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Table of Contents
Year : 2018  |  Volume : 16  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 61-62

Psychological Torture. Definition, evaluation and measurement by Pau Pérez-Sales. New York: Routledge: 2017 (414 pages) ISBN 978-1-138-67155-3

PhD, Psychologist, and Senior Researcher, DIGNITY - Danish Institute Against Torture, Copenhagen

Date of Web Publication28-Mar-2018

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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.1097/WTF.0000000000000152

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How to cite this article:
Jefferson AM. Psychological Torture. Definition, evaluation and measurement by Pau Pérez-Sales. New York: Routledge: 2017 (414 pages) ISBN 978-1-138-67155-3. Intervention 2018;16:61-2

How to cite this URL:
Jefferson AM. Psychological Torture. Definition, evaluation and measurement by Pau Pérez-Sales. New York: Routledge: 2017 (414 pages) ISBN 978-1-138-67155-3. Intervention [serial online] 2018 [cited 2023 Jun 7];16:61-2. Available from: http://www.interventionjournal.org//text.asp?2018/16/1/61/228774

Torture is a contested practice, universally condemned and yet still in operation, the world over. But what is torture, really? And whose version of what torture is carries most weight: the lawyer’s, the doctor’s, the expert’s, the victim’s, or the perpetrator’s? Whose truth matters most? These are some of the questions posed or stimulated by Pérez-Sales’ book Psychological Torture. Perhaps we thought we knew what torture is. This bold, ambitious book suggests otherwise.

For Pérez-Sales torture and psychological torture are inseparable, so while the book is called Psychological Torture this is simply a heuristic device utilised to draw attention to thorny issues associated with defining and measuring torture today. The ambition of the book is best represented by the desire of the author not simply to propose new ways of thinking about what torture is, or might become, but also new ways of measuring torture, documenting its presence and assessing its consequences.

The premise of the book is that new times call for new understandings, new theoretical models and more refined measuring instruments. The landscape of torture is changing. New forms are emerging as the interface between humans and technology changes. This calls for a shift from thinking of torture as technique to thinking of torture more comprehensively. We must attend, the author claims, to ‘torturing environments’. For Pérez-Sales, torture is best defined not as the application of a specific method or set of methods, but in terms of the intention of the torturer to destroy the victim, to break their will and diminish their sense of who they are.

The book consists of 20 chapters, unevenly distributed into six sections, and accompanied by eight appendices. Appendices 1-3 concern torture techniques and modes of classifying them. Appendices 4–8 make available a series of practical instruments for assessing torture per the model elucidated in the book.

Psychological Torture challenges not only preconceived notions of torture as expressed via popular media, but also notions institutionalised in current law and legal practice as well as current medical and clinical practice (for example, both the Convention Against Torture and the Istanbul Protocol are subject to critical analysis).

In some ways, it is quite a radical book. For example, it consistently challenges one of the predominant assumptions about torture, namely that it is about the infliction of pain. From the author’s perspective, the infliction of pain is instrumental to the practice of torture rather than integral to it. Pain is, therefore, a by-product of torture rather than an end goal. The goal of torture is to break the will of the tortured person expressed through their subjection to the demands of the torturer.

A particularly intriguing notion touched on is that of ‘cognitive liberty’, an area where both law and medicine need to stay up-to-date. Mind control, the harvesting of our thoughts, was once only the subject of science fiction but new technologies, argues Pérez-Sales, may well be paving the way for direct intervention in human consciousness without recourse to pain and without leaving marks. Do we have the right, or do we need the right, enshrined in an international convention, to keep our thoughts to ourselves? Until technology creates the opportunity for our thoughts to be taken from us involuntarily this may seem a moot question, but as Pérez-Sales suggests, such practices might be just around the corner.

This is a wide-ranging book drawing on multiple sources with a clear agenda and strong convictions. It has the flavour of a grand project. Despite the 400+ pages surveying testimonies, laws, studies and positions this reader is left with a sense that there is possibly as much missing as there is included, and at times criteria for inclusion/exclusion of voices or perspectives is unclear or unstated.

There is something about the style and structure of the book that left me wondering early in the reading whether one needs to be a clinician or a mental health professional to fully understand it. The plethora of tables (62) and figures (15) are not—at least to this reader—easily comprehensible and certainly not self-explanatory. While the author does attempt to be parsimonious and take the legal paradigm seriously, he also, perhaps inevitably, favours more medically oriented, survivor oriented perspectives. This need not be perceived of as a weakness, however, the book would have been enhanced by a little more information about the author and his own stake in the project as well as a higher level of reflexivity and consciousness of the significance of his own position, vis-à-vis the issues under scrutiny.

The tone is authoritative and insistent whereas a more modest, invitational voice might have been more appropriate given the radicalness of some of its proposals. From a critical reader’s perspective, the author does not seem sufficiently aware of the limits of his own project. For example, he seems to overreach somewhat with his goal to ‘move beyond ideology and put science and philosophy to work towards a better definition of torture’ (p263). Similarly, while I am sympathetic to the intention, I find the claim that ‘the idea of a torturing environment resolves many of the disputes and controversies surrounding the concept of torture’ (p284) to be rather overstated. Likewise, the claim to having ’exhaustively reviewed’ (p259) existing perspectives is, in itself, put into perspective by the absence of obviously relevant, but neglected studies such as those by Tobias Kelly (2011) and Lisa Guenther (2013).

Due to its handbook-like nature and the fact that it makes concrete assessment tools available, this is a book with multiple practical implications for mental health professionals and others committed to the fight against torture. In the first instance, however, I believe the ideas and tools presented would benefit from further critical scrutiny and empirical testing. There is much material for discussion and food for thought, and experts and specialists should jump at the opportunity to engage with this material to further refine the conceptual and methodological apparatus necessary to inhibit torture in all its emerging forms.[2]

  References Top

Guenther L. (2013). Solitary confinement: Social death and its afterlives. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.  Back to cited text no. 1
Kelly T. (2011). This side of silence human rights, torture, and the recognition of cruelty. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.  Back to cited text no. 2


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