the latest issue of the Review of Faith & International Affairs considers the 
theme of torture, and they asked me to supply an Orthodox perspective. I'll 
add some more notes at the end. 
if you prefer to read online, here's the URL:
The Wounded Torturer 
“It was during this part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves.” 
They buried my spiritual father last November. I have never seen a body in a 
casket look so not-there; the indistinct pale husk he left behind looked like 
something a breeze could lift up and carry away. It was the contrast, I 
suppose. Few people in life are as radiant and vigorous as Fr. George Calciu, 
or as 
full of joy. He was a few days short of his 81st birthday, still full-time 
pastor of a church in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, still traveling world-wide 
those who sought him as a teacher and spiritual father, still diligently 
reaching out to the poor and unchurched around him.  
Fr. George’s radiance was a lasting rebuke to the darkest intentions of 
torturers. In his native Romania he was imprisoned twice by the Communist 
authorities, for a total of 21 years. He was a survivor, in particular, of the 
but appalling “Pitesti Experiment”—the most intensive program of brainwashing 
to take place behind the Iron Curtain.  
The plan at the prison in the Romanian city of Pitesti was to take promising 
young men, 18 to 25 years old, and utterly break them down—then rebuild them 
into the ideal “Communist man.” In the book Christ is Calling You! (St. Herman 
Press, 1997) Fr. George explained to an interviewer that the Pitesti 
experiment involved several distinct steps.  
Incoming prisoners would be handed over to a team of guards and experienced 
prisoners, who would beat them and kill one or two, whoever appeared to be a 
leader. Then the “unmaskings” began, in which prisoners were required under 
torture to renounce everything they believed. Fr. George recalled being 
to say, for example, “I lied when I said ‘I believe in God.’ I lied when I 
said, ‘I love my mother and my father.’” This was extremely painful, as it was 
designed to be. The intention was to undermine the prisoner’s memory and 
personality, to infiltrate his consciousness with lies until he came to believe 
A few months ago I was able to talk with another survivor of Pitesti, Fr. 
Roman Braga, when I visited the Michigan convent where he now is in residence. 
The Communists had arrested Fr. Roman on an inventive charge: he was accused of 
trying to overthrow the government by discussing the writings of St. Basil the 
Great, St. John Climacus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. He spent his first year 
in solitary confinement, and in the dark, narrow cell could not tell one season 
from another, nor could he look out the small, high window and see a horizon. 
“You had to go somewhere; you had to find an inner perspective,” he said, “
because otherwise you would truly go crazy.” 
Fr. Roman told me that religious beliefs were particularly mocked. Tormenters 
would set obscene lyrics to the tunes of familiar hymns, and celebrate parody 
liturgies designed to break believers’ hearts. His sole clue that Christmas 
or Pascha (Easter) might be near would be the appearance of their themes in the 
torturers’ arsenal.  
One way guards particularly taunted Christians was by telling them that 
Christ and Mary Magdalene had had a sexual relationship. Fr. Roman noted, 
that in Romania this constituted torture, but in America people line up to 
pay for it in movies and books (“Here in the land of so-called freedom—I am not 
so sure you are free.”)  
Neither man would describe what they’d endured. “It is secret, intimate,” 
Fr. Roman said, “I saw saints fall, and I saw the simple rise and become 
 Fr. George admitted that he gave way under torture. When a victim is out of 
his mind with pain, he doesn’t know what he is saying. Fr. George told his 
interviewer, “It was a spiritual fight, between good spirits and evil spirits. 
And we failed on the field of battle; we failed, many of us, because it was 
beyond our ability to resist … The limit of the human soul’s resistance was 
there by the devil.”  
This emotional and spiritual damage was even worse than the physical pain. 
Fr. George went on, “When you were tortured, after one or two hours of 
suffering, the pain would not be so strong. But after denying God and knowing 
to be a blasphemer—that was the pain that lasted ... We forgive the torturers. 
But it is very difficult to forgive ourselves.” At night a wash of tears 
would come, and with it, returning prayer. “You knew very well that the next 
you would again say something against God. But a few moments in the night, when 
you started to cry and to pray to God to forgive you and help you, was very 
Fr. George once attempted to write a memoir of his Pitesti experience, but 
found it impossible: “Sometimes I was hammering at one word, timidly, then 
persistently, then intensely, to madness. The word became nothing other than a 
sequence of letters or sounds. It had no meaning. It didn’t tell me anything. I 
would say: ‘beating’ or ‘pain’ or ‘prayer’ or ‘curse’ ... and I would 
substitute one for another without any change; none told me anything! I would 
say ‘
cell’ and the word would not speak. I could say instead ‘lelc’ or ‘clel’ or ‘
ellc’ with the same result. Everything was mute and absurd.  
“And suddenly a curse from that time would resound in my mind, or a song 
somebody sang during the unmaskings, and the whole atmosphere would install 
with a painfully striking character and with a reality more real than it was 
then. Affective memory! Proust was a genius in his intuitions, a part of the 
literature he wrote.” 
Yet the worst was still to come. In order to demonstrate that they had truly 
become “the Communist man,” in order to fully embody the persona demanded of 
them, these mentally and physically battered prisoners were required to become 
torturers. They were compelled to assist in the “re-education” of new 
prisoners, and any reluctance or leniency was cruelly punished.  
“This was the most difficult part,” Fr. George said, “for under terror and 
torture one can say, ‘yes, yes, yes.’ But now, to have to act? It was very 
difficult. It was during this part that the majority of us tried to kill 
ourselves.” In his case, “I was on a big staircase, three stories high. The 
moment I 
tried to climb over it to throw myself down, a friend of mine caught me and 
saved me.”    
It may sound surprising that being a torturer was so much more painful and 
soul-destroying than being a victim. Yet the pattern holds in other realms. In 
her book, Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (Praeger, 2002), Rachel MacNair 
examines a number of situations in which a person may be more distraught over 
harming someone—even if it’s socially sanctioned or in self-defense—than by 
being harmed personally. This sounds reasonable enough in the case of a 
policeman who kills someone in the line of duty, or of the person whose sad 
role it 
is to carry out a death sentence.  
Yet even soldiers, who have been trained to kill and may well be themselves 
in mortal danger, can feel great distress about the violence they do to others. 
In “The Price of Valor” (New Yorker, July 12 & 19, 2004), Dan Baum examines 
this puzzle. He spent a week with amputees at the Walter Reed Army Medical 
Center, in Washington, D.C., and “was struck by how easily they could tell the 
stories of the horrible things that had happened to them. They could talk about 
having their arms or legs blown off in vivid detail, and even joke about it, 
but, as soon as the subject changed to the killing they’d done, a pall would 
settle over them.” When he asked a Vietnam vet how often he experienced 
flashbacks of killing villagers, he first said, “Every ten minutes,” but then 
corrected himself: “Really, it’s more like I’m always looking at a double 
The Army’s textbook for the medical corps, “War Psychiatry,” notes that “
casualties the soldier inflicted himself on enemy soldiers were usually 
described as the most stressful events” and quotes a company commander that it 
easier for a soldier to accept the death of a friend than to cope with the fact 
having shot someone.  
MacNair considers evidence for Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress among a 
number of groups—soldiers, executioners, police, criminals, and abortion 
providers—and presents some unusual information about the Nazi 
These were the soldiers who were charged with shooting Jews lined up at the 
edge of a pit—an act of unspeakable callousness. But, from the perspective of 
Nazi efficiency standards, the soldiers weren’t able to be callous enough. 
Because they shot their victims in the back they were spared the memory of the 
victims’ faces, yet found their nightmares haunted by those vulnerable, 
necks. Adolf Eichmann wrote that many of them, “unable to endure wading 
through blood any longer, had committed suicide. Some had even gone mad. Most 
of the 
members of these Kommandos had to rely on alcohol.”  
When Heinrich Himmler observed a shooting squad in action, it disturbed him 
so much that he ordered a “more humane” approach be found; the result was the 
gas chambers, which allowed the killer to avoid seeing his victims die. An 
officer in charge of the Einsatzgruppen, von dem Bach-Zelewski (who would 
later succumb to hallucinations), insisted to Himmler, “Look at the eyes of 
the men in this Kommando, how deeply shaken they are! These men are finished 
for the rest of their lives.”  
The torture he endured did not “finish” Fr. George; it made him courageous 
enough to defy the authorities, and even accept a second term of imprisonment 
as the price of preaching the gospel. Fr. Roman says that, in fact, his time in 
prison brought him an unexpected blessing, because it was there that he first 
discovered the depths of prayer. “I was forced to find myself in prison,” he 
writes in his book, Exploring the Inner Universe (HDM Press, 1996). “Only 
then was I able to discover how beautiful the interior life of man is … We will 
never reach the same spiritual level of life as in Communist imprisonment.”  
I asked Fr. Roman whether he was able to forgive his torturers. “Those who 
suffer much, forgive,” he said. “Those who do not forgive become victims. I 
embraced my torturers, once I saw that they were controlled by the devil. The 
devil is real, not a bedtime story.” That would be one piece of the puzzle 
Orthodox Christians would bring to a discussion of torture. We still believe 
in a real devil. Not a pitchfork-and-tail cartoon, but a vicious malevolence 
who gorges on human suffering. The person who feels an inner compulsion to acts 
of sadism is not being driven by human nature.  
As Fr. Roman concluded, “Man is a sacrament; he is a mystery, too. We do not 
know what we are.” 
The idea that most humans are deeply troubled at hurting other humans seems 
to me a very touching and hopeful thing. An unexpected proof for the existence 
of God, I think. 
Of course there are times people feel a "blood lust" or become 
"bloodthirsty," or get exhilarated by vengeance, and may later have mixed 
feelings or regret 
or even feel frightened at what they've done. And there are some who are 
"bent" and actually enjoy causing pain. There was a fascinating article in the 
Yorker not long ago, about the TV show "24" and a meeting of military and 
intelligence experts with the show's writers. The experts were trying to 
the writers that the show is unrealistic, that it presents torture as far 
more effective than it actually is. They said torture has limited usefulness, 
is more likely to to strengthen resolve, and they gave the writers a list of 
non-violent means that are more successful in getting information (eg, one so 
simple it's ingenious, simply giving prisoners postcards to send to their 
friends; they write the names and addresses right down.) They also said another 
problem with a show like "24" is that it makes torture look so useful and 
acceptable that captors employ it even on people who really don't have any 
information, such as at Abu Ghraib. Torture gets used just because it looks 
like it's the usual thing to do. 
One guy in the article affirmed this finding that torture is very, very hard 
on the people who inflict it, so much so its not worth using. He added that 
there is about 2% of the population who enjoy inflicting pain, and that such 
people have have extreme personality problems and "you don't want them in your 
I covered the case of a person who enjoys hurting others in a longer ending, 
but the editor and I agreed that the tighter, shorter form worked better. I'll 
paste in the long ending below, in case you're interested. 
That would be one piece of the puzzle which Orthodox Christians would bring 
to a discussion of torture. We still believe in a real devil. Not a 
pitchfork-and-tail cartoon, but a vicious malevolence who gorges on human 
suffering. The 
person who feels an inner compulsion to acts of sadism is not being driven by 
human nature. As even the Army’s “War Psychiatry” says, mammals have “an 
aversion…to killing” their own species.  
Yet it can’t be denied that some people feel a rush of pleasure at such 
moments. The fury of hate, the thrill of power, may impel a person to hideous 
deeds; later he may come to himself and be horrified and disgusted with his 
actions. Ordinary, garden-variety sins follow a similar pattern: a person feels 
temptation come over him like a cloud, he feels an urgent need to act on it 
(as if hearing the whisper, “Do it now, before you have second thoughts”), 
but afterwards may well feel self-loathing or despair. All these phases suit 
the devil’s single goal, which is to alienate us from God. Lurid stories about 
exorcism give us the false impression that, if chairs aren’t flying through the 
air, the devil isn’t around. Yet as Jesus’ own Temptation shows, the usual 
method is simply to offer suggestions, fantasies, thoughts. To draw us toward 
sin, the devil assures us that God is lenient and will forgive; afterwards, he 
tells us that repentance is now useless, and God has abandoned us.  
What all such thoughts have in common is that they are lies. They come from 
the evil one, the “father of lies” (John 8:44). A central feature of Orthodox 
spirituality is the practice of identifying and resisting lying thoughts, and 
in this it has some surprising parallels to Cognitive Therapy.  
The person who regularly struggles against such thoughts grows stronger, but 
if the temptations never meet with a fight, they get the upper hand. Gradually 
the will is weakened and enslaved.  There’s an Irish proverb: “First the man 
takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.” 
Pleasure diminishes, and the reward for indulging desire decreases; desire 
itself even fades, and is replaced by miserable compulsion.  
I thought of this when I read an analysis of the writings of an author noted 
for his bloodthirsty fantasies. As I read sample passages, what struck me was 
how cold and joyless it seemed. If there had once been a flame of pleasure 
from such thoughts, it had long been extinguished. All that remained was a 
compulsion to think, think, think, ceaselessly, miserable, to ever be dreaming 
more complicated ways to wound and torment. It dawns on the reader that these 
are not records of events but only empty fantasies, in many cases impossible to 
perform. It reminded me of a the passage in the eyewitness account of the 
martyrdoms at Lyons in 177 AD, in which the Christians protested that the 
they’d been charged with were so horrible that, not only would they not do 
them, not only would they not *think* of them, they didn’t even think it was 
possible that anyone *could* do them. 
That is the final condition of a person who habitually indulges a temptation 
to fantasize about torture. At the end there is nothing but the feverish 
churning mind, which is whipped to continue manufacturing fantasies though the 
whole inner person is exhausted. What began as an occasional pleasure gradually 
overtakes the mind and personality, and the end product is, as the evil one 
desired, a hollow man, a slave. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” 
Jesus said (John 8:34).   
But for someone who turns back, recovery of health is possible. Christian 
faith teaches that God pities and loves all sinners, even the torturer. Even 
torturer can receive forgiveness, and at his repentance more angels will 
rejoice than they do over ninety-nine righteous who never need repentance (Luke 
15:7). We are not alone in this fight. Christ’s victory on the Cross was aimed 
the devil; it defeated him and set us free. “The reason the Son of God 
appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). We are freed, not 
from the debt of sin, but from sin itself. In Christ, we can begin to grow 
into our true nature: “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” 
(Ephesians 4:13).  
Fr. Roman concluded, “Man is a sacrament; he is a mystery, too. We do not 
know what we are.”  

Frederica Mathewes-Green

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