Learned helplessness: the enduring effects of torture that haunt victims
The architects of CIA torture sought to make individuals powerless to disobey by breaking down their self-control. Restoring it can be a lifetime’s work
Jabuli prefers solitude indoors, having lost all safety once before. When he does go out he seeks crowded public spaces, so there will be witnesses if his tormentors reappear to kidnap him again. Ten years on, time and distance have not healed the damage that comes from torture.
“You live with the fear that the people who tortured you may come back to torture you again,” he said, “regardless of if you are in a safe country.”
Triggers are everywhere, even a decade later. Armored vans on the street make him think of the station where he was tortured. He fears intimacy, because he doesn’t want someone to see him having nightmares, or to watch him wake up crying. He worries he will not be “good enough to have a family”.
More than a decade ago, Jabuli endured seven months in a torture chamber in a central African country he asked the Guardian not to identify. (Jabuli is a pseudonym he recommended.) He was placed in “stress positions”: his elbows and ankles were bound to each other behind his back as he faced downward, resulting in a pain so consuming that he could barely breathe.
“We lost hope. We gave everything, every decision, to others, to decide for you. Everything you want, you let the other person decide,” Jabuli said.
Jabuli and other torture survivors experienced a chilling process referenced in the US Senate intelligence committee’s report into CIA torture . Two architects of the CIA’s torture program, contractor psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, called it by the antiseptic term “learned helplessness”. It means that torturers break down an individual’s self-control, until he or she is emotionally and psychologically unequipped to disobey.
Recovering from learned helplessness, according to psychologists, physicians, aid workers and activists interviewed by the Guardian, is an arduous process, with results as varied as the people who undergo it. It can last a lifetime, and is full of setbacks, if it succeeds at all.
Whatever outrage over CIA torture exists in the US and internationally will eventually fade. John Brennan, the CIA director, pleaded on Thursday for the country to move on . Survivors of torture do not have that luxury.
“These are issues that they’re going to have for the rest of their lives,” said Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired US army brigadier general.
Learned helplessness is a term attributed to a 1972 paper by the psychologist Martin Seligman. Seligman noticed a long-term behavioral impact on dogs subjected to electric shocks.
“Uncontrollable” traumas bred “passivity in the face of traumatic events, inability to learn that responding is effective, and emotional stress in animals, and possibly depression in man,” Seligman wrote.
The Senate report, parts of which were released on Tuesday , documented the impact of the learned-helplessness that the CIA sought to inflict. Detainees in Afghanistan would cower when the doors to their cells opened. Some, in the opinion of one CIA interrogator, “literally looked like a dog that had been kenneled”. Abdel Rahman al-Nashiri, who was waterboarded and threatened with a power drill, would tremble at the sight of the interrogations chief, as psychologists discussed instilling within him what they called a “desired level of helplessness”.
Men and women who have experienced torture are most often irrevocably changed, say medical professionals who have treated survivors. Depression, anxiety, personality shifts, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts can manifest and persist years afterward. Freedom itself, with its onslaught of decisions, can overwhelm people whose captors conditioned them to give their lives over to another’s control.
“You become a passive person,” Jabuli said.
Learned helplessness compels people to blame themselves for their treatment. Self-esteem has to be relearned. Guilt can be overwhelming: the guilt of missing out on their families’ lives, or of release from prison while others remain tortured.
Others, like those who resisted or protested in jail, can become angry, or frustrated over the impotence inflicted upon them. Khalid el-Masri, an innocent man whom the CIA tortured, was arrested in 2007 in Germany for setting a supermarket on fire .
William Hopkins, a consulting psychiatrist for the UK-based survivor medical network Freedom From Torture, has treated victims of waterboarding. Many develop extreme hydrophobia, he said.
“One guy told me, ‘I cannot go in water, I cannot go for a swim, I cannot let my head go underwater again, that’s too terrifying, that will bring back the memories,’” Hopkins said.
Years after his waterboarding, Hopkins’s patient couldn’t bear to “pull a jumper over [his] head. He used a cloth to bathe himself, as taking a typical bath or shower was unbearable.”
Every medical professional interviewed by the Guardian said people’s recovery to learned helplessness varies widely. Polly Rossdale, who runs the human-rights group Reprieve’s initiative to help released Guantánamo detainees, said that giving survivors basic choices (“We could go for a walk now or walk later, what would you rather do?”) was critical to restoring a modicum of mental and emotional health.
So is finding people to trust – with whom they can talk safely about their experiences. Yet torture survivors can find themselves shunned, compounding their internalized blame.
“The stigma is huge,” Rossdale said, particularly for Guantánamo detainees. Men released from the US detention facility are often resettled into unfamiliar countries, and struggle to find or hold jobs and to get access to medical care.
“Even in places that have significant Muslim populations, where they may have experienced some degree of discrimination themselves, they don’t want to be tarred with the same brush, they don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, Muslim equals terrorists.’ The stigma is huge, and that’s very difficult for men to overcome,” Rossdale said.
However difficult it is for torture survivors to live their lives after captivity, it is much harder for torture survivors who remain detained.
Not all of the estimated 39 men whom the CIA tortured are now free. Over a dozen of them remain at Guantánamo. Indefinite detention without charge, experts said, compounds the effects of learned helplessness, as people steadily lose control over their fates.
Vincent Iacopino, an internist with Physicians for Human Rights, said torture survivors still in captivity required trusted medical staff for their conditions to improve. Yet the medical staff at Guantánamo, where he has examined detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi, are “not seen as friendly”, he said.
“They’re viewed as the enemy of the detainees. They’re people who, as far as they’re concerned, participated in their abuse. There’s really not an opportunity for [Guantánamo detainees] to receive a therapeutic environment. The combination of continuing to be detained, having been tortured, and not having health professionals to be helpful almost precludes the possibility of healing,” Iacopino said.
Cheryl Bormann represents Walid bin Attash, whom the CIA hung from the wrists and denied sleep for over five straight days, with only a four-hour rest. He is now facing a military tribunal for the 9/11 attacks, a charge that carries a death sentence.
“How can a man who has been tortured so that he is a victim of ‘learned helplessness’ unlearn that conditioning? How can Mr Bin Attash ever overcome the effects of more than three years of tortured conditioning?” Bormann said.
Jabuli said he doubts he will ever again be the person he was before torture.
“There’s still something missing. I’m still struggling to properly understand, and to build a life,” he said.
Talking to other survivors has helped him heal, Jabuli said. He is about to take his first trip to see his family back home in the decade since his ordeal began.
“If I don’t do anything, then the people who torture me have won. What they did was silence me. That’s what they wanted to do,” he said.
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