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An American Formerly Imprisoned in Iran Finds a Way to Break Out of ‘The Box’

Posted on Jul 15, 2016

By Emily Wilson

  Sarah Shourd about to board a plane with Shane Bauer, left, and Josh Fattal in Muscat, Oman, in 2011. The three were on their way to the United States after the release of Bauer and Fattal from Tehran’s Evin prison. Shourd had been freed in 2010. (Sultan al-Hasani / AP)

When Sarah Shourd was a prisoner in Iran for 410 days, she thought she had devised a clever system to communicate in solitary confinement. Then she started talking with other prisoners and found out that all of them had figured out a way to have some kind of human connection.

That desire for relationship, Shourd thinks, is just as important as air, sunlight, water and stories. It’s one of the things that kept her going in prison after being arrested in Iran in 2009 with her friends Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer (now her husband). The three had been living in Iraq, went for a hike one day, strayed over the border with Iran and were arrested. In 2010 when she got out of prison, Shourd had a hard time being around people, experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress and just wanted to hide out. But her need to secure the release of Fattal and Bauer kept her from that, and Shourd has been working against solitary confinement since her release.

A journalist, she co-wrote a memoir, “A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran,” and has edited an anthology, “Hell Is A Very Small Place.” But she also wanted to turn what had happened to her and others into a story so that others could start to empathize. So she created “The Box,” based on conversations with others in solitary confinement as well as her own time in prison.

Over a hot chocolate at a café around the corner from Z Space in San Francisco, where her play is being staged through the end of July, Shourd talked with Truthdig about storytelling, how solitary confinement attacks the frontal lobe, and wanting to include violent characters in her play.

Why did you choose to write a play?

I’m primarily a journalist, but it has been a necessity for me to attempt to tell this story in a way that taps into larger and more universal truths about what isolation does to human beings. It’s something I’ve been working toward since my own imprisonment. My colleagues at Solitary Watch suggested I write a play because they knew I did theater in my anti-war days. In my 20s, I did street theater. I was going into restaurants and malls and disrupted the public through agitprop. I did a lot of work with the Zapatistas, and we did our report-backs in theater.

This is a very different type of theater. It’s not agitprop at all—it’s just telling stories and helping people crawl inside these men suffering extreme punishment in our prisons right now. It’s based on real stories, and I spent over six months on in-depth letter correspondences, and I traveled to 13 prisons across the country to meet people.

But there are limits of being able to tell a story journalistically when you’re dealing with prisons. I couldn’t have a pen and paper. I’d be visiting people through glass, or they’d be in cages, and I had to rely on my memory. When I got back to my car, I’d scribble notes for hours. But I think even more so than the choice to fictionalize this as a play and a piece of theater was really so I could have the freedom to tap into my own experience as an artist and a survivor to be able to tell a more universal story about what it means to be human and how relationships define us.

Ironically, it’s about isolation, but it’s also about relationships and how any kind of human connection is how we self-organize and how we continue to struggle for survival and maintain our humanity under dehumanizing conditions.

I read that you developed a routine to deal with your isolation.

In the early months of my imprisonment, I had no idea how to deal with isolation. I was constantly fluctuating between terror and depression. I would lose control and scream and literally beat the walls of my cell, or I would not get off my cot for days or not eat. There was a moment of epiphany when my interrogators told me I wasn’t going to court, and they didn’t know if or when I would ever get out. They basically told me that if my government didn’t do something, I might never get out. I went back to my cell, and I was rocking back and forth in the corner, and I heard screaming. I thought, whoever is screaming, I need them to stop. I can’t listen to it anymore. The guards burst into my cell, and I realized it was me screaming. I saw myself in that moment, and I thought, other people have gotten through this. There must be a way, and I’m going to find it. From that point on, I had a completely disciplined regime, and it was about not letting any idle time—or despair would creep in, and terror and doubts just overwhelm me. That was what saved me.

Did you have things to read?

Eventually, they gave us reading materials, but it was a good six months into my imprisonment when I got a Koran and a few Dan Brown books I read over and over. I made up my own stories, and I told stories to invisible audiences. Storytelling and theater are a big part of how I survived. In the beginning, voices in my head kept saying, “You’re never going to get out of here, this will break you.” I had to conquer that narrative and upend it, and I decided that not only was I going to get out, but I was going to be stronger and make something meaningful out of something horrifyingly arbitrary and brutal and senseless.

When you first got out, did you want to withdraw?

I had to get my friends out, so I was really lucky I couldn’t just crawl back into another hole and lick my wounds, which is what you want to do. The entire time I was in isolation, I thought I would never want to be alone again, and I promised myself I would never have to be, but being around people is really difficult. You are constantly looking behind your back, you’re uncomfortable in public. When people touch you, you jump a few inches in the air. Even eye contact was physically difficult. But I had a mission. I was forced into the limelight, so I had to find a way to conquer the trauma and pour that suffering and pain into something larger. At first it was fighting for my friends, and then it was becoming an advocate against solitary.

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