On Torture and Parenting

After E. and I smoked a cigarette each on the patio steps, we went back inside and began to drink beer in great gulps. We set up the backgammon board and played with a combination of intensity and absent-mindedness, forced to count out intervals we once had memorized. Jessye Norman’s voice soared to sing the last line of the third of Strauss’s four last songs, “Tief und Tausendfach das Leben,” but through it all, upstairs in her darkened nursery, our 6-month-old daughter cried, and through it all we heard her.

Do not think that we were being horrible, indifferent parents. We were trying very hard the whole time to be good and dutiful ones. We were practicing what the army of child sleep specialists calls “extinction,” letting our daughter learn to settle herself to sleep on her own. There are many ways of extinguishing your child: “graduated extinction,” or Ferberizing, as well as extensive cuddling and prolonged breast-feeding (not really practicable for working mothers), and probably some other method involving elaborate Wicca rituals. Ferberizing allows you to sit with your child while she cries, talk to her or stroke her hair, everything but pick her up, and to do these soothings at intervals gradually longer and longer. Behind Ferber is the sound idea that your child needs to know you are there in order to settle herself to sleep. Behind the outright extinguishers, or whatever you want to callthem, is the no less sound theory that your child wants to be cuddled to sleep and nothing else will do, so you might as well teach her that though you are there before she’s about to sleep, and when she wakes up with a genuine hunger, you are not there while she tries to sleep.

No agreement can be found among parents, and the books, for all their appearance of scientific scrupulousness, play to different fears. “Nobody knows the effects of leaving your child alone to cry,” writes Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No Cry Sleep Solution, in a way that leads you to think these effects could only be terrible. T. Berry Brazelton, the parenting industry’s Dr. Phil, warns that you should never reward your child for crying. We steered between the Scylla and Charybdis of good advice by consulting our friends with children. One of them, who’d read a Ferber book and then went the other way with his daughter, said, “I can’t imagine letting her know you’re there and not giving her what she wants. Why torture her?”

That argument was enough for us. We couldn’t bear to think that the sound of our voices could become a source of pain to our child. The other benefit of extinction was its apparent speed. In the case of our friend’s daughter, she’d cried forty-five minutes the first night, thirty minutes the next, twenty the following, then five, and after that only a few whimpers of exhaustion. It was a cold, hard, and ruthlessly efficient way of doing the cold, hard, ruthless, and needful thing of placing an infant on a sleep cycle in tune with the rhythms of life in a job-holding society. All the books agree that establishing a routine and pattern is important, and, in the manner of all self-help books, the primary instrument of both Ferber and non-Ferber is the schedule worksheet in which you note down all the times your child sleeps, and for how long. You become, in short, your own home sleep psychologist. Parents need routines too, and clocking in obsessively can be one of them.

Of course E. and I thought that these worksheets were a trick, something to do to make us feel like caring, conscientious parents as we began the process of abandoning our child to a world with no cuddling on demand. To leave your child to cry, for even a minute, goes against every instinct and social response. Not to rush and pick her up requires an immense act of will. We could do no right, but we feared that we could also do wrong. So we chose to do our duty and to feel bad about it. E. bore down and set up routines: an evening meal, a bath, a time for quiet holding and singing and reading of stories and play, and then, at the appointed hour, off to bed, goodnights said in a tone of false assurance (another commandment of sleep therapists: do not convey your own anxiety to your child!), the lights out, the crying beginning from the time her head is laid in the crib and her arms reach up. And so we shut the door and snuck downstairs to do the things we do when we feel bad.

That first night, as we diced and went for the second beer at the half-hour mark, unbidden into my mind came the thought that we were behaving exactly like the guilty torturers of history and legend, propping each other up as we went about the unthinkable. Strauss’s songs blended into both a compensation for human suffering and suffering’s soundtrack; a momentary understanding flickered of why those kommandants listened to their Mozart and Bach.

We were not torturers, of course, or kapos, despite the workings of my guilty imagination. What separated us from them—besides our soft Persian rugs and baby blankets in rustic patterns, as against their barbed wire and wood pallets—was, of course, intention. Everything we do with our daughter is governed by love, and we wish her to become a full and free individual, capable of love in her own right. Intention, however, is a thin defense. Love has never prevented people from mistreating their children: “This hurts me more than it hurts you!” And indeed—for here is the thing—the Bush Administration has relied very heavily on the excuse of good intentions in its bid to make torture acceptable to Americans. Alberto Gonzales’s government memo of 2002, adopted by the Justice Department, defines torture only as an intention to inflict pain. It doesn’t matter what you do to the person before you, as long as you really want the truth, or to save lives, or to save someone’s soul. You can rip out fingernails to get what you want, and as long as what you want is not to hurt your subject, you are not engaged in torture, at least not according to the impeccable mind of our Attorney General.

Metaphors are not arguments; they are collisions in a mental environment. Perhaps it was our friend’s remark that first suggested an association between certain varieties of “extinction” and torture. Or perhaps it was simply being alive and a reader of the news in today’s America. If you don’t know that America now engages in torture and sends people to countries that also torture, someone has done a very good job indeed of putting you to sleep. If you don’t know that our Attorney General is an apologist for torture and our Defense Secretary an enthusiastic proponent of it, you are sleeping soundly. The fact that Americans are torturers saturates the atmosphere, even our modest trinity house in Philadelphia, and the modest peaceable lives most of us lead. The metaphor cannot help being false and exaggerated in some ways, as in the Sylvia Plath poem “Daddy” (known in our family as “Shall I compare thee to an SS Officer?”), but the metaphor also contains the traces of an actual resemblance, however distorted.

If parenting, even responsible parenting, made me feel like a torturer, it wasn’t exactly because I’m melodramatic or overwrought, but because the official torturers now conceive of themselves in the same terms as the parenting manuals. They, too, are technicians of the naked human personality. The “Human Resource Exploitation Manual,” a formerly classified government document used to instruct “anti-communist” Latin American security forces in the bad old 1980s, puts the theory of torture in terms that any reader of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child can easily understand. The aim of torture, here called “questioning,” is “to induce regression in the subject,” i.e., to shatter that person’s identity by returning him to a state of infantile dependence on his captors. For this, violence itself is actually deemed inefficient and unnecessary (not to mention risky and unpopular once the news gets out). For some of us, the scandal of Abu Ghraib and the sadomasochistic sexual tortures of Guantanamo Bay (fake menstrual blood, simulated sex, et cetera) is less about our horror at torture than the broken taboos, the lack of restraint on display, in comparison to the refined techniques once taught in the School of the Americas.

Far more effective, the torture theorists say, is to shatter the routines that make us adults without physical violence. Sleep deprivation becomes the favored tactic, accompanied by such macabre tricks as putting clocks forward or back randomly, making sure that the prisoner cannot tell day from night, irregular feeding, temporary starvation, random extremes of temperature, loud music constantly, and, of course, random responses from the captors, either rage or bizarre affection, always absurd and unmotivated. (It’s allowed, for instance, to reward uncooperative behavior, the better to induce false hopes in the subject.) Beatings might play an occasional role in hastening regression, but please don’t get carried away. In short the torturer becomes the bad parent, whose job it is to destroy the entire work of childhood in a matter of days and weeks. Obtaining information is but a side effect of the paramount project: turning adults into unhappy children.


A notion shared by the popular psychologists of torture and infants: The core self is a paltry thing, composed mainly of certain habits and persistent associations. Just as this self can only be constructed through cycles and worksheet-plotted routinization, so it can be destroyed by deroutinization. At least since the Scottish Enlightenment, people have recognized that habits and chains of association make up a strong part of individual identity, but it would be a twisted view of humans that made our habits both the necessary and sufficient condition of our individual life. People survive torture. Personalities even survive torture, their individuality racked and maimed, like their bodies, but still legible. Winston Smith, by the tables of the “Chestnut Tree,” is a creature haunted by an ungraspable sense of shame and guilt at his self-betrayal as much as he is the model reformed citizen of Airstrip One. Torture isn’t immoral because the individual fails to survive, but precisely because the individual does survive in a region of the mind no longer accessible to the person.

The parallels between parenting and torture, unwittingly created by behavioral psychologists in both camps, suddenly intersect and cross over. We rebel at leaving our child to cry because something about it violates our humanity. We may want our child to get a head start on competition in the global economy or, quite simply, to fall asleep so we can catch up on sleep ourselves, but there is more to parents and children than the establishment of safe routines. Our children may develop healthy sleep habits and we too will be able to get up for work again without ten cups of coffee, but the desires of children and their parents for love—not information—will always exceed the circumscribed hours of wakefulness and the model of efficiency.

When we put our children to sleep, even with the best intentions, we begin to instruct them in a fine art of self-limitation we practice on ourselves, an art that’s just a step away from self-mutilation. But would it be so monstrous to let ourselves go completely? When Marcel sneaks downstairs at the beginning of Swann’s Way, he is sent back to bed. When he returns again to beg another goodnight kiss from his mother, he is caught by his father and inexplicably given the very thing he wants and more: his mother gets to sleep with him. “See, we’re not torturers,” his father says.

But for Marcel, this inexplicable pardon, a reverse of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, as he puts it, confirms his exile from a community of healthy, disciplined children—a generation that will be mowed down in the first World War. “My sadness was no longer a punishable offense, but an involuntary illness . . . for which I was no longer responsible.” Sadness, like memory, is involuntary, and yet the involuntary spasms, those things that cannot be controlled, make Marcel into Marcel and not St. Loup. Another name for his sadness is (unsatisfied) love.


Parents, it seems, inevitably feel like torturers. But do those masters of regression, our new model torturers, feel like parents? If we extend the idea of Stockholm Syndrome (the victim’s feeling of love for his torturer) to the torturers, the answer seems to be yes. But an empirical proof that the feeling goes both ways will have to wait. Defense Department psychologists may be taking notes as they debrief, but the public won’t see these documents anytime soon, and our journalists, elsewhere so eager to extort confessions from child abusers, have not gone in search of retired torturers.

Also, English-speaking torturers may soon be in short supply. Our new favored method of extraordinary rendition brings new meaning to the term “nanny state.” Just as many affluent American parents hire women from poorer countries to look after their children and do much of the dirty work of parenting, so we now send our prisoners of war to states whose torturers cling to old-fashioned “spare the rod, spoil the prisoner” mentalities.


Prisoners and children. We have reached another metaphorical crossroads. Our executive branch and their lockstep followers in Congress would argue that their harsh measures are justified, not only because these people are our enemies, but because they have chosen to sin. They are no longer children but adults with free will. To fight America is to fight God, Democracy, History, and Freedom all at once, and to such sinners belongs outer darkness. “Who could be more impious than one who’d dare to sorrow at the judgment God decrees?” Virgil rebukes Dante as he sheds a tear for the eviscerated, boiled, and forked souls in the Inferno. America the perfect makes no mistakes. But those who accept that George Bush is God’s regent on earth should also accept that this makes W. everybody’s surrogate daddy while he stands in for the big daddy in the sky. The word is paternalism. If America truly has dominion over all men and women and the beasts of the field in a neo-feudal order, all of us are America’s children. Is it all right to torture children? Just ask the President, or rather his wife. Her favorite scene in world literature, she once said, is Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov. The professional interpreters in our press have been at work on this delicious admission that allows us to construct the twisted history of our ruling family. Who knows if Laura ever talked about Dostoevsky with George? Do our parents talk to each other? What do they say? Did they notice that the scene begins when Ivan Karamazov asks his brother if he would torture a child if it meant ensuring happiness for the rest of the world? We know our President’s answer would be an enthusiastic thumbs up, as long as it’s someone else’s thumb.

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