The deeply rooted American notions of individualism and self-reliance are shadowed by complicated feelings on time spent alone. The thin line between solitude and loneliness serves as a fulcrum of sorts for two recent books by law professor Robert A. Ferguson that don’t immediately present themselves as having much common ground. In one, Ferguson investigates the nature of loneliness in American fiction, while in the other he gives us a humanistic understanding of our massive, out-of-control punishment regime. Solitary confinement figures prominently in the latter, as it does in American prisons, and so we asked Ferguson to help us connect the analysis of isolation running through these two books. His response is below.
“We live as we dream—alone,” Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness. The comment is famous because more complicated than it first appears. When we dream, we do so in a social milieu that we think is real even though we are by ourselves. No life is complete without its attachments. Pundits and scholars respond by trying to define what percentage of ourselves are ours and what percentage comes from the cohort to which we belong.
My own recent books from Harvard University Press, Alone in America: The Stories That Matter (2013) and Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (2014) wrestle with these questions from opposite directions. The first takes up the startling fact that a quarter of the people in the United States now live alone—an unprecedented situation fueled by the collapse of families, technological capacity, a country on the move, and the attritions in existence. This book targets a painful psychological truth: most people will admit to almost anything before revealing that they are lonely.
The second book, Inferno, gives considerable space to the problem of solitary confinement or enforced isolation. Current debate over the punitive impulse in our criminal justice system has led reporters and legal experts to deplore what Jeremy Bentham proved in The Rationale of Punishment as early as 1830: namely that enforced isolation causes psychological damage when prolonged. Already in 1830, “the best authorities” knew that solitary confinement causes “madness, despair, or more commonly a stupid apathy.”
This lesson is one we have been slow to learn. Even those protesting against the practice of solitary confinement in prisons today can ignore the established fact. For example, the columnist David Brooks, writing on March 7, 2014 for the New York Times, says “some prisoners who’ve been in solitary confinement are scarcely affected by it.” Scarcely? Everyone is affected by enforced solitude, and the danger grows as we keep more than 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement for months and even years on end, a punishment that most liberal democracies do not use or allow.