In the Shadows of "Our" Torture

Writing from her summer home in Borgo a Mozzano, Lucca, Italy

The subject of torture is not new. It isn't new for Army Sergeant Joseph Darby who honorably brought the brutal photos of incidents of torture in Abu Ghraib to his commanding officer in January 2004. It isn't new for all those whose lives are over in one way or another, or for those who suffer still and who were savagely and brutally mistreated with wanton sadism. It isn't new for those who care.

The videos of horrific and vicious and even gleeful acts of American soldiers torturing Iraqis aren't new either. Neither is access to information in files, newspapers and the Internet. And yet in recent weeks the media temperature has increased, and the issue has attained the visibility many have desired urgently. It has regained the status of political chic, at least for a time.

The suddenness of something not really new at all brings up one of the meanings of our distraction; here our avoidance of what might now seem an obvious set of crimes against humanity. Could it be then that our lack of sustained attention (from January 2005 until now) might reflect our attempt to avoid our own potential for sadism? And our distaste for any admission that the American collective psyche could be capable of such acts of desperate individual and communal cruelty that is grotesquely available on our brand of YouTube everywhere for people to view or from which to shrink in terror and pain?

Could it be that there is so little focus on why psychologists could have been willing to participate in interrogations that led to the sadistic breaking down of human body and spirit, because we can't stand to see the potential for cruelty in our own mirror?

In psychology, the "shadow" is a term coined by psychoanalyst Carl Jung to refer to the parts within ourselves which repel, disgust and/or frighten us. They do so to the extent that we hide from them so that at times they explode for no apparent reason. We negate these parts which we see as defects, or instead we project them onto others.

With a kind of paranoia, we deny and project parts of ourselves: in the meantime over the course of history we have felt justified in blaming, hating, fearing, conquering and even torturing.

Jung said that unless we integrate the shadows within, we will be doomed to have holocaust after holocaust, genocide after genocide, as we are all potential criminals. Certainly history has proved this true. This only means that all manner of emotion and emotional potential is human, part of our repertoire as human beings.

It becomes all the more probable that we find and hate enemies when we do not study and admit our own weaknesses which include our rivalries and anger. By the same token as long as we continue to strive for perfection, we will distance ourselves from our vulnerabilities and from the very imperfection which allows us our capacity for empathy and for love.

I too had felt sickened over time both with the American presence in Iraq and the apparent ease of forgetting and/or minimizing acts of torture that, had we been talking of Nazi Germany, would never be blunted in our vision. I was sickened and nauseous and aggrieved by the photos, and I couldn't watch the videos of brutality and destruction of lives of people who were scared and begging and clinging to a semblance of existence that would be lost forever. But I too, over time, put the pictures away in some compartment, far away enough to continue my daily life.

After all, it wasn't us. We didn't know. And certainly we hadn't known. And it was war. Even if we had known, it seemed so very far away in so many ways. It was a war of delusion of grandeur and of patriotic defensiveness after 9/11, and even here in Europe it was a war for which most Americans abroad have not publicly been willing or able to acknowledge our irresponsibility.

You see, the shadow per se doesn't sell that well, since it hasn't yet become liberating in the public eye to admit the extent of imperfections that we all have. So we go about our religious beliefs or the self righteousness of our political beliefs and confess to our Gods while we continue to believe we are better than other people. And when we doubt our own esteem, we hit on another culture, and more commonly now another ethnic group.

The shadow hadn't been one of my personal favorites either. It wasn't until after many years of practicing psychotherapy on both sides of chairs and couches that I saw over time and with reluctance the limits of any attempt at healing which didn't bring to the forefront our vulnerabilities to the most helpless of primal feelings and impulses, no matter how much work we did.

For most people, psychology is a private activity or a part of manipulating a public hunger for the humiliation of others without stopping to wonder why. Psychotherapists are all too often those that interpret behavior so as not to stoop to the admission that our mirrors have the same images which should in fact cause us worry. These are mirrors that ultimately reflect our own closeness to all who have been tortured and to all who torture.

Fortunately, I have also begun to see that we are, as Jung noted poignantly, most capable of healing and loving and caring -- if we allow each other and ourselves our vulnerabilities, as being human and available to caring and connection. Perfect people, he said, would have no need of love, and truth be told would also be immune to play and company.

The idea would be to begin to give up the absoluteness of anything so we might see all the shades of possibility and learn new ways. We can let go of the shame of needing help and choose our helpers not by worship but by the mutuality they bring to our tables.

As for those people addicted to violence, our best chance of not entering or causing another holocaust is to know our own shadows enough so that they don't have to own us. We can form our own boundaries without the thirst for more violence but without apology for our existence.
Without the simplicity of our own purity or that of anyone else, we can try to find and create and find again a balance. Never easy, this could be really interesting.