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The Tortured and the Torturers PRIMO Levi, in The Drowned and the Saved, tells us that survivors of the Nazi camps felt shame about their experience (1989: 73). Levi calls that shame “absurd” and “paradoxical”; he says that “on a rational plane, there should not have been much to be ashamed of, but shame persisted nevertheless” (77). Paradoxical though it may be, it is apparently common among victims of torture or violent coercion. According to Dr. Murat Paker, director of clinical programs at the New York-based Safe Horizons/Solace Program for Survivors of Torture and Refugee Trauma, shame is a major psychological issue for survivors of torture. Reports or evidence of such shame have also come from numerous other sources. It is well known that women who have been raped are often, perhaps typically, deeply ashamed of the experience. Even those women willing to talk about their rape before the South African Truth Commission did so behind a screen (Hayner, 2002: 78). The Algerians of the National Liberation Front who were tortured by the French military during the Algerian struggle for independence were reportedly advised to avoid speaking of their experience because they felt ashamed (Schatz, 2002: 53). The reaction was apparently known, also, among former American slaves: one, interviewed in North Carolina in 1937, is quoted by Cornel West: “My folks don’t want me to talk about slavery. They’s shame niggers ever was slaves” (Gates, 2003). Survivors of torture in Chile under the Pinochet regime are described by Chilean psycholoSOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) The Tortured, Not the Torturers, Are Ashamed DAVID SHAPIRO gists as fearing “being devalued for having gone through such an experience” (Cienfuegos and Monelli, 1983: 50) and they are treated with the aim of “restoration of self-esteem” (43). In general , of course, people are reluctant to speak directly of feeling ashamed, since to acknowledge shame is (in their eyes) to admit that there is something to be ashamed of. So we must sometimes rely on indirect indications of shame, or efforts to dispel it, to identify it. The defensiveness or the exaggerated and extremely sensitive pride that I will describe in more detail later are indications of that sort. When Levi speaks of the irrationality of shame in this connection , he is speaking of people who of their own choice have done little or nothing to be ashamed of, but on the contrary have suffered the shameful acts of others. It is true that they have been forced to endure experiences or perform actions that in themselves might be considered shameful. But, in Levi’s phrase, “on a rational plane” the fact that these actions were coerced and were in no way carried out at their own initiative might be thought to obviate shame. Not at all. It seems that the very condition of subjugation has the opposite effect; it intensifies or adds to feelings of shame. In other words, it is not only the experiences these people were forced to endure or the actions they were forced to perform but their very helplessness and inability to resist that is reason for shame. It is the fact of subjugation itself that is damaging to self-respect. The shame of this kind of subjugation can extend even to those who identify themselves closely with the torture victim. The daughter of a former camp inmate tells us that on learning of her father’s having been beaten and humiliated, she thought, “How could my father, so tall, so strong, let that happen ?” (Epstein, 1979: 62) The idea that prisoners in the Nazi camps simply “let that happen” is, as we know, not rare and something of that idea seems to be present in the victim’s own shame. As for the perpetrators of torture, the rapists, the enforcers of apartheid, the Nazi medical experimenters, and the rest, there is little evidence of shame. A former police torturer in what was 1132 SOCIAL RESEARCH then Rhodesia seems to be typical; when asked if he felt any guilt (in this case we may assume that the question was understood to include shame), he “acknowledged none and showed none” (Conroy, 2000: 93). Torturers...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1131-1148
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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