They Tortured Me for My Health -- Don't Let It Happen to You

09/13/2010 05:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

From Prague to D.C. the new rage in tourist attractions is torture museums. Is that thanks to the Bush administration?

The closest I had ever come to torture was seeing it on "24," reading about it at Abu Ghraib, in the news, or in Arthur Koestler's classic about the Stalinist purges, "Darkness at Noon". So a story like the one about torture museums would have stayed at arm's length until recently, when I experienced torture myself.

Trying to track down a persistent throat problem I'd been having, an ENT specialist had me consult with a neurologist to rule various possibilities out. She found I had no signs of Parkinson's, but wanted to be sure there wasn't some neuropathy she was missing. She described the procedure she wanted me to have as "they'll stick some needles into you." "You mean like acupuncture? Will it hurt?" Her reply: "There'll be some discomfort." That didn't sound so bad to me, and because I was so busy, I didn't bother to explore what the test would entail. My mistake.

In an electromyogram (EMG), doctors insert electrodes into your muscles to test their electrical activity and see if you have nerve or muscle damage. For about an hour, I had needle electrodes stuck into various places on my legs while a nurse moved my limbs as instructed, or I did. The machine recording information crackled like a Geiger counter.

At first I felt almost nothing, then it was like a nasty pin prick, then each successive jolt was more and more painful, sometimes so much so that I gasped or groaned "Wow!" or "Jesus!" At more than one point my leg shot in the air because the current was so strong.

This went on and on in a kind of nightmarish rhythm: fear, pain, relief the pain was over, fear of more pain, then pain again. When the doctor finally told me that the next part of the test didn't involve current, I thought I was over the agony, but it actually got worse. He stuck needles into my hand at the joint of my index finger and thumb, in my arm, in my shoulder, and each time I had to move my hand or arm in certain ways to provide the information they were looking for. My hand and arm were sore and bruised for weeks afterward.

What added to the nightmare was the wall that suddenly shot up between me and everyone in the room as soon as the test began. I was a source of data and they weren't people, either: just soulless technicians who never responded to my obvious distress.

I don't really remember the short consultation that followed, but I do remember feeling exhausted and humiliated when everyone filed out: neurologist, test administrator, intern, nurse. I was so stunned by what had happened that I didn't even check out after changing back into my clothes. I wandered the halls till a nurse pointed me to an exit. I managed to drive myself home.

When I told a dancer friend of mine about the test, she said she had walked out of hers halfway through. "You can't do this to me," she'd said to the doctor, "I'm not a criminal." And when she described the scene, I felt like an idiot. Why hadn't I stopped the test? Why hadn't I told the doctor to turn the f***ing machine off and let me go?

I couldn't. I was paralyzed and not thinking straight, barely thinking at all. In "Darkness at Noon," the high-ranking communist committed to prison has a lot to say about torture, including this: "every known physical pain was bearable; if one knew beforehand exactly what was going to happen to one, one stood it as a surgical operation ... really bad was only the unknown, which gave one no chance to foresee one's reactions."

A different version of this piece appeared on The Jewish Writing Project web site.