Time, Torture, Trauma: The Scars of “Psychological” Torture

The Nunca Más report, researched and written by the specially formed Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, CONADEP), investigated and reported the brutality of the Argentine junta during the Dirty War. Their 1984 report was envisioned as a moment of reckoning; an opportunity for the reeling country to name and process the deaths, disappearances, and abuses of this period. One section of the report is dedicated to torture. The article begins with an epigraph which quotes a survivor named Miguel D’Agostino, framing the rest of the chapter with his words:

If when I was set free someone had asked me: did they torture you a lot?
I would have replied: Yes, for the whole of the three months…
If I were asked that same question today, I would say that I’ve now lived through seven years of torture.[1]

Torture survivors regularly describe this experience: the lingering, lasting quality of torture. In this article, I examine this lingering quality of torture through the lens of trauma. This approach allows us to think about both the work of torture (i.e. why states engage in torture) and the project of eliminating torture. I will begin this discussion with interrogatory torture – the kind of torture which is both “traditional” and universally (at least outwardly) condemned. We can use the example of this kind of torture to begin thinking about torture as an experience that produces trauma and, by extension, displaces the tortured body. In the words of Jean Améry, a member of the French resistance who survived torture at the hands of the Nazis, “Whoever was tortured, stays tortured. Torture is ineradicably burned into him, even when no clinically objective traces can be detected.”[2]

With this framework in mind, I turn towards my main interest: using the relationship between torture, time, and trauma to examine so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques, the supposedly non-torture tactics embraced by many states who claim to abhor and reject torture. Using survivor testimony, I examine these specific tactics to illustrate that – whatever their proponents may claim – these techniques are intensely bodily. And more specifically, I show that these techniques enact powerful, long-term, bodily suffering that fundamentally changes the tortured person’s relationship to the world around them.

I want to begin with the idea of trauma. I offer up the Freudian conception of trauma as shorthand that emphasizes two important aspects of trauma: [3] first, trauma as a kind of “foreign body” that cannot be dislodged, and second, trauma as the compulsion to repeat.[4] These two elements of trauma are closely connected. Thinking about trauma as a kind of imposition in and on the body reminds us how trauma remains “live.” We might picture trauma (admittedly, very simplistically) as a kind of thorn that cannot be removed – an object in the body that does not belong, whose foreignness is constantly felt as a source of discomfort, and which causes more or less pain at different moments, depending on how the body moves. This image also reminds us that the pain of trauma cannot be easily assimilated: it is caused by an object that does not belong in the body. And it is this non-belonging that leads to the compulsion to repeat. Because trauma is constantly experienced as something out of place, it is never just there. Instead, one encounters and re-encounters it. Trauma demands sporadic confrontation, like the thorn that causes only a dull ache until one steps just so, and suddenly is faced with shooting pains. That sharp pain repeats with each new step; with every confrontation with the trauma.

Testimony from the survivors of interrogatory torture is rife with examples of this iterative, confrontational pain. Specifically, they describe the experience of bodily pain that echoes or restates the methods of torture inflicted on the body in the first place. For example, the testimony of Leovi Antonio Pinto Carísio, tortured by the Brazilian junta, described his experiences of torture and its aftereffects as follows:

There, in a room especially reserved for torture, they tied my wrists and ankles with separate ropes, and put me on the small table; the ropes were then passed under the crosspieces that united the two legs of the table at each end; they forced my torso with sudden jerks, in the opposite direction of my spine movement. The pain was atrocious, and I still feel it, once in a while, along my spine.[5]

He makes quite clear that this pain is not a general discomfort, not some dispersed bodily experience that resulted from his ill-treatment. He singles out this specific method of torture apart from the others he experienced and with it he identifies a specific site of pain: the “sudden jerks” he “still feel[s], once in a while, along [his] spine.” The specificityof this pain is a torment of its own, separate from the physical agony it entails, because it is a pain that twists space and time. It violates the integrity of the survivor as such: when he feels the jerks along his spine he is returned, however momentarily, to that small table, and the “room especially reserved for torture.”

Mauricio Rosencof, a Tupamaro captured and detained by Uruguayan security forces for nearly fifteen years, described how the trauma of torture turned everyday objects into sources of painful confrontation:

Once we got out, we were suddenly confronted with all these problems […] doorknobs, for instance, I had no reflex any longer to reach for the knobs of doors. I hadn’t had to – hadn’t been allowed to – for over thirteen years. I’d come to a closed door and find myself momentarily stymied – I couldn’t remember what to do next. Or how to make a dark room light. […] walking down the block I’m in a perpetual cringe. I’m constantly stopping to let whoever is behind me pass: my body keeps expecting a blow from every side.[6]

Rosencof’s pre-detention reflexes – to open a door, to turn on a light – have been replaced by the reflexes of fear and pain. Years in confinement erased the automatic motions used in daily life; years in darkness forbade the muscle memories of flipping a light switch. These habits and impressions manifest as a compulsion to repeat – to cringe and shrink away because he “keeps expecting a blow from every side.” His “perpetual cringe” is partly reactive; the lasting effect of thirteen years’ worth of justified fear that he might be beaten at any moment. But it also signals a loss of possibility – the unimaginability of certain worlds. Rosencof’s body – and the trauma it holds – forbids imagining a world in which he might walk down the street unmolested. In fact, at the time of this interview Rosencof lived in such a world. He was free to walk down the street, to turn on the lights. But this world is unable to penetrate Rosencof’s body, which still holds within it the trauma of torture.

Bearing this in mind, I turn now to the gold standard of “psychological” torture methods: sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation, its many proponents claim, is an excellent interrogation tool, and not torture at all. They claim that it is administered in a way which is scientific, or even medical. They claim it does not cause pain but rather “discomfort” or “mental distress.” Indeed, a July 2007 memo from the U.S. Office of Legal Counsel to the CIA on the “alternative set of procedures” for interrogating “high value” detainees (part of the papers which became known as the “Torture Memos”) cheerfully described “that one of the techniques—sleep deprivation—has proven to be the most indispensable to the effectiveness of the interrogation program.” The memo declares that sleep deprivation is absolutely essential to interrogation, since “its absence would, in all likelihood, render the remaining techniques of little value.”[7]

Despite these cheery claims, it is clear from survivor testimony that sleep deprivation produces a distinctly traumatic effect: it stays with the torture survivor, a torture that persists even in the absence of a torturer to inflict it. For example, a post-release medical report on a woman who survived long-term detention and torture in Brazil noted that she presented:

an acute confused state, temporal disorientation, loss of sense of reality, and ideas of self-extermination. She had the impression, during the night, that the interrogation to which she had been subjected continued without ceasing; she was unable to distinguish the real from the imaginary, and could not say precisely for how long she remained in that state.[8]

This record makes these connections explicit. Her “acute confused state, temporal disorientation, loss of sense of reality, and ideas of self-extermination” blur together into a singular kind of torment: that when one’s place in the world is lost, life itself becomes torturous and untenable. Indeed, medical testimony describes an extremely high incidence of suicidal thoughts, fantasies, and tendencies among torture survivors, including survivors of sleep deprivation, who are trying to live fundamentally unlivable lives: lives that cannot move forward. The testimony above records how when the survivor attempts to sleep, she finds herself returned to the torture chambers where her torture has “continued without ceasing.” The problem these survivors confront, however, is that the inability “to distinguish the real from the imaginary” is not solely psychological: it reflects their existence at precisely the margin between the real and the imagined. Torture blurs this boundary in many ways, not least of which is through sleep deprivation, which unmoors the body from those anchors that stabilize it within the framework of reality.

All of this brings us back, inevitably, to the fundamental question: why torture? What is it exactly that the torturing state hopes to achieve? It has been long since proven that information is not the goal of torture.[9] Those who are tortured rarely have meaningful information to provide, and evidence suggests that torture is less likely to acquire meaningful information than other intelligence gathering methods. Most people subjected to torture posed no threat to the state. The pursuit of information is a mirage. At the other extreme, some have argued – and it is a tempting argument – that torturers are merely brutes and sadists who the state unleashes indiscriminately against its enemies. In this reading, that torture is a reckless, chaotic, excessive force. But although this way of thinking may be tempting, I do not think it is quite right either. And more importantly, I fear that this way of thinking makes it very difficult to apprehend the scale and scope of torture: it obscures modes of torture that are not overtly brutal, but which nevertheless have lasting and horrific effects. What torture does, as all this testimony shows, is create a body out of place. The goal of torture is to make the tortured not fit – not fit in space, in time, in political community. This, I think, is what Jean Améry meant when he wrote that torture irreparably destroys “trust in the world.”[10] This goal is explicitly affirmed by torturers. For example, the CIA’s now-infamous 1963 KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual (still the bedrock of American “enhanced interrogation” practices today) explicitly states this goal: “the circumstances of detention are arranged to enhance within the subject the feelings of being cut off from the known and the reassuring, of being plunged into the strange.”

Methods of torture that are ostensibly psychological, like sleep deprivation, are particularly effective in this capacity. Although the scars left by sleep deprivation may not be visible in the same ways as the scars of beating or electrocution, these torture methods linger on the body in the form of trauma. They stay with the body and anchor it forcefully to the time and place of torture. These methods are intentionally designed to inflict this kind of trauma, and survivor testimony reveals that they are extremely effective in this regard. If we take this relationship seriously – that between torture, trauma, and community – it is clear that the work of torture cannot be easily undone after the fact. But recognizing the varied and specific sources of trauma in torture offers opportunities for unmaking trauma at its source: the many forms of torture that have been permitted to persist, hiding under the language of “enhanced interrogation” and “psychological pressure.” These methods are intensely bodily in their application and in their lasting effects. We must recognize these methods as torture, if the long-term destruction that torture wreaks on bodies and communities is to be prevented.


[1] Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, Nunca Más (Never Again): Report of Conadep (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons) – 1984, www.desaparecidos.org/nuncamas/web/index2.htm

[2] Améry, Jean. At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations By a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities. (1980): 34

[3] Sigmund Freud’s conception of trauma has been widely – and rightly – displaced from clinical practice, along with many of his theories. While mental health workers who serve the tortured frequently describe their condition as one of psychological trauma, they do so outside a Freudian framework. I do not mean to dispute this clinical practice, but rather to deploy Freud’s theory of trauma as a conceptual tool.

[4] See, in particular: Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and Moses and Monotheism (1939), both in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited by James Strachey and translated by James Strachey, Alix Strachey, and Alan Tyson. (London, UK: Hogarth Press, 1953-74). For further discussion see Fletcher, John. Freud and the Scene of Trauma. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

[5] Archdiocese of São Paulo, Brasil: Nunca Mais [Torture in Brazil: a report]. (New York: Vintage Books, 1986): 182

[6] Weschler, Lawrence. A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990): 162

[7] Bradbury, Steven G. “Memorandum for John A. Rizzo Re: Application of the War Crimes Act, the Detainee Treatment Act, and Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions to Certain Techniques that May Be Used by the CIA in the Interrogation of High Value al Qaeda Detainees.” (July 20, 2007): 11

[8] Brasil: Nunca Mais, 186

[9] See, for examples: Hajjar, Lisa. “An Assault on Truth: A Chronology of Torture, Deception, and Denial” in Speaking About Torture, edited by Julia A. Carlson & Elisabeth Weber (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 19-36; Bell, Jeannine. “Behind this Mortal Bone: The (in)Effectiveness of Torture.” Indiana Law Journal no. 1 (2008): 339-362.

[10] Améry, At the Mind’s Limits, 27


Archana Kaku (University of Pennsylvania) is a political scientist who studies the interactions between the body, violence, and power. Her research asks how accounting for the materiality of the body changes the terrain of politics, making it possible to pose and answer new kinds of questions. Broadly, she works at the intersections of decolonial theory, gender and queer theory, and biopolitics. Archana currently holds an American Dissertation Fellowship from AAUW.


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