Testimony after Catastrophe: Narrating the Traumas of Political Violence


Survivors of political violence give testimonies in families and communities, trials and truth commissions, religious institutions, psychotherapies, newspapers, documentaries, artworks, and even in solitude. Through spoken, written, and visual images, survivors' testimonies tell stories that may change history, politics, and life itself. In this book Stevan Weine, a psychiatrist and scholar in the field of mental health and human rights, focuses on the testimony of survivors for the hope it might hold-hope ...
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Survivors of political violence give testimonies in families and communities, trials and truth commissions, religious institutions, psychotherapies, newspapers, documentaries, artworks, and even in solitude. Through spoken, written, and visual images, survivors' testimonies tell stories that may change history, politics, and life itself. In this book Stevan Weine, a psychiatrist and scholar in the field of mental health and human rights, focuses on the testimony of survivors for the hope it might hold-hope expressed by survivors again and again that, no matter what horrors or humiliations they have endured, some good might come of their stories. It is through the thinking of Mikhail Bakhtin, and his approach to narrative, that Weine seeks to read the testimony of survivors of political violence from four different twentieth-century historical nightmares--and to read them as the stories they are meant to be, fully conveying their legitimacy, resourcefulness, power--and, finally, hope.

A deeply involving, compassionate, occasionally confrontational blend of practical hands-on experience and dialogic theory, emerging from the author's decade-long work in Europe and Chicago with survivors of the Balkan wars, this book is committed to the proposition that efforts to use testimony to address the consequences of political violence can be strengthened--though by no means guaranteed--if they are based on a fuller acknowledgment of the personal and ethical elements embodied in the narrative essence of testimony. These elements are what Testimony after Catastrophe seeks to reveal.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810123014
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 8/14/2006
  • Series: Rethinking Theory Series
  • Pages: 196
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Stevan Weine, M.D. is professor of psychiatry and director of the International Center on Responses to Catastrophes at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of When History Is a Nightmare: Lives and Memories of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Rutgers, 1999).
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Read an Excerpt

Testimony After Catastrophe
Narrating the Traumas of Political Violence

By Stevan Weine
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2006

Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2301-4

Chapter One Torture Testimonies

Efforts to end the use of torture worldwide have been a primary focus of the mental health and human rights movement since the 1980s. This movement has established a body of practice, a clinical literature, and service institutions that have used the survivor's testimony for individual healing and advocacy. Torture testimony is regarded as a modified form of brief individual psychotherapy for survivors, but questions remain about whether testimony is able to ameliorate the mental health consequences of torture. Torture testimony is also used as a means of human rights documentation; however, this is complicated by concerns over the testimonies' truthfulness. In literature, torture testimony may be incorporated into literary testimony, which has opened up additional communicative channels for the documentation, exploration, and condemnation of torture.

Death and the Maiden

Living in exile in the brutal years when Pinochet's military dictatorship still ruled over Chile, Ariel Dorfman wrote a "dramatic situation." "As I began to write I found the characters trying to figure out the sort of questions that so many Chileans were asking themselves privately, but that hardly anyone seemed interested in posing in public" (DM 73). Dorfman returned to Chile several years later in the time of transition to democracy. Upon his return, he then completed writing the play Death and the Maiden. It seems important, if not mandatory, that Dorfman wrote at some margin of distance from the state of terror, in the safer and calmer situations afforded at first by exile and then by democratic transition. The writing was completed in a post-Pinochet society in transition where communication was not only possible, but in a way, necessary. There were fears and many questions concerning what the dictatorship had meant for Chileans and a hunger for answers.

Dorfman's drama takes place in a Latin American country after dictatorship, in an unnamed place that could be Chile. A woman who has survived kidnapping, torture, and rape, Paulina, has an accidental encounter with a man whom she immediately believes was her torturer and rapist. Her husband Gerardo, a lawyer, is the newly appointed head of the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Gerardo brings this stranger into their home after the man rescues Gerardo from a flat tire on a remote road near the seaside. When Paulina realizes that it is him, she takes this man, Roberto Miranda, a doctor, binds and gags him, and holds him at gunpoint. Miranda claims to be innocent. Gerardo sides with Miranda, not his wife.

An outraged Paulina insists that Dr. Miranda had tortured and raped her while she was held in detention by government forces. Gerardo hears her speak of these events for the very first time. The eeriness of this fact is not lost on Paulina: "Isn't this bizarre, that I should be telling you all this as if you were my confessor, when these are things I've never told Gerardo, or my sister, certainly not my mother" (DM 29).

Strange are the conditions that Dorfman creates in which truth-telling finally becomes possible, after fifteen years of strained family and public silence. Strange that it is not her family members or loved ones who provoke Paulina's agonizing confession, but the man who allegedly brutalized her. After saying some of these things to the men, she suddenly reverses course-she ceases her telling, and demands that Miranda himself now do the confessing.

She turns on a tape recorder and asks for his testimony. "You should know, Doctor, that everything you say will be recorded here" (DM 31).

Gerardo protests: "What are you trying to do, woman, with these insane acts?"

Gerardo is asking: What good can come of this? We too wonder: Why did she suddenly insist that Miranda speak instead of her? What is she trying to accomplish?

Paulina: "I already told you-put him on trial."

Gerardo does not like this. "What are you going to-and all this because fifteen years ago someone ..."

"Someone what? ... what did they do to me, Gerardo. Say it" (DM 34).

At this crucial moment it is not Miranda, the alleged perpetrator, or Paulina, the survivor, who assumes the position of confessor. Instead it is Gerardo. Paulina now demands that he tell all. She prods him to say yes, she was tortured, yes, she was raped.

Why is it that Gerardo has to be the one to say these things? Why is it that Gerardo is not trying to help Paulina to talk? After all, it is she who is the survivor and she who has lived in silence with those memories of torture for fifteen years. Does she make Gerardo say it because she believes that he was complicit in her silence? Or could it be that there is something else she wants to hear from her husband?

Dorfman effects another strong reversal by having the lawyer, usually in command of the courtroom, instead occupy the position of the witness under interrogation. What's even more fantastical is the irony that the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been living and sleeping with a torture story for years but did not know and still does not want to know about it. Public role crosses with personal experience and with pillow talk. It is too much, and he is not prepared to give Paulina what she wants and what to her is so clearly deserved.

Paulina's problem is not that she does not believe what happened. We are given the impression that the memories that she lives with are all too real for her. She wants desperately to do something with the memories to help her to move on. But what can she possibly do that would be helpful to her or to others? This is the dilemma that Dorfman presents.

At first she wants to rape the doctor. Then she changes her mind. "I want him to confess. I want him to sit in front of that cassette recorder and tell me what he did-not just to me, everything, to everybody-and have him write it out in his own handwriting and sign it and I would keep a copy forever-with all the information, the names and data, all the details. That's what I want" (DM 41).

Then comes another reversal. Gerardo wants Paulina to say everything into the tape recorder. He is worried about what this mess will mean for his important new role at the commission. His very important new role. He fears that it is they who will be accused of kidnapping. Gerardo wants to get Paulina out of the mess that she has caused. If she tells the whole story, then maybe it can be used to protect them. For the moment, Gerardo gets his way.

Paulina begins by telling the story of her kidnapping on the street corner, with the gun in the back, the words, the garlic breath, and then meeting Dr. Miranda in the prison. But Dorfman never lets her finish her testimony. Just as the story comes to the brink, Paulina says, "when your body is falling apart, when ..." (DM 58). Paulina's telling is cut off.

Instead, Dorfman replaces her voice with Dr. Miranda confessing to what he did as a doctor in the prison where Paulina and others were held. Dr. Miranda tells how it came to pass that he became a torturer and a rapist. He concludes, "I ask forgiveness" (DM 60). Paulina asks him to sign a statement that his confession is true. But then Dr. Miranda insists that he only said what Gerardo had told him to say, and that in truth he is innocent. Paulina says that she knows he is lying. She knows because he did not stick with the multiple errors that she had fed him by several intentional misstatements she had made to Gerardo. Paulina insists Dr. Miranda corrected them in his account because he was drawing upon the actual experiences of being the torturer and rapist. It is him after all. Now Paulina wants to kill Dr. Miranda.

But at the play's conclusion in a concert hall, the outcome of these events is left open. The music that fills this public space, Schubert's Death and the Maiden, is the same that was played in the very different spaces, the ones of the torture and rape in prison, and the place of the testimonies in the house by the beach. Dorfman ends the play with us not knowing if Paulina killed Dr. Miranda or if she let him go. She was convinced of the truthfulness of her testimony, but we do not know if Gerardo or others were ever convinced, or whether she bore that truth alone.

In Death and the Maiden a survivor has a story she wants to tell. Testimony in the play is not the straightforward recounting of a factual given. Dorfman does not present testimony as the survivor giving a completed story. The matter gets very complicated as the truthfulness of testimony is shown to be shaped by context, motivation, ideology, politics, and interpersonal factors. Any potential unity, wholeness, or resolution of the testimony is transgressed by reversals in who is doing the telling, and the standpoint from which they speak. Three persons' voices embody several critically different, interrelated positions with respect to torture: those of the survivor, the perpetrator, the family, the lawyer, and the activist. Testimony here is characterized by many-sided relationships between these positions. No sooner does one person start to tell than they stop, or are stopped. Another begins, only to stop or be stopped, for another to start again. The characters are carrying the testimony along through twists and turns that are surprising to the reader. Stated otherwise, in Death and the Maiden Dorfman envisioned and made a world where testimony is able to occur only through the surprising interpersonal interactions of his characters. Again and again Dorfman has his protagonists rescue the fragile testimony from silence, and struggles ensue over its truthfulness.

Here testimony is both private and public. Gerardo calls it a "private trial." In a sense he is right. Paulina is taking justice into her own hands. She wants to get over what was done to her, in her own way. But Gerardo is biased, given that he is the head of what is to be a state alternative to a trial. Even if we do not consider the issue of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there are innumerable ways in which Paulina's torture testimony is public. Her private life was violated by crimes committed by the regime. Her testimony is situated in a complex web of public events, roles, and relationships over which she, as a private person, has had little or no control.

All these complications of testimony that Dorfman has introduced come as no surprise, given the difficult conditions in the unnamed country where the testimony occurred. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be headed by her husband apparently does not offer Paulina a safe space for private and public truth-telling. Nor is there any other such space in public life. There is no acceptable space for this story to be told in her private life either. Where can Paulina turn? The space that Dorfman gives Paulina is accidental, risky, and highly traumatic. Neither she nor the two men are safe. She has to decide then and there if Dr. Miranda is the one, if he is guilty, and if so then how she will sentence and punish him. Her memory has prepared her for this confrontation. It is all in her hands. All of a sudden, it is as if nothing has prepared her for this moment of truth-telling. She does not find that space. She wants to tell. She wants others to know. She wants it to make a difference in her life and in the lives of other victims of torture, in her torturer's life, in history. But in the presence of these confusing conditions, the right connections are not made. She does not complete her production of a testimony.

What Dorfman has Paulina wanting from testimony is what any survivor would want: truth, justice, and healing. But what is it that separates truth and lies, healing and retraumatization, justice and vengeance? In testimony, not much, and this haunts both the givers and the receivers of testimony. They want it to be simpler, but in the world of Dorfman's play it never is. Of course, the limited choices of Dorfman's world reflect actual social conditions that many survivors face and that offer little opportunity for justice or healing. We are also left wondering if Paulina's giving of testimony with Miranda and Gerardo in the house by the sea is answerable to the experience of sexual torture. Or if any testimony could ever be.

Now, I will step into another world of torture testimony with this question: What if Paulina, this survivor of torture from Dorfman's imagination, is not alone in this dangerous space, but together with another, in a special place created just for truth-telling after torture? Would that make it go any better?

Testimony in Chile

Several years before I happened to meet Inger Agger and Soren Jensen in Zagreb, Croatia, these two Danish mental health professionals had visited Chile. They went to conduct an inquiry into the psychological and social consequences of torture and political violence. Equipped with the tools of psychology and ethnography, they went to listen, to look, and to learn from people who survived and from professionals who did mental health work with the victims.

Agger and Jensen wrote a book about Chile called Trauma and Healing Under State Terrorism. It described political violence and its consequences in Chile and put forth a theoretical model of trauma and healing under state terrorism. This model attempted to explain the aims of repressive political strategies at the individual, family, and group levels. It detailed what was done to families, such as when family members were "disappeared." The model described the nature of the trauma at different phenomenological levels and the "therapeutic strategies," which included clinical work and community-based work by survivor groups and humanitarian organizations, for dealing with it. Lastly, the authors called for attention to "issues of social reparation." Agger and Jensen's model came to occupy a leading place in the field of mental health and human rights.

Although testimony itself was not Agger and Jensen's stated primary focus, it was central to their concerns. They even wrote that the text of their book became their testimony. Through listening to survivors' testimonies, they were able to formulate answers to their questions of concern: How are people able to develop psychological weapons of self-defense to protect their human rights? How do they heal the psychological traumas caused by violations of their basic rights?

These would have been salient, but perhaps not the most urgent, questions to ask about Paulina, preferably years before her alleged torturer reentered her life. It is possible to imagine that investigating these questions might have helped to protect and heal her. But would she ever have agreed to give testimony, and tell her story to one of the psychiatrists? It seems unlikely to me. When Agger and Jensen went to Chile, they found some survivors who were willing to give testimony. (Is it that they were willing to be subject to an inquiry, or that they were willing to get treatment?) Agger and Jensen gathered some testimonies and read the testimonies that Chilean mental health professionals had themselves done. These testimonies spoke to their central concerns and became a component of their inquiry on mental health and human rights.

Several passages in their book gave evidence of the specific meanings of testimony for Agger and Jensen. The authors placed special emphasis on the "case story" of Julia: "Seventy-five interviews later we realize that it was Julia who gave us the most detailed and eye-opening description of the world of torture" (TH 82). Julia's story was one of those produced by the "testimonial type" interviews that Agger and Jensen conducted. It is printed at length in their book (with some editing, I presume).

Julia was a psychiatrist who gave her story of kidnapping and torture. She was arrested at her hospital, then brought to a secret detention center. She was interrogated, tortured with electric shocks, and then imprisoned in solitary confinement. She told Agger and Jensen her story and they wrote it down. "Together with Julia, we have been in the world of torture-the world in which silence and speech take on new meanings, and you are caught in the impossible choice between physical life and psychological death" (TH 87).


Excerpted from Testimony After Catastrophe by Stevan Weine
Copyright © 2006 by Northwestern University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments....................xi
Part I. Testimonies in Four Spaces Chapter 1 Torture Testimonies....................5
Chapter 2 Holocaust Testimonies....................25
Chapter 3 Testimonies from Wartime Bosnia-Herzegovina....................47
Chapter 4 Kosovar Testimonies....................71
Part II. Testimony as Dialogic Work Chapter 5 Introducing Bakhtin's Dialogic Work....................91
Chapter 6 Relieving Suffering....................95
Chapter 7 Creating Cultures of Peace and Reconciliation....................119
Chapter 8 Documenting Histories....................141
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