Total Theater

In their frequently cited 1992 study titled “Torture: Psychiatric sequelae and phenomenology”, Otto Doerr-Zegers et al. evaluate the long term psychiatric symptoms resulting from torture experienced by their subjects in Chile during the brutal rule of Augusto Pinochet.


Beyond the anticipated acute post-traumatic disorder, they note deep personality changes in numerous cases, with symptoms not unlike those found among patients suffering from schizophrenia, severe depression and psychosis. Such symptoms include a marked impoverishment of psychic life; a significant degradation of various personal and professional competences; “mistrust bordering on paranoia”; and a general loss of willingness to engage in life, resulting in “a tired human being, relatively uninterested and unable to concentrate.”

Doerr-Zegers and his associates are led to the central question:  What in torture makes possible a change of such nature that it appears similar to psychotic processes and to disorders of organic origin?

They then focus on the phenomenology of the torture situation as presenting a sort of Total Theater, a theater in which the victim’s sense of self, time and space all come under extreme stress at the same time. The detention cells and interrogation rooms are highly staged, complete with remotely controlled lighting and sound, and coordinated to induce persistent feelings of dread and disorientation.

Basic human needs are controlled and disrupted to maximize confusion and collapse all autonomous existential platforms, which are then replaced, plank by plank, with a new platform of defenseless dependence and subservience to the theater’s omnipotent directors. Prior conceptions of the the world — such as the strong commitment to the rule of law within Chilean society – are also shattered, leaving the victim even more isolated and displaced.

Critical features within the perverse dramaturgy of Torture Theater include:


1.   The extreme asymmetry of power.

2.   Victim is known and named; torturer is not.

3.   The painful double bind of either enduring “treatment” or betraying others (often falsely).

4.   The constant infliction of destabilizing fictions such as mock executions and reports of harm to loved ones.

5.   Confinement in spaces chosen or designed to convey entrapment, narrowness, constraint and dehumanization.

6.   Manipulation of time such that treatments appear to be without end; disruption of any sort of structure to days or nights; disturbance of sleep, eating and other basic requirements.

Official denials further exacerbate and perpetuate damage performed within the Torture Theater, once the victim is released from the “play”. Because those who have not attended the theater cannot believe that such things could ever happen in a society purportedly governed by the rule of law, the suffering of the victim is compounded by their inability to testify to their ordeal or to seek justice.

Of course, in Chile and elsewhere, the truth eventually forced its way into the sun, due to the heroic efforts of victims and their families, who refused to accept institutionalized silence.


Alfred McCoy in A Question of Torture and Michael Otterman in American Torture both meticulously trace the scientific and legal-political genesis of torture as Total Theater, and its implementation and refinement during the years following the events of September 11, 2001. We find it curious that there have been few subsequent studies of torture psychiatric sequelae, given the numerous provocative lines of enquiry opened by Doerr-Zegers et al., as well as the proliferation of victims in recent years. Possibly such research is not considered likely to enhance one’s academic career?

Finally, we are intrigued by the suggestion that torture results in symptoms not dissimilar to those found in subjects whose brains have some organic disorder. Might the impact of the trauma be so severe that post-torture brains actually resemble something closer to a Traumatic Brain Injury?


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