Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Elaine Bing: Unmaking of the Torturer

Elaine Bing: Unmaking of the Torturer, Lapa, Pretoria 2014

I am not a quick reader.  I never have been. I am always shocked by those who can get through a book with ease in an afternoon - and even more shocked by those who can do so and still remember the plot or the tack.  But even I have to admit, that it has taken me an inordinately long time to finish this book.

And the reason is not that it is badly written - far from it, (even though there are some edits which the work would have benefitted from).  No, it is the subject matter. I had the same kind of experience, in my early University days, when I encountered the Marquis de Sade for the first time. The fact is, this is all extraordinarily uncomfortable territory.

It is far easier to read a book about human suffering, for instance.  In a book about human suffering, you have the advantage of being able to plunge deep into the well of human empathy.  The other side of it all, perched comfortably upon the summit of Mount Compassion, one is able to survey all that is beneath one - and pronounce in a manner which is difficult to contradict.  And tut tut about it.  And shake one's head about it. But in this book, there is no such easy refuge.  Victims are easy to sympathise with.  That is the hard-wiring we are (mostly) all fitted with.

Several years ago, I had a discussion with the author while she was doing the research which forms the basis of this work.  I was more than curious.  I asked her how she managed to cope with it all. I wondered how she managed to disengage from it. How she remained objective and dispassionate.  How do you do it?  I asked her.

Her answer was both surprising and at the same time so extraordinary, that it has stuck with me ever since. She said these words:  She said "I constantly think, this could be me".

Now, let me describe Elaine Bing to you, for those of you who might not know her, or ever have seen her.  She is a middle aged, white woman. She grew up in an ordinary family, which lived an ordinary kind of life, in an ordinary kind of place.  Her background is that of a fairly typically Afrikaner.  Now, true enough, she has a rebellious streak in her.  She caused some eyebrows to be raised by her choice of partner.  She had the kind of liberal views, which I am sure, many would not have approved of in the day.  She never accepted the expected role of a housewife and a mother - which most women of her generation and her ilk would have resigned themselves to.  But to consider her in the role of a torturer would certainly be pushing the boundaries of one's imagination.

And that, succinctly, is her point.  That, in all its strangeness and in all its ridiculousness, is the point her book is making.  The point is a simple and deeply profound one.  Any of us are capable of extraordinarily evil things.  When you understand that, you will get a glimpse into the mind of the torturer.

Bing records the therapy sessions of three white South African men who became perpetrators of torture, pain, suffering and death.  The times were mad.  The government was rogue and the security forces were completely out of control.  These men were, to all intents and purposes, allowed to do whatever they wanted to do, in the name of maintaining order and security. 

All three men came from fairly typical religious and Afrikaner cultural backgrounds.  Each of them was swallowed into a chaotic vortex of blood and destruction, in the period prior to democratic elections in South Africa.  Each of them was fed an unwholesome diet of propaganda to enable them to believe that what they were doing was right and just.  Each of them lived dual lives - that of state agent and that of family man - and the two were kept more or less separate from each other.

Each person has an individual story to tell.  From the perspective of the reader, I found it very difficult indeed to tell one apart from the other - especially because I was only reading the book on weekly aeroplane trips - with consequent gaps between readings.  That said, it made little difference, because the stories are indeed very similar.  There are context variations. There are degrees of religious belief etcetera, but the story is essentially the same story.  The three voices give one three vantage points of the same phenomenon.

I found myself both repulsed and fascinated - tremens et fascinens.  I felt like I was being taken unwillingly on a journey I would far rather avoid.  It is undoubtedly a rough ride and it is not for the feint-hearted.  But it is a really important journey.  It is all too easy to dismiss men like this as evil and despicable and vile.  It is much more difficult - much, much more difficult, to see them as damaged human beings, in need of help.  That insight - that imperative is the most difficult and at the same time, the most compelling feature of this book.

Bing examines her own reactions to the stories these men are telling, constantly.  And, in doing so, she articulates many of the reactions of the ordinary reader.  Because it is not possible, I would argue, to read this book dispassionately, whoever you are and wherever you are.  The stories are too graphic, too raw, too violent to leave one feeling anything but bewildered and horrified. And if one happens to be South African, one's reaction will be different in texture, depending if one is black or one is white - perhaps also if one is male or one is female.  Perhaps even one's age will mark one out for particular reaction.  But whoever you are, you cannot be unmoved. There is just too much.

My disappointment with the book is that it seemed to me to end too soon.  I did not find the last chapters detailed enough, or focussed enough.  What one is left with is a very detailed journey into the minds of the three torturers, with some insight into the observations of the therapist on the effects the sessions had on the therapist - but little insight into the actual journey towards healing (assuming there was one!) The sessions with the perpetrators are so profoundly devastating, that it is extremely difficult for the reader to disengage from these and, in the space of a few pages to move to analysis and general observation. 

I would have liked the same attention to detail in the process which led to some sense of wholeness.  Instead, one is forced to pick up crumbs in spare sentences - a paragraph here, an observation there, given during the sessions themselves.  I was looking for (and felt seriously deprived of), a much more detailed analysis.

But let none of what I have said here detract from the value of the work as a whole.  This is an area we have generally shied away from in South Africa.  For a range of reasons: because it is unpleasant; because we have no societal mechanisms for dealing with it; because we have been so desperate to build an alternative myth, of a rainbow nation.  But to recognise this level of damage and this kind of unresolved malaise is vital if we are ever to walk the long walk to real freedom as a country.

A friend of mine once said that Nelson Mandela didn't save black people, in South Africa, he saved white people.  Perhaps that is the sad truth and perhaps that is an indicator of the length of the road we still need to travel towards wholeness.  Elaine Bing's book is a critical signpost along that road.  One which we ignore to our collective peril.  

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