Ideas | “You are not You anymore”: On the Torture of Theon Greyjoy
Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, January 18, 2017 10:57 - 1 Comment
By Asim Qureshi
Warning: This article contains content some readers might find upsetting. The article also contains potential plot spoilers.
I finally managed to get around to reading A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in the Game of Thrones series. For those not familiar with the books, the character of Theon Greyjoy is captured and tortured, badly, by Ramsay Snow (later Ramsay Bolton).
Although the detention and torture starts in the previous books, it is in A Dance with Dragons that it takes on a completely new meaning and effect. Theon Greyjoy is tortured to such a degree, that he takes on a completely new persona, the character of Reek, one that has been entirely constructed in the mould set by his suffering:
“Talk to me. Tell me your name.”
My name. A scream caught in his throat. They had taught him his name, they had, they had, but it had been so long that he’d forgotten. If I say it wrong, he’ll take another finger, or worse, he’ll … he’ll … He would not think about that, he could not think about that.
Reek tries very hard throughout the book to remember that he is not permitted to remain Theon Greyjoy, and in order to ensure that further torture does not follow, develops entire strategies to ensure he does not fall back to his own self:
Reek? Tears ran down his cheeks. “I remember. I do.” His mouth opened and closed. “My name is Reek. It rhymes with leek.” In the dark he did not need a name, so it was easy to forget. Reek, Reek, my name is Reek. He had not been born with that name. In another life he had been someone else, but here and now, his name was Reek. He remembered.
On 28 different occasions, he uses rhyming words in order to remind himself of who he must be, so he does not forget and thus get punished. What is interesting, is the choice of rhyming words he uses, all of which reinforce a narrative of dehumanisation: freak, wreak, weak, bleak, shriek, cheek, leak, meek, leek and squeak.
In order to get to this point, Greyjoy was subjected to various rounds of torture and degradation. For the most part, George RR Martin does not choose to elaborate in detail on the exactness of the torture, but does give enough information for the reader to understand the breadth of what happens to Greyjoy:
Lord Ramsay would never simply cut off a man’s finger. He preferred to flay it and let the exposed flesh dry and crack and fester. Reek had been whipped and racked and cut, but there was no pain half so excruciating as the pain that followed flaying. It was the sort of pain that drove men mad, and it could not be endured for long. Soon or late the victim would scream, “Please, no more, no more, stop it hurting, cut it off,” and Lord Ramsay would oblige.
Thus the torturer no longer remains the cause of the harm, but develops an almost ‘omnipotent’ status, where he becomes the cure as well – the victim/survivor become thankful for ending the pain.
The abuse is not just limited to physical torture, but psychological torture including sexual torture. After Greyjoy’s conversion is ‘complete’, he continues to feel threatened by Bolton, who plays games with him, such as asking him to begin foreplay with Bolton’s new bride on her wedding night:
Ramsay rose, the firelight shining on his face. “Reek, get over here. Get her ready for me.”
For a moment he did not understand. “I … do you mean … m’lord, I have no … I …”
“With your mouth,” Lord Ramsay said.
In this moment Reek is not sure whether this is a test set for him by his master. His internal alarm system is activated as he worries that fulfilling an inappropriate command will lead to further suffering for him. He starts to deploy rhyming sequences in order to remember that he must call the new bride ‘Arya Stark’, rather than by her former name of Jeyne. He does this by reminding himself that ‘Jeyne’ rhymes with ‘pain’ – once again falling back on strategies that assist him to avoid bringing further harm on himself.
The torture inflicted by Ramsay Bolton, both physical and psychological, is what Judith Herman, in her book ‘Trauma and Recovery’, would have referred to as strategies of “coercive control”. In order to achieve such control, Herman speaks of techniques such as isolation, dominance, terror and the “demand for collusion” being adopted by the torturer in order to ensure that their victim is not only destroyed completely, but that they are rebuilt into the mould the perpetrator desires. This is powerfully evoked by Mohamedou Ould Slahi in his ‘Guantanamo Diary’:
It was silly, but if you get scared you are not you anymore. You very much become a child again.
You can tell I was hurt like never before; it wasn’t me anymore, and I could never be the same as before. A thick line was drawn between my past and my future with the first hit.
The purpose of torture is to destroy any sense of autonomy the individual might have; to destroy their sense of self-worth and then reconstitute them into the image that the torturer desires. The idea is that the treatment would help the individual to learn that they are helpless, and thus induce compliance. In psychology jargon, this is referred to as ‘learned helplessness’. This aim is specifically cited in the Senate Committee’s report into CIA torture in relation to the case of Abu Zubaydah:
Shortly thereafter, CIA Headquarters formally proposed that Abu Zubaydah be kept in an all-white room that was lit 24 hours a day, that Abu Zubaydah not be provided any amenities, that his sleep be disrupted, that loud noise be constantly fed into his cell, and that only a small number of people interact with him. CIA records indicate that these proposals were based on the idea that such conditions would lead Abu Zubaydah to develop a sense of “learned helplessness.”
The process of torture became more severe as the CIA opted for harsher interrogation, particularly in relation to water-boarding, used a tool to coerce information, even where there was little chance of actionable intelligence.
At approximately 6:20 PM, Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded for the first time. Over a two-and-a- half-hour period, Abu Zubaydah coughed, vomited, and had “involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities” during waterboarding. Detention site personnel noted that “throughout the process [Abu Zubaydah] was asked and given the opportunity to respond to questions about threats” to the United States, but Abu Zubaydah continued to maintain that he did not have any additional information to provide.
The severe torture provided no new information for the CIA interrogators, but did lead to a level of ‘learned helplessness’ that he was not able to control. In fourteen years of interviewing and working with trauma survivors, I have never encountered forced compliance of a detainee in the same way that they managed with Abu Zubaydah, an indication of the severity of the abuse he received:
DETENTION SITE GREEN cables describe Abu Zubaydah as “compliant,” informing CIA Headquarters that when the interrogator “raised his eyebrow, without instructions,” Abu Zubaydah “slowly walked on his own to the water table and sat down.” When the interrogator “snapped his fingers twice,” Abu Zubaydah would lie flat on the waterboard. Despite the assessment of personnel at the detention site that Abu Zubaydah was compliant, CIA Headquarters stated that they continued to believe that Abu Zubaydah was withholding threat information and instructed the CIA interrogators to continue using the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.
Ramsay Bolton’s torture of Theon Greyjoy produced the persona of Reek, a character so completely destroyed by his torture, that he was not only left without any autonomy, but would actively put himself at risk in the hope that he would be able to avoid further harm. The degree to which Abu Zubaydah’s autonomy had been destroyed – so much so that he would voluntarily lie down on the waterboarding table – is indicative of the degree to which the programme of coercive control and learned helplessness was successful. It also makes it beyond inhuman.
George RR Martin’s description of Theon Greyjoy’s metamorphosis into Reek is all too resonant in the ‘War on Terror’ age. Martin presents Ramsay Bolton as a monster but, in fact, the ‘coercive control’ he exhibits is all too real.
Judith Herman teaches us that for abusers, whether they were torturers holding political detainees, or abusive husbands beating their wives, the methods of coercive control remain the same. Torture is effective in its ultimate goal; which is not intelligence gathering but, rather, to destroy the individual and to reconstitute them into the image the torturer desires.
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