William Sampson ‘got under my skin’: The Torturers’ Pleasures

By Jeanne Sarson | Apr 4, 2012

William who?

William Sampson. He died. Last week, on the 29th of March, the Huffington Post announced his death from an apparent heart attack, he was 52.[1] Sadly, I didn’t know him. But, I read his book and he helped me. His book helped me help others. His book was titled, Confessions of an Innocent Man: Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison.[2]

William, according to his book, had dual citizenship—Canadian and British. Working in Saudi Arabia, he was imprisoned, falsely accused of bombings that killed a British man and wounded several others. His book describes in detail the torture he endured for 2½ years. And this is how he helped me. Working—listening—supporting—writing—trying to expose the modus operandi of home-based torturers, William’s decision to describe the torture he suffered helped. Revealing details of the types of torture he endured and the severity of the consequences of the prison torturers’ acts of classic torture helped Linda and my work. There is scant recognition and information on acts of torture inflicted by home-based torturers so we turned to the torture ordeals of those who were tortured by State perpetrators. This is how William helped. He spoke out. 

How did his revelations help?

When, Linda and I, in 1993, were confronted with the horror that was and continues to be told to us that in Canada and around the world torture was/is being inflicted in private spaces—in homes, in cottages, on farms, in motels rooms, in homemade dungeons, in workplaces, in ‘pornographic studios’ for example—in any private space these torturers had/have safe access to, we became gleaners. Gleaners picking up the grains of validating evidence about torture victimization wherever we could, William’s book offered grains of validating evidence. When we began to reveal that torture was perpetrated by private torturers or private non-state actors—by parents, by intergenerational family members/groups, guardians, spouses and other like-minded adults, human traffickers and pornographers for instance—we were, just as the victimized persons were, at best, ignored.

This is how William’s death got under my skin. He never knew he sowed the seeds that helped Linda and I glean deeper understanding of the pleasures that torturers have. Sexualized torture pleasures included. Although he spoke of State torturers’ pleasures—the prison guards—and Linda and I speak of non-state torturers pleasures, when I read William’s book his descriptions of the pleasures expressed by the Saudi guards were mimicked in the descriptions of women predominately who speak of being tortured in their homes, either as children and or as adults, imprisoned by the domination, terror and horror inflicted by their torturers.

Why do torturers do what they do?

A common question asked of Linda and I is: Why do private or non-state torturers do what they do? Always included as one component of our answer is that they do what they do for pleasure. This appears to shock many. Both State and non-state torturers have pleasure responses. In this Blog I will briefly share three categories of the torturers’ pleasures with examples that show how William’s descriptions of the behavioural pleasures of the State torturers are mirrored in the acts of torture perpetrated by non-state or private torturers. The torturers’ pleasures are:

1. Companionship pleasures of participating with others in the torture of their chosen victim. This companionship pleasure can be voyeuristic—the pleasure of watching. It also carries emotional companionship pleasures of belonging to a like-minded group or family system that enjoy the same thrills derived from torturing another human being. With like-minded companionship guilt is abolished and justification for doing what they are doing is reinforced. For instance: 
a. Torturers frequently function in groups. In William’s ordeal there were three predominate torturers who functioned within a jail system that supported their torture-actions. They ‘fed’ off each other—one torturer beats, the other follows. Women tortured by non-state actors also describe that the torture they survived was within like-minded family-led, spousal-led and group systems that ‘fed’ off each other.
b. Williams spoke of the torturers’ laughter and giggling as the group of three enjoyed the pain and humiliation they inflicted. Women speak of enduring these same emotional and psychological torture ordeals, and frequently state they can still hear the torturers’ laughter and re-feel their grave humiliation when they have flashback memories or triggering.

2. Superiority and arrogance pleasures derived from exerting violent life and death domination over another human being and at the same time connecting and functioning within mainstream society, for example, 
a. The State torturers went ‘to work’ in the prisons and the non-state torturers go ‘home’ to work their acts of torture. And both groups function with impunity. Cultures with built-in impunity are considered a common cause for the widespread infliction of torture around the world.
b. William, testifying in the Canadian House of Commons, was angered by the non-support he received from the departments within the Government of Canada when he was imprisoned. Linda and I, as often as we write to Ministers within the government they also dismiss the need for legal support for persons tortured by non-state actors. The rote response we receive from the Department of Justice is there is no need to criminally recognize non-state torture, a charge of assault will do. 
c. Impunity permits State torturers to go home to families, friends and their communities after their work shift is over; this is also true for some non-state torturers. For example, Lynn, who was a victim of torture by her spouse and three of his “goon” friends, described that her spouse’s three friends worked shifts holding her captive. She described that they wore wedding bands, were clean shaven and smelled of cologne, and that they went home to families when their torture-shift was over. William spoke of how the State torturers smelled of cologne, and during one torture session one torturer was interrupted by a telephone call from his presumed wife. William described how nicely the torturer spoke to her. When he hung up he resumed torturing William. For the family orientated torturer, he or she, go home to torture but they too function within their communities with very honed skills to avoid detection.

3. Sexualized torture pleasures perpetrated by males. William’s description of the perpetrators of State torture-rape is mirrored by non-state torturers. Male torturers get erect penises and they intentionally and violently insert their penises into the orifices of the individuals they decide to torture-rape. And when they do this they can ejaculate. Although this act of torture-rape is about using their penises as weapons for sexualized torturing they also display pleasure. This form of torture-wounding, I suggest, may also be one of the most intense torture-thrills for perpetrators because they know that torture-rape dehumanizes and destructively wounds the victimized person’s humanity and spirit—probably like no other form of torture. William said the torture-rapes deconstructed his personality. Some insightful examples are that,
a. This destruction of personality and personhood is perpetrated repetitively as is the torturers’ pleasure experienced repetitively. William spoke of the State torturers “taking turns” at inflicting torture-raping; this is a standard torture-ordeal survived by the women who have shared their torture stories with Linda and me. 
b. William spoke of how the sexualized intimidation and the look of the State torturers’ “real longing“, as well as the torturers’ giggles were most terrifying, contributing to the on-going destruction of his personal integrity. Women who have been tortured by non-state actors, either as children or as adults, also speak about “the look” and how terrifying the perpetrators’ smiles and laughter was.  
c. Both William and the women so tortured spoke of their terror that they would hemorrhage to death following torture-rapes—William rectally and the women both rectally and vaginally.

Moving Beyond a Culture of Impunity and Denial

William wrote in his book that he was examined by doctors when in prison who then returned him to his cell. The torture continued. Women tell Linda and me there were times when they were so severely harmed that the perpetrators called on doctors for assistance. These doctors did not report the torture crime that had committed against them. The doctors’ silence meant they too were returned to their homes to be further tortured. Lynn, whom I mentioned earlier, when she disclosed her captivity, torture and trafficking victimization to a priest she said he told her to return to her husband because she was a “prostituted woman”. She never spoke of her victimization again—at least not for 25 years.

Two other socio-cultural violations that William spoke of and that Linda and I encounter when listening to the social experiences of persons tortured by non-state actors include blaming-the-victim and a mental health system that pathologizes the person so victimized. For instance, William, when visited in the Saudi jail by one Canadian political visitor, this visitor asked William, “What have you done to stop the torture?” This is a statement that is clearly about blaming William, as if he as the prisoner was in charge of the torturers. William also wrote that mental health professionals wrongfully diagnosed him with psychosis versus having his responses considered a consequence of being a victim of torture. This is a common occurrence that Linda and I are told about. Women are not asked if they are victims of torture, they are not asked if their responses are related to torture ordeals that they survived. It seems as if the system does not want to ‘simply’ address their suffering responses as normal responses to torture victimization.

To move beyond a culture of impunity, from Linda and my perspective, two events must happen.

1. If a nation’s laws do not cover torture crimes, regardless of who commits them, as occurs in Canada, torture that is perpetrated by non-state or private individuals/groups must be criminalized.

2. The mental health or the health system in general needs to open up to caring about persons who have suffered acts of non-state torture and support them as persons whose human rights have been severely violated. They are normal persons who deserve the right to be listened to and believed. They need to be listened to in a way that helps ‘reconstruct’ their relationship with their Self. As William stated it, the torturers deconstructed his personality.

And this is how William Sampson ‘got under my skin’. He helped. He told his story and this provided collaborating evidence for Linda and I about the acts of classic torture that are expressed by the individuals who courageously share their stories of surviving non-state actor torture ordeals with us.

1. Huffington Post. (2012, March 29). Canadian William Sampson who faced Saudi torture dies. 
2. Sampson, W. (2005). Confessions of an Innocent Man: Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.


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