Activism, Swearing & Acknowledging NST Induced Out-of-Body Survival Responses

By Jeanne Sarson | Nov 19, 2011


It’s rather a weird title, but when all of these relational realities recently collided, my decision was made. These issues would be the title for this Blog.

For five years I have looked forward to receiving the next edition of the Journal on Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Prevention of Torture. I do so with hopefulness. My hope is that I may glean seeds of information that will give more validation to the activism and support work that Linda and I do, and that such knowledge will help break down the doors of social devaluation and resistance that presently confront persons who have survived non-state torture (NST). But, at the same time, I know I am going to feel, maybe I ought to be polite and say ‘annoyed’, but truth-telling prevails—what I know I will also feel is insulted, frustrated and emotionally ‘pissed’. My apologies; but when emotions run high occasional swearing at such a given moment in time is helpful. Scientists who study swearing suggests swearing helps us to fight back when we are hurt; that swearing can help relieve emotional agony; that swearing delivers a clear message while releasing emotions so we do not have to become physical; and, that swearing is especially an expression of anger and frustration. Caution is also specified, that swearing for swearing sake does not have any such effect.[1],[2],[3]  

So I am hopeful, frustrated and angered because I know the Journal is closed to hearing about torture that occurs in the private/domestic sphere perpetrated by non-state actors or non-state torturers such as spouses, parents, other family members, guardians, and like-minded other families/groups. I realize the Journal developed their specific mandate of focussing on State torture victimization and rehabilitation but its focus is symbolic of how devalued non-state torture (NST) victimization has been. It is symbolic of the dominate attitudes of patriarchal superiority whereby only State inflicted torture has been acknowledged as a violation of human rights of warring men so to speak, whereas, the NST of predominately women and girls has been globally and gravely devalued and their torture victimization treated as unworthy of being acknowledged as torture. This patriarchal superiority unfolds in statements addressed towards Linda and my activism to have NST criminalized in Canada. Some individuals have fought against our efforts to have NST socio-legally recognized; we have been told “not to introduce the concept of non-state torture because it would tamper with the significance of State torture.” Linda and I will never agree to accept that NST be considered less significant than State torture. Freedom from torture is a non-derogable human right of all persons, including of women and girls, and other citizens, which must be protected under all circumstances, at all times and in any place. Hearing statements that devalue NST victimization and rceiving the Journal feeling it carries symbolic patriarchal superiority about State torture victimization starts boiling my emotions of the injustices, symbolic or verbalized, that invisibilize and oppress the suffering inflicted by non-state torturers.

For the people who survived NST, sometimes their voices spit out, “they’re damn bastards” when realizing the intentional destructiveness inflicted by the torturers. Who would not agree that their swearing was appropriate? Sometimes the email messages come to Linda and I as, “AAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGG” accompanied by some other *** descriptor. Who would deny a person so harmed such emotional swearing? Given it voices their struggle for freedom as well as being an expression of activism; it’s activism because it verbalizes that they are placing guilt where it truly lies—with the non-state torturers—and not within them-Selves. Knowing that scientists say that appropriately used swearing assists healing gives solid reasons to embrace and respect each swear word for its potential to release hurts—to release torture pain. There are solid reasons to embrace their expressions of emotional anger because angry they are and angry they have a right to be. Embracing the appropriate use of swear words is validating, it’s healing, it helps ease the Self-destructive messages and distortions victimized persons were forced—tortured—to internalize. It’s therefore a win-win!

Anger comes from different directions. Not only because of the hurts and life losses inflicted by non-state torturers but also by social discrimination that excludes and trivializes the NST victimization a person has endured. Social exclusion causes emotional pain that is similar to physical pain.[4] Social exclusion occurs when a victimized person is denied their human and legal right to have the NST suffered criminally recognized as torture, which is presently the situation in Canada and other countries. Such denial blocks NST prevention including blocking the development of NST informed rehabilitation.

To provide client-centered care and rehabilitation means being open to acknowledging both the impact NST victimization inflicts and the normal survival responses that a victimized person can experience. It means learning how persons survive such atrocities. It means learning, for example, that women, as adults or as children, commonly report experiencing, during overwhelming torture pain, terror and horror ordeals, a spontaneous out of body response. Linda and I have come to know that out of body survival responses are normal for the individuals we have/do support. We know out of body survival responses are repetitive and do alter a woman’s perception of her physicality. We know that her out of body survival response leaves her disconnected from her-Self relationally. We know that she may perceptually stay out of her body until she has an opportunity to develop sufficient trust in her-Self and have safe informed support to be safe to re-enter her body. We learn that re-entering her body is terrifying; it is painful. We listen as she describes how she begins to feel her-Self, her skin, her body, her presence. We listen as she describes the sensations that occur as she reclaims her brain—her thoughts, her beliefs, her values. She tells us how her voice echoes in her head—and how strange it is to hear her voice instead of “their voices”. Re-entering her body is so strange as to create a different sense of fear as she has to gain relational comfort with a sense of her physicality, with a sense of being a human, with a sense of being a person, with a sense of being female, with a sense of being a woman.

So imagine my hopefulness when I spotted, Near-Death Experience and Out Of Body Phenomenon during Torture – A Case Study, written in the Journal. Immediately I consumed the article then emailed Dr. Cooper, the author, because he had made a request for information if others had “similar cases.”[5] So we had a short email discourse that I appreciated for several reasons. These are:

  1. Dr. Cooper stated that a common consequence of State torture victimization is a “loss of physicality, detachment from one's body and fragmentation of the person... [sadly].” This basic statement affirmed for me that the consequences of NST that Linda and I have become so familiar with are comparable to the responses of persons who suffer State inflicted torture.
  2. In our conversation Dr. Cooper separated near death experiences (NDE) from out of body experiences, stating that near death experiences include (a) “a brief, characteristic “out of body” experience where the patient "shoots" at speed to the ceiling and looks down on events below (again for a short while) and then descends - to stay with their feet on the ground thereafter”; (b) that these “are nearly always perceived as very positive experiences by patients;” and, (c) that these defining points regarding NDEs are much rarer in State torture victimization. Responding to Dr. Cooper, I shared my opinion. I informed him that women who report NST “speak very clearly of first time NDE that took them spontaneously out of their body up to the ceiling looking down ‘at that person down there only to realize it was me’”. And that the women “experience both of these responses out of body up on the ceiling and fragmentation”. As well, that their response of being out of body is not described as positive, that the women describe it as frightening.

What I gleaned from this brief discourse confirms Linda and my observations that the massive severity of NST has been negated. We suggest that the severity of NST victimization and traumatisation expands when the torturers are parents, grandparents, other family members, guardians or spouses for example; that the severity expands when the victim is a young toddler for instance born into a NST family/group system; that the severity expands because of the length of time NST is suffered; that the severity expands because a victimized child may only ever have experienced “torture touch”. The severity expands because of years of sexualized and reproductive tortures—how does one survive 10,000 torture-rapes for example. And, the severity expands because of social negation.

In the Journal many articles speak of the importance of family support—victims of NST families/groups do not have this support. In the Journal they speak of developing best practices, of the psycho-social healing that occurs when victimized persons are given opportunities to seek legal justice, to speak their truths. In Canada this is impossible as NST is not specifically criminalized. Women and girls, and male and transgendered persons so victimized, in Canada and in other countries, face socio-legal discrimination. Because of social negation they are confronted with discrimination in health care, in protective services, and in receiving the wrap-around aide they may require to re-integrate into mainstream society.  

I have shared, in this Blog, brief insights into the healing impacts of activism, swearing and exposing that spontaneous out-of-body survival responses can/do occur as a normal consequence of NST victimization. I share now that I never used to swear but I must admit that the injustices of patriarchy in reference to how women and girls, and of course other citizens, who suffer NST victimization are marginalized into invisibility sparks strong emotions—quite often. I do censor my-Self as not to offend; however, I have given my-Self a wee liberty in this Blog to make a point. Sharing of one’s Self is about sharing equality and dignity with those who have been victimized and valuing how their swearing promotes their right to reclaim human dignity. It’s about role modeling humanness when the only role model has been the inhumanness of the non-state torturers. It’s about clearly standing to say that all persons who have survived NST have a human right never to be subjected to torture.

I close with this photo taken several weeks ago while walking in the woods. I selected it for three reasons. Firstly, the fallen trees are symbolic of the hurdles that have been overcome since 1993 when we began our work. Secondly, the green, soft forest carpet gives me hope that we will have soft landings wherever we tread; and thirdly, I find the image simply beautiful. Maybe you will too.


[1] Joelving, F. (2009, July 12). Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief.  Scientific American. Available

[2] Stephens, S., Atkins, J., Kingston, A. (2009, August 5). Swearing as a response to pain [Abstract]. Neuroreport, 20(12), 1056-1060. Available

[3] Jay, T, & Janschewitz, K. (2008). The pragmatics of swearing. Journal of Politeness Research, 4, 267-288

[4] Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M.D. & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290 -292.

[5] Cooper, M. J. F. (2011). Near-death experience and out of body phenomenon during torture – A case study. Journal on Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Prevention of Torture, 21(3), 178-181.


Latest Posts