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Human Rights Quarterly 24.4 (2002) 1072-1075
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At the Side of Torture Survivors:
Treating a Terrible Assault on Human Dignity
At the Side of Torture Survivors: Treating a Terrible Assault on Human Dignity (Sepp Graessner, Norbert Gurris, & Christian Pross eds., Jeremiah Michael Riemer trans., 2001, The Johns Hopkins University Press) xxv + 218 pp.
In 1996, the staff of the Berlin Center for the Treatment of Torture Survivors published a collaborative effort to share their experiences in developing a culturally appropriate, trauma-based treatment program. This publication was translated into English in 2001, making it available to a broader reading audience. The book stands as a testimony to their work and to the work of all treatment centers around the world. Torture survivors have special needs that require helping professionals to veer from their "business as usual" mode. The severity of the trauma results in horrific images burned into memory, the dismantling of personality, and the loss of personal dignity. These are just a few of the painful realities that remain after torture and challenge survivors and their health care providers in their attempts to maintain a sense of hope and the will to live. At the Side of Torture Survivors makes the effort to convey not only the profound consequences of torture on the survivor, but also the effects of this work on the care providers and on all of us as citizens of this world.
"The ramifications of torture are like the ever-widening circles made by tossing a stone in the water," writes Britta Jenkins, an administrator at the Berlin Center. 1 This was clear to me as I was reading this book and struggling to maintain my focus, at times feeling tired and critical. A comprehensive presentation of the clinical and advocacy needs of displaced survivors of torture, often living in conditions that are substandard, is not easy to read about. There are no easy answers to the problems that are the direct result of torture and its use in epidemic proportions. Amnesty International documented in its 2000 Annual Report that 149 countries and territories are using torture. Whether we choose to confront the issue or not, whether in an inner circle or a peripheral circle of the rippling effects of torture, the use of torture impacts all of us. Finishing the book and rereading sections to write this review, I reflected how profoundly I have been affected by my work with survivors of torture over the past fifteen years, much as the staff at the Berlin Center describe in this book. The strategy [End Page 1072] of torture to render the victim helpless, permeates into the larger world, into our lives, as we feel helpless to do anything to prevent its use. This is a pertinent issue at this time where the use of torture is being justified by the United States government to obtain information in the "war on terrorism." Perhaps reading At the Side of Torture Survivors would create a greater awareness of the consequences of torture.
This is a book of personal stories. Each chapter, written by a staff member at the Berlin Center, shares encounters with torture survivors receiving services at their center. The contributors are physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, psychotherapists, teachers, and administrators. They each bring a professional and personal perspective to their work. While there is some repetition of background material and unevenness in explaining why the therapies were effective, the book is a glimpse into the activities in a torture treatment program. As an American-trained clinical psychologist, I was not always familiar with the theories they relied on to provide a foundation for their clinical work, nor did I always understand or agree with interventions that were used in providing treatment for torture survivors. What I do know, however, and I would encourage each person who reads this book to remember, there is no prototype of a torture survivor. As health care professionals, we cannot present a standard protocol of care. There are currently twenty-seven torture treatment programs...