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The Breaking of Minds and Bodies : TORTURE, PSYCHIATRIC ABUSE, AND THE HEALTH PROFESSIONS, edited by Eric Stover and Elena O. Nightingale MD (W. H. Freeman: $21.95, hardcover; $11.95, paperback; 306 pp.) : THE BODY IN PAIN: THE MAKING AND UNMAKING OF THE WORLD by Elaine Scarry (Oxford: $24.95; 372 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Gwen Yourgrau | Yourgrau is an editor in the Brain Research Institute at UCLA. and

Every morning, in major urban centers around the world, "perfectly normal people get up and go to their jobs and their work is torture." Former ambassador Robert White, quoted in "The Breaking of Minds and Bodies," ascribes this phenomenon to the institutionalization of political violence.

"The Breaking of Minds and Bodies" denounces medical professionals who, as active participants or silent observers, perpetuate institutionalized torture. In "The Body in Pain," a more abstract, structuralist treatise, Elaine Scarry suggests that analysis of the institutionalization process itself is a necessary counteraction.

The physicians and Amnesty International activists contributing chapters to "The Breaking of Minds and Bodies" outline the scope and nature of medically assisted torture as they would announce any global epidemic. They list their data without ornament, reporting incidents of abuse as if they were reporting cases of bubonic plague.

We learn that interrogators use electric shock more often than nail removal, that they hang detainees from ceiling hooks less often than they submerge them in water mixed with excrement and that they rape prisoners just about as often as they burn them with chemicals or cigarettes.

Twenty percent of the survivors exhibit skeletal fracture on X-ray examination; 34% suffer continuing episodes of night panic; 10% attempt suicide.

Almost as stark as the data tables are the first-person accounts interspersed throughout the book. The victims recite their stories in truncated, hypnotically rhythmic sentences, apologizing for their narrative limitations: "I realized that pain can always increase without end . . . there are not enough words to describe it."

This book grew out of the editors' work on The Committee for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. Part I documents violations of medical ethics on all continents, including one grisly incident in Arkansas. In Part II, the authors turn their diagnostic skills on the Soviet psychiatric establishment.

Walter Reich, a Yale psychiatrist and a prominent figure in the international medical community, applies Western definitions of mental health to both the victims (dissidents imprisoned as patients) and their torturers (the supervising psychiatrists). He finds the patients generally well, and their physicians disturbed.

Reich has written and lectured widely on the Soviets' fascinating and unique method for categorizing patients. Ambiguities in this system authorize the permanent classification of virtually anyone--certainly all of one's most memorably interesting friends--under the rubric "sluggishly schizophrenic." Once so classified, patients can be reconfined at any time.

The first-person testimonies become more expansive in Part II. But language ultimately proves no more adequate a vehicle for the patients' pain than "schizophrenic" is (by Western standards) an accurate description of their condition. It is here, at the failure of language to adequately represent either the speaker or the referent, that Elaine Scarry begins her investigation.

"The Body in Pain" is a brilliant, ambitious and controversial work. Scarry, currently teaching literature at the University of Pennsylvania, has published shorter pieces on problems of representation. She enlarges her topic here to an all-encompassing discourse on creativity, imagination and the distribution of power. While analyzing the relationship between artisans and artifacts in scriptural literature and Marx's "Capital," she draws supportive illustrations from the works of Sophocles, Erwin Schrodinger, Margery Kempe, Winston Churchill and innumerable others. Walt Disney makes a brief but illuminating appearance.

Scarry approaches her study of creativity by first studying its opposite: the passive experience of pain. She specifically addresses the pain inflicted by agents of distant, disembodied authorities. She argues that such pain does not merely defy expression, but actually obliterates language, and all other creative activity, by disallowing reciprocity, between victims and externally defined objects.

Scarry connects this obliteration to capitalism by kind, rather than cause. Capitalism does not necessarily produce political torture, but, she argues, the capitalist system goes awry through a process resembling the exchange of power that occurs in the torture room. The tortured individual is dispossessed of language, body and all the other extensions of self that validate the individual's existence. Using wonderfully clear diagrams, Scarry compares these lost projections of self to the alienated products of labor in Marx's "Capital."

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