An Interview with Former Political Hostage Sarah Shourd
What Was Solitary Confinement like in Iran?
In the summer of 2009, Sarah Shourd and her friends Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were captured by the Iranian military while hiking near the unmarked Iran/Iraq border in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. The story of the “three American hikers” quickly became international news. It didn’t take the Iranians long to understand that they weren’t dealing with spies but three young activists critical of U.S. foreign policy. But by then the case had become much bigger. Because of the strained relationship between the U.S. and Iran, Sarah and her friends were valuable hostages giving Iran leverage for negotiations with the international community. Sarah was held incommunicado in solitary confinement for 14 months before being released for “humanitarian reasons”.
After being released, Sarah took charge of the campaign to release her fiancé Shane and her friend. She appeared on Oprah, met with president Obama, Hillary Clinton, President Talabani, Actor Sean Penn, Boxer Muhammad Ali, Musician Cat Stevens, and even President Ahmadinejad. Shane and Josh were tried in court and sentenced to 8 years in prison, but were released in September 2011, after serving over two years.
Last Tuesday, two and a half years after being reunited, they released a prison memoir about their time in Iranian prison and the campaign for their release, A Sliver of Light – Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. In the book, each of them takes turns narrating the events that lead up to their release. We learn about their deep interest in the Middle East, what they were doing there, the moments before their capture, and the long and arduous struggle to be released. Most of all, it’s an honest and compelling portrayal of what imprisonment does to you psychologically, how it breaks you down and reduces you to bare life.
I first met Sarah at a bar a few months ago. When I asked for an interview, she immediately agreed. We met last Saturday at a café halfway between my apartment and where she was staying.
What have you been doing since your release?
Sarah Shourd: I’ve been advocating and writing about prolonged solitary confinement in our country for over three years now, since Shane and Josh got out. I’ve been collecting oral and written testimonies of people currently in solitary confinement or that have gotten out – through prison visits, in-depth letter correspondence, and in-person interviews. I’m weaving them into an anthology that I’m going to publish with Solitary Watch.
It has definitely helped me make sense of my own experience, hearing these stories. When I first came back I felt so isolated. In prison, I thought that once I get out of this box I will never have to feel lonely again, I will always have people that I care about to talk to and I will never have to be trapped in my own mind in the same way. But it stays with you, you internalize it; what you experience in prison is in you. In some ways it’s harder to escape the internal walls. Hearing other people’s stories, I had this profound revelation that I wasn’t alone, even though it felt that way in my own community. Very few people around me have actually experienced long-term solitary confinement or imprisonment. Some people I know have been in jail for activist related activities, but it’s not the same.
I started befriending a lot of people that have been in prison and it dawned on me that prison is not at all a rare thing. Our country imprisons more people than any other country in history, actually 1 in 100 Americans will go to prison in their life time. It’s astronomical. Our prison population is the combination of DC, Boston, and San Francisco – that’s how many people are in prison in this country. I’m so far from being alone. It’s ironic that I experienced it in another country, but in another way it’s not. I’m not a target in this country – impoverished communities and communities of color are – but I went to a place where I actually was a target. I chose to go to the Middle East, and I knew there was a risk involved, but I never intended to go to Iran. Because of random events, that’s where I ended up – and in Iran I’m definitely a target.
When did you realize that connecting with other people who have experienced solitary confinement was something you wanted to do?
In the early months after I was freed, I was very focused. The only way I could justify my own freedom – being released before Shane and Josh – was knowing that I could help them get out. I was kind of like a machine. When I ate food, I didn’t taste the food. I was just eating to fight for them. I was constantly travelling from city to city, doing media, communicating with the many mediators that we had. Several other countries were playing really active roles in the diplomacy surrounding our case. I didn’t deal with the trauma and the post-traumatic stress. I locked it in a box and just went through the motions. It was like I was hyper-vigilant, living off of adrenaline.
When I found myself alone in a hotel room, it would hit me how much it still felt like I was in prison. How I couldn’t really connect to anything. I didn’t feel anything. In those moments I was terrified that I would always be that way, that I would go through life and be inside my own internal prison and not be able to connect with other people again, or even feel love. I remember thinking: I don’t feel love, I don’t feel hate, I don’t feel anything. That scared me. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, and I remember calling some very good friends and trying to explain it to them, and just feeling that I was speaking Greek. I was trying to relate it to their lives and it just made me feel worse. Because I felt like, well, you don’t know what I’m talking about, you haven’t experienced this. But then I called a person that had been in prison that I met through my advocacy for Shane and Josh. It was the first time I realized that talking to other people who have experienced the same thing really helps.
So that’s how I started surrounding myself with people who’ve been in prison. At first I didn’t do it intentionally; it was the company I preferred and needed. I realized that it was going to be an important way to relate to my own experience, to connect it to what’s happening in my own country.
When the one thing you’re really passionate about becomes your work, it can be challenging to find a balance between work and taking care of yourself. How do you deal with that?
It’s definitely what I want to do now. I don’t plan for more than a few years ahead. I’m doing great. I don’t have much PTSD. It can come back. It can get triggered and I can have an insomniac night here and there, overreact to something. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m extremely healthy and fortunate and really happy with the way my life is going.
I will never be the person I was before this experience. But I like the person I am now and I’m happy. I feel that I’ve made sense of my experience in a way that’s helping me and contributing to something larger. Shane and I are really fortunate to have each other, and to have gone through something that was very similar. But we also have to learn how to coexist in a way that is supportive and not make our lives be all about prison. So we have pretty clear boundaries; we usually don’t talk about prison after 6:00 PM. That’s one of our rules. Although we definitely make exceptions. After six, we generally check in, “do you want to talk about this right now?” We keep each other in check in a really good way.
It took months … years until the majority of our symptoms were gone. Having a constant dialogue about our experiences is one of the benefits the book has had on our relationship. We decided not to just leave it behind. It’s a very tempting thing with trauma to say “I don’t want to talk about it or think about it ever again.” With the book we turned every stone and it gave us a framework to resolve things.
In the early days of our PTSD we were living together in an apartment and we hated having a landlord. She would come over unannounced all the time, it was awful. One time we both flipped out. I was really angry and said, “It’s like we’re in prison, she’s imprisoning us!” I didn’t actually realize in that moment what I was saying. Shane said, “Do you realize what you’re saying? You’re not in prison anymore, you feel like you are but you’re not.” In moments like that we were able to recognize and understand what the other person was going through. In a different situation there might not have been another person to help you reflect on and understand what is happening to you.
The book seems to portray the different stages of incarceration really effectively. During the first few weeks, everything was new and traumatic, but as weeks become months, the narrative slows down, becomes more reflective, more grounded. Do you think this is experience is typical?
In the work I do now I’m constantly comparing my experiences to other prisoners. The three of us never expected to go to prison – it was the farthest thing from our mind. So at first there’s that initial, complete disruption ... We did not have stories of prisons, we didn’t know prisons, we didn’t have anything to anchor us. It was almost like being shot into outer space – that’s the closest analogy I can imagine. No way to radio in, or get any connection with anything you know, anything familiar.
The initial disorientation was very extreme, but after a month the reality eventually sunk in and there were days when I woke up and I wasn’t shocked that I was waking up in a prison cell. It becomes the new normal. Human beings are incredibly adaptable; you adjust to trauma and tragedies. But in some ways the coping mechanisms can be more dangerous in the long run; you become inured and you adapt to an oppressive and psychologically destructive situation. That becoming normalized is actually really unhealthy. You don’t want to ever accept it. So one of the struggles later became to find the energy and the will to resist – to not let ourselves become institutionalized.
In the book, you describe realizing that your power lied in being both passionate and defiant. It seems like this was a new realization for all of you, compared to your outlook on the world before being imprisoned. Has that continued to be a strategy in the work you’ve done since?
I’ve always considered myself to be a realist. When people attempt to make sense of our story they often call us young idealists, or, rogue travellers, rogue adventurers. I’m definitely an adventurous person and have always taken risks. There’s this great quote by Helen Keller that goes something like this: Security is superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor in the children of mankind. Trying to avoid danger is no safer than outright confrontation. And life without risk is no life at all.
I’ve gone to far more dangerous places than Iraq and Kurdistan. It’s kind of ironic that the worst thing that happened to me was there because it’s not a dangerous place, and nothing like this ever happened there before.
Being a realist, I don’t expect to ever be able to end solitary confinement entirely, even though there’s a huge movement around it. I understand the nature of our prison system, the nature of any oppressive system – once there’s pressure on them, they’ll come up with a tactic that looks like they’re reforming but that’s actually even worse. I understand that it’s a battle that may or may not be won, but to me the value lies in encountering the actual people that have experienced imprisonment. Those who are on the margin of society have experienced the worst of our system has to dole out, and their stories reveal truth, the larger picture. They can tell us what the essence of our society and culture really is. So I guess … Resist but also accept the limitations.
How is it to have your relationship become such a public story and, can I say … spectacle?
It felt like that at times … The important shift we had to make was to own our story. When I first got out of prison, it felt like other people had made our story for us. They had an idea of who we were and they were projecting that onto me. I felt like our story was trivialized, it was turned into this kind of tacky mainstream culture thing that didn’t feel like me. Feeling like you’re story is taken from you is really disempowering. An important aspect of writing the book was to take the narrative back.
Shane and I had a very strong foundation for our relationship. We had already had a lot of adventures together. The first summer Shane and I dated – we’ve been together 8 years now – we hopped trains across the country. Neither of us had ever done that before and it really bonded us together. We moved to the Middle East and made a life there, in a part of the world that was very different from what we knew. Overcoming challenges was a part of our relationship. We’re both adventurous, we both embrace the good and the bad, take it as it comes …
We learned that it’s great that people can connect to our story through our relationship. It humanizes it, and humanizes torture and all of these things that people need to be aware of. But ultimately, our relationship is ours.
Do you find yourself using the relationship strategically in your work?
We only talk about our relationship if we want to. You have to honor your own boundaries. When I’m interviewing someone else about their story, I always remind them not to talk about anything they don’t want to talk about. We chose what we wanted to share.
Imprisonment robs you of all resources, of all ways to engage – it’s the opposite of any models of rehabilitation. The punishment is to break you, to reduce you to a powerless and anonymous being with no individuality, to make you a non-threat in every possible way. I learned that a really essential thing for anyone who’s been traumatized is that everything you do should be your choice. You always have to ask yourself, do I want to do this? Do I want to write this book? A lot of people assumed we would write a book, but we made the choice. And when writing it, we didn’t just flush it out in 6 months like a lot of publishers wanted us to. We took our time. We wanted it to be a part of our process in a positive way and not something imposed on us.
How do you regain focus when you’re at a low point? How do you get back on track?
A lot of activists have a martyr-like mentality: “My life doesn’t really matter, my happiness doesn’t really matter.” I prioritize having a really fantastic life. The reason I’m working on a theater project is that I love theater. And it also helps me make sense of my own experience in the context of global capitalism. I work really hard to make sure that I enjoy my work, and that I enjoy my non-work. So I think that’s one of the ways I stay on track.
One of my coping mechanisms is my ability to distance myself from the subject matter. I think this makes me uniquely able to do this work. I get many letters every day, and I spend hours every month reading and responding to them. I had a couple of interns once who helped me read the letters and type them up. I would read them and be like, “Oh, that’s interesting, I like this part and that part.” And they would read the same letters and break down in tears. The material was so new to them, and it was shattering their world. But for me it was just another day engaging with what I’m interested in. My experience prepared me for this work, I guess.
The nature of your particular imprisonment catapulted your life onto the global stage of international diplomacy. You’ve interacted with many high-level politicians and influential activists – some of whom won’t even talk to one another. Who do you have affinity with, and who do you feel alienated from?
My world got so small when I was in prison and then it got so big when I got out, and now it’s at a manageable, human scale. When I first came back it was hard to relate to a lot of my friends, it didn’t feel like my world anymore. The work that I do helped me bridge that. I do feel affinity with activist and artists and journalists, I don’t feel that alienation so much anymore. Part of it is about getting older. I’m doing different things with my life, I’m not out in the streets anymore, but I feel that I’m still protesting in my own way. For me, being in touch with prisoners is what orients me and keeps me from not forgetting why I’m doing what I’m doing. Being in touch with people who are experiencing what I loathe. It keeps it real.
Do you find yourself taking on different roles in different situations?
I certainly felt that I could do that during the campaign. I could wear different hats, develop friendships with professors, international figures, Sean Penn ... I had a heart to heart conversation with Oprah and really related to her. There’s something about her, she’s just so real, so herself, not phony. She’s great.
My world expanded through the campaign and I did things I would never have done before, going to the White House, escaping paparazzi with Sean Penn. In a way it collapsed all divisions. People are just people, it sounds cheesy but it’s true. To stick around in our own social and economic groups is so limiting. I don’t want to be limited to one group. People are a lot more open than we give them credit for. Once I felt how much I can relate to political prisoners in Iran, politicians here, celebrities … I always want to live my life that way now, once I experienced it.