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PTSD: Not just for soldiers, part two

In the late 1950s, the American government became curious about the affects of imprisonment and torture on POWs during WWII.

German war camps had exposed the prisoners of war to ruthless and relentless torture and labour, but the men were not broken. They kept fighting back, kept strong. However, those who were captured by the Chinese during the war were left so brainwashed that they could be left unguarded and would still feel that they couldn’t escape. What caused this difference in the behaviours of the prisoners? Biderman investigated and found that whereas the Germans had resorted to simple, brute force in every aspect of their war crimes, be it the concentration camps or the prisoner of war camps, the Chinese had utilised a more focused methodology of torture that wore the prisoners down and made them controllable. Biderman’s research produced what is known today as the Biderman Chart of Coercion.

In German camps, the prisoners were still able to stay together as a group and offer each other support. They strengthened one another, kept one another’s hope burning, and were able to withstand unbelievable torture, hard labour, and malnutrition. They were allowed to sleep, even during brutal marches, because their captors needed sleep. Their captors also didn’t understand something that the Chinese did. Group support and even small amounts of sleep kept the prisoners strong. United we stand, divided they fall. Even in the concentration camps, groups of Jews or groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses, or any other communities being imprisoned would stick together and encourage each other to stay alive and hope for rescue. The Chinese had a different way of dealing with prisoners. Biderman’s research showed that the Chinese had used different tactics to break the prisoners, and the first one was isolation.

Extended periods of isolation weakens a person’s ability to resist, and makes the victim dependent on the interrogator. Sleep deprivation was also used, as well as threats of death, threats of never being allowed to go free, threats that that the interrogation would never end, vague threats that would keep the prisoner guessing, and threats against the prisoner’s family. The interrogators would occasionally give the prisoner some small indulgence which would provide positive motivation for compliance and interrupt the adjustment to deprivation. The interrogators would suggest that they were omnipotent and that resistance was futile. They would use degradation to make resistance appear more damaging than giving in, and they would enforce trivial rules. The prisoners were most often eventually broken by this mental and emotional torture, while the prisoners of the German war camps could not be broken even with the most brutal beatings.

Modern researchers who were studying domestic violence and how it was affecting victims came to realise that these were the methods that perpetrators were very successfully using against their victims. The prison was their home instead of a war camp, but the methods were every bit as cruel….and at least as successful. Just as the soldiers had come back from the war broken, the victims of these coercive behaviours were also broken, and it isn’t hard to understand why. An abuser will use a number of related tactics to keep her focused on him and his demands so that he can have complete control. He can give her detailed instructions for doing impossible tasks while he’s away, telling her that he has a secret way of finding out if she followed the instructions or not, and that she’ll be punished if she doesn’t.

Sometimes, he’ll deliberately set her up to fail so that he has an excuse to punish her. He’ll keep her guessing as to what the punishment will be, but she knows that it will be horrible. He keeps her in a state of terror. If she is allowed to go out, he’ll do little things to make her know that he can be watching her, and she wouldn’t know it. Anything from a random text message to a bunch of flowers sent to the place where she’s supposed to be can show her that she’s under his watch. At night, he can pick an argument to keep her from sleeping, or sometimes wake her up to accuse her and argue with her over some imagined transgression. Eventually, she won’t be able to relax and sleep because she’ll be worried about what he might do next. He will occasionally buy her something nice in order to keep her obligated to him, and then tell her she’s ungrateful and horrid.

He might destroy the gift because he says that she didn’t deserve it after all. He might destroy things that she’s attached to and leave them for her to find later. There is always an unspoken threat in the air. She can come to feel that no matter where she goes, he can see what she’s doing, and she could be punished. He can pop up sometimes during the day just to show her that he knew where she would be and that he’s watching her. She then reaches the point where she’s looking over her shoulder all the time, waiting for him to show up. He gradually takes control of the finances and won’t let her have any access to money, no passport, nothing essential unless she has “earned” it or “deserves” it. He’s the one who decides if she has. He eventually has so much control over her that she has no other life and no other thought. She can’t risk falling asleep because he might do something to her while she’s asleep. She has to keep watching him to know what she might be up against from moment to moment. He could even reach up suddenly and slap her while they’re quietly watching telly, just to keep her on her guard. She can never relax. He isolates her from her family and friends, not letting her visit them or talk to them anymore unless he’s listening in.

He reads her emails, monitors her phone. He can even make threats against her family. The most common threat is that he will kill the children if she tries to get away. He will make her feel that anything the children suffer will be her fault, and that if she “makes him” kill the children by leaving him, it will be all her fault and no one will love her anymore. He will convince her that no one will ever have her again, and that he’s doing her a favour just by being with her. She will eventually have the same symptoms of PTSD as soldiers do who have been in frontline combat. She will be hyper-vigilant, will have nightmares, will be highly anxious, and will have constant dread that something awful is about to happen. Every moment of her life will be about surviving every moment of her life, and she is never allowed to let her guard down. This doesn’t end just because she managed to get away from him and to survive doing so. Her brain is locked into this never-ending spin. Just as it is for soldiers, where the battle never really ends, so it is for the victims of extreme domestic violence. They get stuck in that time frame, and can’t move out of it.

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