Torture and Thought Reform, Dissociation and Resistance

Google tells me that torture is the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or in order to force them to do or say something.  I don’t know where Google gets that information, or whether to take that as a an authoritative answer.

Does the Geneva Convention define it in the same way?  A portion of the Geneva Convention’s definition is reprinted here.  Except I have no idea who has put it on that website, or whether they have done so correctly and accurately.

And here is a definition reprinted by the Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma.

Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or person acting in an official capacity. (United Nations, Secretariat Centre for Human Rights, 1987)

I continue to be at somewhat of a loss, regardless of what I read.

I am, however, convinced that there is a distinction, even if it is one that is only of degree, between ordinary abuse and torture.  I am equally convinced that I was tortured, and when I read accounts of survivors of political torture or witnesses of war crimes and ethnic cleansing, their stories resonate with me more than those of children who were simply badly mistreated.

That is not to discount anyone’s experiences.  I am simply saying there’s another angle on this that I’ve needed to understand in order to fully grasp who I am, what I have done, and where I have come from.

Torture, in my mind, involves a deliberate attempt to reconstruct the mind of the victim in a particular way.  It is not only about cruelty or inflicting suffering, but about intentionally and deliberately changing the recipient of the cruelty.  By my definition, torture and brainwashing cannot be separated and are dependent upon one another.

(To read more about brainwashing and how it works, click here.)

The above definition is only my personal opinion.  It does not come with any authority, and the Geneva Convention does not endorse it.  But the “ah-ha” and the click into place I got out of reading accounts of those tortured in “re-education camps” during the Chinese Cultural Revolution was more intense and more helpful than what I got out of many years of therapy.  Even if their stories bear, on the surface, absolutely nothing in common with mine.  (I believe many of those accounts are in Robert Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, but I am not sure, and I can’t find what I read that was so helpful to me.)

However, it makes me see dissociation in a somewhat different light.  In a word, it makes me think of dissociation as a form of resistance.

If thought reform is the end goal of torture, then it can be taken for granted that the torturer not only wants his victim to do something in particular, but to think, believe, or feel something in particular–probably several things.

A part of the horror of what I recall about growing up is exactly that: thoughts and beliefs  in my own head that I disagreed with, that I knew were destructive to me and maladaptive, but that persisted despite the pain they caused me or the distaste I had for them.

In that sense, dissociation is not merely a protection the mind has against overwhelming  emotions or destructive thoughts, but it represents a refusal.  I could not, in other words, keep my thoughts and feelings from being reformed by the torturer, but I could place those thoughts and feelings as far at the periphery of my awareness as possible.  I could refuse to allow them into the core of myself.  I could refuse to conflate them with my understanding of who I was and what I thought and fetl.  I could deny them, numb them, and resist them.

Denial is sometimes a strength.  Dissociation is a form of refusal.  They require courage.


Narcissism, Codependence, and Sick Organizational Structures

I was raised in a cult, in what might be euphemistically called a “dysfunctional” family, and I work in a school district I’m pretty sure is run by psychopaths.

I have a lot of experience with sick organizational structures.

It’s a topic that’s already been approached–pretty thoroughly, in fact–by other writers and other movements.

The 12-step movements have looked at one manifestation of it–when a group of people are organized around a person with an addiction.  Codependency No More readers have looked at a slightly different part of the same problem: the person involved with the addict.

But addicts are only one part of a sick organizational structure, and they aren’t required.

Instead, what is necessary for this kind of system to develop is a narcissist or someone with a very similar illness that includes high degrees of grandiosity, such as psychopathy or borderline personality disorder.  The addict is sometimes the narcissist in the alcoholic family.  Sometime the addict is simply the person expressing the pain on behalf of the family regarding the harm the narcissist is inflicting on everyone.  The sickness in the family is likely to continue even if the addict comes clean if the narcissist remains a part of the group, because it is the narcissist who is the source of the problem.

And that is something the codependence movement does not and cannot account for.  Because the pain in the family is not the direct result of the addiction.  The addict is the proximate cause, but not the underlying cause.  The pain in the family is the direct result of the narcissist.

Codependence information talks about rules that are used to govern an individual’s behavior.

The Rules (from

1. It’s not ok to talk about problems. This results in learning to avoid problems.

2. Feelings are not expressed openly. The result is coming to believe it is better (safer) not to feel. Eventually we get so cut off from self that we are unsure what we feel.

3. Communication is often indirect, with one person acting as a messenger between two others. Using someone else to communicate for you results in confusion, misdirected feelings, and an inability to directly confront personal problems.

4. Unrealistic expectations: be strong, good, right, perfect, make us proud. Doing well and achieving is the most important thing. Enough is never enough. This results in creating an ideal in our head about what is good or right or best that is far removed from what is realistic or possible. This leads us to punish others and/or ourselves from not
meeting our expectations.

5. Don’t be selfish. We view ourselves as wrong for placing our own needs before the needs of others. We end up trying to feel good by taking care of others.

6. Do as I say … not as I do. This rule teaches us not to trust.

7. It’s ok not to play. We begin to believe that the world is a serious place where life is always difficult and painful.

8. Don’t rock the boat. The system seeks to maintain itself. If you grow and change, you’ll be alone.

These are the rules created by someone who uses others in order to bolster their own fragile egos, who wants endless amounts of attention and adoration, and takes no responsibility for his or her own life, needs, or feelings and expects others to do so instead.

If you get a group of people together who are familiar with these rules, who have internalized these rules, they will continue to live by and enforce them, because the rules are not merely rules any longer–they are a moral compass.  People who have adopted this moral compass feel guilty when they don’t live by them, and because lack of boundaries is an important part of this way of doing and being, they feel guilty when someone else breaks the moral code as well.

In addition, groups organized around these rules are likely to be focused on external structure, rather than authenticity or integrity, because members who can tolerate being in these groups lack internal structure of their own.  They are most often disordered people themselves–who by definition lack a normally developed self–or those who have spent a great deal of time in contact with them, and consequently have been unable to develop a normally functioning self.

The focus on appearance in the cult I grew up is not an accident.

In other words, they are very often attracted to strong ideologies.  They may, on the other hand, be obsessed by detail, paperwork, procedure, and policy.  Either way, sick organizational structures are typically driven by rules rather than goals.

Sick structures share certain other attributes as well.  Open discussion or debate is not allowed.  Differences of opinion will either not be expressed at all, or will be heated, unpleasant, uncivil debates that often end in retaliatory actions by whoever has more power.

Sacrifice is expected and praised.  Balance, sanity, and self-care will typically be cast as some form of selfishness.  Consequently, burn-out is common.  You may see high degrees of turnover in organizations with sick structures.  Families have massive blow-outs–often over frustration at being asked to give more than members can give–that result in factions that won’t speak to each other.  They will later make up.

Lying is not uncommon.  Narcissists and similar personalities do not understand that truth has an objective existence outside themselves.  They genuinely believe that if they want something to be true, it is true.  And because they do not tolerate boundaries, they do not tolerate anyone who contradicts them.  No one else can believe something the narcissist doesn’t.  So the lies will tend to be perpetuated by others.

If you find yourself in a sick structure, it may be you have some work to do yourself and a sick structure at first seemed comfortable and resonant for you.  Or, If it was an accidental placement and you simply did not know, you are in great danger of becoming sick yourself.  If you remain well, you can expect to be shunned, fired, or otherwise cast out of the group.

Remain well.


Babiak, P. and R. Hare.  (2007).  Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.  HarperBusiness: New York.

Beattie, M.  (2006).  Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.  Turtleback: St. Louis, MO.


Ghost child. Dorothea Lange. 1936.

I love extended periods of time off.

They provide a chance to do what some might refer to as narcissistic navel-gazing.  I prefer to think of it as therapy.


Meet Ghost.  I did.  Sort of.

It’s difficult, however, because Ghost does not exist, or barely exists.  If you tried to shake her hand, your hand might very well go through her.  Ghost is an invisible child, a child who escapes notice, blends in, does not present with difficult needs or feelings.  Ghost keeps it cool, keeps it together.  Keeps it on the down-low.

Ghost is an ego state.

Well, I think so.  Because I don’t really know what ego states are.  I’ve read about them, but I still don’t get them.  They don’t make any sense to me, and I don’t know if that’s because I’m reading inadequate explanations or if I’m just slightly stupid.  Perhaps both.

What I seem to be able to piece together is that an ego state is a dissociated part of the self, but which lacks the amnesiac barrier of a dissociated identity.  As far as I can tell, it functions in every way as a self functions and it is formed in the same way.

I do not, I should say, have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).  I do, however, have dissociated ego states.  Ghost is one of them.

I’ve worked with a lot of them.  Most of them have nicely collapsed into a more integrated self.  (Thank you, ego states!)  Ghost is a hold-over.  She has not gone away.

I just met her today.  This is what I mean about time off.  I am either becoming psychotic or making tremendous progress.  I vote for progress.

So, that said, let’s talk about identity for a minute.  From what I understand, there are three basic sources of identity.

First, we understand ourselves based on identity-bound behaviors: in other words, through behaviors that have meaning for us or are generally held to have meaning in our larger social world.  If I consistently score well on math tests, I am likely to come to see myself as someone who is good math.  If I keep appointments and show up on time, turn in my homework or fulfill work obligations, I will see myself as responsible.

We also see ourselves as we imagine others see us.  Our imaginations may be wild or accurate, but if I believe everyone adores me, I will start to think of myself as being pretty important.

A third source of identity is our ongoing experience of ourselves.  If I regularly feel energetic, physically active, and wanting connection, I am likely to see myself as an outgoing, lively person.  If I regularly feel sad, pessimistic, and without energy, I am likely to see myself as depressive.

Ghost comes from all three forms of identity, which gives her a surprising solidity.  I am and was dissociative.  I experience much of life as if from the other side of a curtain, and both my own internal experience and the world often feel remote, unreal, or in some way numbed or washed out.  My experience of both myself and everything else is, in a very real way, ghost-like.

That is also how I was seen by important people around me: as someone who did not have real feelings or real preferences.  In a word, I did not count.

It’s interesting, because I’ve spent a lot of years sitting with therapists and telling them in a variety of ways, “I don’t exist, I don’t count, I am not really here.  I am elsewhere.”  And they, in their kindness, have told me that I do exist and I do count.

And again, my experience has not counted.  I am, again, a ghost.

Because I am dissociative and I do have discontinuous ego states, I often find myself difficult to understand.  I don’t always present a continuous image either to others or to myself, and the responses I get back are therefore discontinuous and contradictory.  But what I find interesting is how often what I have said or what I have presented about myself has been the truth–regardless of how puzzling it has been.  When I have said, “I do not exist,” I meant it.

Dissociation is a form of non-existence and is summed up best in the way my child’s mind first constructed: as paper-thin, unreal, ghost-like.  That is how life feels to me from the very inside.

What is also interesting is that to step out of this position of non-existence is to face an acute ontological challenge.  If I exist, then who am I?  If I exist, then I can no longer exist.

Further Reading:

Zaharna, Z.S.  “Self-Shock: The Double-Binding Challenge of Identity.”  (1989)  International Journal of Intercultural Relations.”  Retrieved from:

The Devil Rage

Lazy cat…

I have been in a bad mood for about a month now.  Bad mood as in permanently woke up on the wrong side of the bed and would like to rip someone’s head off every 10 minutes or so.  Just because.  Because they are doing roadwork outside, someone called and I don’t like my ringtone, and I am sick of making my own coffee and wish the cat would step up and pull some weight around here.

In other words, irrational crankiness.

I can step back and write about this now because I feel considerably more even-keeled at the moment.  I might even recommend a conversation with myself–something I would not have done 2 weeks ago, when the irritability was at its peak.

However, it brings up some important questions about the nature of rage, because I believe that is what this really is.  Or was.  Depending on where I am in this process.  Which is not something i’m sure about just yet.

I don’t know what it’s about for anyone else in the throes of crankiness or any other ongoing feeling state, but I can tell you mine are inevitably about a dissociated experience or ego fragment.  I can reliably look upon the mysteries of my own psyche in that light and get somewhere.

So, I’ll tell you about the Devil Rage.  The Devil Rage is about a year and half old.  He is bright red, with the predictable horns and tail and forked trimurti of any respectable emissary of Satan.  He wants to build up towers of blocks and then break them.  He wants to throw things.  He wants to have tantrums.

The Devil Rage

The thing about the Devil Rage is that he isn’t pleasant to be.

Traditional or maybe I mean more pop-psychology says that we dissociate these experiences or understandings of ourselves because they are unacceptable or dangerous to us.  I don’t have any particular judgment about the Devil Rage.  He is royally pissed off, and probably with good reason.  There are safe places in which he could exist and break things without scaring or harming anyone.  Rage is, in that regard, value neutral.  A feeling, like any other.  And one that is likely to come and go.

However, I don’t like feeling it.

I’m sure there are people out there who like the Devil Rage.  They beat their partners, shout profanity in their cars, get excited at hockey games when fights break out.  Rage makes them feel powerful and strong, perhaps even alive.

I am not them.  Rage is one of the most unpleasant experiences I have ever had.

And that brings me to another thought about what I see as our misconceptions about how the mind and psyche work.  It is my contention that we frequently see children’s experiences in inappropriately adult terms.

And my Devil Rage is unquestionably a child, and the product of a child’s mind.  I don’t mean some childlike part of me.  I mean that the Devil Rage is a fully preserved fossil of my childhood experiences that is unaltered or modified by adult understandings of how the world or human beings work.

So, in that regard, he provides some insight into how at least I understood anger as a child.  And I’ll tell you that his moral world is, for one, highly constricted and simple.  It is both independent and tied up in adult understandings.

He understands himself as bad.  This could be because good children are quiet, docile, content, and don’t have feelings or experiences that could inconvenience the narcissistic adults raising him.

It could also be because he has his own view of morality based on his own experiences: Bad is when you hurt someone.  And usually it is very angry people who hurt others.  And what he wants to do right now is hurt someone.  He is therefore bad.  It is a toddler’s view of life, and a remarkably sound one for all that.

Another window he allows me into is what feelings are like for a small child.

The thing about abuse–which is what I am talking about here–is that it makes you feel things.  Very intense things.  And children are unprepared to manage those feelings.  Children with nurturing caretakers look to their caretakers to help them soothe, manage, and control intense feelings.  Children with abusive caretakers have no one to turn to.  It is as much the betrayal of the abuse itself that is damaging as the lack of support for the difficult emotional experiences that go with it.

Every child feels rage from time to time.  That is why toddlers throw tantrums.  But the abused toddler is both more enraged and less supported in coping with it.  As adults, we may presume a child might dissociate from a feeling of rage because is viewed negatively by adults.  And that may be true.  But more importantly, a child is likely to dissociate intense emotional experiences because that is simply her only tool for managing it.

To put it another way, rage is intensely stimulating–unpleasantly so–and a toddler has no other way for calming that overstimulation.  I can barely manage it as an adult.

Dasa Bala

I’m  a sucker for a certain kind of catchy song.  Dasa Bala is an example.

Dasa Bala, at least according to various (not especially authoritative) websites means “Puts your hands up.”

It’s a song of celebration.  “I’m three times stronger, louder, older…”  That’s one of the English bits, and I’ve looked at the translation of the Farsi lyrics (as I don’t, by and large, understand Farsi aside from the occasional word).  I have to admit, the lyrics don’t really add much to my enjoyment of the song.

But if you’re interested, you can find the romanized Farsi lyrics along with an English translation here.

This is what I mean by a certain kind of catchy song.  Depth, perhaps, isn’t one of its characteristics.  Dancibility and a good beat are.

But this isn’t really about the song.  It’s about “dasa bala” in and of itself.  It’s about celebration.  Because I’ve been listening to this (well, slightly idiotic) song incessantly for the last 2 days not because it’s great music, but because I get exactly what it says.  I am also three times stronger, louder, older.  I’m not clear on the relevance of googooli (cutey) to the whole business, but I do understand “dasa bala.”  It’s been a long road for me too.

Life is Elsewhere

This is not about Milan Kundera’s novel, although I recommend it.  It’s just I think he was onto something.

As much as we tell ourselves to “take it one day at a time” and “stay in the moment” I suspect those around me are constantly assaulted by the nagging doubt that regardless of what is happening here at the moment, something better is happening somewhere else.

I was at a Thanksgiving party recently.  It wasn’t perhaps a laugh a minute, but I think it was basically a good time for all or almost all involved.  The food was good, we played music we liked, we danced, we laughed.

But we couldn’t all put away our phones.

This isn’t a criticism.  It’s just something I’m wondering about, because I see it increasingly, and not just among millennials or the really young–not just among the digital natives, but among people my age.  Middle-aged people, who grew up when the VCR was a new thing and who made mixed tapes as recreation.  People who grew up filling out dittos and watching film strips with real film in them.  It’s true of people even older than me, who remember when color TV was new and when shows went off the air at midnight.

And I’ve wondered if it’s because we can’t tolerate any moment of downtime–those five minutes, for example, at a film festival this summer when there were technical difficulties with the film and I noticed nearly everyone consulted their phones about something or other almost immediately.

But I’m thinking now it’s something else.

We are used to being connected to people and events located at a distance from us.  I know I expected to know up to the minute news about Bal Thackeray’s demise and whether there are any riots over it in my girlfriend’s hometown–over 10,000 miles away from me.  We expect to be able to ask distant partners and parents what to make for dinner or to buy at the grocery store.  We expect the far to be close.

And I wonder if we simply are unable to connect fully, continuously to the close because we don’t want to lose the far.  And I also wonder if our constant connection to the far has created an intolerance of the intensity of being connected to what is close at hand, especially if life as it is close at hand is not always entirely pleasant.  Sometimes it is dull, routine, unremarkable.  Sometimes real life is boring..

I wonder if life is elsewhere for most of us, and whether we can no longer stand quite as much life because of that.  We can only stand a life half-lived.

Money Can’t Buy Sex

You cannot buy sex.

The problem with prostitution and pornography is that you are buying something that in reality cannot be sold.  And yet we have enormously profitable industries devoted to them.

So what do I mean?

If you have ever paid for sex or even watched a porn film–especially with a woman, since I really cannot vouch for the feelings of men–the woman who serviced you either in person or virtually is playing a part for your benefit.

I have found men who pay for sex want one of only a few things: they want to be the most desirable man in the universe and to be treated as such, they want a woman who is constantly and overwhelmingly overcome by indiscriminate sexual desire, they want someone who enjoys a position of humiliation and debasement.  And that’s about it.  They may also want someone who nurtures them and gives them everything they need, but I haven’t so much come across that.  I may have been too young.

You will notice that most of these desires play out in some way in our cultural myths about prostitutes: that they are women who have no inhibitions about sex and can provide it to nearly anyone at any moment.  That’s because our myths about prostitution are written by the men who use it, and not by the women who provide it.  Men who pay for sex confuse the product constructed for them with reality.

But they are not the same.

Prostitution and pornography are intensely disgusting industries to work in.  Most women who are engaged in providing sex acts for money are disgusted by their clients, disgusted by what they are doing with those clients, and in the end often disgusted by themselves.

By disgust, I don’t mean a moral disgust or outrage.  I am not talking about the unpleasant sense that what you are doing is wrong.  That is a different issue entirely.

I mean disgust in the sense of cockroaches crawling all over your body.  Because acting in pornographic films is a little like watching an unattractive, unwashed person having a noisy bowel movement.  Prostitution is not much better.

Sex acts are highly visceral experiences.  They are intended, generally, to be done with people you like or who otherwise draw out some kind of positive emotion in you–such as attraction.  That gets you past the sweatiness, the stickiness, and the gooeyness, the smell, and weird noises.

But sex acts for money have none of that.  As a purchaser of a sexual product, there is no pleasant glow of love or lust to gloss over the fact that your sex organ is funny looking, you smell bad, and much of you is in some way unpleasantly textured, you have odd facial expressions, and you sound ridiculous or at the very least strange.

Even if all you are doing is watching, the woman on the other end of the lens knows that that is what you are like at that moment, because she’s seen someone just like you in person a million times before.

What you are paying for when you buy sex is for someone to pretend that none of this is true.  In that sense, the sex industry–as many people claim–is all fantasy.

It is acting.  But the difference between acting in a plot-driven film or television show and acting in the sex industry is that in the former, the actions performed during it in do not usually call up any particular emotion in the actor performing them.  The legitimate actor rarely needs to suppress intense emotional experiences, because there aren’t any.  The acted-out experience is covering over what is mainly absence.

But the prostitute or porn actress does experience intense emotions that cannot be expressed.  These must be suppressed in order for the fantasy to be conveyed satisfactorily.

To put it more succinctly, in acting, the self living in reality is unoccupied.  In the sex industry, the self living in reality is suppressed.

As a purchaser of sex acts, you are paying for someone not to be there.