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'Like an Animal': Freed U.S. Hiker Recalls 410 Days in Iran Prison

Sarah Shourd reveals new details about her imprisonment in Iran with two other Americans who were accused of spying after crossing the Iranian border.
Image: File phooto of Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal speaking about their experiences from being imprisoned in Iran, in San Quentin
Shane Bauer (L), Sarah Shourd (C) and Josh Fattal (R) speak about their experiences being imprisoned in Iran, during an Occupy the Prisons protest at San Quentin Prison in San Quentin, California, in this February 20, 2012 file photo. Beck Diefenbach / Reuters, file

Sarah Shourd sat at a Manhattan cafe on a recent afternoon, sipping hot apple cider and describing the hellish Iranian prison where she spent more than a year of her life in solitary confinement. "You become like an animal," she said, recalling how she would spend hours crouched down by the food slot at the bottom of her cell door, just "listening for sounds." At her lowest point, she said, she screamed and pounded the walls until her knuckles bled.

Shourd was arrested along with two fellow Americans, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, while on vacation in July 2009. At the time, she and Bauer—who is now her husband—were living in Syria, where she taught English and he worked as a journalist. Fattal had come to visit, and they had traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan, a place Shourd described as a budding tourist destination known for its lush green mountains, scenic waterfalls and pro-American sentiment.

On a hike in the Zagros Mountains in search of dramatic views, they saw a soldier standing on a ridge with a gun, and he motioned for them to walk toward him, Shourd said. They did. "I'd been living in the Middle East for over a year, and it was common to be questioned," she said. "Sometimes soldiers are bored and just want to talk to you, or practice their English." She assumed the man was Kurdish. "If he had been, we probably would have sat down and had a nice cup of tea," she said. But the soldier was Iranian, and he lured the hikers across an unmarked border into Iran, she said.

Thus began a nightmarish odyssey as the three Americans were thrown into Evin Prison in Tehran, accused of crossing the border to spy on Iran. In a new book, "A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran," which is being released on Tuesday, they describe their experience and how it tested their relationships in the most extreme of ways. "They tried to divide us. They wanted to tear us apart," she said. "But that became our solidarity—our resistance. It strengthened our bond."

Shourd said she spent 410 days—her entire prison stay—in solitary confinement. "It erases you," she said of living alone in a cell. "It's like being buried alive. You can't talk to anyone, you can't laugh, you can't have a personality. Your world shrinks. It becomes smaller and smaller. Everything you know, everything you loved, seems far away. I would think about that person I once was. I would long for that person."

"It's like being buried alive. You can't talk to anyone, you can't laugh, you can't have a personality. Your world shrinks."

In the book, she describes how she would fill the endless days in her room, where she had a metal sink, a bed and fluorescent lights overhead, turned on at all times. "I've found ways to distract myself, like slowly going over multiplication tables in my head," she writes. "I do this for hours at a time, starting with the twos and going up into the teens until I have to stop and start over again." She thought about her mother, her childhood in Los Angeles, her life just weeks earlier and how she had busily rushed around—never enough time. "Here, time just sits heavy and solid like a giant boulder in my path," she writes.

In the early days, all three friends were in solitary confinement. Eventually the two men were placed in a cell together, upsetting Shourd. "Now that they are together in one cell, there's a rupture between us, a distance I don't know how to bridge," she writes. "I want to believe that their gain doesn't have to be a loss for me, but the truth is, as Shane and Josh become closer every day, I feel more and more alone."

She begged for a cellmate, and was given a television. After her wall-pounding breakdown, the guards allowed her to see her friends, first for a half-hour a week, then for a half-hour a day, and finally for an hour a day. "Seeing them was a huge part of how I kept my sanity," she said, noting that for the other 23 hours of the day, she remained isolated. "You need someone to bring you back." The other thing that kept her from losing her mind: the knowledge that she would not be forgotten, that her loved ones would fight for her freedom. "Many people don't have that," she said.

Bauer proposed to her in prison, with an engagement ring made of thread pulled from a pink towel and from his own white underwear. The two had met three years earlier at antiwar protests in California after college. All three friends had gone to the University of California, Berkeley, but at different times. Shourd said she knew before their ordeal that she wanted to marry Bauer, telling her mother at one point that she might propose. "When he asked me, he beat me to it," she said.

Image: American hikers accused of spying in Iran
Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd together before their imprisonment in Iran.COURTESY OF SHOURD FAMILY / EPA

In a particularly poignant passage of the book, she describes a new friend she made in prison, a woman named Zahra Bahrami who had been arrested at a protest. Bahrami whispered at her through a vent in her cell, calling her by name: "Sarah. Sarah." Shourd hesitated to reply, for fear of angering the guards and losing her visits with Bauer and Fattal. "My name is Zahra, almost the same as yours, Sarah. I know you," Bahrami whispered. "I saw your mother on TV." Shourd whispered back, seeking news of her mother, and Bahrami comforted her, saying, "I am your friend now. I love you."

The two were caught and separated. But months later, Bahrami resurfaced, slipping a balled-up note scrawled on toilet paper under Shourd's door. The women began communicating via little paper notes that they would hide in crumpled maxi pads and place in the bathroom trash. They took pains to make the pads look soiled to avoid getting caught. "We made plans together. We had dreams," Shourd said. "We planned to dance together when we got out, to talk for days." Sometimes Bahrami would rebelliously sing American songs to Shourd from her cell, such as Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone."

Shourd was set free in September 2010, thanks in part to her strategic complaining about a lump in her breast; Iranian doctors had deemed it benign, but she continued to talk about it—effectively giving the government an excuse to release her for medical reasons. Shourd said her freedom gave Bauer and Fattal hope: "There was a real sense that if one of us would get out, we all would," she said.

She began campaigning for their release, meeting with everyone from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and celebrities including Sean Penn. "I had a tremendous feeling of responsibility. The burden weighed on me so heavily," she said. "For a year I was basically living on adrenaline. I didn't enjoy my food—I just ate it. I worked. I exercised. I couldn't allow myself to feel anything. I was like a machine."

That year, she learned the devastating news that her other friend in prison, Zahra Bahrami, had been executed. "I often think about how bold she was," she said. "Everything in prison is about taking away your individuality. But there are extraordinary people like Zahra who can rise above those conditions. She's one of the main motivations not just for the work I do, but for how I live my life."

"Everything in prison is about taking away your individuality."

In September 2011, after more than two years in prison, the two men were released. Shourd married Bauer the following spring. But the trauma lingered; Shourd battled depression and felt she lacked a mission. "After two years of squashing my feelings, all those feelings came out; it was terrifying to see what was there," she said, recalling how she once nearly screamed "take cover!" on a plane when the lights flickered off. "I knew that to ever be normal again, I had to deal with it. A big part of it was slowing down, doing therapy, breathing. I had been in a panic mode for so long. Shane and I could calm each other, but that was difficult too—we were two traumatized people."

She has since become an activist to end widespread use of solitary confinement here in America. "Eighty thousand people are in solitary confinement in the U.S.," she said. "The U.N. has called it torture. Anything over 15 days can cause permanent psychological damage. After just two days, your brain can shift toward delusions." She said she has interviewed dozens of people who survived solitary confinement and is putting together an anthology and a play. "The interviews really helped me make sense of my own experience," she said. "Hearing their stories make me feel like I'm not alone."

Shourd, now 35, and her husband live in Oakland, California, where she works with the group Solitary Watch and he is an investigative journalist. Their friend Fattal is pursuing an advanced degree at New York University and lives in Brooklyn. "I think what happened to us was random—random bad luck," Shourd said. "We take what happens to us in the world and try to do something meaningful with it."

As Shourd spoke, her husband stopped by the cafe and her face instantly lit up. "We're doing much better," she said of their emotional challenges in the wake of the ordeal. "There was a time when we didn't know when the symptoms would go away, when we would feel normal again. Life is a new normal," she said. "I'm a different person now. But I like the person that I am."