The secret mind

I think of myself as a squeamish person. I don’t read horror novels or thrillers that delve lovingly into deranged minds. Heck, I can’t even read the icky bits in Diana Gabaldon’s books.

So I was rather disturbed, the other day, to discover that some part of my mind has been lovingly detailing scenarios that I don’t ever want to read, much less write.  I’m not going to write the details, because I found them really upsetting and I want to bleach my brain now, but here’s what happened: We were watching a cop show and came to the obligatory scene where somebody is tied to a chair and somebody else is trying to get information out of him by hitting him in the face, and I turned to the First Reader and said, “You know, I can think of a lot more effective ways to torture somebody for information. Why don’t they…. Or they could try…. Or they wouldn’t even need a blowtorch, a little butane torch would….

At this point the First Reader, he who can read accounts of historical atrocities with no trouble, began turning green, and I shut up.

And spent the rest of the evening wondering just what part of my mind had been collecting ideas for truly stomach-turning tortures, and how I could divert it to another track.  Because I don’t like torture. I don’t like to read about it, I don’t write it, and I really, really hate that a part of the fiction writer’s mind inside me has been collecting this stuff.

But… it’s there. Even if I’m not going to inflict it on you, I know now that it’s there.

What surprising pathways does your writer’s mind wander down without conscious direction?

36 thoughts on “The secret mind

  1. When my dreams start turning violent, it’s a sign for me to get more exercise. The more sadistic my dreams become, the more exercise I need. It’s election time, so I should be powering through a few days at the gym, but all I’m getting is some light yard work and walking the dog. It had better be enough. Because with what my wife found from one of her students yesterday and today, if the little shit does something to her, I might just make the bastard disappear in the woods.

  2. After neglecting WIP, I read it to catch up so I could continue. I thought to myself, I thought, “who’s going to read this? It’s got gratuitous sex references everywhere.” Editing ensued (I know, finish first, but it was really bad).

      1. Yeah, but what if your mother ever found out you’d written that! Yeah, my sexual imagination can even shock me at times, which can be a bit awkward when a plot requires it.

          1. Well, your mother is largely correct. Just be thankful that most of us sex crazed perverts have standards!

  3. Unlike your First Reader, I can’t even begin to read historical accounts of torture and atrocities without about wanting to throw up. Not something I even want to deal with, fictionally – I have too good an imagination.
    Dreams … I have quite nice dreams, mostly of late. Some of them were so delightful that I was rather sorry to wake up. Basically, I think that I must be a sunny-tempered and optimistic person. Grim-dark dystopia has no charms for me.

  4. I have a horror story that I need to write. Not even very gory or sweary. But my first attempt to work on it was when I was sitting in the children’s section of our local library in the vicinity of my kids and… nope. It was just wrong. Couldn’t do it.

  5. How would I interdict traffic? Which bridges, if compromised, would choke commerce and communications? How would I capture this building if I had X people? If that dam failed, what would it affect and how badly? And other stuff I’d prefer not to discuss in an open venue.

    I imprinted on military history as a child, so a little of it makes sense. The rest of it? I think my subconscious can be a very dark and scary place.

  6. The efficacy of torture depends on the research that you read. For example, the Gestapo were/are historically reckoned at being rather good at breaking people, within a few days at most. However, modern research shows that far milder methods can be effective too, within 48 to 96 hours.

    But, and here’s the thing, torture while efficacious at getting people to tell you things doesn’t correlate well with accuracy of what they tell you. One gets far better information by simple questioning and correlation of the informants answers with known facts.

    So, I suspect that the the use of torture in extracting INTEl is more or less tied to institutional beliefs about the value of torture as punishment. Caveat, I’m not presenting myself as an expert in torture, only applying what I know about questioning people and helping them change their beliefs.

    1. Torture by governments may result in information, but its true purpose is to demonstrate the power of the State.

      The best example of that would be the USSR, which used torture from its beginning all the way to its end. Very little of it was for information, not that much was even for punishment. The Cheka and its descendants essentially picked up people at random, just to show the State had the power to do whatever it wanted, and no individual could stand against it.

    2. The two are not mutually exclusive.
      Any competent torturer would obviously be looking for consistency, comparing information received to what was already known, and the stories of others being questioned (while keeping the captives carefully segregated, of course).
      All of the tools available to the interrogator are also available to the torturer, and are at least as effective in his hands.
      It’s amazing how many people mindlessly conflate brutality and stupidity. You’d think the whole of history, and the 20th century in particular would have thoroughly debunked it.

      And, of course, you’ve got the vocal contingent who wish to redefine torture to include anything unpleasant.
      Willfully ignoring that if they were to succeed, most of the populace would no longer find torture to be unacceptable. For instance, a practice employed in the training of our own soldiers does not become torture when used upon an enemy’s combatants. No matter how much the media clutches their skirts and screams that it does.

      Lest I be called an apologist, let me clearly state that orture is always bad.
      But there have been, and will be, situations where it is the lesser of evils.
      I would compare it to cannibalism. It’s potentially life-saving. But not something that should be considered or used outside of truly dire situations.

      1. There are some people who enjoy torture, for any purpose, merely because they are addicted to the feeling of power that comes with it.

        The “ethical” use of torture (if that’s not automatically an oxymoron) to discover useable information has some very narrow limitations.

        First of all, you have to absolutely KNOW the person you are going to torture has that information in the first place. Torturing an ugly old woman who owns an AK-47 for information you don’t know she has or not is grounds to take you out and put a bullet in both of your heads.

        Second, if you can’t get the information before it becomes useless, then you have no grounds to torture him.

        Third, torturing a person to wring out everything she knows just so you can match what she’s said with what others have said is engaging in a fishing trip, basically violating the first requirement.

        And I may as well add a fourth requirement that, if the subject isn’t already guilty of capital crimes meriting the death penalty (e.g. you caught him planting bombs in a hospital, or he’d just cut all the throats of a dozen kids in a school), then you must not torture him. The effects of torture on the subject last forever; regardless of whether you only maimed his mind, and not his body too.

        Someone will probably point out that most of the people the U.S. extreme renditioned for torture in other nations, or those suspected terrorists and unlawful combatants sent to Guantanamo Bay don’t meet these criteria.

        That’s the whole point.

    3. If you are grounded enough to be the sort of person who does good in the field of psychology, you are probably too functional to analyze intelligence problems in a useful way. There seems to be a fine line between paranoid enough for intelligence work, and clinically paranoid and delusional. Especially for problems of counterintelligence versus the Soviet Union.

      If you have information about what they know that they don’t know you have, if you have collected some people with the same information, or if you have someone whose information matches to a real world situation, you can torture them until the information you get matches to the information you have, the information you get from both, or the information you can test against reality. In particular, if a bomb could be in sufficiently many places that you can’t search every place, you have the person who placed it, and 48 hours is too long, you can probably check the locations given by the placer fast enough to break them and get the bomb unless you have so little time that less forceful methods wouldn’t work anyway.

      My evaluation of your claim incorporates what I know about the difficulties of measuring psychology, the probable difficulties of ethically doing research on people who are stressed enough, the difficulties of correcting for skill levels in your information gatherers, and what I’ve heard are challenges of applying psychological knowledge across cultural boundaries. Combine this with what we know about influence operations we know the Soviets did to keep us from doing something we know they did, or we know they didn’t want us doing that was objectively beneficial for us to do. Okay, sure some of what the Soviets did we should not do because of excessive evil, insufficient utility, active harm, or incompatibility with our grand strategy. The scientific literature on utility of torture is possibly compromised by residual Soviet information operations, and when I likewise discount fruit of the poisoned tree, it isn’t obvious that the others apply either.

      As for the last, my emotional experience may be an argument against. I’m fairly obviously a freak, but I do have some fairly distinct emotional reactions to different types of people I think things ought to be done to. Islamic terrorists are by far the category I am most cold blooded about. Emotionally, I see them as more mistaken than evil. I am personally a fanatic, and I feel the Islamic terrorists have made the mistake of going for so narrow a political agenda that they can’t build a coalition capable of winning by force outright. Intimidation is simply a strategy that is unreliable. Intellectually, I know that there is probably more evil involved in their choices, but emotionally I see it as an honest mistake that anyone could make. Policy recommendations for Islamic terrorists are in relatively cold blood. Communists I feel are evil. Intellectually, this is also the case, even if some of them are good hearted people whose mental function seems impaired to me. There is still some objectivity to the matter, but I take it for granted that foreign governments should be murdering foreign communists when they have them on foreign territory. Substance abusers* I hate, and the emotional endorsement for a policy of torture in their case is influenced by the sense that it is a just punishment. So in my case judgement about the utility of obtaining certain categories of information from terrorists, in accordance with enforcement of the laws of war, is entirely divorced from the sense of torture as just punishment.

      *Okay, strictly speaking it is certain substances or categories of substance.

      1. ” There seems to be a fine line between paranoid enough for intelligence work, and clinically paranoid and delusional. ”

        I have read that among other features the CIA searches for in candidates, a slight degree of paranoia is considered a plus.

        1. Several things seems potentially useful. Mild not clinical paranoia. IQ intelligence. Creativity. Strong analytical abilities. That combination also poses some mental health hazards that can be challenging to manage.

        2. But not KGB counter intel, at least according to the autobiography of a KGB counter intelligence defect that I read.

          Although not as exciting as fiction (it was told in a plain, matter of fact way), the book was still quite interesting. One items I still remember: he did NOT recruit straight A college students, because he figured that nobody is good at everything, so if you had straight A’s, you were looking for grades (thus taking easier teachers), not for learning.

      2. Don’t hate substance abusers. Far too many of them accidentally stumbled into their addictions, either from ignorance with recreational use, to those with emotional or pain issues that got hooked. In the case of opioids, we know for a fact that extended opioid use rewires the brain. That most people under that addiction can not just up and quit. If you’re looking for a target to hate, hate the ones that started them on the addictive substance knowing they could get them hooked just so they could rob them via their addiction.

        1. I dislike also the recreational users. Perhaps more so. The stupid bastards are the ones who are throwing away their sanity for shits and giggles.

          Appeals to me on the subject on grounds of sanity, decency, empathy, etc. will largely be fruitless. I would honestly rather be burned alive slowly than be a recreational user of several substances. I would prefer being burned alive as by far the kinder alternative.

          I have addictive tendencies that have manifested as wasting time, and have really struggled to get to a place where my life feels partly under control. The improvements in my health, quality of life, happiness, and hope for the future are the only things that seem to correlate with an improvement in my rationality were the substance abuse subject is concerned.

  7. I spend a lot of time and effort trying to construct models and perspectives under which other people’s actions and earnestly held beliefs would be rational, and not blatantly conflict with reality.

    It generally does not help me understand people better.
    (And it drives my wife nuts. She tells me not everything someone does as an underlying reason, and not everything makes sense “from a certain point of view”. I acknowledge the truth of that. But I still have trouble believing it. )

    1. I also construct models in order to understand people. My process seems to work well for crazy people and evil people. I originally attributed this to my own degree of evil and insanity. Part of things is that I didn’t grow up reading body language, and do not have the instinctual conviction that I understand other people correctly. Recently I realized that the differential success is because good sane people can be good and sane in a wide range of ways that aren’t obvious on the surface, but the wicked and mad tend to have flaws that are very revealing.

  8. The only story that disturbed me, book or movie, and actually gave me bad dreams was The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Later I realized that it disturbed me because it was, first, true, second, ongoing; the brutality and cruelty and mass murder was continuing when I read the books back in the mid 1970’s. Other books and movies have certainly had more graphic detail and suspense, but they weren’t true stories. That somehow gave them distance from me, emotionally. Not so with Gulag Archipelago.

    1. I don’t recall the movie and it may have been True Crime or it may have been fiction, but firstly, I have an excellent imagination to begin with, have always hated horror and gore, AND I got the idea that the movie was supposed to be “true”… there was some “cut up the body with a chainsaw” scene that gave me nightmares for a couple of decades. I’m sure that the idea that this was a “real” person and “real” events made it much much worse.

    2. Yeah, that’s part of why Chung and Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story was so very impactful on me.

      1. That book… changed how I teach Chinese history. That and Dikötter’s book on the Great Leap Forward. I haven’t brought myself to read his book on the Cultural Revolution yet.

  9. Sorry, off topic. (mostly making fun of myself)

    Anyone know why I spend the last two weeks of October plotting for my NaNoWriMo story (WAY more planning and plotting than I have EVER done) And the build-up was awesome, and I was so excited to begin!

    Then November 1st rolls around and my main computer completely crashed hard. No worries! I have the laptop!!! YAY!!! Crisis averted!

    In October, the words just rolled out and onto the page. Character perspectives so I know my characters inside and out. A short story all about how one character became who he is (written while giving out trick or treat candy) All so easy and fun to write.

    Except now I keep finding everything to do BUT write my NaNoWriMo words, and nothing is flowing… Sigh…

    Sorry… just venting… 🙂

  10. No fan of torture, but can very easily see myself use it in some circumstances. Means I’m very much not suited for some positions of power.

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