Notes from a Nondescript Building

Listen: there’s a story sometimes repeated in my field about a torture device from antiquity. It was called the Brazen Bull, where “brazen” here means, I think, brass or bronze. The story goes that a particular inventor in Ancient Greece built this Bull for an awful tyrant king, felt proud of it for all its engineering and technical worth (it was a profane and stupid time when you had to do everything by hand), and, so offending the king with his hubris, got himself thrown into it. The ending’s flexible, then on out. Sometimes he died inside of it. Sometimes the king pulled him out just before he died and then threw him off a cliff. I don’t know. I’m not enough of a philosopher-critic to parse the significance of that particularly Spartan act.

But if and when the story gets shared—and rarely between two journeymen, since we’re not of a fraternal sort—the details (such as they are portioned, oddly) are lavished upon the mechanics of the Bull itself. That’s what you care about too, isn’t it? It’s okay—you don’t have to feel guilty or squeamish about wanting to build out the grisly details (they’re grisly, too, I promise)—it’s a very human instinct to want to shake off the horror of not knowing by coming to know. Right now you’re hearing the words “Brazen Bull” and practically quivering, right? Because you’re not sure of anything about it except for its name, its presumed complexity, and the fact that one is put “inside of it.” That’s a scary prospect, to imagine for yourself—rather than only observe—the horrors and rigors and tut-tut-ta that we impress upon one another.

It was a large hollow statue in the shape of a bull, cast, one assumes, from bronze or brass, big enough to put a man inside—and you would, you’d put a man inside, and light a fire underneath the bull which, being metal, would heat up more and more, charring the skin, sure, you think, ah, a contact burn, but I think the real horror is to cook within a boiling pocket of air, to try to breathe but only inhale pure broiling heat. It’s a real horrorshow: consider now that, according to apocrypha, the thing’s head was full of tubes and horns that, somehow, induced the inevitable screams into a bull’s bellows. Also, the smoke came out of the bull in great, incense-like puffs. Also, when you removed the bones from the ashes, they were brilliant enough that they were made into noble jewelry.

Scary story. Spook story. Listen: I think we got off on the wrong foot. You were led to understand that, in my profession, we have a field. No, that implies a journal, like The Lancet, and conferences, conventions, calls, coming-togethers. There’s really no such thing, and you don’t, either, come into this line of work (listen to me, I sound like an old man) in any deliberate, Walden sort of way.

Nor do I want to mislead you and sell you the notion that there’s a positive takeaway from this anecdote. There one hundred percent is not. I want to dissuade you from this glamorous Hollywood notion of torture—right there, something to understand, is that, no bones about it, the word for it is torture. I disdain “enhanced interrogation,” “information extraction.” These bureaucratic euphemisms might have done for something in another time, but they’re now branded on our consciousness, aren’t they? Writer-types try harder and harder every year to conceive of the next comedic term for it, because all it’s good for at this point is a joke, a gag. What’s in Room 101? The death knell of coded casual language…

So I call it torture, and you can too. It’s what it is after all, and for every excellent word without euphemism you could use to describe it—I particularly dislike “torment” and particularly like both “excoriations” and “trials”—it is just… what it is. I don’t take a particular pride in it, either. I don’t think you ought to. More on that later.

The fact that torture’s got a Hollywood gloss to it is sort of absurd, no? I was about to say, you wouldn’t conceive of a Hollywood genocide, but then you might—in both meanings of the term: the saccharine bittersweet Boy in the Striped Pajamas wah-wah pieces and the mass extermination of movie executives and celebrities. Tom Cruise beaten to death with a donkey’s jawbone. Ha-ha.

Dispel first the notion that torture was ever so spectacular. Dispel Pits and Pendulums, Pears of Anguish, Iron Maidens, Iron Trees, and Chinese Water Tortures (we do conceive of the heathen orient as being particularly fertile for nefarious tortures, especially since we might sometimes be a bit squeamish to imagine they came from Paris, London, and just down the road). They’re not going to do you any good. Real Torture (capital R, capital T) is a lot more mundane.

And dispel too the moral posturing and grittiness of your contemporary torture: your Zero Dark Thirties and, in particular, your 24s. They’ll put a man to the griddle with anything on hand. There’s a scene in Taken (okay movie) with Liam Neeson, where he uses some metal chopsticks and bad Eastern European wiring to electrocute a man. Would that we were all so creative.

And if I’ve condemned and smeared the two extremes then you are asking yourself, maybe, what is left? And what is left is something boring and effective. Why is the Brazen Bull so captivating? It has occupied your mind, yes? It has established a little territory in your mind and will not go away tonight or tomorrow, though it might for a while after that, until it most certainly (unstoppably!) occurs again in your thoughts and makes your skin crawl and maybe even excites you sexually—it’s so exotic. Think about–not even certain brands and breeds of internet porn–but just the licentiousness with which Inquisitors supposedly subjected beautiful women (like you) to the strappado; the Judas Cradle; the Pear of Anguish (though the historical provenance is murky). And think about, how many years out from the Second World War, the immediate and arousing intersection of the worst humanity’s got to offer and for better or worse the best: you’re smart and cultured and must love art, so you’ve seen or at least heard of Pasolini’s Salò. If it’s got you uncomfortable in that broader sense don’t worry about it, put this down and cool off for a minute. You can’t help how you feel, after all.

So: the chopsticks and wiring are creative; so is the use of a deep-fryer full of oil. They are grimy and they captivate.

But there’s nothing captivating about a jerry can. Actually, even that is sort of high-brow, low-art if you grasp my meaning. More often we use whatever is on hand—a watering can, a Brita pitcher. There are anecdotes about Coca-Cola being used because the carbonation burns, and I don’t know who came up with it—it’s variously the Mexican Federales or the Iranians, but drowning’s drowning, no? Waste of good Coke, anyways. You can get water out of any spigot for nothing but the effort of walking for it.

Well waterboarding’s a good test case, litmus test. You wouldn’t necessarily watch it but everyone, as much as they might let their hearts bleed and condemn it, has that small niggling thought in an occult corner of their minds: how bad can it be? Because, coming out on the other side, there’s no scars to be seen, no flesh rent, no bits of gristle on the grimy concrete floor (shot low-angle with flickering and icky-green key lighting). But a lot of tortures are like that, we clean up well enough. A beating can show bruises, but bruises don’t really bother people. I’m not a fan of a beating though; I only meant broadly. I think if you’re trying to put your boots to a person’s neck the beating works, to keep them squashed down flat and dumb quiet, but that’s not what torture’s for. You’ll just as easily shoot a noisy one in the side of the head in front of all their friends, get less sweaty on the other side too.

It’s a little too familiar, anyway. Beating’s a beating’s a beating (Gertrude Stein said that). Easy to steel for. Waterboarding’ll hit so hard because how many people, realistically, have ever drowned and then come out on the other side? Or if they did as a kid, still remember it? It’s got to be absurd and alien to really put the fear of god in you. Chileans used a technique called the Parilla. I won’t go into detail—but I will say, with a combination of detached regard and natural (Christian-raised) human disgust—the Chileans were the masters of torture and no one will ever top them. As a last resort we pull out teeth: you remember that from 1984, which you probably read in high school? Nobody wants dentures before their time, and if they get killed, which they often do, then can’t they at least say they gave up the ghost with a full set of teeth? Pearly whites at the pearly gates, as it were.

Which must have you wondering after what kind of person might take torture as his trade and practice. Was he abused as a child? Did he stumble upon some fetish pornography and have his mind irreparably altered? Does he derive a perverse sexual pleasure from it? Is he a cool and austere and Germanic doctor who merely wishes to understand the extremities of human anatomy and psyche? Oh, and could a woman do it?
I hope you find my answers sufficiently unspectacular. I won’t give you my name, but you wouldn’t be surprised to hear it. You might find me playing golf but not very well, or realistically watching a baseball game (go Giants). I do like movies, have the odd nerd’s proclivity for trivia, and comfortably live the bachelor’s lifestyle. Eventually I may find a girl and settle down, to quote Cat Stevens, but for now I use Tinder and OkCupid and it’s fine. I like to read—you are thinking, Thomas Harris—I like Don DeLillo and the shorter, less dense Thomas Pynchon. But I enjoy suspense novels too: James Ellroy; LA Confidential’s a must-read, and Poe is unbeatable. You might now dispel the notion of the hillbilly butcher from your head and go in the opposite direction, and try to conceive of me as then a sort of Patrick Bateman-type, the sociopath that the Ivies breed, well-monied and made of damage. Listen: I went to the University of Florida, and then Johns Hopkins. There’s something to respect there in my degrees but not too much since I did not graduate cum laude or into Phi Beta Kappa, etc.

I work for the government, of course. And if not, I work for the institutions adjacent and identical to the government, the multinationals three filters deep who need a Band-Aid for their scabs, etc. But there’s no conspiracy there. It’s exactly what you’d expect would go on in a place like Myanmar, or Somalia. No I was not at Abu Ghraib, no I was not and am not at Gitmo. CIA and Army go big on these things and it’s stupid. You pull out one person’s teeth, whip the soles of his feet with jumper cables, shoot him in the back of the head after a dozen mock executions? You bury him in the backyard? No one will ever know. You rape and torment five hundred fucking Iraqis and take pictures posing with thumbs up and big smiles, you rope college kids who wouldn’t be out of place at an FSU (Playboy’s number one party school in America) function into doing it for you? Yes of course you’ll get caught, pictures on the cover of The Economist. It’s literally all over Wikipedia. I’m certainly not.

I’m writing this in my free time—I have a lot of it. If I torture someone and they’re let go, I almost never see them again. If I torture someone twice, there’s a good chance they don’t leave. I’m not a hundred percent certain what is done to the bodies, but I’ll tell you that I’ve never killed one myself. And I don’t mean that you should feel I’m redeeming myself by saying that, as though murder is the furthest transgression possible, further than torture, because it’s not, and on that sliding scale that occurs to you, what I do is undoubtedly worse (except for the aforementioned niggling thought which says that in fact of course death is worse, that torture is something you can surmount if you’re excellent enough, up until the moment in which you yourself [and I mean that generally, not you specifically you] are tortured). I don’t take pride in my work, or pleasure in it—I get that it’s not just like any other job. I don’t keep, like, regular office hours and my payment comes from a dummy company of course. But baby, come on, what do you expect?

I’m writing this from the nondescript building you walk by every day, and I am writing it to you because I’ve seen you walk by it every day, with your earbuds in and wearing your backpack, headed to class, probably, or work, or wherever it is that the little smile on your face it feels like only I can see is taking you. And on occasion I have seen you glance up at the building which has no signage and is probably not residential, you might think, but sure could be—and I have seen that thought form niggling in your head that you are curious, and because you are the sort who is impulsive and artistic (you have dyed your hair blue, since I have first seen you; it looks good, by the way), I have imagined and I think rightfully so that you might one day knock on the front door or find it open and come inside, and look for a secretary, and try to find someone, just to ask in your bright and cheerful way, what is this place, anyways?

As a favor to me: don’t. I don’t think you will come inside and hear strangled pleas very softly through the ventilation, I don’t think you will see the lights flicker with the odd sapping of power from the converter, I don’t think two nondescript men will grab you (you are small, petite, and this is beautiful but not necessarily violent, you see) by either slender arm and bundle you into a tall windowless room. I do not think I would have to visit you. Instead, I think you’d either get bored, unsatisfied, or get bored, satisfied—you would leave. You’d never come back.

But: just think: what if? And I won’t go beyond that.

Listen: this isn’t a love letter, okay? I have no fantasies that you might find a sensuous mystery in my words (because I know they’re off-putting and mundane) and come running to me and desperately throw yourself almost moaning up the narrow concrete stairwell, and come upon me brooding like the alchemist himself over my table of medieval implements, chrome and darkly erotic for their curves and needlepoint spines. Nor am I a Gothic romantic: I am not sending this to you because the agony of knowing that this letter will be our only contact is so exquisite that I must enact it though it will destroy me, darkly chivalrous, and doomed though I may be, occultly dismantled by hooded acolytes of a red-robed inquisition. That poetry stuff’s bullshit.

I have sent this to you because I felt that I must, you understand? And if you do not understand, then know that at least I do, and know that in this regard—the sphere of torture—I must determine what things must and mustn’t be done. And so I’m asking you to just trust me here and stay away, and not go poking your nose in anywhere you might be curious about the featurelessness of a certain structure, its total unimportance in the grand scheme of things.

I am in the gray office building on your way to work. I am in the house at the end of the street with the curtained windows but the neatly raked yard. I am in the back storerooms of big-box retailers. I am in the unlabeled janitorial structure on campus. I am in the places you ignore because, beautiful creative type though you are, they do not in any meaningful way impact your existence, not even to inspire the artistic impulse of supposedly finding beauty in anything. There’s nothing beautiful about my stucco mediocrity. That is okay. Preserve that ignorance like it were a virtue. You and me both. I may be there in the morning and I may not. It depends on if they bring me another one to torture. But that’s all up in the air and always will be. You never know about these things, right? Ha-ha.

Take care of yourself.