book review

“Time Landscape in the Fog”

Hrsg: Horatio Riquelme

The existential situation of the majority population in South America, which has been under the influence of state terrorism during the last two decades, appears like a time landscape in the fog. This book documents the efforts of a Uruguayan writer and some Latin American and European psychosocial professionals who are confronted with the time landscape in the fog, trying to fathom it intellectually and emotionally to overcome its turbidity and speechlessness. The book is the result of the 1989 Annual Meeting of the Symposium on “Culture and Psychosocial Situation in Latin America” at the University of Hamburg.

The thirteen articles summarized in the book “Zeitlandschaft im Nebel” aim to contribute to an understanding of the psychosocial damage caused by state terrorism in the various countries of South America. The reader is made aware that the epoch of state terrorism strongly influenced and continues to influence South America, and that it is only possible to overcome this epoch by analysing the aims of dictatorial regimes and the means used to achieve these aims and by analysing the effects of this policy on the living conditions and psyche of the people.

The articles, unless they are general, mainly refer to the epochs of state terrorism in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

The authors make it clear that a totalitarian government uses the methods by which it seeks to manifest its power at both the social and individual levels. The methods of “letting disappear”, torture and the manipulation of communication within society have a main function:

1 Martinez, Pechman and Marciano explain the psychological problems that arise for the children of disappeared people, some of whom I will highlight as examples: in adolescence, which is marked by an identity crisis among all young people, the conflicts of childhood are restructured. The conflict caused by the traumatic experience of separation cannot be resolved in the children of disappeared persons. The children are still waiting for their father or mother. The necessary process of separation from the parents during puberty is very difficult for these children, because the normal grief resulting from this process is superimposed by the grief for the real loss of the parents. An ambivalent situation arises for the children: if they value their parents, they expose themselves to the danger of persecution. If they free themselves from them, they are exposing themselves to the same oblivion as society. The process of growing up alone leads to feelings of guilt among the children of disappeared people. They are afraid of reaching the age of their parents, as if they would lose for good.

  1. to influence communication between members of society, the totalitarian government uses the mass media. With regard to the disappeared, the population is asked not to talk about them, to regard them as family disgrace, as H. Riquelme explains. Through the media, people are indirectly inoculated that resisting is a sign of psychological abnormality. Faundez emphasizes the ambiguity of the messages of the dictatorial regime. On the one hand, violations of human rights committed by the government are denied; on the other hand, the large number of people affected means that the government’s involvement cannot be concealed in reality.

(3) The use of systematic torture serves to obtain information about the activities of opposition members and to break their resistance, as well as to intimidate the population. The article by I. Agger and J.B. Jensen deals with the phenomenon of sexual torture in a very differentiated way, especially in relation to men. The authors rely on two studies, one of which was conducted by prisoners from El Salvador. According to Agger and Jensen, the aim of sexual torture is to destroy the sexual potency of the victim, to destroy his personality and thus his political potency. This type of torture combines aggressive and libidinous factors, giving the victim a sense of participation, of “complicity”. Sexual torture thus has a particularly traumatising effect. The victim feels ashamed and guilty. In addition, the area of sexuality is subject to many taboos and it is particularly difficult for people who have been subjected to sexual torture to talk about it and to make the humiliations they have suffered available for personal processing, e.g. in psychotherapy.

The text is psychologically profound and the reader gets the impression that the authors themselves have a lot of experience in the field of therapy with people who have been subjected to sexual torture.

  1. In her essay, Amati deals with the aspect of why people adapt to a system marked by state terrorism, why they tacitly tolerate human rights violations or participate in them. She uses Jose Bleger’s theory to explain these phenomena.

According to Freud, at birth man is completely dependent on his environment and makes no distinction between the ego and the outside world. In adulthood, a remnant of this original dependency remains, driving man to seek environmental safety. Bleger describes this remainder of the original state as an ambiguous core in man, in which there is no differentiation between inside and outside, between the self and the other man, and in which contradictory feelings exist with one another. Since this ambiguity core endangers the ego identity and the ego integrity of the person and since the individual seeks security in the environment, this core is kept away from consciousness and projected into the outer world into the situations that give the individual the greatest security and ego identity.

According to Bleger, this core of indiscriminateness leads to the fact that man can get the feeling of merging with the mass. It is precisely in situations that invite it that the feelings and reactions most unknown and uncontrolled to the individual occur, since the core of ambiguity is deposited outside the individual and is not reconciled with the understanding of one’s own individuality. The core of indistinctness thus allows the manipulation and adaptation of the individual. On the other hand, the ambiguous core enables the person to understand the feelings and fears of other people.

With reference to Parin, Amati makes it clear that in every culture man adapts to the norms conveyed by society and to the institutions that provide security because of the outwardly projected core of ambiguity. In the event of sudden changes in the environment, the individual’s safety is no longer guaranteed and the ambiguous core is activated. This gives rise to existential fears. In order not to have to endure these fears, the individual tends to adapt again, even in a society with changed values and ideologies, i.e. to deny the core of ambiguity and project it into institutions that may only promise supposed security. A defensive mechanism against fears is the clouding of consciousness, which is a task of the sense of reality that goes hand in hand with an emotional hardening. Amati makes the assumption that people who are at the mercy of constant threat and fear, as is usually the case in a dictatorship, become emotionless and stop thinking. It accuses the dictatorial government of aiming precisely at this: to bring about a “regression to the ambiguous position”, which on the one hand represents a defence mechanism against fear and on the other enables absolute adaptation to the ruling regime.

The various texts express the fact that there are three main ways of overcoming the psychosocial damage caused by state terrorism. These consist of the formation of resistance groups, cultural resistance (see H. Riquelme, “The Cruelly Real”) and psychotherapeutic measures for the treatment of victims of human rights violations.

Most authors give their own therapeutic experiences: Amati, for example, gives advice that is important for the therapy of torture victims and explains the effects that the observance or non-observance of these “therapy rules” have on the psyche of the patient. Amati emphasizes the difficulties that the therapist has, e.g. that he himself must be very stable and able to convey stable values. Because the values of the patient and his ideas about the nature of man can be deeply shaken. The patient must learn to regain his identity, which was severely destroyed by the torture he suffered. This requires an inner detachment of the victim from the torturing system, as the patient unconsciously often identifies strongly with the system. The therapist must give the patient a feeling of fundamental security, especially at the beginning of the therapy, and make it clear to the patient that his attitude differs from the ideology of the torturing state.

Amati’s text in my opinion the most psychologically profound and important article in the “Zeitlandschaft im Nebel”. It offers explanatory approaches for the phenomenon of adaptation in a totalitarian system. The understanding of these phenomena is probably one of the most fundamental elements in the process leading to the awareness of the mechanisms used by a dictatorship, or helping to understand the long-standing existence of a system of torture. Amati also points out the difficulties that arise in the treatment of torture victims. On the one hand, their experiences can provide inspiration for therapists who work with torture victims. On the other hand, they show the layman how much a person’s personality can be destroyed by torture.

In context, the articles provide a deep insight into the structure of South American society and the impact of state terrorism. Thus the main goal of the book is to contribute to the awareness of these processes and the psychosocial consequential damages by means of an analysis of the processes in South America and thus to serve the overcoming of the traumatizing epoch.

Critically, it should be noted that the understanding of the individual texts places different intellectual demands on the reader and may therefore appeal to a different reading audience. Some texts are primarily addressed to the layman who knows little about South American conditions, such as the article “Human Rights and Psychosocial Health” by H. Riquelme, which describes in an informative and easily understandable way the methods of the authoritarian state to maintain the existing power relations. Other texts require psychological prior knowledge for a comprehensive understanding, such as the article by S. Amati, which is difficult for the layman to understand. In any case, the “Zeitlandschaft im Nebel” presents the power, political and psychosocial situation of South America in a differentiated way, precisely through the compilation of various texts and from different points of view.

Furthermore, the book offers the German reader a sound basis for thinking about topics such as adaptation and participation in a totalitarian society in relation to German history. Particularly with regard to the recent development of the whole of Germany, it is possible to establish links between the problems that arose with the end of the totalitarian regimes in South America and the GDR.  One example is the current problems that have arisen as a result of decades of surveillance and imprinting of people in the former GDR by the State Security Service.

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