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Quiet, Solitude and the Telling of One's Own Story

By Jay Baskins 

Silence in the night

It is 4:30 AM, I am sitting in the game room of a minimum-security prison enjoying two things that are rare here: solitude and quiet. Another inmate is upstairs in the poolroom. He also gets up early to be quiet and to write in his journal. We understand each other and carefully avoid getting into each other's space. 

A guard comes by. People are getting up too early, he informs me. We are not to get up before 5:00 AM. I protest. This is the only time I have each day when I am able to be up without the TV on - the only time to be alone in a quiet place. 5:00 AM is exactly when the TV comes on. I have organized my entire schedule around the one-hour of quiet and solitude I find here. I bother no one. I really need this. 

My arguments are to no avail. This is getting out of hand, I am told. I am astonished at his conception of "out of hand": two and sometimes three people getting up early to find a quiet place to meditate and write. Well one must draw the line somewhere. He lets me know that this disruptive practice must stop and he walks off. 

"You are taking everything from me," I yell at him. I pick up a plastic chair and throw it into a pile of other chairs. I am gratified at the loud noise it makes. This is just what I want to say. I kick another chair across the room. I don't care at this moment what they do to me. I do feel that they have taken everything.

About fifteen minutes later I am called into the office. Two additional guards have arrived, making a total of four. I realize that they think they may have to physically overpower me. That is a little gratifying as I am 60 years old and not especially athletic. 

I explain that I am not a violent person and that even though I might occasionally lose it and kick a chair, I would never attack a person. Then I try to tell them why taking my moment of quiet from me is such a big issue in my mind. My needs are irrelevant. I must not throw chairs. Rules are rules. I must not get up before 5:00 AM  

"But that's exactly when the TV comes on," I protest.
They neither understand nor care why that is important to me. 
So why is this important, I ask myself. 

Narrative well-being

Except when prevented by external events, the average person will spend a significant amount of time dwelling on the story of his or her life. We write letters in which we try to tell our story, or clarify some aspect of it. We write journals with the same intent. We read stories in books and magazine for the light they shed on our own stories. 

At times these stories told about others may even provide us with the fundamental form and meaning around which we structure our own. We tell our stories to others and listen as tell they us theirs. When we are alone we reflect on the events of the day and wonder about the meaning of what is happening in our lives. 

At night we dream. 

Dreams are narratives; they help us assimilate the experiences of our immediate past and provide us some anticipatory exploration of our fears or hopes for the future. The aim of these various forms of story telling is, if I may coin a new term, narrative well-being. By narrative well-being I mean the state that obtains when we are able to assimilate the events of our lives - past, present and anticipated - into a story that is 


true to our experience, 

informed by our aspirations, and 


The activities that facilitate narrative well-being require a reasonable degree of quiet and solitude. We cannot write a letter or a journal entry that accurately reflects the nature of our current experience if the TV is blaring in our ears and we are subject to being interrupted by people around us at random intervals. 

It is difficult to reflect on the day's events while we are in the midst of chaos of discontented shouting, arguing and laughing. We require a quiet environment if we are to connect both cognitively and affectively with a significant novel or short story. And two people need some insulation from the hubbub around them if they are to share their stories with each other in any depth. 


As I walked down the pink fleshy corridor I was oppressed by a weightiness --
An opposition to my walking --
A refusal of things to focus. 

Was this a dream, or the hall, 
or some strange hybrid fused
within the space 
between sleeping and waking? 

My father woke me as I urinated 
in the corner of the bathroom.
"What are you doing?" he asked. 
What could I say? 

I was being born, 
I think. 
I was trying to wake 
from the other world. 

Today I awoke again. 

A honey bee weaved in and out 
of the bars at the window.
Idly I pictured myself following her 
to the flowers, the open fields and the hive. 

What then? 
Could I steal a little honey?

I sat up. 
"Ah." I said. 
"A prison."

Maybe, as it involves two people, it is stretching a point to call this "solitude". On the other hand, there is a card game called "double solitaire"; perhaps we can speak of a "solitude for two."

Without a reasonable degree of quiet or solitude, narrative well-being is difficult to attain.
Based on my experience of being incarcerated, I would suggest that the environment created for inmates by the criminal justice system undermines our need for quiet and solitude in at least six ways: 


Psychotropic drugs, 

Schedules and programming, 

Cognitive-behavioral therapies, 

Overcrowding and 

Disregard of personal boundaries. 


My daily round is dominated by my desire to escape the ubiquitous, disorienting and soul numbing presence of the TV. The first issue with regard to TV has to do with the mental and affective states that are either created or prevented by the simple exposure to TV on a continuous basis, regardless of the specific content. TV inundates the viewer with a continuous bombardment of very vivid images that are extremely brief in duration. By not allowing time for any active response to the images, TV enforces a passive receptivity on the part of the viewer. It allows no time for reflection. 

Over time the events, people and images seen on TV usurp the events, people and images of the person's actual environment as the primary focus of significant experience. When the TV is off, habitual TV viewers often feel threatened with a frightening void - the void of actual life. 

As long as he is in the unit (even if he is not in the room) my roommate will not allow me to turn his TV off, or ever turn the sound down. A part of this is an assertion of power and status on his part. He claims his territory (the whole room) with sound in much the same way as a wolf might mark its territory by urinating. But another aspect of it, I believe, is that he fears silence. Having virtually lost his capacity for meaningful personal experience, a quiet place is a void for him. Even brief spells of quiet remind him of his emptiness. Either the TV or a video game is on from the time he wakes up until 11:30 at night, at which time a prison regulation requires that he turn it off. He then turns on the radio and fill the threatened void with the drone of country music thought the entire night. I find that this inability to tolerate silence even at nighttime, and the use of an all night country music station as a solution to the problem, to be a common pattern in prison.

The content of TV is not totally irrelevant. It is not only that TV fills our minds with a noise that makes it very difficult to reflect on our own stories. TV forces into our minds its own repertoire of stories. The primary purpose of TV is not to provide programs but to sell products. The programs are the bait. The ads are the hook. Therefore the most important story on TV is the one conveyed in the ads. It's always the same story. "I was never really happy until I bought brand A." 

The programs themselves inundate us with stories that prevent us from seriously reflection on our own. These are always safe and familiar stories - the same ones over and over. No matter how violent, absurd or obscene the stories are, they are still safe and familiar because they never challenge us with radically new possibilities for understanding ourselves and our lives. 


When I moved into a cell for two men in the protective custody unit, the first information that my roommate gave me after his name that he suffered from both bi-polar and schizo-affective disorders. He may have known about my background in mental health work and thought that these credentials would be especially informative to me. 

I did not tell him that I felt it was both scientifically and politically inadmissible to treat the majority of the entries in the DSM-III as discreet disease entities that could be treated with disease specific medication. Rather, I saw the labels as social constructs created to justify tinkering with the human brain with a variety of chemicals, the primary purpose of which, in this setting, if not in most situations, was social control

During the next few days I was amazed to see how much he slept. After observing him I calculated that he slept about 15 out of every 24 hours. The drugs were apparently putting him in a state that approached suspended animation. They were, one must concede, effective in controlling any tendency he had toward becoming agitated. 

My roommate, I will call him Simon, was a gentle and, in so far as the drugs permitted it, reflective soul. As we came to know each other during the next few weeks he shared a great deal about himself. His strongest sexual feelings were clearly directed toward men and boys. Yet he had a girl friend that seemed important to him. 

I subscribe to the belief that each person's "love map" is unique and may involve a variety of attractions. There was no reason, in principle, to doubt that he might have a significant interest in women along with his other feelings. But after coming to know him better I became persuaded that women occupy, at best, a weak and secondary place on his love map. Why then, this commitment to a girl friend, and no mention of any boy friend? By this time he knew me well enough to know that, although I had no strong attraction to adult men myself, I would be pretty accepting of him, whatever inclinations he had. 

Simon kept his reading material in two paper bags on the floor. In one he had his bible study materials. He was taking correspondence courses from a conservative Christian academy of some sort. He worked on this course religiously (as it were) every night before going to sleep. Only after he knew me pretty well did he risk letting me know what was in the other paper bag. With some trepidation he showed me a magazine with articles and erotic photos for gay men. 

A few days later I asked Simon how he reconciled the contents of the two paper bags. I was confident that the religious groups that prepared this course he was taking would see his homosexual leanings as profoundly sinful. He acknowledged that this was true. The two most important things in his life were in these two paper bags - his almost exclusively same-sex sexual orientation and his evangelical religious beliefs. 

I suggested that the opposition between these two forces in his life must be very painful to him. He conceded that this was so. I raised the possibility that this conflict, rather than some inborn error in his brain chemistry, might be the primary source of the psychic distress that was being medicated. Surprisingly, this was a new idea to him. 

Three narratives

During the niches of time when we were locked in our cells, and he was awake, we discussed how he might understand his need for obviously disabling quantities of psychotropic drugs. What emerged from these discussions is that there were three very different ways of framing his story. Simon told me two stories about himself. 

The first one was a story about a victim of a chemical imbalance in his brain who was struggling to overcome his disability with the help of a medical community which was using its arcane knowledge for his benefit. 

The second story was about a Christian man who was struggling (with varying degrees of success) to overcome sinful and obscene impulses that were perhaps placed in his soul as a test. 

I was persuaded neither by the medical story nor the spiritual one, and offered him an alternative story

In my story he was a man who was incarcerated spiritually as well as physically - and his jailers were exactly those people he had gone to for help in working out his salvation. 

He had been taught by his spiritual teachers to condemn and attempt to suppress the mainspring of his love - to hate one of the most fundamental aspects of his inner nature. By internalizing the judgments of his teachers he became one of his own jailers. It stands to reason that a man who has declared war on his inner nature will suffer from overwhelming psychic distress. In my story he was a political prisoner - not a criminal. His inner nature was no crime. 

So then he went to the medical people for help with his distress. There he was told he had a "disease" or a "disability" - something akin to diabetes. But his chemical deficiency he was told affected his brain rather than his pancreas. 

When psychiatrists listen to people talk they are trained to listen for symptoms that will enable them to diagnose the person as having one or more of the socially constructed hypothetical disease entities listed in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, so that people can become patients who can be treated by chemical means. Whatever capacity psychiatrists may have once had to actually listen to the person's story or to offer other and possibly more helpful narratives has been almost totally lost. 

I was able to offer Simon an alternative story - one that reversed the Gestalt within which he lived as radically as a finished print reverses the negative from which it is made. In my story those he saw as liberators - the religious teachers and the doctors who were medicating him -- became his oppressors, and the most despised and repressed aspect of his soul became the Christ child pursued by Herod - the carrier of new possibilities for love and life. 

Whether Simon will accept the story I offered him, or he will cling to his old ways of seeing his life, remains to be seen. Even if it were within my capacity to force my story on him I would not do so, for then I would become another of his oppressors. It is his life and his choice. 

My own story

This is a participant observer study. It is theoretically grounded in the conviction that it is in narration - in the stories we tell about ourselves and each other - that we discover and clarify the meaning of our experience. My own story must therefore be included in the data. I share with you, then, a few snippets from my personal history, the relevance of which, I hope, will soon become evident.

I am sitting in a classroom in elementary school. 

I don't know what the teacher is trying to teach, as I am not paying attention. I am staring at the clock on the wall, trying to anticipate the exact moment that the big hand will jump forward with a little click, bringing me closer, by a tiny increment, to my liberation - or at least to a brief reprieve from this daily hell. 

My current experience of being incarcerated reminds me of nothing more than the daily experience of being forced to attend school when I was a child. Why, then, did I not protest more actively - raise hell - refuse to remain in class? I was afraid of my parents, of course, and of the teachers, and of authority in general. But also I knew that the principal kept a paddle in his office. I had heard stories about this paddle from some of the more aggressive and bolder boys who were able to speak from first hand experience. The principal is your "pal" we were taught in spelling, so as to distinguish between "principal" and "principle." I did not believe it.

When I was growing up the problem of forcing students to be where they didn't want to be, performing tedious tasks that they didn't want to do, was solved by the paddle. When physical punishment was ruled out, something had to take its place. There were, after all, still a large number of students who did not want to be there - some of whom had the gumption to "act out." 

It was to fill this gap that psychiatry steps forward with its theory of "attention deficit disorder." If children could not be beaten into submission, perhaps it would be possible (and more humane) to medicate them into submission. That schools themselves needed to change - that they needed to become places where children's natural interests and desires might be taken seriously, where the slower ones would not be humiliated and the faster ones bored, where students would have some real input into what they learned and how they studied, and where they would feel cared for regardless of how successful they might be - in short, that schools needed to become places where children wanted to be, never seemed to enter the minds of those who made the decisions. 

The story of my first eight years of school is the story of my first imprisonment. 


The medicalization of a political problem occurs when we have the replacement of an authentic political narration with a spurious medical one. The medicalization of political problems serves the interests of the ruling group by defusing potentially explosive or disruptive situations. It does this in three ways. 

First, it re-frames the story one must tell about his or her suffering from a "socio-political" one to a "bio-technical" one. In this way it obfuscates any economic or social inequities or oppressions that might be the actual source of the individual distress. 

Second, it disqualifies the one in distress as his or her own storyteller. The core issue becomes a (pseudo) scientific-technical one that only an expert (the mental health worker) can accurately narrate. 

The third way in which the medicalization of political problems serves the interests of the ruling group is by opening the door to medical and legal procedures that make the disenfranchised person incapable of political action. 

Political action is grounded in the capacity of individuals within a group to tell their own story in a way that will be heard and not automatically discredited. The primary techniques used by the medical profession for incapacitating potentially troublesome people are 



medication, and 


I am not suggesting that the story one tells about his or her own suffering is always the most accurate one. But neither is the one told by the expert. In fact, experts are generally hired by those with the most money. Therefore they tend to identify with the interests and world views of the power elite and are motivated to misrepresent the stories of the disenfranchised people with whom they work. Common sense therefore suggests that we approach the stories told by experts with a degree of suspicion.


The difference between offering a narrative alternative and forcing one on a person is an important one for professional practice. It marks the distinction between a valid therapy grounded in cognitive and narrative principles and brainwashing. 

About a month ago I was eating lunch at a table with an inmate who had been friendly with me, but with whom I had actually talked very little. For a few minutes we were the only ones at the table. 

"The thing is, they won't believe that a boy might actually like sex," he said. 

The comment startled me with its boldness and its lack of any apparent context. But without his needing to spell it out for me in more detail, I immediately knew that he was in prison because of engaging in sexual activity with a minor, that it was a consensual relationship, and that he had participated, probably against his will, in a sex offender "treatment" group. 

"That's right," I said. "They will only allow the story to be told in one way."

With this encouragement he went on to tell me that when he was a boy a man had introduced him to sex. 

"At first it seemed strange," he said. "But then I liked it - a lot."
"Don't share anything with them that they don't already know," I said, "Or they will use it against you - and anybody else they can."
He nodded. "I know that," he said. 

Sex offender's programs 

as they are currently structured, are generally described as "Cognitive-behavioral," and claim the scientific authority that cognitive and behavioral therapies have established for themselves. The behavioral principle that is employed in these groups is that if you punish people enough they will generally stop doing what you don't want them to do. 

It doesn't require a great deal of insight to understand why such a model might be popular in prisons. This principle can, with some degree of effectiveness, be applied to any set of behaviors that an authority wants to extinguish in a subject over whom he or she has sufficient power. A variety of punitive techniques are employed that intrude even into the fantasy and dream lives of the participants. But the central punitive methods are forced confessions and shaming by the group. 

My friend at the lunch table was trying to deal with the fact that his own experience - his story as he knew it and would tell it if he were being truthful - simply did not fit the only story it was permissible to tell. This permissible story had to conform to a number of clear guidelines:

No boys below 14 years of age enjoyed or wanted sex with men whether they did or not. 

Sexual activity between a boy and a man could not be a part of a loving relationship, whether it was or not. 

A man who allowed this to happen could not be gentle and empathic, whether he was or not. 

A boy could not consent to such an activity, whether he did or not. 

Certainly a boy could not seek out a loving relationship with a man that was based in part on sexual feelings, whether he did or not. 

Such an event was always damaging to a boy, whether it was or not.

In fact, many different kinds of relationships exist between men and boys in which some degree of sexual activity has taken place. Some are exploitative and damaging. Others are gentle and consensual. 

Actual research - anecdotal, statistical and cross-cultural - suggests that a sexual experience with a man may have any of a variety of consequences for a boy - some harmful, some neutral, and some beneficial - depending on the circumstances.

One participant in a sex offenders group told me that he came to a point where he felt he needed to control the content even of his dreams. Dreams and fantasies are the most intimate stories we tell ourselves, and they take place in the most private and solitary place in our souls. 

To force a person to share his fantasies, and try to replace them with others, and to make him feel guilty even about his dreams are profound invasion of a persons solitude. Only the forced administration of psychotropic drugs constitutes an invasion of the innermost core of who a person is to a comparable degree. 

Traditional law enforcement was concerned with behavior. A person was free to have whatever thoughts, feelings, and fantasies he wanted, so long as he did not break the law. Society is now claiming the right to go far beyond this. It claims the right to control a person's feelings and thoughts as well. It claims the right to dictate how a person will tell his or her own story. For this reason the places where these stories are created - where they emerge as the primary interpretive structures in our lives - are suspect. These places of quiet and solitude where one might dream and meditate with freedom must be sought out and destroyed.

The mandated participation in processes by which society now tries to force its stories on people, and to destroy the places of quiet and solitude in which alternative stories to its own might emerge, is called "treatment" or "therapy." But it is not therapy. It is law enforcement, and its not even good law enforcement. It is brain washing. 


By programming I refer to the planning and decision-making done by prison administrators, guards, and crew bosses, regarding the organization of time and space in the facility. Programming decisions are motivated by the desire to punish inmates, maintain control, save money, and maximize the convenience and status of the staff. 

Most staff members probably give little or no thought to the impact their decisions might have on an inmates desire for solitude or quiet. Yet it is curious that no provision is made for such obvious needs as a little privacy and some peace and quiet. One wonders whether there might not be some instinctive fear that autonomy, self-respect, insight or even rebellion might fester in any silent and solitary niches that were made available to inmates. And perhaps so. 

Yesterday morning I planned to work on this section of the article you are reading. My work schedule allowed me a couple of hours free in the morning. Both of my roommates were scheduled to work. That meant I would have the room to myself - without the TV blaring in my ear. I could close the door, be by myself, and think my own thoughts until it was time to go work the lunch shift - a blissful prospect. 

One roommate had already left. I was anxious for my second roommate to leave. The clock crept forward ever so slowly, as it did when I waited for a class to end in grade school. The men, dressed for work, sat downstairs watching TV, or milled around in the rec. room where I sat. A couple of them took their coats off. It was like waiting for Godot. When would the crew boss arrive? It was like waiting for Jesus. You knew not the hour. 

I had seen this before. When a crew boss was not coming to pick up his workers, he didn't bother to call or let them know. He simply didn't arrive. When I finally realized that I was not to have the room to myself this morning, I began to berate myself for allowing myself to hope in a situation where one could depend on nothing. 

The program decisions with regard to space are as inimical to the needs of the inmates for quiet and solitude as are the practices re: the scheduling of time. A couple of months ago they instituted a no smoking policy in the prison. Up until then they had smoking rooms, which worked fine for everybody. If you wanted to smoke, you could. If you didn't smoke you didn't have to breath other people's smoke. But the former smoking rooms are now not being used for anything. So that was the bright side of another repressive policy. 

A number of people have asked that they make these former smoking rooms into quiet rooms. I am not the only one who craves a quiet place to read a book, write a letter, or just think his own thoughts. All that would be required are a couple of chairs and a small table. But quiet rooms turned out to be an idle dream. A couple of days ago I learned that they will be converted into more rooms so that the overcrowding in the dorm can be increased. 


My room is about 10 by 11 feet. Three of us are crowded into that space. 

(Although I did not know it at the time, they were soon going to place four people in a majority of the rooms.)

Even under the best circumstances this affords little opportunity for privacy or quiet. The rooms were created for two people, and the present overcrowding is in violation of state regulations. But nobody is much bothered by that. 

It serves the purposes of the prison in a variety of ways. 

It keeps prisoners at each others throats, and therefore disempowered in relationship to the prison. 

It lowers the per-capita cost. 

It adds to the punishment of inmates. 

For me the biggest problem with the overcrowding is that it makes it much more difficult to find a quiet or private time or space. 

Personal Boundaries 

In the absence of the physical privacy that might afford them the solitude they crave, some inmates attempt to create a niche in which social boundaries will be respected. I think of the man who woke up at 4:00 AM every morning and took possession of the checkers table in order to write in his journal. 

Although the journal writer had everything but a sign around his neck saying he wished to be left alone, repeatedly another inmate would sit down at the table with him and begin chatting. Amazingly, they would even persist when the journal writer blatantly ignored them. 

Or I think of the surprisingly gentle and reflective member of Hell's Angels who created a little niche in the dish room where he worked - a place where he sat on a couple of milk crates and day dreamed and dozed. Everybody who came into the dish room had to intrude into the fragile solitude of the Hell's Angel. Even if his eyes were closed they would tell him a joke, make a noise to wake him, or even pull his beard. They were like religious evangelists at your door. Short of being extremely rude, there was no way of getting rid of them. 

Social boundaries are that last bastion of men who are seeking solitude in prison. Often it is not possible to defend these boundaries without offending people or making enemies. If a person chooses to keep the peace between himself and the men with whom he must live he may find himself without any place where he can find a modicum of solitude. It's a difficult choice. 


To achieve and maintain a reasonable level of narrative well-being requires periods of solitude and quiet. 

In this article I have identified and briefly explored six different ways in which the prison environment hinders a person's ability to find that solitude and quiet. I have tried to show that this is not simply a matter of creating discomfort or inconvenience. Rather, the absence of solitude and quiet in a prisoner's life impairs his capacity to reflect upon his "story," and thereby threatens his capacity to achieve a viable and coherent identity. 

It is possible that in prison life we see a microcosm of the larger society. Therefore it might be worth exploring whether my speculations about the six factors that make narrative well-being difficult to attain in prison might be usefully generalized to life outside of the prison system.


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