In Literature, Concealing and Revealing Torture

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed from a creative-writing instructor and confessed torturer:

cia“I was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib,” Eric Fair writes. “I tortured.”

But when Fair discusses his creative-writing class at Lehigh University — in conjunction with his experience as a torturer — he writes not about investigating Mahmoud Saeed’s “Lizard’s Colony” or perhaps scenes from Elias Khoury’s Yalo, but Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” He writes about showing his students a cigar box filled with stuff he bought at the Baghdad International Airport.

Fair seems focused on keeping the issue of torture at the forefront of the American imagination, which is good. But in effect, by reading his essay, we are asked to sympathize exclusively with the torturer. We know about Eric Fair, and about his black fleece coat, and about his son, who rides a bus to school.

We don’t know about any of the Iraqis who he tortured. The only Iraqis who really exist here are in shadow — selling trinkets at the airport, being (abstractly) tortured just beyond our gaze.

Contemporary torture is a strange thing. Although many were (rightly) shocked by the redacted CIA report that was recently released, torture is also a commonplace in the American consciousness. Even the extreme torture in the Game of Thrones TV series fails to shock. We have seen so much of it on television that the experience has been flattened. Leached of its essential horror.

South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, who has written about torture in his novels, has said that representing torture is particularly difficult, and that one is caught between ignoring it and reproducing it.

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist has said that realistic representation — as we see on TV — sometimes “validates the acts of torture, assists the state in terrorizing and paralyzing people by showing its oppressive methods in detail.”

Validated or not, torture has clearly been something that humans have done for millennia: A show of force, an act of anger, a demonstration of superiority. It is perhaps only recently that we have come to rationalize it not as the right of kings or a punishment, but as a cold, necessary act for intelligence-gathering.

Novelist Teju Cole, also writing in the NYT.

Let’s acknowledge torture for what it is: It is punishment, vengeance. It’s the kind of havoc you wreak on an enemy or bystander merely because your rage needs an outlet. It has vanishingly little to do with intelligence-gathering. It spreads grief, and though it intends to do so, it spreads even much more than it intends. It destroys the perpetrators too. Rage is not a precision weapon.

If we acknowledge this, then we cease to write about it in cold, distant terms. We must shift from looking at it from the outside to looking at it from within.

Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, who wrote vividly about torture in his 2002 novel Yalo, said in an interview with ArabLit two years ago, “I don’t agree with Coetzee, although Coetzee is a great writer and I admire him. I don’t agree with this concept because in my personal experience, while writing Yalo, I was not reproducing torture. I was tortured myself, I felt torture itself on my body and on my soul.”

Indeed, the reader also feels tortured while reading Yalo. Unlike in film reproductions, where we sometimes stand outside the lives of those being tortured and gaze down on them, in Yalo we are one with the character being tortured. We experience it along with him.

Yalo,” Khoury further said, “was a testimony against torture and for me it was dangerous because in the sense that I went also through these things, through this horror and I had to stop writing several times, I couldn’t continue. But at the end, I saw it was worth it because I was giving a very special testimony about the situation in my country and in the Arab world.”

“Writing is a mechanism of resistance, a mechanism against torture,” Khoury said. “It is much more complicated than our friend Coetzee said.”

Iraqi novelist Mahmoud Saeed, who wrote about American torture of Iraqis in “Lizards’ Colony,” trans. William Hutchins, said in a 2012 interview with ArabLit that he “pulled from what I had seen in 1963 and 1980, in prison [in Iraq], and some of articles were published about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.”

“In my opinion,” Saeed said, “writing about torture is the best way to eliminate such barbaric practices: the harsh treatment of prisoners and even the mistreatment of ordinary people. Reproducing these crimes in art will highlight the ugliness, but most writers flee from this kind of creativity, because describing the suffering of others is very difficult. Not every writer can expose it.”

I haven’t read any of Fair’s creative writing. But in the NYT, he writes vaguely about torture. There are no horrors in his essay. Anal rape is called “rectal rehydration,” even if it’s in quotation marks.

Fair praises Lehigh University’s decision to hire him as a creative-writing instructor, writing that the “school’s willingness to put a veteran in the classroom is the very thing this country needs to be doing in order to collectively process what the last 13 years of war have wrought.”

But this sort of “processing” of torture, in which we are only listening to our own voices, is merely a different sort of overwriting, of forgetting.


  1. Reading about painful episodes in other people’s lives is always painful. As a reader and professor assigning readings, I always feel deep ambivalence in confronting such writings. I rush through them and I pity the students I’m asking to read such material. I can’t help remembering the scores of stories I heard in Iraq from people who have been tortured. Human deprivation is one reason for fighting what dehumanizes and kills the spirit.

  2. Azeem, ya Marcia! Bravo!

    “… processing” of torture, in which we are only listening to our own voices, is merely a different sort of overwriting, of forgetting.”

  3. Reminds me of “repentant” former Israeli soldiers who make a career out of recasting themselves as victims, going on speaking tours in the US to talk about how hard it was to be a murderer.

    1. Confessions have always been personal. Those who commit atrocities and feel the need to cry out, to shout their suffering, or crimes, are indulged in monologues. Their trials hardly go beyond the distance their voices reach. That’s one reason why atrocities will continue and we’ll not learn from them.

  4. I agree with Saeed. There is something immediately more intimate about reading a personal account; the 4th wall allows too safe a vantage. When the reader’s imagination is allowed to take over a more lasting effect is possible.

  5. Perhaps you’ve read Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain or George Gessert’s “An Orgy of Power”, both which characterize the torturer vis a vis the victim as “unchecked expansion.” Amery’s characterization is “an orgy of unchecked expansion.” Power is at the root of all torture, as the value of information derived from torture is unreliable as you pointed out.
    I also agree with Shakmust that confessions are for the confessors and absolution, like Oscar Wilde said, is given by the confession not the priest.

  6. Opino que independientemente de los medios utilizados para recopilar información, la persona debe colaborar!

  7. In the light of today’s representations of torture, the most complete literary description I have ever read on torture is Charles Maturin’s classic 1820 novel: “Melmoth the Wanderer”. It is a sickeningly erudite and emotional literary voyage where the author almost perfectly shows a world of pure evil that leaves the reader in no doubt as what the main character undergoes. The only book I have read to date that fundamentally shook me to my core.

    1. I will have to look that up, thank you. Am always in need of being shook to my core.

  8. It has been said time and time again that torture produces false positives. Its actual usefulness is increasingly called into question. And yet popular media still presents it matter-of-factly, sometimes even as a perfectly acceptable solution. Maybe the solution is not to change how much it is presented, but how it is presented. Perhaps if the true horrors of torture are brought into the public eye, there will be more people calling for the closure of “Gitmo” and transparency in intelligence practices. We can hope, I suppose.

    (Something you might find interesting, if you’re not already aware of it: the UN provides instructions for journalists on interviewing victims of torture. The document’s quite publicly available, and can be found through a bit of creative Googling. It’s morbidly fascinating and informative, if sickening, reading.)

  9. Thank you for a pretty evenhanded and very well writtten analysis of this complex issue. However:
    “We have seen so much of it on television that the experience has been flattened. Leached of its essential horror”.
    Neither of us was around before democratic imperatives allowed us to criticize and challenge state torture. But I doubt if there was more indignation over torture before television. In those days, citizens were innured to inhuman treatment by conquerers and those who governed them. But I wasn’t around then … !

  10. This reveal was completely unnecessary….we are all aware of the shady attitude the government does…we can only pray that god will place in office for better future.

  11. Reblogged this on sd:nl.

  12. The difficult thing about literature is that you can’t control your readers’ reactions. Your intent could be to bring these horrors to light so we can examine them and reflect on them, but what if the reader only sees sensationalism? Readers bring their own lenses through which they see the text. As good as any authors intentions are, we may never conquer perceptions through literature.

  13. It is import for us to acknowledge that our society is not mature enough to be able to condemn those who committed such horrific crimes. I read about the rates of approval of the torture, and there is still a majority of people who think it is OK to do that to others in order to receive information. This means, literally, that we are still living in a world where might means more than right even to the nation which is considered one of the freest. Now what? Literature, stories, documentary movies, culture overall has to work to change this negative consciousness. We should stop praising US army and US government for killing “terrorists”. We should not celebrate bloody vengeance such as the assasination of Bin Laden. We should use drones to spread knowledge, medicaments, and food. Violence just breeds violence.

  14. This is my first blog i have ever read here on WordPress….I too am a Veteran of the USMC and currently serving in the U.S. Army . This just gave me the motivation to tell my story…its quite amazing apparently, since I keep getting encouraged to commence the writing…I’m getting there, thanks, for sharing! I’m optimistic at least I signed up to start ☺️ what the people must understand is we either do, die, or go to jail for not doing either…. How do we explain that to our families? We don’t….we live in silence and begin the disconnection from society…all to be given a diagnosis of PTSD and have the people disconnect from us…

  15. Christmas love
    spreads joyfully to
    friends, new and old, as
    natural as mountain streams
    flow under

    ice and snow
    still moving, to join.
    comes from sharing a
    round table. Buddha

    Jesus, Confucius,
    Abraham, Gandhi
    and Luther invite a pope
    to break bread

    under one God
    that all pray to here
    in Gwangju,
    there in Amsterdam,
    and Davao, where the

    hunt for food
    and water reverts to old
    ways, not the
    usual Christmas,
    but children scramble

    for goodies
    like coconuts, fruit, rare meat
    while we feast
    on turkey, baked so
    well, spring rolls folded

    and rolled by
    hands so delicate you can’t
    what they’ve done. Merry
    Christmas everyone.

  16. Flicker

    Choppers, loud, descend toward lantern-lit roof,
    find a technical college student studying chemistry by
    flickering light, gun by his side, now pulled up, now
    riddled mercilessly, body collapses. He had just spoken
    about the uncertainty of life in Baghdad, had chuckled
    nervously about no food, no electricity, no peace, no way
    to sneak to school without risking death. His machine gun
    got him killed. Not a militiaman, nor fundamentalist, nor
    Baathist, nor anyone who killed, still, he was on a roof
    in Baghdad. Imagine – twenty flickering years, 1986-2006:
    born during the Iran War, five for Desert Storm, but strong
    enough to survive radiation-coated bombs, sanctions,
    befouled Tigress, Euphrates, a sewer. Dead now, just as true
    love emerged, up from ashes, against customs, past pressures
    of overbearing religion, only to be squelched from above: The
    Creator as “Deus-Ex-Machine-Gun-Us.” Surely heaven awaits.

    Copyright, Doug Stuber, 2006. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

  17. Reblogged this on joosungkim232323 and commented:
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  18. Reblogged this on .

  19. shakmust has a point and brushes up closest to what I was thinking about this. Torture is not water in that it can be contained in a glass of water. The affects of it are world view changing on a macro level. In a sense when a man is tortured we are all tortured! That is what needs not to be forgotten!

  20. Reblogged this on Myresearchblog and commented:
    What needs to not be forgotten is that in a sense when another human being is tortured we are all tortured. That is why it is a crime against humanity.

  21. when was the last time Gov’t received positive press other than by gov’t or the Media itself. Is this by designs.

    1. Thanks.

  22. Reblogged this on SOCL3310 and commented:
    The banality of evil, the evil of banality

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