For the last year and a half I have been obsessed with the violence in Mexico and the cartel-fueled drug wars.  There is a character in my new novel named Violeta.  She lives in the midst of the blood drenched chaos and I felt I had to be familiar with the horror of her day-to-day life so that as I could write her story.  I have spent a lot of time down on the border, interviewed people whose lives have been affected, visited the sites of savage brutality.  I start each morning with the Mexican blogs where I read about unspeakable atrocities and look at gory photos.  Mass graves keep popping up all over the country in which 20, 30, 70 tortured bodies are discovered.  At first I was able to keep my boundary intact.  The crimes committed against innocent people in Mexico were upsetting but they were happening in a foreign country—not here in my life.  I was safe.  But slowly the reality of Violeta’s life started to color the way I looked at the world.  Everyday I viewed pictures of headless bodies and crying families.  I read accounts of barbarous torture and saw that the cartels were engaged in a monstrous competition, each group trying to  out do the other in order to prove that they were most fierce and therefore most powerful.   I got depressed.  Was this the end of western civilization, as we know it?  Had human nature devolved to such a level that we were slaughtering each other over drugs and money?  I decided to take a look at history in order to put things in perspective.

Of course I was aware that torture has always been a part of the human condition.  Public displays of abuse and execution have consistently been used in the past to deter others from committing similar crimes.  I knew that persecution and sacrifice were practiced in many religions throughout the history of mankind.  But it was through a careful inventory of exactly what we’d done to each other in the past that I was able to revise my outlook for the future.

We are all familiar with the gladiatorial contests of Ancient Rome.  Originally the “games” consisted of two robust warriors who would enter an arena, clad in armor and wielding weapons. Men with names like Spartacus, Priscus and Thrimpus. They would try their damnedest to kill each other for the entertainment of the Emperor and thousands of loyal subjects. Those contests were immensely popular.  But with time the public appetite for blood and gore increased and the sport evolved.  By the end of the Roman Empire the gladiatorial games had devolved into a full-out slaughter.  Starving prisoners were forced into the arena with hungry, savage animals.  The audience watched and cheered as the prisoners were torn to pieces and devoured—all in the name of entertainment.

Caligula liked to hang his victims upside down and slowly saw them in half, starting at the groin.  He found that by hanging them upside down the brain received plenty of blood and was thus able to stay conscious until the saw finally reached a main artery in the abdomen.

During The Middle Ages, Christian leaders used torture to force people to convert.  Those who resisted becoming a good Christian were burned at the stake or drowned or suffocated.

Catholic priests of the Spanish Inquisition favored using pulleys or the rack to literally tear their victims apart.  Heretics were nearly always tortured.

Vlad the Impaler was know for burning, skinning, roasting and boiling his victims then force feeding them to their relatives.  But his torture of choice, his trademark, was impaling his enemies on a sharp, pointed stake.  He would order the victim’s legs to be spread wide and then insert the stake into the rectum and slowly, slowly push it up through the body.  This agonizing form of torture was performed publicly and it could takes hours, even days, before the subject finally expired from blood loss or a punctured heart.

The Bolsheviks are said to have gouged out the eyes and cut off the noses of their enemies.

Stalin, Hitler, Mao.

Idi Amin killed more than 300,000 people in eight years.  He had his second wife murdered by dismemberment then ordered her body parts sewn back together so he could show her off to their children.

Necklacing was popular in South Africa during the anti-apartheid movement of the  1980s and 1990s.  A tire filled with gasoline was forced over the victim’s arms and chest and then set on fire.

The list goes on and on.  The barbaric crimes that we’re seeing in Mexico are nothing new.  In the course of my research I have been reminded that blood lust and cruelty are an ever-present component in the history of mankind.  We have been brutally slaughtering each other right from day one.  Nothing new.  But what I realize is that for every ounce of darkness there is an equal or greater part that is light.  We make art, and music and write great literature.  And I hate to sound like a sap but there is kindness and love.  There is always love.  Sometimes the balance shifts but we endure.  I am still deeply troubled by what is happening in Mexico but it is oddly comforting to see that this kind of present-day brutality has happened over and over again throughout history.  I believe that, with time, the other part of human nature, the good part, will prevail.  We’ve been here before; it’s going to be okay.  And now I’m going to sit down and try to finish Violeta’s story.

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KATIE ARNOLDI has published three novels. The first, Chemical Pink, was a national bestseller. Her second novel The Wentworths was a Los Angeles Times bestseller as was her most recent book, Point Dume, which was published in May 2010 and released in paperback on 4-20 2011. Katie was the 1992 Southern California Bodybuilding Champion. She was also a competitive longboard surfer, an enthusiastic backcountry survivalist, fanatic scuba diver and a constant traveler. She has an extensive knife collection and is currently writing another novel.

19 responses to “A Brief History of Torture”

  1. Caleb Powell says:

    Perhaps, generally speaking…”the good will prevail,” but for many individuals it doesn’t and never will.

    You write: “…it is oddly comforting to see that this kind of present-day brutality has happened over and over again throughout history.”

    I guess I’m less optimistic, and am certainly not comforted by the knowledge that humanity has always been capable of atrocity. This actuality makes and has always made me feel very uneasy.

    That being said, I’m with you, it’s something that matters and that we should confront. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful article.

    • Caleb,
      I so agree with you that for many individuals the good does not prevail. And in Mexico right now thousand of innocent people are suffering and dying everyday. I was overwhelmed by the reality of that situation and found that my writing went completely flat. It seems so hopeless. I think the key is balance and what I was trying to get at in this essay is that there has always been darkness in our history but at the same time there has ALWAYS been light, beauty, kindness and love. And for me, that’s comforting.

      Thanks for your thoughts

  2. mutterhals says:

    That was great, I tend to take the same view on a lot of this stuff. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point I just became burned out on tragedy. It still effects me on some level, I guess I just don’t react without the same shock or surprise that I used to.

    • I know. It’s so hard not to shut down after awhile. The news in the world is overwhelmingly bad and sometimes I just have to walk away from the morning paper. That’s why I went on that weird quest for the history of bad stuff. I just needed to reassure myself that we as a species have endured similar or worse conditions. One of my biggest struggles is to not become jaded. I think staying open is essential for a writer and reminding myself about good and evil really helped with that.

  3. Very thoughtful and honest piece, Katie.

    I was giving a lecture on narcocorridos a couple of weeks ago–a topic that isn’t as much fun to talk about as it used to be. Near the end, I got overwhelmed by a sense that the country I’d visited, studied, and written about didn’t really exist anymore, at least not the way I’d known it.

    For me, the drug war just happened to coincide with my not spending much time in or near Mexico. It seems particularly surreal to experience it only through the news…

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      I so agree with you that Mexico is not the same place it once was. My time down there on both sides of the border this past year has been very strange indeed. And you are exactly right when you say it seems surreal. Those militarized road blocks that I saw in Mexico, with all the men wearing black face masks to obscure their idenity, really brought home that fact that there is a war going on. A war with absolutely no rules. I wish I could have heard your lecture on narcocorridos. I’m sure you’ve seen the narcocorrido music videos. Talk about surreal!
      Thanks for writing, it’s great to hear from you.

      • For the past few years, I’ve often posed as a narcocorridos scholar in certain University cources. All my salient points are cribbed from the excellent Elijah Wald book.

        And that’s part of it for me: I feel like me and many of my Mexico loving peers made light of the police corruption and drug traffic for so long–like that was just the status quo. Now, there’s a guilty feeling that the chickens have come home to roost…and we never took it with the proper gravitas.

  4. Jessica Blau says:

    I can not wait to read this book. You are totally fearless in life and in writing. I’m a fan!

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      What a lovely message. You made my day. And as you know, I’m a huge fan of yours.
      Thanks for checking in.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    The Brazen Bull got to me; roasting people alive seems particularly monstrous.

    Honestly, it’s the sort of thing that makes me lose all faith in the possibility of a benevolent higher power. Because what kind of intelligence would let that happen?

    The very little I hear about Mexico over here is horrible depressing. What a sad example of man’s inhumanity to man.

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      You’re so right, what’s going on in Mexico is horribly depressing. And don’t even get me started on Africa. But I think it important to remember that the people committing these horrible crimes are just one part of humanity. For every murderer there is someone out there, driven by kindness and grace, offering help to others. It’s like a bruise on a beautiful fruit, it’s not all rotten, just that one area.

      I too am struggling with this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. dwoz says:

    I agree with your premise…on some large-scale societal level, it’s like there’s always dishes to be done, always windows to be washed, always heathens and the weak to be tortured.

    And I agree with something Becky P. said in a comment some weeks ago…that on a per-capita basis, the amount of animalistic brutality may actually be decreasing.

    But we are now a global village. Where even 25 years ago we never heard about local problems in faraway places, now those same atrocities play out in our faces, on our screens, as if they’re right in front of us.

    I wonder whether THAT feature will result in the numbness and disengagement that mutterhals mentions, or if it will result in a renaissance of new empathy and “defense against the dark?”

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      Oh David, what Great comments. You raise such an interesting question about changing technology and the concept of globalization. I don’t know. For me, having the reality of the situation in Mexico “play out in my face” has most definitely heightened my sense of empathy. On the other hand, I’ve watched a part of myself become desensitized after being bombarded by images of multilated bodies on a daily basis.

      I will cling to Becky P.’s numbers. I would like to believe that we as a species are getting better.

      Thanks for writing. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  7. Matt says:

    There was an exhibit on medieval torture devices at the San Diego Museum of Man about 8 or 9 years back. A whole room filled with them, some of which were reproductions and some of which had actually been used. While there weren’t any graphic images other than some woodcut prints, the captions about their use were so matter-of-factly detailed that it made the blood run cold. One of the curators told me that a woman feinted because of them the first day the exhibit was open.

    Our seemingly unending capacity for cruelty continues to astonish and horrify me. I can’t fathom the level of hate it must take to be able to treat another person in such a manner. The narcocorridos have outpaced the Mafia when it comes to the brutality of the tactics they use, all in the sake of what amounts to maintaining a profit. Sickening.

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      Thanks so much for checking in on this. While I was writing that essay I debated about including images of medieval devices. They are so shocking. What kind of a mind could think up that kind of torture? How can humans treat each other so savagely? But I thought the photographs would stop the conversation. And once you’ve seen them, you can’t get them out of your mind–they’re with you forever. I know I keep coming back to this, and maybe I’m just talking to myself here, but evil is just one part of human nature. I do think that, overall, we as a species are good. For every vile act there are ten examples of kindness and beauty. I believe that is true.

      I really appreciate your thoughtful comments.

  8. Ric Rowland says:

    Hello Katie, My friend and great writer/teacher/musician, Rob, turned me on to your writings. Chemical Pink was a bold look into another human atrocity borne from the human condition, just as ugly, and you captured that world very well, as well. Great book. Of course the damage done by narcism pales tremendously with the slaughter that you write about above.
    Sometimes the idea that ‘we’, as western, spoiled consumers have been insulated from the brutality taking place in so many other parts of the globe on such a scale of disregard for human life, makes me feel somehow ‘left out’. Not that I desire to be left back in, but, in a way- ill-equipped I guess- to accept the consequences of human greed on the scale that it truly exists. It wasn’t that long before I was born that the German holocaust had ended. For most of my life in this country it seems we were only given facts that supported the horror and held back the awful details. Many years later, having had my fill of exposure to carnage of many kinds, I think back with some ‘regret’ that the terrible-ness of it all were not freely available. Not out of blood lust,more out of not allowing my mind to believe that this behavior was limited to less civilized peoples. Media has done a good job of making up for the image loss. Our own mega death of 9-11 was a slap of reality. I guess what I am attempting to convey is that if people of intelligence and power deeply become aware of how savage the world is, that maybe we would not sweep it so sheepishly away from our boundaries and disassociate the gore and torture as some other peoples problem. I am hopeful and sappy too for the humans. We simply need to get up to speed on this compassion thing.
    Sincerely, Ric Rowland

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      Hi Ric,
      I appreciate your thoughtful comments more than I can say. What you said about 9/11 and how it was our first direct contact with atrocity on a grand scale really hit the mark for me. I was actually in NYC on 9/11. That experience changed the way I look at the world and how I read the newspaper. What was once abstract became very concrete after that tragedy and did force me to reevaluate my place in the world. I think that was the case for most of us.

      The sappy thing: it’s hard sometimes to just say it from your heart. I’m trying to do that more and more in my work and in my life. Getting up to speed on compassion is a goal.

      Thank you so much for writing, Ric. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  9. Leslie Jamison says:

    Hey Katie,

    I can’t say I exactly enjoyed this piece–hard subject matter for that–but I respect it deeply; it’s an interesting way to look at all the violence in Mexico. Especially, sadly, the role of spectacle–how much of the violence is done with an explicit eye toward visibility and performance, sending a message, and how that becomes another notch on a whole cultural history of violence on/of display.
    I’m looking forward to reading Violeta’s story.

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      Hey Leslie,
      Thanks so much for your comments. It’s weird but ever since I wrote that piece, I’ve felt a little better about the state of mankind. It’s not that the situation has improved, it hasn’t. In fact, I’d say that things in Mexico are getting worse practically by the minute. The evil is definitely out of the box. But taking a step back and looking at our current situation in a historical context gave me a much needed perspective. Your point about the role of spectacle and display is so right-on and interesting. Performance is an essential component of terrorism and now with all the online blogs and news sources it’s easy for these groups to reach a broader audience. I wonder how the internet and our global access to imagery is changing behavior. It’s a lot to think about.
      Thank you for writing.

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