Torture victim refuses to let bad memories define him

Dana Parsons, Los Angeles Times

Torture is a juicy little lunchroom or talk radio subject. Should it be used? How would you react? How much could you take?

But lunch ends and people go back to work. The radio host moves on to another topic. People get on with their lives.

Except, that is, people like Hector Aristizabal, who brought his one-man dramatic performance and 25 years of memories to a Cal State Fullerton philosophy symposium on torture the other day.

It was not a comedy.

Aristizabal, 46, a Colombian who moved to the U.S. in 1989, was taken from his home with his brother in 1982, he says, and tortured over a three-day period.

He says he was subjected to electrical shocks on various parts of his body, including his testicles, beaten, kept awake for three days, held under water to simulate drowning and stood up against a wall as soldiers fired toward him in a mock execution. He and his brother were turned in by a priest, he says, who told the Army they might be subversives.

And so you wonder, what does being tortured do to a person?

For Aristizabal, it made him want to kill the people who did it to him. It made him want to torture them. That darkness of mind then led him on a personal odyssey to fight off those feelings. Along the way, it has made him a fervent opponent of torture.

We talked by phone Sunday night from his Pasadena home. Aristizabal said he refuses to let memories of torture define his existence, even as it has shaped his professional life — both as a psychotherapist and dramatist and sometime actor.

“The feelings can pass for a while,” he says, “but my brother [not the same one captured with him in 1982] was kidnapped, tortured and killed by the Colombian paramilitary death squads in 1999, and that reawakened in me the desire for revenge and the anger and the blindness of that anger. One of the things that helped me was to have my own children and see how much they need me, but for at least a year, I was blinded crazy, with nightmares and fantasies of revenge.”

The 30-minute play he presented at Cal State is meant both to simulate his own torture and to provoke audience response. He asks them to create their own images of how they might respond.

He plays several characters, including his mother, his brother, his children and the torturer. “I use plasticity and the magic of theater to take people into the process,” he said.

Having been tortured makes him a status symbol, of sorts. Obviously, most people don’t know someone who’s been tortured, only to find themselves in the presence of someone “who fantasizes about killing people and who has tried hard not to.”

In a sense, he says, only someone who has been tortured can torture another. What he means, he says, is that he realizes that he could have, if given an opportunity under certain conditions, “inflicted great pain on people who killed my brother and hurt me.”

That fight against torture has been broadened to working for what he considers social justice. As such, he has counseled many people — including juveniles — caught up in the criminal justice system.

But torture is the subject for this day.

He discounts the “ticking bomb” scenario that often is used as a rationale to defend torture. That rationale says that, for example, if a suspect is the only one who knows details of an imminent terrorist attack, torture may be the only tool available.

Aristizabal says that scenario “has never occurred in history.” Even if he’s right that it has never occurred, I suggest, it won’t stop people from intuitively using it as an argument.

“A society that allows torture creates, both for the torturer and the survivor, a society that is torturing itself, its own human values,” he says. “It affects the psyche not only of the two people involved, but those of us who know we live in a world where torture exists. The main idea of it is to create fear, not gather intelligence.”

He says he has come almost all the way back from the person who, in the torture chamber, was made to feel like nothing and bereft of a person’s normal bolstering sources — like family, friends and institutions.

That sense of hopelessness and abandonment is the special wickedness of torture, he says.

And so his one-man plays will continue, if only to convince people that the U.S. lowers itself when it embraces torture anywhere in the world, Aristizabal says.

“Doing this show in universities, symposia, conferences, and hearing the response of people, which is as visceral as my own experience, it’s like a ritual in which I remember what happened to me, but I’m also asking people to remember what we’re doing.”

Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at An archive of his recent columns is at .