Fierce Love: Resisting the Weapons the Culture Has Devised Against the Self

by Starhawk

From Truth or Dare: Encounters With Power, Authority, and Mystery (Harper & Row, 1987)

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There is no mystery waiting
for the asking
No one can bring in the harvest alone
The hour is late and it demands hard questions
It’s gonna take a fierce love
To get us home before the sun goes down


In the morning, after getting out of jail, I awaken with a voice in my dream saying: “They can let you out of jail, because now they’ve put the jail inside your mind.”

The jail is inside my mind: it appears in my dreams nightly. I am, inside my mind, in jail, surrounded by the concrete walls, the barbed wire, steel grids on the windows. In jail something is always blocking your view. Over the fence we can see only a slice of the distant mountains. In the dining hall, blue glass screens the faces of the women who serve the food: the hands scooping mashed potatoes onto our tin plates seem disembodied, cut off. Those who serve, those who are served, cannot look each other in the face.

There is an image in my mind in jail: a vise. A pair of tongs. A clamp– a clampdown, like in the Clash song:

You start wearing: blue and brown

You’re working for the clampdown

Now you got someone to boss around

And it makes you feel big now . . .

One arm of the clamp is made of threats. What they can do to you. There is always someplace worse they can put you. The barracks where we are held are not awful. They are large enough and clean enough and we have each other to talk to. The lockup cells arc worse: tiny, with barely room to turn around, and the windows are painted over. When you are in lockup they can threaten you with the rubber room. It is bare and padded, with only a hole in the floor to piss in, and they take away your clothes and leave you there, alone.

The other arm of the clamp is made of promises. What they will give you if you obey. Privileges. A chance to buy shampoo at the commissary. Letters. Visits. Your good time and your work time. They will let you out.

Between the two arms of the clamp we are controlled. No matter how hard we try not to reach for the carrot or flinch from the stick, our fear and our hunger betray us. We who are in jail here are women willing to risk more than many; even so, there is a point beyond which we will not go. So we come out of jail hating ourselves a little bit—for we have been forced to see too clearly how we are controlled.

Outside of jail, something is always blocking our view. The promises are plastered across every magazine and billboard: they shriek at us over the radio and dance on the TV screen. The jail itself, the mental hospital, the prison, the gun, stand as the threats, the worst place they can send us if we scream too loud. But it is not that we go around in fear, it is that we don’t fear, we think this is just the way things are, the only way they can be, and the pervasive uneasiness, the dull rage, is some flaw in us.

When we discover that within us is also a part that holds the gun, we think we are uniquely evil—as if our minds could be anything but mirrors of the culture in which we are raised. As if we could be anything but victims—at best, survivors—of the weapons our culture has devised against the self.


We have seen how the needs of war reshape society into systems of control. Just as Marduk encaged the corpse of Tiamat:

“. . .Pulled down the bar and posted guards.

He bade them to allow not her waters to escape.”

the living flow of life force that yet remains in us must trickle through the bars of the big jail. We can, nevertheless, still drink from that water. We can be more than victims or survivors. We can resist systems of control, renewing the world with other powers.

Systems of punishment bring the war home. We enact its battles within the self, becoming our own conquerors and judges. We reproduce war’s hierarchies in relationships and social structures.

War demands obedience to authority, and in systems of domination obedience is deeply ingrained in us. If we are not to obey passively and automatically, we must decline the offered security of obedience and listen, instead, to our own true passions and desires. We must begin to understand how systems of punishment function and how we react to them, so that we can replace our conditioned responses with conscious choices.

Both reward and punishment are dependent on a worldview that has destroyed immanent value, the sense of the sacred present in each of us. For when the sacred is present, all things have inherent value. But when value has to be earned, proven, it becomes a scarce commodity. The self-hater’s coin of trade is the granting and withholding of value.

Punishment can be inflicted overtly in a variety of ways: through the infliction of physical pain and damage; through the withholding of resources necessary for survival or desired for pleasure; through restriction of action and movement; through humiliation; and, more subtly, through the eroding of a person’s value as experienced by the self and viewed by others.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes five distinct ways in which systems of punishment function:1

  1. “The art of punishment . . . refers individual actions to a whole that is at once a field of comparison, a space of differentiation and the principle of a rule to be followed.” Judgment itself is part of the operation of punishment. When we are valued for how closely we approximate an imposed standard, we are not valued for who we are. So, for example, the operation of an ideal of feminine beauty sets up a field upon which all women can be rated and compared. A student told me she once polled her male friends on what a woman should weigh. They all answered “110 pounds.” She then asked them what a man should weigh. “That depends,” they all said, “on his height, his body type, his musculature. . .” Our value becomes dependent on how closely we conform to the rule; our unique beauty is rendered invisible, worthless. A woman’s own body becomes her enemy, her betrayer, by its insistence on shaping itself according to its own organic imperatives.
  2. Punishment “differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected or as an optimum towards which one must move.” When our organic individuality has been devalued, we are given back a false individuation. We can tell who we are not because we hear the song of our bodies or love the largeness or smoothness or hairiness of our flesh, but because we know our measurements and how they compare to the standardized charts.
  3. Punishment “measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the “nature” of individuals.” It is not just that we pass or fail; we are given “grades,” As or Bs, a 96 on the final or a 75. So we strive for gradations of improvement: we work to achieve a B + even when we know we cannot aspire to an A. The hierarchy gives us many shades and subdivisions of value, finer grades of comparison, the illusion of more individuation that becomes a more refined means of control.
  4. Punishment “introduces, through this “value-giving” measure, the constraint of a conformity that must be achieved.” We attempt to live in the illusory world where all women weigh 110, where all children learn at the same rate, and where differences are seen as deviations.
  5. Lastly, punishment “traces the limit that will define difference in relation to all other differences, the external frontier of the abnormal.” Every hierarchy has a cutoff point, a mark beyond which one is no longer part of the whole, where you are no longer acceptable in the school system, on the job, where your failure to conform to the rule may relegate you to the worst place: the mental hospital, the back ward, skid row. That fear, of finally being forced out from the circle of value, makes us all work harder to keep a safe cushion between ourselves and the pit of worthlessness.

Going to jail is a succinct way to learn about punishment. In jail, there are no clouds of daily details and none of the substances we use to soothe ourselves. The bare strategies of power-over are revealed, clean as gnawed bones. So are the patterns in which we respond to systems of punishment. For human beings are creatures of context. Although we imagine that our choices are free, our responses are greatly determined by the situations in which we find ourselves.

A system of punishment is a system of roles that shapes who we are and how we act. In a classic experiment, psychologists Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo set up a mock prison in the basement of a building at Stanford University. They staffed their jail and filled it with randomly chosen “guards” and “prisoners,” selected from volunteers carefully screened for “normality.” Guards and prisoners adapted so quickly and thoroughly to their roles that the experiment had to be stopped after six days because the brutality of the guards and the demoralization of the prisoners had progressed so far that the experimenters feared permanent damage might result.2

When we are conditioned to obey authority, we try to behave as authority expects, looking to others for confirmation and reinforcement, denying our own perceptions. Solomon Asch conducted an experiment in which volunteers were asked to compare the length of lines on cards. The subject was unaware that the rest of the group were deliberately giving false answers. A significant percentage literally denied the evidence of their own senses in order to agree with the majority.3

In war, too, “the most potent quieters of conscience are evidently the presence of others who are doing the same things and the consciousness of acting under the orders of people “higher up” who will answer for one’s deeds.”4

Authority relieves us of the responsibility of independent action. Instead, we react in set and patterned ways. Systems of punishment generate four basic responses. We can comply, rebel, withdraw, or manipulate. All confirm the power of the system because they respond to rather than challenge the reality the system has created.

Another sort of response is possible. I call it resistance, or empowered action–action that does not accept the terms of the system, action that creates a new reality.

“Creating your own reality” is a New Age watchword, but many of those who espouse it really mean “take the best of what the system has to offer for yourself”–an option open only to a few of the more privileged among us. But to actually change the terms of reality itself, to generate new systems based on different values, is a far more demanding, dangerous, and revolutionary task.

Punishment systems define what is real by defining what is valued. In essence, punishment is based on the destruction of value. The jail is an analogy that reveals the workings of all the systems that destroy our sense of worth.

From Haney and Zimbardo, and the laboratory of my own jail experiences, I have identified ten principal ways in which the prison undermines value. My experiences in jail for short periods with other political activists are a world apart from the experience of those who are imprisoned alone, unsupported, or for long terms. The structures identified here then become even more extreme, destructive, and all-encompassing. But the same structures are to varying degrees inherent in all punishment systems. For the prison we could substitute the school, the job, the corporation, the hospital, the mental hospital, the government office, the welfare system, the military, the cult, the church. We do not generally think of all these institutions as systems of punishment, but all of them are involved in the rule-giving, rating, and comparing that deny immanent value.5

  1. Individual worth is defined by the person’s status in the system. The prisoner, the mental patient, is placed outside the bounds of the normal. In the corporation or the graduate school, the inmates are considered to have a superior rather than inferior status. Yet that status exists only as long as the person meets the demands of the system. The threat of being cast out is always present, and to be cast out of a system that defines one as valuable is itself a punishment to be feared.
  2. The individual must be watched. Prisoners are kept under constant surveillance. Students are tested, workers supervised. We learn, also, to observe ourselves, to impose the standards of the Judge on our own emotions, bodies, and spirits.
  3. Jails are ugly. They provide minimum sensory variation. Boredom is punishment. Corporate offices are bland; windows become identified with privilege because they represent access to stimulation outside the system’s control.
  4. Prisoners, outsiders, are shorn of identity and individuality. Anonymity is enforced, often symbolized by uniformity of dress and appearance, even actual uniforms–whether of the prisoner’s khaki or the executive’s dress-for-success variety.
  5. Punishment systems limit choices. In jail, the coffee comes with sugar already added. At work, the hours and conditions are imposed. Little or no room is made for negotiations and individual variations.
  6. Punishment institutions are controlled by rules, and rules define reality. In the workplace, the rule that workers must be there between the hours of 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. creates a reality of massive traffic jams and downtown areas that go dead in the evening. In jail, the rule against touching makes expressions of affection, comfort, and sexuality illegal. The emotional reality becomes inevitably grim and harsh.
  7. Emotional expression is required to be suppressed, for feelings are not amenable to control. Prisoners are not allowed to get angry; managers are not supposed to cry. The erotic, too, must be suppressed.
  8. Time itself becomes distorted, becomes an instrument of punishment. Prisoners count the days; workers and students watch the clock.
  9. Punishment systems are ultimately based on force and the potential of violence and/or deprivation of resources and opportunities.
  10. In the most vicious systems, force and power are applied unpredictably and inconsistently, which further undermines the individual’s sense of control. In the Nazi concentration camps, perhaps the most extreme system of punishment ever devised, “the SS could kill anyone they happened to run into. Criminal kapos would walk about in groups of two and three, making bets among themselves on who could kill a prisoner with a single blow.”6 When punishment is predictable, when it is bound somewhat by its own rules, the individual can maintain some sense of power and control. But when death comes at random, the last shreds of personal power are undermined.

Punishment systems and their agents–the Conqueror, the Orderer, the Master of Servants, the Censor, the Judge–attack our inherent value. The roles that we play in response confirm our lack of value.

Resistance, in contrast, asserts the value of the self, arising from values outside the realm of punishment. Unless we at times inhabit a realm of freedom, we may never get a chance to learn empowered action.

We can create systems and relationships that liberate and empower, where we can learn free action, in which we can be seen rather than watched. Such structures, whether they are organizations, love affairs, or architecture, can generate beauty and pleasure, can provide a richness of the senses and a celebration of individuality and diversity. They can provide choice whenever possible, and affirm emotional and erotic expression. Instead of force, cooperation and interdependence can bind us together; instead of rules to define reality, we can let reality itself reveal its inherent demands. Time can become a blessing, not a burden.

This vision may sound utopian, yet the models we might take are common: a forest ecosystem in which each tree, each plant, each insect and animal performs a vital function that sustains the whole by acting in accord with its own nature; an organic garden in which the demands of work are determined not by clock time but by wind and weather and the cycles of the earth’s turning. We might even imagine walking the streets of a free city: see them lined with gardens and fruit trees that offer sustenance to travelers; see children playing on wide walkways and in small parks knowing they are safe, imagine big houses and small where people live in a hundred diverse ways–in families, in couples, in big collective groupings, in splendid solitude; feel the excitement as night falls and the lights go on and people come out to dance in the streets, fearing no one. See their faces of different shapes and colors, their eyes alive with pride in their own history and culture. Imagine walking through those varied streets, going to a workplace where the work you do has value because it contributes sustenance or pleasure or knowledge to the community and because you share equally with others in its rewards and responsibilities. You can bring a sick child here, or your dog; you can grow fresh vegetables outside and cook them up for lunch; and you can cry if you want to, or laugh, or flirt, or paint your walls with exuberant murals, for you and your co-workers all know that the way you treat and value each other is as important as anything you produce.

Reshaping the world in the image of freedom requires action that is freely chosen. To make those choices, we must recognize the patterns of unfree action we adopt in response to punishment. We must recognize the jail inside our own minds.


We are in jail at the Lompoc Federal Prison. The women are held in a recreation hall, now covered wall-to-wall with mattresses. It seems a haven of peace and safety to me after the past few days, hiking in pouring rain through the backcountry to reach the missile silos of Vandenberg Air Force Base. We have spent a horrible night locked up in a cold, damp classroom, and a long, tense day resisting being booked, in solidarity with some of our fellow blockaders who were isolated. We refused to move, going limp as the military police dragged us away. We are bruised, sore: I am covered with the itching rash of poison oak and coughing from bronchitis.

But now it is morning. We have time to relax, to talk about life, sex, relationships, and finally to hold a meeting and begin to organize. This is the first time most of us have encountered the federal legal system. Because I have done some of the trainings for the action, I am briefed on the legal information and I share it with the group.

After the meeting, we resume our major occupation for the day–hanging out. There is nothing else to do, nowhere to go. A guard comes up and calls out a couple of numbers. I recognize my own. We have not yet given our names to the authorities, so our numbers are our only identities.

Without thinking, I respond. “Don’t answer,” my friend Jeri whispers, but too late.

“Get your things,” the guard says. “You’re going to the doctor.”

“I don’t want to go to the doctor,” I say. “I don’t need to.”

“You said you’ve got poison oak. The doctor’s got to look at you.”

“I don’t need a doctor for poison oak. I’m fine.”

“It’s not up to you to decide. We’re in charge here–not you. Now get going.”

A second woman has been called along with me. We confer. “I don’t want to go,” she says. “Don’t go,” my friends say. I know that if the guards were to try to take me away, the women would surround me and resist. But I put on my shoes. I comply.

“Let’s get it over with,” I say. The two of us are escorted into a car, driven by an older man in a gray suit who is accompanied by a woman. They drive us around the prison grounds–and then we realize suddenly that we are on the open road, headed in some unknown direction. “Where’s the doctor?” my friend asks. “What doctor?” replies the man.

“I thought we were being taken to see a doctor.”

“You’re not going to any doctor. You’re being turned over to the federal marshals.”

Paranoid visions flash through our minds–solitary cells, rubber hoses. But the marshals simply throw us out of jail, released without charges or explanations.

On the street again, waiting outside the K-Mart for our supporters to pick us up, we are furious. We want to be in jail, with the group, with our friends, part of the action and the solidarity that we feel we have inadvertently betrayed.

Mostly, I am furious at myself. “How could you be so stupid?” I say to myself over and over again. “You know that’s the oldest trick in the book–the medical call. Stupid, stupid, stupid!”

Only much later, after the fever of the action has subsided, am I able to put the question to myself not in an orgy of self-hate but a spirit of inquiry: “How, indeed, could I be so stupid?” How is it I could act without thinking clearly, could obey so automatically against my own wishes and interests? For in looking back, in trying to remember my thoughts and feelings at the moment 1 made the decision to go, all I find is a curious blankness, as if my critical self, my emotions, had somehow switched off.

I could only recognize that blankness after it was over, when I had come back to myself. At the time I was not aware of being unconscious.

Obedience is so deeply ingrained, compliance comes so naturally, that it sneaks up on us even when we intend the opposite. It’s not that we don’t think about what we’re doing, its that we are in a state in which we cannot think. We run on automatic.

Such automatic obedience is required of soldiers in war. One of the subjects of the Milgram experiments, in a later interview, expressed his rationale for continuing to administer shocks to the “learner” even when he believed the other person might be unconscious or dead: “I figured: well, this is an experiment, and Yale knows what’s going on, and if they think it’s all right, well, it’s all right with me. They know more than I do. . . This is all based on a man’s principle in life, and how he was brought up and what goals he sets in life. . . I know that when I was in the service. . . If the lieutenant says, ‘We’re going to go on the firing range, you’re going to crawl on your gut,’ you’re going to crawl on your gut. And if you come across a snake, which I’ve seen a lot of fellows come across, copperheads, and guys were told not to get up, and they got up. And they got killed.”7

Compliance begins with belief. The authority, the institution, constructs reality for us, by limiting our sources of information and giving us the information it wants us to believe. “I have to teach you about sex–all daddies do this,” says the father. We believe because we have no way to know what not to believe. In the jail, we cannot tell what is real.

Awareness is the beginning of all resistance. We can only resist domination by becoming and remaining conscious: conscious of the self, conscious of the way reality is constructed around us, conscious of each seemingly insignificant choice we make, conscious that we are, in fact, making choices. Resistance becomes a discipline of awareness, akin to any spiritual discipline that demands we remain present to our experience. When we resist domination, we must practice magic–the art of changing consciousness at will.

The jail constructs reality also, as we have seen, through rules. “Rules are the backbone of all institutionalized approaches to managing people.”8 The rules tell us how to behave, what to do and what not to do, and how we will be punished if we disobey. When we are brought into jail, we are immediately handed a list of rules.

“Rules can come to define reality for those who follow them. Since the definition of the situation frequently is the situation, violations and not rules are defined as the problem. . . “9 In the Stanford experiment, “when the guards . . . threatened to suspend visiting privileges unless a prisoner who was fasting ate his dinner, the other prisoners turned violently against him . . . not against the guards for their arbitrary rule. They had accepted the guards’ definition of the situation and regarded the prisoner’s defiance as blameworthy, rather than as a heroic, symbolic act to instill the courage they so desperately needed.”10

Compliance destroys the unity of resistance. When we accept the authority’s reality, when we blame the rule-breakers, blame the victims, we cannot see our own victimization or act against it. Resistance demands clarity. We cannot mistake the rule for the reality; we must continuously search behind the rules for the assumptions they represent and the power relations they enforce.

The jail wants us to comply, and it will exert all its power to see that we do. And we do comply, part of the time, for no one has the energy to rebel or resist completely.

March 1982, I write in my journal: “Intimidation: In jail, they pull one of the women out of our group, lock her up in someplace worse

so that we see their power

so that we become fearful

they pick the woman who makes us most uncomfortable, who is most loud and angry, least respectable, who least fits in

so that we do not really want to extend ourselves, to risk ourselves, for her

so that we can justify not risking ourselves, telling ourselves that there is nothing we can do (even though all of us are here in jail because we will not accept that there is nothing we can do)

so that we don’t try to do anything, telling ourselves

we don’t have enough information to act

that it is not yet the right time to act

that if we try to act we will make the situation worse:

that it is better to let someone else (our lawyers, the experts) act for us

that she may have done something to deserve it

that she created her own situation

“These are the voices that silence us, that keep us powerless inside the jail, and they are the same voices that silence us, that keep us powerless, on the outside. We can recognize the excuses when we hear them, but when we are scared enough we don’t hear them anymore, we simply do not act. And if at one time we can overcome them enough to speak and act, then another time they will overcome us, for if we are not afraid of one thing there will always be something worse they can do that we will be afraid of. There is always a rubber room–and when we are in the rubber room already, there is something beyond that.”

So we obey, because it is to dangerous not to, or simply too hard to fight every battle, because our chronic vigilance has left us exhausted, or because we cannot tolerate the isolation we suffer if we don’t comply. For us, as for the soldier, disobedience “means to set oneself against others and with one stroke lose their comforting presence. It means to cut oneself free of doing what one’s superiors approve, free of being an integral part of the military organism with the expansion of the ego that such belonging brings. Suddenly the soldier feels himself abandoned and cast off from all security.”11

To obey, we perform. We work. We do our homework. We put in overtime. We exhibit enthusiasm for the company. We conform. We observe ourselves, work on ourselves. We repair the damages done by a system that is slowly murdering us.

A life of compliance is a life of denial. We deny the body. We feel sick–yet we go to work. We feel hungry–yet we don’t eat. We deny feelings–for the jail requires that we suppress our emotions, especially our anger and our rage that might lead to rebellion.

Obedience has its cost: the destruction of the self. To be good is to be a slave, unfree. When we comply, when we aid the system in its ultimate disregard and destruction of us, we hate ourselves. We know that we have been stupid, blind, weak. And so we cannot comply all of the time and live. At times, we must rebel.

Becoming aware of how and when we comply can help us act consciously. I suggest the following questions as an aid in the process. This is the first of a number of exercises for groups and individuals that you will find throughout this and the following chapters.


Consider these questions in individual meditation, journal writing, or group rounds:

  1. When in my life have I complied or obeyed when I didn’t want to?
  2. How did I feel at the time? What was I thinking? What choices did I perceive?
  3. What other choices actually existed? What might have happened had I taken them?


Doreen has spent most of her twenty-three years in institutions. When she was thirteen, her mother, unable to care for her, placed her in a mental hospital. She graduated into juvenile hall and intermittent terms in the county jail.

Now she is trying hard to improve her life. She has a nurturing relationship with a woman lover. She is part of a supportive feminist community. She goes to AA meetings and comes to me for therapy.

One night she goes with her lover to a concert. During a break Doreen steps outside to smoke a cigarette. When she tries to return, the woman who takes tickets stops her.

“Where’s your ticket?”

“It’s inside–you saw me go out.”

“I never saw you before in my life.”

“Let me get my purse–it’s inside with my friend.”

“Hell no, bitch. You pay to get in.”

Doreen becomes deadly angry. “Nobody calls me ‘bitch.'”

“Oh yeah? You rather I call you fat girl?”

Doreen, in her mind, is back in jail, where the shreds of her self-worth are so fragile that not to defend them is to die. She lunges at the ticket taker, and in an instant they are yelling and fighting and kicking at each other in the street. Women are screaming as Doreen pulls out her last defense–her knife. She has just enough presence of mind to throw it away when the cops come.

We rebel to save our lives. Rebellion is the desperate assertion of our value in the face of all that attacks it, the cry of refusal in the face of control. The jail has taken all that was ours; and we must assert what belongs to us or disappear. Doreen, speaking about jail, once told me, “Sometimes I had to get in trouble just to prove to myself that I existed.” In rebellion, the future disappears, consequences become meaningless under the immediate, explosive pressure of our rage. So we lash out with noise and whatever force we can muster.

When we comply in our own punishment, the self knows and hates us for it. When we rebel, we feel, even for a moment, powerful and free.

But that freedom and power are false, for rebellion, unless it can transform itself into resistance, inevitably becomes self-destructive. When we rebel without challenging the framework of reality the system has constructed, we remain trapped. Our choices are predetermined for us.

The ticket taker’s insult has immediately constructed for Doreen a certain reality of limited choices. She sees only two possibilities: submit to abuse or attack back. Of the infinite potential responses to the ticket taker, her experience of life, shaped by the jail, has taught her only these alternatives.

The ticket taker herself, who, it turns out, also has a history of jail and institutionalization, inhabits the same limited reality in which challenge must be responded to with verbal or physical force. Had she met someone who responded out of a different set of choices, the whole incident would have progressed differently.

When rebellion does not challenge the choices predetermined by the system, it cannot lead to freedom. For the choices the system presents us with inevitably increase the system’s control. The system needs those who suffer the stick as much as it needs those who reach for the carrot. In order to retain control, the system needs to punish, and it needs to single out some individuals for more intensive punishment to serve as an example and warning to the rest. Rebellion provides the system with its excuse, its rationale, for punishment. Without transgressors, there would be no one to send to the worst place, no way to intimidate the good into being good.

When the system defines our choices, it channels rebellion into modes that it is prepared to control, into acts that harm the rebel, not the system. Prison guards know how to handle troublemakers; they are constantly on the alert for the belligerent, the instigator: such people can be quickly removed to serve as a warning to the rest. The schoolchild who rebels, refuses to study, harms her or his own future, not the educational system that functions, at least in part, as a winnowing device that removes those not temperamentally suited to obey from the tracks leading to the higher echelons of the hierarchy.

The culture of punishment also offers us channels for rebellion that destroy us slowly without challenging the power of the system at all. We can choose from a broad array of addictions that offer us the chance to rebel and administer our own punishment in a single act–for when we smoke, abuse alcohol or drugs, when we literally attack our own bodies with substances that harm us, we are affirming punishment’s essential message: “You have no inherent worth, you do not deserve to live.”

We find such addictions very hard to break because we identify them with being bad, rebellious, disobedient, unenslaved. The image sold to us by the media is that addictions represent freedom. They take us to Marlboro country. And we need to do something bad, for to be too good is to be dead. I had a cigarette: I’m bad (free); I denied myself a cigarette: I’m good (slave). We become addicted not just to the substance but to our failures to quit, which comfort us by confirming the existence of some small bit of the self that cannot be controlled.

But the badness of addiction does not buy us deeper, broader, more extended life. It too kills us, quickly or slowly. We enact upon ourselves the murder of the self, in our desperate attempt to keep alive some kernel of freedom.

Insanity can also be seen as an extreme form of rebellion, and is sometimes romanticized as such. “It’s not that I’m not in touch with this reality,” says James, a young man in the midst of what is clinically described as a schizophrenic break. “I defy reality!”

But to defy reality, alone and isolated, is not the same as to change it. To go crazy means to become the most vulnerable to control, to be isolated, locked up, subject to physical restraints, chemical, electrical, and even surgical punishments, all administered in the name of therapy. The insane serve as a warning to the rest of us of what will happen if we go too far, get too strange, challenge too much.

The punishment for rebellion is to be singled out, isolated, made strange. The price of being bad is to be outcast, cut off even further from the circle of worth.

Rebellion also cuts us off from the information we may need for survival. When we need our addictions to substitute for freedom, we lose the ability to feel what is really happening to our bodies. When we defy reality, we cannot see what range of choices reality may present us with.

Rebellion is our very life asserting itself, willing to settle for nothing less than freedom. But if our rebellion is to have any hope of achieving that freedom, it must transform itself into resistance.

Resistance challenges the framework of reality defined by systems of punishment. Rebellion can be the first step toward resistance, but we must avoid the sidetracks of self-destruction along the way.

Resistance differs from rebellion because it embodies a reality incongruent with that of domination. We do more than defy reality: we present its alternatives, communicating our beliefs and values.

Power-over is maintained by the belief that some people are more valuable than others. Its systems reflect distinctions in value. When we refuse to accept those distinctions, refuse to automatically assume our powerlessness, the smooth functioning of the systems of oppression is interrupted. Each interruption creates a small space, a rip in the fabric of oppression that has the potential to let another power come through.

The authorities can handle rebellion without stepping out of role. But when we speak not to the role but to the human being behind it, when we refuse to automatically defer to the power of a role, we challenge the basic assumptions underlying all hierarchies: that our worth is determined by our role and status. The philosophy and practice of nonviolence as a means of social change is rooted in the premise that all of us have inherent worth. To resist domination, we must act in ways that affirm value–even in our opponents.

We can begin by valuing ourselves, refusing to administer our own oppression, refusing to poison ourselves or numb the pain with substances that soothe but incapacitate, preventing us from making any serious trouble for the system.

We can also refuse isolation. To connect, to build bonds of caring and community, to create structures of support that can nurture us and renew our strength, are powerful acts of resistance.


Consider these questions in individual meditation, journal writing, or group rounds:

  1. When in my life have I rebelled? How? With what success? At what cost?
  2. What choices did I see that I had? Were other choices possible? What?
  3. What might have been different?


“The only way to make it with the bosses is to withdraw into yourself, both mentally and physically–literally making yourself as small as possible.”12

There are many women in the jail who are neither compliant nor rebellious. Instead, they have retreated to their cots and sleep out the action, or sit quietly in a corner. Withdrawal is another way to respond to an intolerable situation.

Camp Parks, June ’82. We are meeting with our legal team, who inform us that the gym in which we are held has been used for many years for experiments with radioactive substances. No one is yet sure exactly how much danger we may be in.

I am standing on the outskirts of the group. I listen to the arguments.

I say to myself, “I cannot deal with this while I’m in here. I can’t think about it.” And I don’t.

Denial is a form of withdrawal, for when we withdraw, we shut out information. We may withdraw to conserve our energy and resources. Shutting out what we cannot cope with may give us time to adjust when we are thrown into a reality sharply different from what we have known before.

Victims and survivors of the Nazi concentration camps most commonly first responded to their ordeal by entering a state of shock, undergoing an “emotional death.” “Entry into the camp world was characterized by an overriding sense of nightmare and unreality–two words which appear constantly when survivors refer to their first days and weeks.”13 In the camps, the Nazis literally created a different reality, one of such extremes of horror and cruelty that for most people it seemed to have no connection with their former lives. The camps could be comprehended only as a terrible dream.

Withdrawal cushions us from feeling the full impact of our situation. But it is ultimately dangerous, for wrapped in our cushion we are cut off from information and observations vital to our survival. “It was deadly to remain within the dream. Prisoners unable to shake off their sense of unreality could only drift as one drifts in dream, defenseless and stupid.”14 Those who did not succeed in waking became the so-called “Musselmanner,” the ‘moslems’ or ‘walking dead,’ for whom time ran out before they were able to shake the sense of nightmare and wake to their predicament. They starved, they fell sick, they stumbled into situations that got them killed. . . They died inwardly, and as their spirit withered their outward aspect was terrible to see.”15

“They behaved as if they were not thinking, not feeling, not able to act or respond. . . Typically, this stopping of action began when they no longer lifted their legs as they walked, but only shuffled them. When finally even the looking about on their own stopped, they soon died.”16

Those who survived the camps somehow found the strength to awaken and name the nighmare real, to turn and continue turning “from passivity to action–from horror to the daily business of staying alive.”17 Survival, itself an act of ultimate resistance, required paying “sharp attention, not to the horror or to their own pain, but to the development of objective conditions which had to be judged constantly in terms of their potential for life or for death.”18

Unless we can grasp the reality in which we find ourselves, we cannot change it. When I refused to comprehend the reality that I and my friends were locked up in a place that might be contaminated with radioactivity, I tacitly accepted that we were powerless to do anything about our situation. Because we were only in jail for two days, the situation was not critical. Had we been held there for weeks or months, our acceptance of our powerless position could have led to damaged health and reduced life. Withdrawing, we were unable to act. Had we faced our situation, we might have been able to change it.

When we withdraw, our gifts, our perceptions, our energies are lost. The realities of domination go unchallenged.

To resist is to engage reality, to act. Awareness, emotion are not enough. Resistance is only real when it is expressed through action.

In turn, the action we take nourishes and strengthens us, for acts of resistance against systems that destroy us are ultimately acts of survival, creation, and nurture.

We often think of resistance as negative. “I don’t want to focus energy on resistance, on the negative,” people say. “I want to be positive, creative.” But resistance is the refusal to be negated by systems of control. When we are embedded in negative systems, only acts of resistance and refusal can move us in positive directions. Only by refusing to withdraw, to blank out and disappear, can we become present in the world and begin to create. And creativity itself may be an act of resistance, the ultimate refusal to accept things as they are.


Consider these questions in individual contemplation, journal writing, or group rounds:

  1. In what situations have I withdrawn? What happened? How did I feel?
  2. What information did I not receive? What was going on that I didn’t know about? What choices did I have that I didn’t perceive? What action could I have taken?
  3. When did I awaken? How? What sparked my return to awareness?


“I sorted some of the morning’s mail–piles of forms which had to be routed to each engineer for initials before they were filed in several file drawers. . . I stuck the stack of the papers way in the back of the filing cabinet, and I was done. Somebody’s boss was watching, so I read my TempRite magazine.”19

While some comply, some rebel, and some withdraw, there are some who figure out the system and how to best it. When we manipulate the system, we have the illusion of being in control. We can keep the rewards of the system while believing that we are not really complying.

But we are still accepting the system’s terms, unspoken rules, and values, including the lack of value it accords to us. Women in traditional roles supposedly achieve power, money, and status through manipulating men, but such achievements do not challenge the low value placed on women.

When we manipulate, we may become sensitive receivers of information about the system. When we put on the mask of deception we feel conscious, not blank. But in reality our ability to see what’s going on is still severely limited–by the limits of the system itself. We may know everything about how the jail functions and how to get the most out of it for ourselves, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are still in jail.

“He came over to my desk, put one of his thick hands on my in-box, glanced at my tits, and gave me a smile. ‘Well, that’s okay, then, Kelly. We’re glad to have you pitchin’ for us even if you can’t make coffee. Now why don’t you sprint down to the corner and get me a cup of the real stuff.’

“I don’t like to get coffee. ‘I wouldn’t mind going out, but I have some Xeroxing to do for Toole,’ 1 told him, sweetly.”20 In this story from the radical office workers’ magazine Processed World, “Kelly” knows how to avoid tasks she doesn’t want to do–not always successfully (she does, in the end, get coffee) but more often than any of her bosses suspect. She can look sweet while arranging matters so that she has some small control over her work–more than the system allots to her. But the millions of minor acts of sabotage performed by secretaries and workers at the lower levels of the hierarchies do not change the essential structure of the working world.

Manipulation also does not challenge the low value the system places on the self. For in order to manipulate, we cannot be ourselves, express our true feelings, or share our real perceptions. We literally mask ourselves. “Kelly” must smile sweetly; were she to say to the boss “Get your own goddamned coffee, stop patronizing me, and go to hell!” she would simply lose her job. She would have moved from manipulation to rebellion. To move further, into resistance, would require organization and support.

Manipulation may garner for us some of the system’s rewards, or it may drag at the system’s wheels as they turn, but it neither liberates us individually nor changes the collective reality the system creates.

Resistance challenges the system’s terms and categories, counters its assumptions, and communicates other values. Resistance speaks its own truth to power, and shifts the ground of struggle to its own terrain.


Consider these questions in individual meditation, journal writing, or group rounds:

  1. When (whom) have I manipulated? How?
  2. How did I feel about myself? What parts of myself did I have to conceal?
  3. What happened?
  4. What other choices did I have? Did I perceive them?


Responses to punishment systems are similar to the roles children adopt in an alcoholic family. The Hero, the good child, complies. The Scapegoat, the bad child, the delinquent, rebels. The Lost Child, the quiet one who disappears into the woodwork, withdraws. The Mascot, the child who clowns, entertains, manipulates.21 All are responding to a situation in which power is experienced much as it is in any system of punishment: as arbitrary, inconsistent, capricious, violent. All follow the unspoken rules of the alcoholic family, which are the same as in prison: don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.22

The roles, and the rules, are strategies we adopt in order to survive. None of these responses are necessarily bad or wrong. At times, any one of them may be the best possible choice. We play the roles open to us, sometimes one, sometimes another, and in facing systems of power they may seem to be our only options. We need not blame ourselves for following them, although the self-hater in each of us may leap to do so. But we can recognize that the roles, the rules, the strategies of the jail stay with us when we attempt to create something new. They undermine us.

So we must understand them, learn to recognize them. For these patterns carry over into many situations: relationships, families, working groups, businesses, affinity groups. Observing the simple and overt strategies of control in jail may give us insight into the workings of other sorts of groups.

Resistance is hard. We find it relatively easy to commit a single act of resistance, but to sustain that resistance over days, weeks, over a hundred minor issues and constant confrontations, requires a diligence and stamina far beyond what most of us possess. Our admiration increases for those who hold to resistance against greater threats, extremes of pain, privation, and fear, for months and long years. For we find that resistance demands enormous energy. We cannot resist all the time, in every area of life. We must choose our battles and the priorities of struggle.

But knowing that resistance is a possibility makes all our choices real choices. They become part of our resistance, not opposed to it. We can say, “I will obey right now because this issue is not where I choose to make my stand.” We can say, “I will rebel not by harming myself but by making trouble for the authorities.” We can say, “I will withdraw now to conserve my strength but I will return tomorrow with my eyes open.” We can say, “I can use my ability to manipulate the system to prepare the ground of struggle.” We can be conscious when we put on a mask that we are not wearing our true faces–and so retain the ability to take the mask off.


The following questions are for group consideration and feedback. Each person in the group should have a chance to consider these questions aloud and receive a caring response. Allow twenty to thirty minutes per person; in a sizable group, this process might take more than one meeting. If so, be sure that everyone is committed to completing the process.

  1. Which roles do I play in the group? Which masks do I wear?
  2. When? In response to what?
  3. How do I feel in the mask?
  4. How do others respond to me? (Ask for feedback.)
  5. What other choices do I have? (Ask for suggestions.)
  6. What choice would I make if I felt I had power?


  1. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979), 183.
  2. Craig Haney, Curtis Banks, and Philip Zimbardo, “A Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison,” in The Social Animal, ed. Elliot Aronson (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1981), 52-68. See also Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo, “The Socialization into Criminality: On Becoming a Prisoner and a Guard,” in Law, Justice, and the Individual in Society: Psychological and Legal Issues, ed. June Tapp and Felice J. Levine (New York: Hold, Rinehart & Winston, 1977), 198-223.
  3. Solomon E. Asch, “Opinions and Social Pressure,” in The Social Animal, 13-23.
  4. J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors(New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 175.
  5. Haney and Zimbardo, “The Socialization into Criminality.”
  6. Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 59.
  7. Milgram, Stanley, Obedience to Authority (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 88).
  8. Haney and Zimbardo, “The Socialization into Criminality,” 214.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 214-215.
  11. Gray, The Warriors, 184-85.
  12. Haney and Zimbardo, “The Socialization into Criminality,” 215.
  13. Des Pres, The Survivor, 82-83.
  14. ibid., 85.
  15. Ibid., 88.
  16. Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age, (New York: Avon, 1960), 152-53.
  17. Des Pres, The Survivor, 87.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Kelly Girl, “Kelly Call Girl,” Processed World, 13:18
  20. Ibid., 19.
  21. Sharon Wegscheider, Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family, (Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, 1981), 104-105. Claudia Black, in It Will Never Happen To Me (Denver, CO: M.A.C. Publications, 1981), provides a slightly different set of descriptive terms: the Responsible One, the Placater, the Acting Out child, and [the Adjuster].
  22. Black, It Will Never Happen to Me, 31-52.