of Liberty”] describing the absolute narcissist from the perspective of the psychology of the masses, it appears that he is describing the profile of General Stroessner, expressing (among other things) that this character

did everything that he wanted and possessed all the powers, all the women that he wanted, and all the subjects. In addition to this, his discretionary power of life and death was like the confirmation of his omnipotence.1

Roustang goes on to reference Elias Canetti’s work in “Mass and Power”:

This narcissist, threatened with death by those for whose lives he has at his disposal, becomes a species of the super-living: it is possible to maintain power but you must ‘subsist’ with the incessant fear of being assassinated. […] Now then, the only manner in which to prevent this said fear is killing all the subjects as each and every one of them is his potential murderers. The narcissist who loves only himself cannot avoid detesting all others, fearing them, distrusting them, wishing them the worst of the worst—in other words, he has transformed into a paranoid person.2

The logic of creating a climate of fear, through persecutions, detentions, torture, exile, and even death itself is to seek the destruction of the entire social network that has given rise to trust and solidarity between people. Stroessner created this situation as a strategy to maintain his power, creating in addition an operation in which it was necessary to present a façade of democracy and the legality of his government. To do this, he first permanently suspended constitutional guarantees, created a division in the principal opposition party, and, with the necessary bribes, created a “democratic” parliament with one of those new splinter parties. Later, and with the promise of democratizing the country, he seduced the other opposition parties to elaborate a new constitution, which permitted the dictator to perpetuate his power and lead in an authoritative fashion due to the very presence of liberticidas laws3 in the constitution that legalized the abuse of human rights.

This abuse of human dignity was perpetuated through a system in which a few—those who displayed power and were guaranteed total impunity—abused, persecuted, captured, banished, or assassinated others. In addition, this impunity allowed them to make use of the state’s resources to enrich themselves. The social response in this situation was characterized by a collective fear that restrained or paralyzed the expression of ideas, thoughts, or critiques that could have been in dissent from the acts of the government. As a consequence, defense mechanisms were created to adapt to this situation of generalized anguish—of course, for now we are expressing what occurred at the level of the masses, without considering in this work the different protests against the government which various groups attempted in different periods and which ended in terrible massacres.

Many people, little by little, accepted the situation with expressions of general distrust. They distrusted their family, friends, and neighbors due to their fear of delación [denunciation or betrayal]. Most parents prohibited their children from speaking out, much less becoming involved in politics or any type of social movement. Human rights were considered a subversive discourse; it was safer not to think or speak about politics. This subculture of fear created polarizing phenomena in communities. There were those who gave the orders and their families and those close to them, who were made up of those who sponsored and acted out authoritarianism with arrogance—these were the politicians and generals who blindly submitted themselves to tyranny. These people were those who made themselves rich consuming and conquering the other. These people were those who were exempt from the rigors of the law, with substantial bribes, scorning those who did not integrate into their group. At the other extreme, there were the dissenters, explicitly those for whom the repressions already noted waited. Finally, there were the indifferent ones, who in reality were those who adapted to this situation.

All of this determined the loss of moral values in our country; created social fear; impeded the establishment of alliances or social bonds that were part of people’s psychological security; and generated distrust, isolation, and self-censure, factors which separate the individual from all that is social. In this way, the individual was forced to renounce his own thoughts, which at the same time makes development of political discourse difficult, allowing the espúreos [spurious or false] directors4 to decide for him. This process leaves man poor and residual, an irresponsible subject who cannot survive the consequences of his principles, discourse, and word responsibly. The social body becomes ill. This model of authoritarianism, arrogance, disrespect for the person, bribery, and corruption, together with a culture of corruption, is supported by impunity and observed in people’s everyday conduct in distinct areas of life, such as family, work, school, and so on, even though the tyranny ended a couple of decades ago. The almost imperceptible changes in the conduct of our people are also the effect of the culture of fear.

The Decision to Be a Torturer

Torture is situated in this context as a useful instrument with which to sustain a repressive government, and, as such, forms part of a plan, a strategy, of governing in which torture ceases to be a contingent phenomenon . Torture implies a scientifically prepared process; it requires trained, suitable, and efficient human resources. For this reason, the role of the torturers requires training. The torturer is a person selected or self-nominated for this role, which implies an aggressive capacity. Despite this, the torturer is a common, mediocre person who, as many authors have indicated, has not achieved or had great goals in life, and who, through this “work,” seeks to be an object of the leader’s libidinal deposit. In addition to this, the torturer obtains in this way a privileged life. In this way, the torturer triumphs, through his egotistical efforts, over the “social subject.”

At the same time, the torturer can be the father of a family considered to be “good” by the community. (This occurred in Paraguay, where one of the famous torturers recognized for his cruelty was, until his detention, the charge of the president of the Commission of Priests of a religious college.) The torturer is not mentally ill (not a sadist or a psychopath), even though there are detectable features of his personality. He is a subject who has consciously decided to assume the function of torture and has been trained and prepared for this work. In some countries (e.g., the United States and Greece), there are schools for torturers, and experts in the technology of pain are sent in to teach techniques of torture.

The training of torturers involves a series of situations, which are interesting to imagine. Some American authors investigated torture in Greece and described the necessary conditions and situations for one to become a torturer: one needs to find oneself in a situation of total obedience (such as in the military or police force) and submit oneself to severe punishments if one does not precisely follow the orders of one’s superiors. Future torturers endure suffering and humiliation in their preparations in order to internalize their lessons. Another aspect of their training consists of making sure that the torturer does not feel guilty or sensitive when faced with this horrific act. To achieve this, the torturer is persuaded and convinced that he is protecting the community from a miserable being that wishes to destroy the system; the enemy is seen as an unhuman being, a monster or an animal that does not deserve compassion. He is the subject of death, like a deified being—a consumer who is satisfied in plunder and robbery. The torturer is an expert in producing pain, knowing the most vulnerable and sensitive zones of the body, how far he can go, and the limits—although sometimes he errs. A final element that favors the role of the torturer is the great impunity that he enjoys, which permits him to feel both invulnerable and omnipotent, knowing that he is feared and that he himself is the producer of that fear.

Torture: Etiology of Clinical Manifestations That Follow

Generally, the “treatment” lasts weeks or months, or even years, when there is a systematic and continuous threat, and through this very fear people tend to reject, isolate, or marginalize the victim or survivor. The survivor then suffers constant stress, which produces psychological and physical exhaustion. Over time that exhaustion generates psychological defense mechanisms which in principle appear to be isolated symptoms, but which usually cease to be symptoms and become part of the individual’s conduct even after the cause of these symptoms disappears.

Pain softens a person, hypersensitizes her, leaving her apprehensive and radically afraid. It damages her. The humiliations, mistreatment, and vexations work against her self-esteem, often causing the person to hate and despise herself. The lack of communication, apart from the fear, provokes anxiety and distress, and causes so much desperation that it sometimes succeeds in destroying the personality. The victim, according to her own history, comes out from this anguish connecting with experiences that evoke valid, internalized human relationships which confirm her “social body.” This process of connection constitutes a saving hallucination, a clinical phenomenon that has been introduced conceptually by F. Roustang . The hallucinogenic or delirious phenomenon should not be read as a traumatic psychosis, it should be placed as a psychopathological manifestation sui generis. Traumatic psychoses are in most cases produced by a natural phenomenon , and generally the trauma appears suddenly and does not last a long time. The person is not impeded from fleeing or defending herself; there is not a lack of communication, nor is there clear intent, humiliation, and vexation. What is more, there is a tendency for solidarity among people when traumatic psychoses are at issue. Torture is something more than this. It is a deplorable act produced by man, wherein the survivor is submitted to a structured process of destruction and where all factors which hold the survivor to her existence in the world are systematically attacked. The survivor’s physical structure is attacked to produce pain, mutilate her, or humiliate her. The torturers attack the prisoner’s psychological and social structures through the use of incommunicado detention, fear and guilt, and through the destruction of the survivor’s self-esteem.

Another way of emerging from the situation of torture occurs in those individuals who in their histories have not succeeded in internalizing significant relationships that constitute the social body, but instead have prioritized internalizing their ideological discourse. These subjects therefore lack this human experience. They do not manage to connect with human characters and succeed only in destroying their own ideals, entering into the game of the torturer, who has in this case achieved his objectives.

The individual does, however, possess a great strength, a capacity to fight against adversity, and an admirable ability to adapt. She adapts to the most difficult situations, endures the most atrocious pain, and seeks desperately to relate to whomever she can, including the torturer himself, because even though the torturer is cruel, he constitutes in this moment a significant person associated with the survivor’s primary experience. In this way, the survivor seeks a bit of calm. However, the constant change of reclusive places and torturers begins to drain the survivor’s adaptive capacity and favor stress, which always increases in the face of that which is new. This alert state that the situation generates and its accompanying constant fear impede sleep or make it difficult for the prisoner to fall asleep. Even if she manages to do so due to sheer exhaustion, the guards enter to impede her sleep violently. Lack of sleep consumes physical and psychological energies. Lack of sleep makes the prisoner crazy.

The survivor of torture has been slowly and systematically branded on all of her vulnerable points. It is possible that she does not have an historical reference for this situation which would allow her to relate or associate, except to the situation of helplessness and defenselessness with relation to her childhood of primary experience set forth already.

Many psychopathological manifestations that appear in this situation warrant deeper study, because they escape psychopathological concepts and the psychiatric mainstream. Although the symptoms exhibited appear similar to other manifestations, the global understanding of these manifestations is confused, and it is due to this confusion that survivors do not always respond to classic psychotherapy treatments.

Tortured: Anguish and Attempts at a Solution

People who are deprived of their liberty in a demonstrative, violent, and showy way, for their political motives or because they helped dissidents, enter systematically into the process of torture already described. When they recover their liberty, sometimes they sink into a state of panic; paradoxically, they feel safer inside of the “inferno.” They have learned, more or less, to get by in a dangerous situation. Once outside, in a situation of relative tranquility, where the danger is apparently relative, their phantoms appear and their lives become the inferno, because in the prison the danger was real and, now that there is no danger, victims lack the skills to confront these phantoms.

A political prisoner (and engineer by profession) incarcerated for more than eighteen years, with whom I shared the time that I was a prisoner, learned to be a tailor during his confinement. He had suffered atrocious torture for years, according to his story given while we shared a cell, and then they had left him in peace. His status was good from a psychiatric standpoint. Two months after I gained my liberty, he also gained his. After a little bit of time, he called me to give him professional help. I found him in a state of panic: shaking, with a fixed stare, refusing to undress out of his wife’s clothing, babbling, extremely docile, and suffering from days of insomnia. He had undoubtedly suffered a deep regression, to the point that we had to intern him in his own home with therapeutic assistants and psychopharmacological treatments, until we were able to stabilize him and send him abroad as a refugee.

When a survivor recovers his liberty, there is fear and distrust in the social environment. His friends reject and avoid the survivor, creating in him a deep isolation; we call this situation the “leper’s syndrome.” His body is tired, without direct pain now; however, the pain is inscribed on his body. He sees his entire life project promptly erased and remains without projects because his present is confused—it is so charged with his past that it does not allow him to think. His self-esteem is broken.

Two weeks after the coup d’état in Paraguay (February 2–3, 1989), formerly tortured people came together to form a human rights entity called the Assembly for the Right to Life. In this first meeting of almost forty people, something that I have noted as “therapeutic” occurred, although it was not planned. The meeting was very emotional. Many of my patients were there, who had not wanted to speak about their painful experiences in the torture chambers in group therapy or individual sessions. Despite this, almost all of them began telling their stories spontaneously, almost as if they were returning to experiment by creating a special climate that favored this cathartic situation. This is what I considered the therapeutic moment, not just for the cathartic situation itself, but instead for the solidarity and restraint of distress that were produced through this re-feeling and re-living, contained for so long without a safe space or ears qualified to hear.

The tortured person needs to gather up that which has been spoiled, re-arm this personality, and meet someone who accepts, appreciates, and values him, including that which was done to him. The tortured person needs something more than psychopharmaceuticals; he needs a new meeting with himself and others.

This work, a little disorganized and desprolijo [messy], provides the context and the reference point for that which I wish to set forth: I am going to pause the film at the scene of a dramatic meeting between a torturer and a survivor, a dramatic encounter between complete power, in the form of the torturer, and total powerlessness, embodied in the survivor. The person who is going to be tortured is totally immobilized, she cannot flee or defend herself. She can only yell if they do not muzzle her. She can only think quickly, searching for an exit from this stressful situation, but these simultaneous thoughts crowd together in a flood, confusing the person who is to be tortured. Panic enters and it is impossible to imagine. Stress is at its maximum.

A surgeon facing a patient about to be submitted to surgical intervention also has absolute power of life or death over someone who is totally defenseless. The surgeon cares for the patient so that the patient does not suffer, for this the surgeon uses anesthesia. The patient trusts the surgeon and is (one hopes) delivered peacefully in the end. The surgeon takes care to produce minimal surgical trauma and ensures that the patient suffers minimal stress. Through this relationship there emerges a certain affection, a recognition of gratitude.

As opposed to this relation of gratitude and trust, when the torturer confronts the prisoner, he takes care that the prisoner is always lucid, and sometimes drugs the prisoner with amphetamines to increase his vigilance and to free more energy. The torturer makes sure that his work is precise, meticulous, and done in such a way as to produce maximum pain while leaving minimal traces. The torturer takes pains to ensure that the prisoner reaches his maximum level of stress. This moment is the consummation of the prisoner’s fear,, and of all the ritual preparation for this act.

Psychological Phases and Processes in a Situation of Torture

When the prisoner comes before an extreme circumstance, such as immersion in putrid water with the urine, excrement, and vomit of those who preceded the him in this same experience, the prisoner lives out a peculiar situation. Torture by immersion in a pileta or small pool is one of the most atrocious torments, at the limits where death itself is confronted and sometimes even sought as a salvation or an escape, but is rarely found. With the victim’s hands and feet immobilized, his mouth is plunged into a pool in those ancient baths. A specialist, the torturer, straddles the stomach of the prisoner and takes the prisoner’s hair to submerge him. The prisoner can last only a few minutes, fighting and struggling; the body tries everything to untie itself. Another collaborator immobilizes the prisoner’s legs, which hang over the opposite edge of the pool. The prisoner continues struggling, swallowing putrid water.

The prisoner’s lucidity is elevated by the huge release of adrenalin. When the torturer notices some kind of signal, perhaps cyanosis, thanks to his refined and exquisite training, the torturer brings the prisoner to the surface. The prisoner is permitted some gulps of air, and then later the torturer carries out acts that are almost stereotypes of reanimación, like using his fists to hit the prisoner in the stomach to produce vomit of swallowed water. The prisoner uses his strength to reclaim a little air in an extraordinary effort, then vomits, urinates, and defecates. Taking advantage of this state of confusion, the torturer proceeds with an interrogation to obtain information or to pressure the prisoner to sign a declaration compromising himself or others, given that the prisoner cannot use his own psychological autonomy at this point. This situation is repeated many times, producing a progressive deterioration manifested in extreme physical weakness, psychological exhaustion, and displays of psychological injury.

This is how the climax of the torture session arrives in what presents itself as a manifestation of mental, moral, and religious emptiness. This marks, at the same time, the extreme disintegration of the personality . There comes a moment when the prisoner, who is still lucid even though he is completely exhausted, realizes that he cannot continue to fight. The prisoner tightens his abdominal muscles and, already without strength, searches for death, trying to drown, breathing below the water, and when this does not succeed, becoming desperate, enters the first phase, which we will call illusion. The prisoner cries out internally for God, whether he believes or does not believe alike; he feels like a child abandoned by all; the prisoner cries out for his mother. However, neither God nor the prisoner’s mother appears to save him from this atrocious suffering. The prisoner opens his eyes and only has in front of him the one man who can save him, this torturer who is killing him. There is no alternative, the prisoner must trust the torturer and so he trusts… In this second phase, which we will call trust , the tortured person, who needs and desires this social fabric already discussed, establishes a perverse alliance with his torturer, destroying little by little his political ideals built over the course of his history. The prisoner has been defeated. Torture breaks the subject, as Roustang wrote, and the prisoner’s own body converts into a horrifying object for himself and the perfect world that has wrought it. The prisoner has disappeared slowly and, paradoxically, prepares himself despite his own will to accept this trust in whatever salvation may come. Trust in this moment seems, due to the drama and the intensity, to stay marked as an imprint associated with the primary experience of torture, in a profound regression.

Those tortured people who have, as we said before, internalized a significant social fabric in addition to their political principles manage to enter a third phase, which we can call refuge. This phase is manifested in disconnection from this situation of extreme anguish: suddenly, the prisoner feels nothing and no longer suffers. The prisoner’s body completely relaxes, he no longer fights for his life, nor does he swallow water. Although the prisoner is lucidly disassociating himself, his body continues to be submerged, but the prisoner is somewhere else. The subject is submerged in a warm world full of fantastic experiences. He finds refuge in those human relationships that inhabit his internal world , true defensive hallucinations. He continues to be lucid: he feels that they take him out of the water, that they hit him in the stomach, that he vomits, and that they ask him questions. However, the prisoner feels all of this at a distance, as if it were not directed at him. Here they finish the session and abandon the prisoner.

There is always a police medic on hand for any kind of emergency—a doctor, also a torturer—in case they fail. This is because they do not want to kill the person, but rather just to destroy the personality. Here, the session ends. This third phase proclaims the failure of the torturer, proclaims the limit that the violent system fails to recognize, and reveals the failure of omnipotence, of which the entire authoritarian system is constituted. The strong social body, significantly that of social subjects, constitutes the singular element of the limit upon authoritarian ideologies that can be redeemed from the clinic. And yet, at the end of the session, the prisoner remains alone in a corner, trembling. Suddenly, he lets out (or rather, emits) a yell like a child being born, an incomprehensible and impulsive cry—in this way, he re/enters the harsh reality. The torturers reappear, bringing a blanket, a cup of coffee, with a “kind-hearted” smile. He who was a torturer now is taking care of the prisoner, and the prisoner becomes confused.

Up until this point, I wanted to describe the phases of the process of torture. In conclusion, I would like to focus attention on the second phase of trust . This phase consists of a restless phenomenon that is not always understood or accepted, and that is systematically denied by tortured people . From outside, anyone realizes that when survivors relay their experiences, a certain hate, rancor, and fury are displayed toward the torturer. At the same time, under the cover of this catastrophe, there appears a hidden protection for the torturer, an attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Could it be that this strange bond, so intensely dramatic, brings forth another bond so primitive that it manages to confuse the bond itself?


  1. 1.

    François Roustang, Vínculo de libertad (Asuncion, Paraguay: Centro de Documentacion y Estudios, 1989), 1.

  2. 2.

    Roustang , Vínculo de libertad, 1.

  3. 3.

    Editors’ note: The Oganization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights defines liberticidas as the anti-freedom statutes 294 and 209: the so-called Defense of Democracy and the Defense of Public Peace and Personal Freedom laws, respectively, which outlawed communist and other leftist political parties and severely punished individual members. As the Commission’s report on Paraguay states, with these laws, “Freedom of thought and expression is stringently limited, as are the right of assembly, political rights—and even the right to work, which is enshrined in the Constitution itself. The lack of precision in defining punishable conduct grants broad discretionary powers to the judicial authority responsible for applying the law.” The laws were repealed in 1989 under General Rodriguez. See the Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 1989–90: Paraguay, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.77 rev.1, doc. 7, 17 May 1990. Available at

  4. 4.

    Translator’s note: Possibly a specifically Paraguayan reference to the junta directiva.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carlos Alberto Arestivo
    • 1
  1. 1.AsunciónParaguay

Personalised recommendations