The following essay was published in the Winter 2007 edition of First Light, a journal published by The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture. I have edited and re-published it here because I wanted to share my experience of working at CCVT from September 2004 to December 2010 more widely.
New update! There’s been one more re-publication. A condensed version of this essay can also be found here on the World Policy Institute’s blog.
CCVT Clients: Saintly Victims or Complex Individuals?
by Catherine Raine
Watch a person’s face when you tell them you teach English at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture. Eyebrows rise with surprise and the eyes crinkle in concern. Often the head moves forward, as if CCVT is a magnet that draws them closer to me, so close that I can sense their curiosity, embarrassment, pity, and fear. With the exception of one person who laughed when I said the word “torture,” most people become very quiet, perhaps burdened by questions they’d like to ask, their imaginations aroused by the taboo images of “torture” and “victim”.
I don’t want to judge my auditors too harshly for their reaction to an ordinary inquiry about my job. Before I started teaching at CCVT in the fall of 2004, I tried to imagine the particularities of suffering just barely conveyed by the phrase “victims of torture.” I may never be able to understand the depth and scope of the pain my students have experienced, but I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned about their coping methods.
Whether they have responded with emotional numbness or extreme sensitivity to others’ suffering, I believe they both inhabit and transcend the limiting label of victims. Two-dimensional saints they are not, but the courage of CCVT clients shines in their willingness to start again in Canada and find a new voice in a new language.
One misconception that I’ve overcome is the expectation that survivors of torture will always say nice things. Previously, I believed that intense suffering had somehow made them more than human, magically transforming them into pious models of compassion and political correctness. That’s why I was shocked when a student once joked about Christopher Reeve’s paralysis: “Superman used to fly but now he’s stuck in a wheelchair.” A few of the learners laughed at the unfeeling comment, but the rest of us just gaped in horror.
The same student who lacked empathy for Reeve also got irritated with me during a class discussion of Princess Diana’s biography. When I said it was sad that she died so young, the student replied matter-of-factly: “That’s life, teacher. Children die all the time and who is feeling sad for them?” Maybe the learner didn’t like precious sympathy being wasted on rich women who romped on yachts with playboys. More disturbingly, another client started laughing when she told a story about two men in her building beating each other up in a lover’s quarrel. A classmate said, “Teacher, she’s laughing about somebody getting hurt?” I agreed that it wasn’t at all funny, just as it wasn’t funny when a different student expressed anger at Inuit seal-hunts with the words “Let them eat snow! Why can’t they find a job in the city like everybody else?”
Was torture responsible for these lapses in compassion? If so, I think the most tragic effect of brutalization is a lost capacity to feel for other victims, especially when they seem different in regard to disability, wealth, sexual orientation, or culture.
If trauma has cost some students their willingness to acknowledge others’ tragedies and hurts, then that’s the biggest loss of all; here, the inhumanity of torture has damaged some victims’ own humanity to such a degree that they no longer know what is funny and what is sad. From this perspective, I can see how empathy could become a luxury and hurtful laughter a way to mask overwhelming sadness and fear.
It’s emotionally costly to invest in the suffering that’s available for our consumption in the media. Insensitivity, distance, and emotional numbness are safer than facing the pain lurking in the body’s memory, locked into every thought. I can understand why it might be difficult for some of my students to “waste” emotion on Christopher Reeve, Princess Diana, a gay neighbour, or the Inuit. However, a large part of the rehabilitative work that happens at CCVT involves encouraging the clients to see that they’re not beyond the circle of human compassion, even if it must have felt that way when no Superman rescued them at their darkest hour, no Princess came to hold their hand and tell them everything would be OK.
At the opposite extreme of emotional withdrawal from pain is over-identification with accounts of suffering. One morning in class, I read aloud a few paragraphs about Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope as part of a grammar exercise. To my surprise, one of the students started sobbing loudly when I reached the end of the passage. The rest of the class looked extremely uncomfortable, and I felt terrible, for I had hoped Fox’s story would be inspirational. On the contrary, it was just too unbearably sad for the crying student to read of a spirited young man who lost a leg and then his life to cancer. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I stopped reading, patted the upset learner on the shoulder, and gave the class their journals. I had planned to show a TV movie about Terry Fox after the break, but I changed my mind because I was worried about the effect it might have on the student who cried. We watched You’ve Got Mail instead.
On another occasion, I asked a student what her favourite colour was. I thought it was a neutral conversational topic, but her answer was heart-rending. She said, “I used to really love red. It was my favourite until the day I saw a wounded cow in my village. Something had cut its thigh and there was so much blood. The smell of it made me sick. But what I couldn’t stand was that the cow was crying because it was in so much pain. I think a farmer had done this cruel thing because the cow had wandered into his garden and was eating his vegetables. But I felt so awful about the poor cow, and even now I can’t stand to wear red-coloured clothes because they remind me of the blood from the cow’s thigh.”
Hearing about the wounded cow made me want to cry, too, for I could picture its agony from the vividness of her description. At risk of reading too much into the story, I think the cow’s suffering spoke to the depths of the storyteller’s own innocence and outrageous pain.
This same student cried when we read a Metro news article about an American woman whose son died in Iraq and who protested for peace in Washington on Mother’s Day. I have learned to limit our newspaper readings because the articles most clients choose to discuss are about topics such as the trial of Cecilia Zhang’s killer, a boy who murdered his brother, and the kidnapping and murder of three Canadian brothers in Venezuela.
Between the extremes of avoidance and overexposure to the morbid lies the more ordinary subjects we cover, for our class is about much more than coping with tragic stories. We also speculate on the love life of Prince Charles and Camilla, discuss the different ways to ask if it’s break-time, share cake at birthday celebrations, read short plays, perform jazz chants like “Mama Knows Best,” and tease each other about owning imaginary helicopters and limousines.
Outside the classroom, we explore Toronto together, outings which comprise some of my best memories of CCVT. For example, on a trip to the Toronto Reference Library, I loved the way the students immediately plunked themselves down at the wooden tables and started to read books in Swahili, Tamil, Tigrinya, Somali, English, Amharic, Spanish, Arabic, and Albanian. I sat down with my ESL books and joined the scholarly communion; it felt peaceful and happy to be reading silently together in the middle of our noisy city.
On less scholarly outings, we have swung on beach-side swings and enjoyed picnics at the Toronto Islands. And other times we went on day trips to the CN Tower, St. Lawrence Market, Allan Gardens, the Beaches, Parliament Street Library, Kensington Market, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the National Film Board.
It is the very ordinariness of these activities — finding the right subway platform, examining a painting together, sharing coffee and a box of Timbits at Tim Horton’s — that seems to ease the burden of extraordinary suffering our students stagger under. After all, a day-tripper is more than a Victim of Torture; he or she is a student, a tourist, a classmate, a friend, a provider of bread and sweets, a host who insists on buying the teacher’s coffee.
When I read Camilla Gibb’s novel Sweetness in the Belly, her description of refugees reminded me of my students’ kindness and generosity: “For all the brutality that is inflicted upon us, we still possess the desire to be polite to strangers . . . . We may have had our toes shot off by a nine-year old, but we still believe in the innocence of children. . . . We may have lost everything, but we still insist on being generous and sharing the little that remains. We still have dreams” (407).
At CCVT, I believe it is my job to be a gentle witness to both the dreams and the tragic experiences of our clients. If the pain is never far from the surface, neither is the beauty. For instance, beauty was definitely present at the Family Day party last May when we danced on the backyard patio. As the sun warmed the tops of our heads, the group of dancers grew larger and the joy became more contagious.
Looking at the smiling women playfully shaking their shoulders, it was hard to understand why anybody would have ever wanted to hurt them instead of celebrate them. Their joyous dance was fierce evidence that whoever tortured them did not win, did not extinguish their spirit. Moments like the patio-dance make me appreciate with greater clarity the rehabilitation CCVT encourages. We are mutual witnesses of movement towards the sunlight, towards togetherness and benediction. As I threw my head back to accept more sun on my face, I wished I could show the world these victims who aren’t afraid to dance, saints who flirt, and students who teach me to cherish my freedom.