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Originally published March 23, 2014 at 6:16 AM | Page modified March 31, 2014 at 11:22 AM

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Corrected version

‘A Sliver of Light:’ three Americans imprisoned in Iran

In their new book “A Sliver of Light,” three Americans who spent more than two years imprisoned or detained in Iran tell their story. Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd will appear at Town Hall Seattle on Wednesday, March 26.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd

The co-authors of “A Sliver of Light” will appear in conversation with KING-5’s Mark Wright at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 26, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5; available at and at the door.

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“A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran”

by Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal and Sarah Shourd

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 339 pp., $27

The three “American hikers” arrested by Iran in 2009 describe the damages prison can wreak on the psyche so convincingly it brings Solzhenitsyn to mind.

Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal and Sarah Shourd, authors of “A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran,” didn’t suffer the torture, starvation and depravity chronicled by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in “The Gulag Archipelago,” his account of Soviet incarceration. But the deprivation they experienced obviously left its mark.

Occasionally they would hear the screams of someone apparently being tortured, but they were too “high profile” for such treatment. For much of their imprisonment they had TVs, refrigerators, adequate food and books.

They also were kept in solitary confinement, especially Shourd. The two men, Bauer and Fattal, shared a cell for much of their two-year imprisonment, but Shourd spent most of her 14 months in Tehran’s Evin Prison alone, in what she described as a space between life and death that “threatened to erase me.”

Take away the means of measuring your existence in relationship to time, events or people, and the self loses itself in depression, paranoia and anger, Shourd writes.

Prison inflicts further damage when those held have no knowledge of why or how long they will be held or if anyone knows their plight and is working to save them.

From the time they crossed the Iranian border from Iraqi Kurdistan — either because of their lack of a map or because Iranian soldiers waved and lured them into the country — they were in a fog about their plight.

Iran’s immediate interpretation of what they had done was illegal entry and espionage, and from then on the three Americans were at the mercy of international diplomacy and the internal politics of both the United States and Iran.

Negotiations and sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program figured into whether they would be released. The Obama administration seemed reluctant to show any sign of weakness in its dealing with Iran. Squabbling between Iran’s President Ahmadinejad and rivals controlling the judiciary there may have blocked an earlier release.

The three inmates had no control over these events, and little control over what happened to them in prison. Their only weapon, their one way to influence events, they write, was to hunger strike, and they did so to get letters from home and to protest solitary confinement.

The book’s organization is a natural one — the first section is titled “Summer 2009” and the last “Summer 2011.” Each section is divided into segments with the writers’ names — Shane, Josh and Sarah. Each has a say — and they all say it very well.

In the end, Shourd was released after she signed a paper that she had been informed of charges against her but not confessing to them. The Iranian judge told her she was being released based on her gender and the solitary confinement. Bauer and Fattal were sentenced to eight years each for illegal entry and espionage, but were freed on grounds of compassion after signing papers acknowledging the return of their belongings.

They were thankful to get out, and they spread the thanks around generously to those who helped with their release — Switzerland, Oman and Iraq in particular. The United States gets only a mention for State Department employees’ “special attention” and admonishments for its own treatment of prisoners.

As they say at the end, “Everyone deserves justice. Everyone.”

John B. Saul is a former Seattle Times editor who has taught journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Montana and the University of Washington

Information in this article, originally published March 23, 2014, was corrected March 31, 2014. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the three Americans signed papers admitting to illegal entry and espionage..

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