I didn’t think much about what it would be like to participate in 7×9 until about thirty seconds before I started my shift. There was a grungy looking twenty-something year old man sitting on the ground, facing the girl I was to replace in what seemed to be an expression of solidarity. The situation would not have felt much less uncomfortable had she been an actual prisoner and not a Princeton student sitting outside of Frist. The girl got up and I stepped into the box, becoming the object of the young man’s empathy. He said “You’re doing good work.” I cringed internally, grateful for the performance guidelines that forbade me from feigning a response. He must not have known the rules, because he picked up on the fact that he was bothering me and promptly left.
People (mostly older people) walked about, half of them stopping to read whatever was on our sign. Men would squint at the text before jolting into a hurried motion towards the pen dangling next to a corresponding petition. Women would quickly cover their mouths and widen their eyes. Before adding their name to the list and moving along, they would linger over the text, gaping at it like a car accident. I was pleased with and in no small way amused by these interactions. They seemed to vindicate our event as an effective, visible, probably trite public exercise. I tried to work on some songs I’ve been writing, but I was too distracted by these expressions of interest
I lost track of time rather quickly, but I could tell when it was around 2:20 or 2:30 by the volume of students wandering around. Students were less supportive of the endeavor than adults, and friends made performing especially difficult. Some were offended that I ignored them, some found the situation awkward and tried to avoid me entirely (I appreciated this, and probably would have behaved similarly). My male friends’ comments were the worst, ranging from the innocently inquisitive yet criminally oblivious “What’s this for? Can you not talk?” to “Joel—what the fuck are you doing? … No?” (followed by a barely audible scoff). At a certain level, I expected this sort of reaction. I’m sure it’s tough to see your buddy doing some weird-ass, slightly humiliating performance art for a cause that doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing you would ever care about in the first place. It was frightening, though, to be in that vulnerable position and feel opposition from people close to me. Is my heart bleeding too much? Am I embarrassing myself?
The worst part was the last third of my hour, from around 2:40 to 2:55. I had no idea what time it was at all. I thought maybe it was a little bit past three, or perhaps the performer after me had forgotten to come. I was tempted to pull out my phone. It’s really kind of amazing how time bends and stretches. Everyone was in class again and I had weathered the storm, but I really didn’t want to be around for the next one. My hour in mock solitary confinement was emotionally exhausting. The last bit really fucking sucked. It wasn’t the heaviness of the cause that got to me – to be honest, my time in the box I thought very little about the actual victims of solitary confinement. I was bothered by my lack of freedom and power. I worried about what people though of me; I wished I could be other places, with other people and access to my belongings. I felt very bad, and I was there for a single hour, outside, surveying a gorgeous campus. Friends passed by and talked to me. I thought about cleaning my room and what I was going to buy for dinner. Unlike a real prisoner in solitary, during my performance I retained the privilege of anticipating a very bright future that was not very far away. It would be laughable to suggest that I felt anything similar to what inmates experience during stays in solitary confinement, but during those final twenty minutes, I began understand how solitary becomes torture in a very, very tangible sense and that it’s underestimated, even, perhaps, by those of us who speak out about it.
“You have five minutes left.” I looked up and saw my replacement, hovering over me with a mean sort of smirk. She chastised me for having nodded in response to a question earlier. This irked me. It’s true, I wasn’t a very good performer. I responded to acquaintances with facial expressions and eye contact, sometimes nodding or shaking my head. I couldn’t handle completely ignoring them. Maybe I should have taken the rules more seriously to make students feel even more uncomfortable than they already did, but the demonstration just wasn’t worth that to me. I went into the “cell” refusing to be humiliated, sitting in natural positions, rarely moving, pursing my lips. I wore sunglasses to distance myself from the people looking at me. I wanted to make it hard for people to scoff at me or laugh at me. And if they did, I wanted to be able to say “fuck off” with authority.
After a moment’s hesitation, my replacement volunteered to step in—as if she was there to stare at me from 2:55 to 3:00. I got up. My ass hurt and my toes were pretty cold. She stepped in and I stepped out, heading towards the slums. I didn’t linger, lighting a cigarette and walking straight to my room.
That night, I smoked another cigarette outside of T.I. A Zete in the club who had seen me performing earlier in the day asked me if he could bum one. As I fished around in my coat pocket for a lighter, I heard the conversation around me turn to, of all things, solitary confinement. Someone began rattling on about how certain people “deserve it”, and how it’s not all that bad when compared to other forms of torture. He went on, saying the sorts of things people say when they haven’t read on a subject but trust themselves to come up with unique insights anyways. My friend, the Zete, interjected vehemently: “No man, that’s not how it works. Solitary is fucked up. Honestly I didn’t know anything about it at all until I saw Joel today by Frist, and I went and looked it up. It’s actually unbelievable.”