Torture in black and white: books on torture

Recently, on our organisation’s website, we wrote about a new book from former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Manfred Nowak. The book, titled Torture: the banality of the unfathomable (in German: Folter: Die Alltäglichkeit des Unfassbaren) chronicles Professor Nowak’s experiences in documenting torture around the world, both during his professional career and during his mandate for the UN, where he traveled to almost 20 countries in all regions of the world.

However, Nowak’s book is only in his native German; but it started us thinking about other books – both fiction and non-fiction – that address torture and its impact on the victims and their families. Similarly to our previous list on the top films, we present here our top books on torture. If there are any we have left off or neglected, please remind us in the comments.

To start, it’s fitting to point to the current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Professor Juan Mendez, and his recent book Taking A Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights. Mendez, who is himself a torture victim from the Argentine Dirty War, describes it as; “a way to illustrate and enable people to understand how far we’ve come to make the international human rights groups diverse in their composition”. The book provides a very moving and in-depth telling of his own experiences as a torture victim in Latin America in the late 70s, and how since, he has dedicated his life to furthering the cause of human rights.






Many staff here at the IRCT recommended Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. Mayer examines the legal justification and excuses for the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ AKA torture, on terrorism suspects by the CIA. As a long-time foreign correspondent, war reporter, and now at the New Yorker, Mayer’s journalistic background and method in writing creates a well-researched and gripping account.







Professor Juan Mendez actually recommended this historically-derived drama in an interview when his own book was published. Set in Chile, Dorfman chronicles a country seeking justice and peace after the violent Pinochet regime. Set several years after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, Death and the Maiden follows the perspective of a women who hears the voice of the man who raped and tortured her several years prior – a man who is now a guest in her kitchen. Beautifully written, Dorfman’s play points to the long-term impact of torture.






While this may come as a surprise for some, George Orwell’s classic novel about a totalitarian state depicts well one of the tools of repression, fear, and control that occurs in such regimes. Although better known for its creation of terms such as ‘Orwellian’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘though police’,  the final chapters focus on the torture and interrogation of  protagonist Winston Smith. Smith seeks love and individuality in this dystopian novel, only to find it snuffed out by apparatuses of the state.







The third book in our list written by a current or former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, The Treatment of Prisoners Under International Law is a seminal work on torture, human rights, and international law by Sir Nigel Rodley. Places of detention, such as prisons, immigration detention centres, police lock-ups, or psychiatric centres, are the most common space in which one would find torture in any given country. As such, Rodley’s book and descriptive analysis is a fundamental read for those interested in how international human rights law came to be applied to a wider manner of human rights concerns, such as the inhumane or ill-treatment of detainees.






Horacio Verbitsky, author of Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior, is among the most well-known investigative journalist and human rights advocate in his native Argentina. After the ‘Dirty War’, the decades of human rights violations, extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture in Argentina, the former perpetrators of these crimes – largely the military branches under the regime – kept silent. Impunity prevailed. Verbitsky’s book is a first-hand account of the confessions of retired navy officer Adolfo Scilingo, the first man to break the military’s pact of silence and come forth with the crimes.






Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever OK?: A Human Rights Perspective is a series of essays and analysis from some of the top human rights thinkers, experts, and anti-torture activists in the world on a range of timely, current issues in human rights and the discourse around torture, particularly in the era of the so-called ‘war on terror’. For example, Minky Worden, Media Director of Human Rights Watch, conducts a survey of countries that torture. Eitan Felner, formerly of the Center for Economic and Social Rights and B’Tselem, writes on the Israeli experience. Twelve essays comprise the book.




There were a lot of memos that comprise the almost bureaucratic and systematic manner in which the U.S. government most recently approved the use of torture in interrogation. Among the most famous of these memos was a series of notes from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. After 18 pages of interrogation techniques that defied well-established law on torture, Rumsfeld approved, thus leading to such atrocities as Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay Prison and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.







Are there any we have missed? Please let us know in the comments.


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  1. #1 by Greg Straton on 17/04/2012 - 15:57

    An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan
    This is an autobiographical book about his four years as a hostage in Beirut. The book revolves heavily around the great friendship he experienced with fellow hostage John McCarthy, and the brutality that was inflicted upon them by their captors

  2. #2 by Curt Wechsler on 18/04/2012 - 03:01

    I can think of a couple of additions to the list, from fiction:

    Barry Eisler’s Inside Out

    and Mario Benedetti’s Pedro and the Captain, translated by Adrianne Aron

    to biography:

    Murat Kurnaz’s Five Years of My Life

    and documented stories of prisoners themselves:

    Andy Worthington’s The Guantanamo Files.

    A plethora of non-fiction accounts includes:

    Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture

    Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh’s Administration of Torture

    Charles and Gregory Fried’s Because It Is Wrong

    GeoffreyRobertson’s Crimes Against Humanity

    Stephen Grey’s Ghost Plane

    Joseph Margulies Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power

    Mark Denbeaux and Jonathan Hafetz’s Guantanamo Lawyers

    Steven Wax’s Kafka Comes to America

    Peter Jan Honigsberg’s Our Nation Unhinged

    William Schulz’s The Phenomenon of Torture

    Rita Maran’s Torture: The Role of Ideology in the French-Algerian War

    Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel’s The Torture Papers

    Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson’s Torture Taxi

    Justine Sharrock’s Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things

    and Marjorie Cohn’s The United States of Torture.

    Links to all of the books above can be found at .

    Thanks for starting this “book club”,

    Curt Wechsler
    the world can’t wait — Fire John Yoo!

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