Migrations to Solitude is Sue Halpern’s first book. Portions of it appeared originally in various journals, including the The New York Times Magazine, Antaeus, The New York Review of Books, and Rolling Stone. A graduate of Yale with a doctorate from the University of Oxford, Halpern has a background including teaching medical ethics at Columbia University and politics at Bryn Mawr before turning to full-time writing. Even without knowing the author’s educational specialties and background, however, the reader recognizes in Migrations to Solitude an extraordinarily original sensitivity and depth of insight regarding an often-debated subject, solitude, and its handmaiden, privacy. Written in clear, eloquent prose spiked with occasional metaphor, Migrations to Solitude consists of twelve essays and an “Author’s Note.” These essays are, as the author indicates, “personal,” not because they are about the writer herself (though the first and the last pieces are), but because they “are about people’s lives.” Each offers an exploration of the “experience of solitude,” or in some cases the lack of it, “as a physical fact.” Moreover, although the author disclaims any intention to discuss privacy as a “legal concept,” midway through the essays she does, perhaps unavoidably, turn to such issues as a teenager’s right to an abortion without parental consent and invasive medical and technological procedures such as enforced employee drug testing or secret computer surveillance checks. Although her book neither offers a clear polemical thesis on privacy nor constructs an argument for or against the right to solitude, Halpern clearly distinguishes between the two and suggests the necessity of both for a person’s health, dignity, and serenity.
The first four essays all indirectly confront the issue of personal choice with regard to solitude and privacy, and all four speak of the virtues and dignity that come from the voluntary selection of solitude as a way of life. Conversely, Halpern raises the specter of the denial of choice, focusing attention on how that denial can also be a denial of one’s humanity and basic human needs. Since privacy “is the state of being free from observations, disclosures, and intrusions of others, and solitude…the condition of being apart,” in “that place where we are fundamentally by ourselves,” the two areas merge where solitude is enforced, as in the solitary confinement cell of a prison, one of the places of which Halpern writes in her work. The first persons she examines and the first place to which she looks for her study are herself, her husband, and the remote village in the Adirondack Mountains where they chose to live. In “Wild Ducks, People, and Distances,” Halpern explores solitude in a natural setting as a reminder of humanity’s smallness. The mountain setting is where, paradoxically, distance between neighbors encourages neighborliness and accountability. Who would want to rent a pornographic video, the author queries, in a town where only the general store rents films and everyone knows everyone else? Here the anonymity and privacy of the city contrast vividly with the restriction and solitude of the village. Although the author characterizes but does not judge small-town life, this first essay hints at the partiality the writer feels for solitude, the spirituality that solitude embraces. True mystery, Halpern writes, is not the secrets of the lives of the rich and famous, exploited by the tabloids to feed a confession-hungry public, but the spirit in nature absent to the city dweller’s eye: “the hooded merganser on the pond behind our house, and what it took for her to get there.” Deliberately choosing rural life, the author and her husband trade convenience and some level of privacy for a view of that mystery and a life replete with values lost in urban areas.
“New Heaven and Earth” and “A Room of One’s Own,” an ironic borrowing of the title of Virginia Woolf’s famous treatise on women’s writing, make clear the consequences of lack of choice. A dramatic portrait of Janet “Kookie” Driver, an advocate for the homeless, “New Heaven and Earth” captures the debasement of human dignity when privacy is unavailable, on the streets or in shelters such as New York’s 168th Street National Guard Armory, where nine hundred men sleep in one room. Halpern’s detailed portrait of life in even smaller hostels, which give some privacy by limiting the number of occupants, evokes the depression and despair homelessness causes. The very bareness of walls suggests the link between privacy, a place of one’s own, and identity—who and what matters to the individual. An objective though compassionate reporter, here and in “A Room of One’s Own,” Halpern raises a silent question: How can society expect anything of individuals reduced to anonymity by the loss of home, all privacy, and free choice, those very conditions needed to confront the self and create change?
Robert Stark, the death-row inmate at Angola, Louisiana’s state penitentiary, who corresponds with the author, has also been stripped of all humanity. His “bed is bolted to the wall,…and there are no windows” in his cell. There is no conversation, unless the guards are friendly. Stark tells Halpern such isolation is “like having ‘hell all to yourself.…’” An informed and well-researched piece, “A Room of One’s Own” traces the history of solitary confinement as a means of prison reform while suggesting how such enforced confinement leads to...