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Clarence Thomas, Alone at the Pinnacle

A new biography of Justice Clarence Thomas explores some of the paradoxes of his life and career; it's called Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas. Authors Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, both reporters at The Washington Post, say the book grew out of a Post article exploring "both the racial vehemence that has hounded Thomas and the roots of his ascension to the judicial mountaintop."


Other segments from the episode on May 1, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 1, 2007: Interview with Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher; Interview with Philip Zimbardo.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Michael Fletcher and Kevin Merida, co-authors of the
biography "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence
Thomas," on the confirmation hearings, the family life and the
paradoxes of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Clarence Thomas has served on the Supreme Court for 16 years, and in many ways
he remains a mysterious and paradoxical figure, which is why my guests, Kevin
Merida and Michael Fletcher, have written a new biography of him. It's called
"Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas." Thomas declined to
be interviewed for the book, but Merida and Fletcher did speak with hundreds
of people who have known Thomas during the course of his life, including many
who have never before spoken with a journalist. Both authors work for The
Washington Post. Merida is an associate editor. Fletcher covers the White
House. They're both African-American, and among the issues they explore in
the book is Thomas' constant struggle with his racial identity and the intense
passions, often anger, he stirs among African-Americans.

Kevin Merida, Michael Fletcher, welcome to FRESH AIR. What did you learn
about Clarence Thomas' reactions to the fact that many African-Americans
consider his views to be kind of opposed to progressive African-American

Mr. KEVIN MERIDA: Clarence Thomas, you know, it's interesting. You get a
couple of reactions from him on that. On one level he says, `I don't hear
that kind of reaction from workaday African Americans as I live my life.
People seem to be cordial to me in public life as I walk around and live my
life. I don't encounter this kind of hostility.' But he does say that, you
know, civil rights groups and what he would consider liberal-leaning groups
fan this perception of him, and that makes him upset.

And in another way, he also sees his jurisprudence as being the best way for
African-Americans to make their way in this society. He says you have to gird
yourself. You have to become independent, and that's the only way you're
going to really, really achieve in this society, and that will protect you
from, you know, anything anyone can do to you.

GROSS: At the same time, you ask several questions at the beginning of the
book like, would Clarence Thomas even be on the court if he were not black?
Why do you ask that?



Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think that one of the reasons is because President Bush,
President H.W. Bush, when he--George H.W. Bush--when he nominated Thomas
said that he was the best qualified candidate. A lot of people cast doubt on
that. I mean, this was a justice who had served 18 months in the court of
appeals. He did not have a very strong legal background before that. He had
served as the youngest African-American to head an agency, the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission, and so there wasn't this sense that this
was a weighty legal scholar, so there was a lot of questions following
Thurgood Marshall, of course, the guy who was going to replace Thurgood
Marshall, was there someone else who would have been of more stature to take
that job.

And because he was in a Republican administration that had not groomed many
for that, and they also thought that Justice Thomas would put civil rights
groups in a difficult bind--there's an entire political component to that--I
think we raised the question, would he have been on the court, if he were not
black. If all things were given equal, I think even Arlen Specter, who is now
the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says that he disagreed with that
statement then and disagrees with it now, that Clarence Thomas was the most
qualified candidate to be on the court.

GROSS: You know, you point out that Clarence Thomas is opposed to affirmative
action and any type of racial preferences, yet he benefited from an
affirmative action type program at Yale. And you say every employer who chose
him at least partly chose him because he's black--from Senator Danforth, who
gave him his first job after law school, to his appointment to the Supreme
Court. I'm going to ask you to just amplify on that a little bit and then
talk about how you think Clarence Thomas deals with that paradox.



Mr. MICHAEL FLETCHER: It's interesting. I think Clarence Thomas, it becomes
part of the hypocrisy that some people see in his life. They say, this is a
guy--and some people use the analogy of a guy climbing a ladder and rolling
the ladder up behind him somehow--and they think that Clarence Thomas has done
that. Going all the way back, as you point out, to Yale, even at Holy Cross,
he was the beneficiary--when he went to undergrad--he was the beneficiary of a
Martin Luther King scholarship, and clearly the school after the assassination
of Dr. King made a special effort to recruit African Americans. Now Clarence
Thomas went to Holy Cross as a transfer student and may or may not have been
part of that special recruitment effort, but he certainly entered an
atmosphere where African-American students were being recruited, really, in an
aggressive way for the first time.

From there he goes to Yale, which had its own affirmative action program. And
coming out of Yale--he talks about this a lot--he didn't have very many job
offers, but he ended up taking a job in Jefferson City, Missouri, working for
the future Senator Danforth who's was then attorney general of Missouri. Took
that job, and he was the only African-American lawyer on the staff, worked his
way through that, and ended up going to Monsanto and then followed Danforth to
the Senate. And there, that's where his career really took off.

And partially you have to say it's because of race, and all of his employers
acknowledge as much. I mean, he was appointed to be head of civil rights at
the Department of Education, then he moved over to the EEOC at a pretty young
age and served there for a long time, and while serving at the EEOC, the White
House kept an eye on him. They saw him as an African-American who could
possibly replace Thurgood Marshall if, you know, Marshall were to retire and
they kind of kept an eye on Thomas and liked what they saw, and eventually
Thomas was appointed to the appeals court--again, with this kind of grooming
process in mind--and when Thurgood Marshall did decide to step down, Clarence
Thomas was in a position to be plucked. And race played a role in that.

And I think Thomas, it's a tough paradox for him to deal with. I think, what
he does, he denies much of this and I think he'll sort of draw a line between
racial preference and kind of political expediency. He'll say that, you know,
`Politicians make political choices all the time, and a lot of factors weigh
into their political appointments, and race happens to be one of them,' but
that's different than saying, you know, race has to be part of, say, a college
admissions program.

GROSS: Another question you raise is, were Clarence Thomas not a black
conservative, would his white ideological comrades view him as so courageous
and be so in love with him. What are you getting at there?

Mr. MERIDA: I think that there is a sense that it is difficult for him, more
difficult than even people who share the same ideology but are not black. The
spotlight is on him, and he gets a lot of harsh treatment so there's a sense
of wanting to really celebrate him, let him know that he is loved. Ed
Gillespie, who's the former National Republican chairman, and was someone who
tried very hard when he was chairman of the party to recruit more
African-Americans. He said that this was one of the most difficult things
there is to be in politics: a black, conservative Republican.

And Thomas, as he points out himself, when he was in the Reagan
administration, often he had to do battle against some of the policies that he
didn't agree with, such as giving tax breaks to Bob Jones University that was
against interracial marriage that Reagan supported. A lot of the civil rights
kind of battles that happened inside the Reagan administration, Thomas would
have been on the side, more or less, of civil rights leaders, but he didn't
get that credit, so he's often squeezed. And because of his kind of efforts
there and perseverance, a lot of white conservatives really embrace him.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Kevin Merida and Michael
Fletcher of the Washington Post. Their new book is called "Supreme
Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas."

Let's go back to the confirmation hearings, which I think really are still a
pretty divisive issue in America. You went back and recounted Anita Hill's
allegations that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed him when she worked for him
at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Let's talk a little bit about
what you found in the way of corroboration and contradiction to her testimony.
You found a classmate of Clarence Thomas' who was never interviewed before.
His name was James Mulette. And what did he tell you?

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, Terry, James Mulette recalled watching the hearings and
being struck by a particularly very graphic but sensational tale that Anita
Hill had recited at the hearings, and Anita Hill--this is what she said. `One
of the oddest episodes I remember was an occasion in which Thomas was drinking
a Coke in his office. He got up from the table on which we were working, over
to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and asked, "Who has put pubic
hair on my Coke?"' Now, when they were students, Mulette says that there was
almost an identical episode in the dorm. He was in Thomas' room one evening
and a Coke was on Thomas' desk. Thomas walked up to it, looked inside and
said, `Somebody put a pubic hair in my Coca-Cola.' Now, at the time, Mulette
just thought that this was a joke and he tells us that he quickly shot back
with deadpan humor, kind of `I didn't do it.' But listening to Anita Hill's
testimony, he was really struck by it because it was almost verbatim the exact
same story.

GROSS: What other, new information did you dig up about the hearing?

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, I think one of the interesting things for us was the
degree to which a number of the people who really were ardent supporters of
him, very insistent that Clarence Thomas, the one they knew, could never have
said or anything like Anita Hill alleged, would have never been so graphic or
vile or any of those things. And now many of them, in our judgment kind of
back away from that. I mean, Senator Orrin Hatch, who of course is the
Republican of Utah and was--later went onto be judiciary chairman, but he was
the leading Republican battling for Thomas in the hearings. This is what he
said today, `If you go back and put the worst slant, let's say you conclude
that Anita Hill was right, was telling the truth, the most you could say is he
talked dirty to her. He didn't try to seduce her, he didn't touch her. He
didn't indicate impropriety.' Now back then, this is what Hatch said about
Thomas'--the allegations. He said he found it outrageous and, quote,
"unbelievable that anybody could be that perverted. I'm sure that there are
people like that but they're generally in insane asylums." There's almost like
an 180-degree turnaround there.

GROSS: How do you think the hearings continue to affect Clarence Thomas now?
Do you think they're still with him?

Mr. FLETCHER: Oh, very much so. I think when Thomas got to the court,
initially, he was totally exhausted. But in many ways I think the hearings
pushed him further to the right, or at least hardened his positions on the
right. That's kind of our analysis of his situation. When he got to the
court, he was dead tired, sort of worn out, beaten down by the hearings, and
immediately confronted a number of kind of these hot button social issues.
There was the famous case of Keith Hudson, the prisoner who had been beaten in
Louisiana, and Thomas' dissent saying that the prison beatings did not amount
to cruel and unusual punishment. There was an abortion case that came up
shortly thereafter.

So Thomas was, in many ways, just sort, like I said, just sort of beaten by
the hearings but found a new embrace with the right with some of his
jurisprudence. He became kind of a celebrated figure on the right as a result
of kind of where he stood, as a guy who emerged as one of the most
conservative members on the bench. So I think the hearings kind of set up
this thing where Clarence Thomas became a hero to the right.

GROSS: Why do you think the hearings pushed him more to the right? I mean,
he called the hearings `a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks' and you could
argue that if he thought of this as a high-tech lynching that he would have
started to identify more with the liberal end of the civil rights movement.
You know, if he saw this as an anti-black thing, as opposed to...

Mr. FLETCHER: Well...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FLETCHER: I think he kind of saw some of the civil rights community as a
villain in this. He felt that he was not protected by the civil rights
community and he points his finger also at liberal activist groups for
basically attacking him and fanning Anita Hill's allegations.

Mr. MERIDA: I think also, Terry, you know, one of the things that his mother
mentioned was that the NAACP, she sees them as kind of one of his enemies, and
she pointed out to us that Thomas' grandfather always supported the NAACP,
gave money back during the era when they were trying to beat down Jim Crow and
`this is the thanks we get. Here we have this person who's risen and is, you
know, really a product of so many struggles, and they turn against him.' And
that's her perspective, so I think there was a sense that they're on the wrong
side of this issue, that just because he has certain viewpoints that they
don't agree with, they would beat down a black man. So I think he really
feels stung by that and really bitter about that.

GROSS: My guests are journalists Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, authors
of the new book "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Kevin Merida and Michael
Fletcher of the Washington Post. Their new book is called "Supreme
Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas."

One of the things Clarence Thomas is known for on the Supreme Court is not
speaking, not asking questions. Can you talk a little bit more about his

Mr. FLETCHER: Yes, it's interesting. It's one of the things that stands out
for Thomas for any casual observer of the court, anyone who has the
opportunity to visit there, they'll notice that during oral argument, most of
the justices led by Justice Scalia and Breyer to some degree, fire, you know,
questions at the advocates quickly. An advocate has typically a half an hour
to make a case on either side of the Supreme Court, a case that's before them,
they have a half hour to make their argument. And also immediately, once they
start with their advocacy, the justices start to weigh in. They start asking
questions. But Thomas almost never participates in that.

And that's something that's been, you know a puzzlement to many people, and
Thomas himself has spoken to it, and he's given different explanations at
different times. Partially--at least in one forum, he's said he feels like
the advocates deserve an opportunity to make their case, the lawyers who come
before the court have this limited period of time and the justices shouldn't
butt in.

GROSS: Although Clarence Thomas doesn't ask questions when cases are being
argued before the Supreme Court, he does write decisions. Does he write
decisions as often as any other justice?

Mr. FLETCHER: Yes, he seems to. But quite often the cases that he's asked
to write the majority opinions on aren't the kind of headline-grabbing cases
that really deal with the hot button social issues out here. And much of that
has to do with Thomas' jurisprudence. He's just not a guy who's interested in
judicial half measures; he's not going to compromise. He has nothing to sort
of give, so he's not the guy to write a carefully crafted five-four decision
where you have to hold a majority. I mean, his legal views are pretty clear,
particularly on the most controversial issues, and he's very consistent with
that, which is why the right sees him as a hero and much of the left sees him
as this kind of villain.

So Thomas indeed writes a lot, but his most vivid work is done in dissent or
concurrences, where he's in the minority and can really speak his mind and
talk about the lengths he would like to go to to change the law in this

GROSS: What's one of the most important decisions you think he's written, or
one of the most outspoken?

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, Thomas I think has been most outspoken in two areas of
the law. I mean, he's been outspoken about kind of federalism, states'
rights. He's a guy who would devolve much of the power from the federal
government to state governments. He just believes that that's what the
framers and that the founders intended in setting up this republic.

And also, to Clarence Thomas again, I think--and this has been in minority
opinions, but I think this is where he's very outspoken. It's been on a whole
question of sorting people by race. The question of affirmative action and
kind of the moral authority he brings as the only black justice, I think,
brings more weight to his views that society shouldn't look at race as a
factor even in trying to rectify the past effects of discrimination.

GROSS: In terms of states' rights, Thomas wrote an opinion challenging the
majority opinion in the case about whether the words "under God" in the Pledge
of Allegiance violated the separation of church and state.

Mr. FLETCHER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And writing alone, he said that constitutionally mandated separation
of church and state applied to the federal government, but not to individual

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, that's right, and that was the eyebrow-raising opinion
by Clarence Thomas. And again, it sort of spoke to his view of the law. I
mean, he sees that perhaps, you know, states could, you know, maybe Utah could
have a Mormon state church, or you know, New York state could have the
Catholic church be its state church. So he really has a very narrow view of
what, you know, the reach of federal law.

GROSS: During Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings, when he was asked about
abortion, because abortion was, as it still is, such a divisive and
controversial issue and so pivotal for new members of the Supreme Court, he
said that he had never engaged in personal discussions of Roe v. Wade, nor
had he debated the content of it. Many people found that unbelievable because
it was such a controversial issue and because he was, after all, a law
student. What was his decision in the latest abortion-related decision about
the partial birth abortion act?

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, Thomas in this case, as he is been consistently since
joining the court, he wrote a short concurrent saying that he doesn't see a
constitutional right for abortion anywhere in the national charter. And
that's something he's been consistent about almost from the beginning of his
tenure on the court, which surprised many people for a guy who, as you point
out, during the confirmation hearings, said he hadn't debated Roe v. Wade,
even though he had been a law student at the premiere law school in the
country during the time it was decided. So for him to have such adamant views
immediately as a justice struck some people as curious.

Mr. MERIDA: The author of that landmark ruling, Harry Blackman, the late
justice, in an oral interview, he cast doubt about what Thomas said in the
hearings. I mean, he kind of, in a discussion with the dean of Yale law
school, he says, well, `Didn't you guys discuss Roe v. Wade up there at
Yale?' I mean, he really had a certain suspicion about that, and I think that
that suspicion was carried further by others at the time after the hearings
when one of the first cases that Justice Thomas ruled on, which was
Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, a Pennsylvania abortion case, he sided
with those who would be opponents of abortion.

GROSS: Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher are the authors of the new book
"Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas."

They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview
with the authors of a new book about Justice Clarence Thomas called "Supreme
Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas." Kevin Merida is an
associate editor at The Washington Post. Michael Fletcher covers the White
House for the Post.

Let's talk a little bit about Clarence Thomas' background. He was born in a
very small town and ended up being raised by his grandfather. Why did his
mother give him to his grandfather to be raised?

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, his mother was actually--the house had burned down in
Pin Point, Georgia, which is a small hamlet outside of Savannah where Clarence
was born. He and his mother and brother and sister had moved to Savannah,
where Thomas' grandfather was, by the standards of the day, a successful
businessman delivering ice and wood and...(unintelligible)...a lot of people.

But Thomas' mother, you know, later wanted to remarry--and this is something
Thomas used to talk about more earlier on back when he was in the EEOC--and
essentially wanted the boys to be raised by the grandfather, asked the
grandfather to do that. And he was reluctant initially, the grandfather, but
eventually decided to take in his grandsons and raise them. And for Thomas,
it was like a salvation. His grandfather was able to enroll him in Catholic
schools, where Thomas got a fine education. And also Thomas would work with
his grandfather sometimes on the truck with him, and so he kind of taught him
his work ethic, and his grandfather directed him to the library and things
like that, and gave him a kind of almost middle class opportunities that he
would not have enjoyed in Pin Point.

Mr. MERIDA: His mother was struggling earlier on, to ask the question of why
did the grandfather raise--his mother was struggling very early on after the
house burned down. She was trying to make it on her own, raising both him and
his brother. I think she was working as a maid and living in a tenement, and
his initial years were one of struggle and she just needed help. And Thomas
saw this later on in a harsh light because she had, you know, other men in her
life that didn't pan out. And I think he saw it, as he told some of his
associates later, that he just wondered why his mother wasn't there for him
more to provide him, and he thought that maybe she had chosen men over him.
And that relationship of course tightened years later, and they have a close
relationship now, but I think he really credits his grandfather with kind of
saving him.

GROSS: My impression from your book is that Clarence Thomas is not close with
his mother and his siblings.

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, I think that relationship has evolved over time. I
think for a period there, there was maybe some anger or some ill feelings at
least, because I think Thomas felt abandoned and even he would speak publicly
a bit about, as Kevin said, you know, his mother choosing men over her
children. But I think Thomas has figured out a way to make peace with that.
Part of this is that his brother Myers passed, and his brother was always kind
of very close to his mother. And with Myers gone, I think, Thomas has seen
the need to draw close, or felt the need to draw closer to his mom and has
done so.

With his sisters, it's always been kind of a rocky relationship. I mean, I
think one thing most people remember about Clarence Thomas is when he held his
sister up as an example of how welfare could, you know--she's an example of
the debilitating effects of welfare dependency. I mean, he mentioned this to
a Washington Post columnist back in 1980, when--before Thomas was a nationally
known figure. And that's something--that almost has come to reflect the kind
of relationship they've had. You know, we've talked to people who said that
Thomas at one point was ashamed of her and things like that, but I think he's
come to make peace there, as well. I mean, his sister says that, you know,
Thomas has never been inside her home in Pin Point. That's her recollection
at least, but every, you know, every year, most summers at least, people from
Pin Point, his cousins and family, rent a van and drive up to Thomas' place in
Virginia and have kind of a reunion with him. So I think he's trying to put
that behind him.

GROSS: You were hoping to get an interview with Clarence Thomas for your
book, but he declined to speak with you. I mean, it's not uncommon for
Supreme Court justices to try to stay out of the press spotlight, but were you
surprised that he declined or did you expect that?

Mr. MERIDA: I think we expected it but we were hopeful because we tried very
hard. I mean, you know, we went to Georgia when he would speak. We would
find out when he was going to be at dinners in town, and we would go see him
and approach him personally. We wanted a chance to kind of see how he related
to people and how he interacted, and we would always have cordial
conversation. He was never mean to us. He would always just say, you know,
`I think I'll pass, buddy. Nothing personal, but, you know, your industry is
really a bunch of scoundrels,' he called us once. You know, `Why are so many
of you all scoundrels?' And we would have conversations about it; they would
be brief conversations.

But he really had a kind of antipathy to the media that really is deep and
ingrained. And I was struck, I remember on that particular occasion, at a
conference in St. Louis in which he recited to me the exact date of an
article that was written by The New York Times Reporter Ernie Holsendolph that
basically talked about him being kind of, you know, in a sense, a product of
affirmative action. And he said it was the cruelest or the meanest thing that
had been written about him, and I was really struck because it wasn't that big
a story, but he had this recollection of it, and it was a story that was
written, you know, like in 1980 or something.

And so he holds onto a lot of these slights and yet, as you have mentioned a
lot during the interview about the paradoxes, here's a guy who will call up
members of the media and talk about their articles and has relationships with
people like George Will and Juan Williams, the NPR correspondent and others.
So it's not as clear-cut as that. And we know he's had members of the Supreme
Court press privately up to his chambers. So it's very complicated.

GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

Mr. MERIDA: Thank you, Terry.

Mr. FLETCHER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher are the authors of the new book
"Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas."

Coming up, a professor who studies the psychology of evil considers his
infamous Stanford prison experiment and its applications to the abuses at Abu
Ghraib. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Philip Zimbardo, author of "The Lucifer Effect" and
head of the Stanford prison experiment, on the psychological
conditioning of situations, prisons, and the Abu Ghraib defendants

My guest Philip Zimbardo has spent much of his career studying the psychology
of evil. He's famous for creating the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in
which he created a mock prison and divided a group of student volunteers into
guards and prisoners. Within a week, the guards became so sadistic that
Zimbardo terminated the experiment. He thinks this experiment can help us
understand how American soldiers became abusive at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo was
an expert witness in the court-martial hearings of one of the American Army
Reservists accused of criminal behavior in Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo is a
professor emeritus at Stanford University, and the author of the new book "The
Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil."

Let's start with an overview of the Stanford prison experiment. The goal was
to assess how an institutional setting can override the internal dispositions
of the people in that setting.

Mr. PHILIP ZIMBARDO: We went to great lengths to pick young men who were
normal and healthy based on psychological tests and other assessments, and we
randomly divided them into two conditions: half would be guards and half
would be prisoners. And so at the beginning of the study, we knew that we had
only good apples in our bad barrel. In a very short time the guards began to
move into behaving sadistic, cruel, dehumanizing ways against the prisoners,
prisoners who were chosen who were sort of normal and healthy began to have
emotional breakdowns, extreme stress reaction. So I had to end the study
after six days because it was getting out of control. I no longer felt that
I, either as the superintendent of the prison or principle investigator, could
control the guards. That is, their behavior was getting more and more
extreme. And so we aborted the mission after six days.

GROSS: Would you describe some of the behavior that you found to be extreme
that was very concerning to you?

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Well, the one thing I did is to tell the guards that a
physical force, physical violence, was not acceptable, was not allowed, and so
if they touched the prisoner with their big billy clubs, it was the equivalent
of hitting them. There was some, in fact, physical violence on the second day
when the prisoners revolted and challenged the guards, and the guards stripped
them naked, broke into their cells, shot carbon dioxide fumes from fire
extinguishers at them, chained them up, put them in solitary, and then
after--I said, you know, `No physical force.' What I did not limit is
psychological violence. And so these smart college students began to develop
creatively evil ways to first make the environment totally arbitrary, so that
prisoners could not figure out what they had to do to get the guards to not
abuse them.

And then over time, what happened is sexuality moved in, and that degrading
the prisoners, first through nakedness, put bags over their heads, and then
essentially playing sexual games with them. You know, having them play
leapfrog and when they're jumping over each other, their genitals are banging
on each others' heads. Horrible things like that started happening. And at
that point we realized, you know, this is out of control.

GROSS: Let me point out the obvious, which is, some of what you're describing
sounds very similar to what happened in Abu Ghraib. I mean, there's a
photograph in your book of several of the, quote, "prisoners" with bags over
their heads that look not unlike a prisoner with a hood on his head in one of
the Abu Ghraib photos. And you're talking about simulating sodomy-like
positions to humiliate...

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...the prisoners. When you were watching--you were watching this
basically on closed circuit television. What went through your mind when you
saw the psychological degradation that the guards were putting the prisoners
through in your study?

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Well, see, I made the mistake of playing the prison
superintendent, in addition to being the principle investigator. I never
should have done that. The problem was, we had very limited resources; this
whole study was done for like $2500. It was just me, two graduate students,
Craig Haney, Curt Banks, and one undergraduate who played the role of the
warden, and Carlo Prescott, who was a former ex-convict. He was our
consultant. So we had a very small staff, and we have to be there 24 hours
around the clock. And so over time, you know, we also were under stress and
our judgment was, you know, not top of the line, the way it should have been.

But in the role of prison superintendent, you're looking at this and you're
saying, `Wow, that's amazing that the guards, you know, thought of this
creative thing.' Your morality is changed. You don't step back and say, `This
is horrendous what, you know, what good young men are doing to other good
young men.' And so, I was passive when I should have been active. I should
have ended the study after two days.

And it only took 36 hours for the first prisoner to have an emotional
breakdown. In fact, he was the ringleader of the rebellion, so here's this
tough kid. He had been an anti-war activist at Berkeley, and he's broken in
two days. And then each day after that, that became the way out of this
alleged mock prison. Each day another prisoner would break down, either
emotionally or develop a full body rash, psychosomatic rash. So within six
days, five of the nine prisoners that we had had emotional breakdowns, and so
we ended the study. But I should have ended it after the first prisoner broke

GROSS: Is it possible that the, quote, "prison guards," were thinking that
they were fulfilling your expectations, that you were expecting them to be
sadistic or to humiliate the prisoners and they did their job in kind of going
to the extremes that you were looking for?

Mr. ZIMBARDO: To some extent. What we created there was a system, a system
called a psychology of imprisonment. Before I did this study, I taught a
course at Stanford with Carlo Prescott in which we brought in ex-convicts and
guards and wardens and prison chaplains, so we got to understand, what is the
essential psychology, what is the mentality of being a guard, what is the
mentality of being a prisoner, and what is the psychological foundation of
prison? And prisons are about one thing. They're about power. They're about
control. They're about dominance of some people over other people. Sadism is
not part of it. That emerges from the power of the role. What guards have to
do is they have to demonstrate to prisoners that they are powerful and
prisoners are powerless, and that's the role you have to play.

On the first day, nothing happened. I was going to end the study after the
first day because it was very awkward. It was hard to get into the role of
being a prison guard by these students. This is 1971. These are anti-war
activists. These are civil rights activists. Not one of the volunteers--and
we interviewed 75 before we picked the final 24--not one of them said--we said
to them, `Do you want to be a guard or a prisoner?' They said, `I don't want
to be a guard. I didn't go to college to be a prison guard. You know, I
might be a prisoner at some time.' So there wasn't any latent tendency to be
aggressive, to be a tough guard. So what I'm saying is the instructions I
gave them had no effect on day one, and it was only when the prisoners
revolted on day two that the guards said, `These are dangerous prisoners. We
have to show them who's boss.' And after that, then the role took over. It
had nothing to do when any expectations that I had created in them.

GROSS: When did you call off the experiment? What was the last straw?

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Well, on Thursday night--we started on Sunday--this was five
days into it, I had invited a number of psychology students, young faculty, to
come down and interview everybody. Give us an appraisal from outside as they
knew nothing about the study, of how it was going. And one of the people who
came down was a former student of mine who had just started as a professor at
Berkeley, Christina Maslach.

And she came down, and it was 10:00 at night. Ten o'clock was the toilet run.
It was the last time for the prisoners to go to the toilet. After that they
had to use urinate, defecate in buckets in their cell. And what she saw was
what happened in the toilet run. The prisoners were lined up, bags put over
their heads, legs changed together, you know, and marching, you know, counting
off, and I'm looking up. I say, `Hey Chris, look at that.' And she looks and
turns away. I said, `Look at that. Isn't that interesting?' And she stars
tearing up and says, `It's terrible what you're doing to those boys,' and runs
out. And I run after her, and we have this big argument. `Don't you
understand? It's the crucible of human nature' and all this. And she said,
`I don't care what it is. Those are boys. They're not prisoners. They're
not subjects in experiments. They are boys, and you are responsible for
what's happening to them.'

And it was like a slap in the face. I mean, she broke through this illusion.
And what's important is that at least 50 people had come down. A prison
chaplain, a Catholic prison chaplain, parents came down for visiting night,
girlfriends, boyfriends. There were psychologists who looked in. There were
psychologists on the parole board. There were secretaries on the parole
board. All these people came and said, `Oh, it's really interesting. It's an
interesting simulation. It's very realistic.' And she was the one who said,
`The emperor has no clothes.' And so at that moment, I said, `You're right.
We have to end the study.'

And then the other thing she said--we had just started dating--she said, `You
have been transformed by this study. You were a kind, caring, you know,
loving person and now I see this, you know, essentially, authoritarian

GROSS: I should mention you're married now. You've been married for, what,
25 years?

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Thirty-five years.

GROSS: Thirty-five years, OK.

Mr. ZIMBARDO: And we have a wonderful family, and I dedicate the book to her
as `the serene heroine of my life.'

GROSS: What conclusions did you draw after terminating the study and, you
know, how do you look at it now, 35 years later?

Mr. ZIMBARDO: We like to believe that all of human behavior is generated by
things inside of us. It's all genetically determined. It's our personality.
It's our character. It's our moral rearing. And what the Stanford prison
Study says, along with Stanley Milgram's famous Yale's studies on blind
obedience to authority is that in many situations, especially novel ones that
we're not familiar with, we can be transformed, like the guards, like the
prisoners in the Stanford prison study. We can do things that are
unimaginable to us when we're outside of that situation. So that we can be
controlled by playing a role, by taking our identity away, by being anonymous,
by dehumanizing the other person.

So that social psychology tells us that, although we respect the dignity of
the individual, the individual does not always operate out of free will, does
not always act rationally, that we are often subjects to the situation, and
our life is all situations. We're always in schools, in families, in jobs, in
prisons, in hospitals, so that Stanford prison study says here's how powerful
but subtle situational forces can sometimes overwhelm the best and brightest
of us.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Zimbardo, author of the new book "The Lucifer

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, author of the best
seller "The Lucifer Effect." He is best known for his 1971 Stanford prison
experiment, in which he created a mock prison and turned one group of student
volunteers into guards and another into prisoners. The students playing
guards became so abusive that Zimbardo terminated the experiment within a

What parallels do you see between the Stanford prison experiment and what
you've learned about Abu Ghraib? And I should mention here that you testified
for the defense of Sergeant Ivan Chip Frederick, who was accused of placing
wires on a prisoner's hands while the prisoner was standing on a box, and the
sergeant told the prisoner that he'd be electrocuted if he fell off the box.
So your conclusions about how a system can change a person?

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Now, in this case, the analysis is, when we understand what
were the psychological dynamics operating in that prison in Abu Ghraib, all of
those--everything I know says they're exact parallels. Not only the visual
parallels of the nakedness and bags and sexual games, it's the underlying
psychological dynamics. Dehumanization of the prisoners. Everybody is
anonymous. Everybody is playing these roles.

GROSS: So what did you say when you testified on behalf of Sergeant Chip

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Well, the first thing that's really important for your
listeners to realize is he said immediately, `I'm guilty. I did that. I
deserve, you know, to be punished. I'm willing to die for my country. I
don't know why I did it.' Because typically, when you're trapped in one of
these powerful situational force fields, you're unaware of how you are
changing, the same way I was unaware of how I changed in just six days as the
superintendent of the Stanford prison study. My statement was to say, `Here
are the powerful situational forces that made this good American patriotic
soldier, good father, good husband, you know, good citizen, be transformed.
And he's guilty and he's willing to serve time, but understanding the
situational dynamics should mitigate the severity of the sentence.' And that's
all the situational analysis can do in our legal system.

It had almost no effect on the military court. His sentence was eight years
in prison. He was dishonorably discharged. They took away 22 years of his
retirement pay. They took away his nine--he had nine medals and awards. He
was in the National Guard and Army Reserve, and they stripped those publicly
on the courthouse steps. And then they sent him to Kuwait in solitary
confinement. So my sense was the situational analysis had no impact on the
military and, in fact, the prosecutor, in his closing statement, essentially
said that Chip Frederick, you know, and the other `bad apples,' the other
soldiers, really humiliated the military.

And you know, it was not about what they did. It was about the photos.
Because it was the first time in history that we saw American soldiers not
only abusing prisoners but putting themselves in the picture. And so these
are trophy photos. These are like photos we saw in the past of Americans
putting themselves in pictures of lynchings. But this was--so this humiliated
the military and humiliated the Bush administration.

GROSS: The military has been using psychologists...

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Oh boy.

GROSS: consult with interrogators. Now, some psychologists say that
this is very unethical and it makes psychologists implicit in techniques that
might be torture. What the military says is no, the psychology are helping
the interrogators understand points in which they might be vulnerable in terms
of supplying information, but also you know, how to not go too far, how to
protect the person being interrogated. As the former head of the American
Psychological Association, what is your personal view about that, and I should
mention that a panel from the American Psychological Association recently said
that psychologists participating in terror-related interrogations are
fulfilling, quote "a valuable and ethical role to assist in protecting our
nation, other nations and innocent civilians from harm." So what do you think?

Mr. ZIMBARDO: It's a very complicated issue. The problem is that
psychologists want to help in national security. Psychologists want their
research to be meaningful, and this is one area in which it can be meaningful.
I draw a very sharp line, a very bright line between giving generic
information about persuasion about everything we know about compliance,
obedience--and for me, that's OK.

It's not OK to give specific information about the vulnerability of a
particular individual based on the psychological knowledge assessment of that
individual to interrogators. To me, that's violating a basic principle of `do
no harm,' that the person that is being interrogated is an individual who's
innocent until proven guilty. And to give information to an interrogator
about how to break that individual, for me, that steps across the ethical
boundary. And there's a big controversy in the American Psychological
Association, which I think is actually going to explode in the next few

GROSS: Over this issue?

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Over this issue, over psychologists saying, `No, this is
wrong. The American Psychological Association should be condemning this kind
of use of psychological knowledge,' and other psychologists saying, `No, we
have a service to our country, we have a service to the military, and we
should be doing more of it.'

GROSS: Philip Zimbardo, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Terry Gross, thank you for having me.

GROSS: Philip Zimbardo is the author of "The Lucifer Effect."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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