Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2002
The House of Inspection
By Heather Folsom
LONG AGO A PRISON WAS DESIGNED, the Panopticon. Prisoners would be isolated in separate cells that were organized like a stack of rings around a central tower. By special devices, the inspector in the tower would be able to see each prisoner but the prisoners would not be able to see the inspector. The prisoners could never be certain whether they were being watched or nor. This combination of isolation and the sense of being observed was to lead to moral reflection and rehabilitation. Versions of the Panopticon were constructed from time to time; the most uncompromising was the experimental women's prison at A--.
I awoke in despair. Outside the window, the inner wall of my cell, the sun's movement could be gauged by subtle changes in the black of the Tower. Another aimless day had begun.
I was used to austerity. A spy, I had thrived on it, alone and patient. In those days I had been the hidden one; concealment was my pleasure and my power. Now I was the one who was spied upon, by unseen guards within the Tower. Microphones detected each sound. It was unbearable. My only wish was for suicide, which, of course, was denied me. I could not force myself to get up. I closed my eyes again
At that moment I heard something new. A faint rasping, coming from somewhere in the wall beside my bed, I have perfected the art of impassivity; I gave nothing away, though my thoughts and pulse were racing. Had privation driven my senses over the edge into hallucination? Was this some experiment emanating from the Tower? Or could it possibly be something outside its implacable order?
After awhile the rasping stopped. Whatever its cause, the novelty gave me the strength to get up.
I forced myself to stay away from the wall and go through my daily routine. Eventually night came, though the light in my cell remained on, as always. Lying down, I heard the sound again. It now sounded more like scratching or scraping. It would stop from time to time, then start up again.
The next day was altogether different. There was no scratching to greet me when I awakened, but I felt hungry, thirsty, full of excruciating impatience. I made every effort to appear unchanged, to mask my feelings of anxiety and excitement. At last it was time to lie down again. The blessed, mysterious sound had returned.
The episodes of scratching continued for several days. One night there was a momentary change in pitch: it went up, then there was silence. I rolled over next to the wall, as if turning in sleep. An almost imperceptible hole had appeared. I watched it through half-lidded eyes.
A few nights later a tiny sphere emerged from the hole, rolled a little distance, and came to rest on the floor. Was it possible the prisoner in the cell next to mine had succeeded in a gamble of contact? Could the object be dangerous? My only fear was that it would be taken away. I let a couple of days go by. Then, dropping a piece of bread on it, I was able to unobtrusively pick it up. I looked at it on my tray. Not knowing what to do, I put it in my mouth. When it came in contact with a tooth, there was a vibration. I pushed it more firmly with my tongue.
I felt a pattern of long and short pulses like a simple code I had learned in childhood. But the message now was nothing I had heard before.
It was a barrage of rantings of every description, delivered at a tremendous pitch of intensity. There were outpourings of prejudice and hatred, fantasies of violence accompanied by curses and epithets, psychotic rhapsodies, monologues of suicide and self-mutilation. Every possible perverse act and fantasy was described. I stayed awake at night, spent my days, bathed in the stream of words. What was the source of this mayhem? Could it be my jailers? It seemed impossible, such an intense pressure of expression from the faceless desolation of the Tower. If this were some new form of mind control, I chose to submit.
Eventually I tapped my tongue against the sphere. The current of language flowed on, ignoring me. I attempted to interject myself several times. At last I succeeded in getting out a complete phrase.
Suddenly there was a response, a curse at my stupidity, but nonetheless, a reaction from some unseen soul. My gratitude surprised and frightened me. I retreated into listening.
I began to recognize others: some by their characteristic turns of phrase, some by their familiar rhythms and hesitations, and some, of course, by their signature preoccupations. A few gave their names or cell numbers, most went by pseudonyms.
There was no limit to the violence of the ravings. It seemed to fill a desperate need, beyond reaction to the misery of imprisonment, to something deeper: a demand for complete exposure and understanding. What would have happened if speakers had been able to confront each other in person? Fights to the death, I supposed. The exchanges replaced something essential which had been utterly exhausted during months and years of isolation. The dark--even detestable--passions of others were better than the vacuum of one's own depleted imagination. Newcomers to the system were easy to recognize: hesitancy and restraint gradually gave way to fluency and freedom beyond reckoning.
We were all sentenced to life without parole, a fact that haunted every waking moment. The arrogant Tower believed it knew its captives, and in knowing us, controlled us. But the hidden world of words was our truer life, which the Tower, for all its vigilance, never suspected. The system was our deliverance.
Then the colloquy changed. Crimes were confessed, tales told. A few of us were more reticent; I seemed to be the most reserved of all. Once in awhile I would make a comment, most of the time I was content to listen. Occasionally I revealed a story from my past.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, something happened to me: for the first time, I began to feel that I was part of something. It was odd, I felt repelled and drawn closer at the same time. I followed with interest the lives of each prisoner. I awakened each morning in the river of narrative, I fell asleep in it at night.
So much was shared, and so continuously, it came to feel like the sharing of thought itself, unalloyed by inhibition or even by language. All this at A---, the most unlikely place on earth, and therefore the most necessary.
The tenor of our reflections continued to change. Now there were occasions of agreement--the yearning for freedom, the dread of death, the haunting of regret. At times a melancholic mood, bordering on despair, descended on us. There were even periods of silence, not because we were absent, but because we had no words for our grief. We were profound, foolish, brilliant, wrong, vulnerable, our greatest and worst selves. There was time for everything. Ultimately, there was an expectation of everything.
Breakout was a topic that was discussed in a variety of ways, most commonly as a joke, an impossible hope. Suddenly we became electrified with the idea, unified and passionate. A tremendous craving burst forth, to see beyond the Tower to a city, a stretch of desert, a mountain. The talk was of nothing else--what was missed, what was dreamed of, and finally, how it would be done. The risks were great: we faced the loss of our salvation, communication itself. But such was our longing, we agreed to go forward.
We embarked on a program of distractions, taking turns enacting crises that required attention from the Tower. At a designated time, a few prisoners would stage attempted suicides, heart attacks, or psychotic episodes. Simultaneously, other prisoners would work on weakening the walls between the cells and on the more difficult walls that bordered the outer corridor. We drilled and scraped with the most primitive of tools, then passed tools through holes between cells. We constantly commented on our progress, shared frustrations and warnings, offered advice. When it was my turn to create a distraction--an attack upon the hated inner wall which was to end with injuring my leg--I threw myself into the task without reservation. Others cheered me on. I signaled for them to stop, fearing my performance might be compromised. The system went silent. The profundity of that silence, the camaraderie and presence of it, stopped my breath.
The time for breakout was near. We had a rapid count-off system for checking in. We had backup plans--anyone could ask for help; if someone missed three check-ins in a row, a rescue group would be sent to that location. We practiced and drilled until everything was automatic.
The night before the breakout we feigned sleep but held a giant party. We became sentimental, silly, told jokes and stories. We knew we should rest but we were too excited. There was apprehension, too. What if it were all a hoax? What if we failed?
Though I was nervous and tired the next morning, I forced myself to eat breakfast as usual. It suddenly occurred to me that I would soon be viewing the others whose disembodied minds I now knew as well as my own. I felt impatient. I worried that perhaps we looked different to the eyes in the Tower. I lounged, tried to appear relaxed, felt particularly exposed. We were subdued, mostly silent. From time to time someone blurted out an anxious thought.
We were well into the final check-in round, ready for our roles in the breakout. The moment came. We attacked the walls between the cells, weakened by months of surreptitious drilling. The walls crumbled. Groups formed in designated cells and hurled themselves against the weakened outer walls, which gave way in jagged sections. Still communicating only by the system, we awaited the arrival of the guards.
As expected, not enough guards were sent. It seemed unlikely that the Tower would be prepared for a complete uprising. After all, the principle of the prison was isolation. Not even the all-seeing Tower could have guessed the unanimity of our effort. We heard them shouting in surprise and disbelief.
Another contingency of guards arrived, but it was too late and there were still too few of them.
We heard their exclamations but we did not speak. This seemed to further unhinge them. We bound them and left without a word.
Upon reaching ground level, the unexpected happened: in one body we turned, not outside to freedom, but inside. We were impelled to enter the Tower, to triumph over the structure that had oppressed us for so long.
We surged into a vast cylinder of a room. From the inside, its wall was transparent. A ramp spiraled upward, dotted every ten yards or so with an observation guard-post. At the posts, overturned chairs gave evidence of the haste with which the guards had fled. In the center of the room, the empty superintendent's chair slowly rotated. We rushed up to the posts, each of us driven to find our cell.
I found mine. There were the holes in my walls, made only moments before. A few guards had broken free of their bonds and were running in confusion through the ravaged cells.
We, too, were confused. At the culmination of our attack, standing at the observation posts and looking back at our cells, a strange quietude gripped us. Astonishingly, it seemed to be regret at our incipient parting.
A moment later, a sense of urgency coursed through the system. We ran to the underground garage and climbed into transport vans and staff cars, grabbing available clothing as we went. I managed to procure a civilian jacket. We started the engines, opened the doors and headed out into freedom.
In the nearest city, I jumped down from the van and signaled my good-byes. The van disappeared. I removed the sphere from my mouth and put it in my pocket. The change was as shocking as a fall into icy water. I was alone.
Familiar patterns of survival returned. I obtained money and checked into a hotel. Then, just when I expected to be most active and purposeful, I lost all energy. I stayed in the hotel room, ordering from room service, sleeping, reading newspapers, and watching TV for news of the breakout. Nothing. There were sounds all around, yet the world seemed unnaturally silent. I started angrily talking to myself, "Have you turned into one of those prisoners who can't make it on the outside?" To prove I wasn't, I threw myself into my old life. But I could not stop wondering why there had been no mention of the breakout.
Cursing myself for my foolishness, I went back toward A--. I stayed across the valley and watched the prison through binoculars. For several days no one came or left. Unable to contain my curiosity any longer, I made my way to the prison.
The gates to the garage were unlocked. A few vehicles were inside, but there was no sign of activity. My new gun drawn, I advanced into the garage and took the first staircase up to the Tower.
At first the huge cylinder seemed unchanged. The chairs were still overturned at the observation posts, the room appeared empty.
I heard a voice. Someone in a guard uniform was rotating in the superintendent's chair and talking on the telephone. She hadn't noticed me. She seemed to be dissimulating that everything was functioning as normal. She hung up.
I crept up behind her and placed my gun against her head. The guard had a gun in her holster but she didn't even try to reach for it. She seemed, inexplicably, bored. She waved a hand toward the ramps.
To keep my gun in place, I had to circle alongside the chair. Was some trap being set? It didn't have the familiar feel of one. Did the Tower still hold some covert powers?
The phone rang and the guard answered. Having a gun-barrel at the back of her head didn't seem to trouble her. Again she seemed to be reporting that all was as usual.
When she hung up, I jerked the gun sharply against her head and asked for an explanation.
Instead of answering, she sighed, got up, and started to walk over to the ramp. Momentarily, I flicked my eyes away from her and out toward the cells. I could hardly believe what I saw.
The walls were still in shambles but the scene was transformed. Many cells were jammed with furniture. Some cells contained two, even three occupants.
The guard continued toward the ramp; I was right behind her. She started to raise her hand. I grabbed it and pinned it behind her back. She cursed and told me she was trying to point to her mouth.
I put my hand in my pocket, found the sphere, and positioned it in place. In that instant of relief I knew--the river of rhythms, the connection of mind and word, had become a necessity to me. I was shocked at the profundity of my reaction. I started trembling.
But something discordant was present, a cacophony of novices and strangers. It was the babble of early days: hatred, misunderstanding, power struggles. I broke in and demanded to know what was going on. Greetings swarmed back at me.
I was further undone, almost weeping. Could it be that I cared so much to be recognized, to be welcomed? Someone I knew explained that almost everyone had returned and taken up residence in their old cells. The newcomers were guards and prison personnel, even the superintendent.
I ran up the ramp and looked out to my cell. Two interlopers had made it their home. I announced I was returning. Some activity began, but it wasn't fast enough to suit me. I added, more forcefully, they had five minutes to clear out. I reminded everyone that I was a loner.
In response, the sphere pulsed wildly, its version of hoots of laughter.
Heather Folsom is a writer and psychiatrist. A version of this story will appear in her book of short stories, Philosophie Thinly Clothed (Cadmus Editions, 2003). [c] Heather Folsom.
Folsom, Heather. 2002. The House of Inspection. Tikkun 17(6): 57.