Q&A: Torture Is Anticipation

With torture, is it the pain or the expectation of the pain that makes people crack and give an answer (regardless of the answer’s truthfulness)?

It’s the anticipation of pain, which is like expectation but there’s suspense and uncertainty. The victim doesn’t know what’s coming. If they did, they could mentally prepare for it. That’s why unpredictability is important in a torturer’s repertoire. They are predictable and unpredictable, both at the same time. What they’re actually doing is using pain and other methods like starvation, deprivation, drugs, bright lights, and noises to break the brain’s internal rhythm. Your ability to recognize where you are and what’s happening to you. A torturer can actually torture a victim into submission entirely through the use of deprivation, without laying a finger on them (though they often do.)

What happens is the victim loses their sense of time, they’re disassociated from the world around them. They don’t know night or day, they don’t know how much time has passed. What torture is, rather literally, is the process of breaking a person down and retraining them into someone else so they’ll give the answers you want.

If you use torture in your fiction, it’s important to understand that it will effect your characters and it will change them. They will be different, and possibly never quite whole again. Withstanding torture is predominately a matter of mental strength and a willingness to continually say no, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune. The events the experience will take their toll on the character’s psyche, and may become a character defining moment or redefining moment for who they are. There’s also no shame if they do break under the strain. Torture is not (and should not be) a metric by which we measure a person’s courage or mental fortitude.

Please, don’t apply morals to abuse victims.

When torture is treated this way by an author as some sort of badge of honor, most of the characters they imagine surviving without any problems are the ones who’d break. Remember, snarky characters are characters with a fragile sense of self. They’ll break first. The damaged, the broken, the insecure, and the uncertain will go down. A torturer’s job is to assess a person for their weaknesses and attack those weaknesses. Everything your character is frightened of, nervous about, cares for will come roaring to the surface. This is the battering of the self. The resilient are those who know who they are. They’re certain in certainty, resolute. This isn’t everyone, this isn’t even most people. It is a tiny sliver of the population.

Fictional torture is the equivalent of throwing your character into the oven, dialing the heat up past eleven, and opening it up later to see how charred they got or if they crumbled into ash. You’ve got to know them and be willing to attack who they are down to the very core of their being or it’s pointless. The sequence becomes gratuitous angst that serves no real purpose and becomes grossly disingenuous in regards to the real thing.

Like when writing any other sort of fight scene, the author plays both sides against the middle. They are both torture victim and torturer. Don’t treat torture as a test to be beaten. Be honest with yourself and your characters. When we create these scenarios, our role is to play the scene out. The story is in the character’s experiences and how they deal with what they’re presented with, not in what comes after. To be honest with those experiences and introspective in regards to their effects. Strength is found in figuring out how to come to terms with what happened and what they do after, not whether it affected them. They were tortured, the torture did affect them. This is the reality. The question is where they and their story go from here.

Babylon 5, Season 4 episode, Intersections in Real Time (also this clip) is probably one of the best torture episodes I’ve ever seen. The full episode is brilliant, and if you truly want to understand the methodology you should watch it in its entirety. Almost nothing the torturer says in the room is true. Take this piece from the scene.

“Your father is being held in another facility. His case is being handled by an associate of mine. I passed him in the hall.”

If Sheridan’s father is being held and interrogated in another facility then it’s unlikely the torturer passed his associate or Sheridan’s father in the hall. However, that’s not what we hear first.

“Your father is being held in another facility.”

Personal information meant to instill fear. Someone Sheridan cares for deeply is being held and tortured in similar circumstances. There’s the threat.

“His case is being handled by an associate of mine.”

This translates to: “I have a personal connection with the person who is interrogating your father, if you cooperate with me I can help him.” This instills trust in the victim.

“I passed him in the hall.”

Sense of immediacy. “If you give me what I want, I could go out right now and stop all this.” Here’s the hope. The desire to save someone we care about from experiencing pain by making the sacrifice.

This is how the torturer gets you. It is not the pain, the pain is the layup.  It’s there to confuse you, distract you, get you desperate so you don’t hear their lies. You don’t hear what they’re saying, you start hearing what you want to hear. They overload you with information. They use you against you.

The people you care about, your past history, what you take pride in, your morals, your failures, and your insecurities. A torturer is similar in some ways to a psychologist or a con artist, they can read people. Their special skill is in making assessments of an individual’s psyche based on the information available to them and the victim’s own behavior.  They profile, much like a police officer or an FBI agent. The torturers ability to see through their victim, to know when they’re lying, to know what they can’t know, and to make educated guesses that are spot on is part of why they’re so frightening.

“I don’t care about you. I don’t have a personal stake in this. It’s only a job. If you give me what I want this could all stop.”

It’s all on the victim, no pleas will reach the torturers ears. They are sympathetic to the victim’s circumstances, but implacable. They want to help the victim escape their current predicament, but the only way to do that is for the victim to give them what they want.

The art of torture is the art of slow burn escalation. It starts with a conversation in a room between two people, sometimes after a sleepless night in an uncomfortable chair. The victim must wait for the torturer to come to them. They have no control over their circumstances, all information comes through the torturer and they have no interaction with anyone else. We have an image in our minds of the cackling madman in the black mask who takes psychotic glee in pulling off nails. That is one version, but it is not the successful one. The scary torturers are mild, well-mannered bureaucrats. Everything they do disrupts the victim’s expectations so they cannot anticipate what will come next.

They may feed you, but the food will be poisoned. A poison designed to remove whatever remaining liquids were in your system via a night of uncontrollable vomiting. Then, they come back the next day and ask the same questions. Repetition. Do you trust them this next time, when they offer you water? You’re so thirsty. You see a light in the hall when the door opens, you think its sunlight. Its not. Is it night or day? How many days have passed? You don’t know.

This is a game of trust and betrayal on the part of the torturer. They control everything about your life, everything about you. They tell you what to think, how to behave, and what to do. You must trust their version of events because there is no way to know otherwise. You are tired and hungry and thirsty. You haven’t slept, and what sleep you did get what interrupted. They return at odd intervals, and you have no idea when they’ll come. You’re too frightened to fall asleep. What will happen if you do? Always, they ask the same questions. Again, and again, and again. Did they come on the same day? Or on different ones? Was it fifteen minutes or thirty? How long did they stay? You don’t know. Panic sets in. Its driving you mad, you want it to stop.

One day, if you hold out long enough, they introduce another prisoner to your cell. Someone from your side, someone held here just like you. You’re starved for companionship, you don’t question it. The prisoner befriends you, they give you hope and together you plan to escape. You try and are caught, you see the other prisoner killed. You grieve and blame yourself. After all, it was your idea wasn’t it? Again, you’re left alone in the dark. Later, the torturer returns with the same prisoner you saw die. Perhaps the torturer apologizes for tricking you, or maybe they just act like the event you lived through didn’t happen. They take the prisoner away again. Time passes and you’re alone. Did it happen? You wonder. You’ve begun to distrust your own memory.

Then, the torturer returns and the cycle begins all over again. The previous events never occurred and nothing has changed. There’s only one way for this to stop. You know that now.

Give them what they want.

It is far more useful as a tool used against say political opponents and dissidents than it is as a means of intelligence gathering. You get your opponents to say what you want in order to break opposition to your rule. This includes journalists, professors, philosophers, rebel leaders, entertainers, business owners, community leaders, and politicians. Break them so those who follow and believe in them will also be broken. Torture has been best used in the past to force confessions of guilt (regardless of truth), so the victims say what their captors want.

Capture Shock is one method that’s been employed by the CIA in the past. (I would not look if you are squeamish.) Fear Up Harsh is an enlightening book on the torture methods used in Iraq.

The use of drugs is very common in association with the pain because, again, the goal is to break the captive from their ability to recognize what’s happening to them.

There’s no one size fits all method for torture, and if you over focus on the pain then you’ll have missed the point. You’ll miss the person in the chair. There is purpose to the pain. It is relentless, controlled, and decisive. The pain is used to make you afraid, so you feel powerless. Confuse you, so you lose track of yourself. Break you apart, so you can be rebuilt.

This is why torture is frightening and so difficult to overcome. Survival is by itself success. Without these components in your fiction then it is just gratuitous violence and, essentially, torture porn.


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One thought on “Q&A: Torture Is Anticipation”

  1. Can’t comment on Tumblr, so, here: I also recommend scripttorture of ScriptX family (well-researched writing advice). The person behind the blog has done their research, and it shows.

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