This was our final project for what would have been my final semester of the Honors civilization sequence if I hadn’t joined midyear. We were given the option to write the standard 10-12 page paper or create our own project. Mine was an epistolary short story that incorporated texts and themes discussed throughout that entire year. References are listed at the end.
It was originally produced as a mini book, complete with epigraph and copyright page. I no longer have access to the only hard copy, it’s with my professor. She asked to keep it to use it as an example for future classes. How could I say no? I hope they don’t notice the typos.
“When falsehood can look so like the truth,
who can assure themselves of certain happiness?”
From the water damaged remains of a leather-bound journal found among the ruins of Fort Pittswalk:
I’ve already grown accustomed to this place. The food is simple but adequate, the accommodations sufficient. There is a time for washing of ourselves and our attire in the morning, exercise in the common yard during the afternoon, a time for reflection around the fire in the evening. They say the work detail will start soon. The able-bodied among us will be employed in repairing the older buildings on the compound. It’s honest work and will make 3 months go by as if they were but hours. I know they will find me innocent, I have told them the truth.
We found a few books among the ruins of one of the buildings scavenged from scrap wood to keep the fire burning. Around the fire tonight, I read to the men who did not know how or had lost the gift along with their glasses upon arrival. I read Mr. Dalloway and the men marveled at the detail to which the party was planned. It all seemed so ordinary to me yet to them it is otherworldly. One of the men asked if I recalled the smell of roses, I answered that I could not, they had never seemed important. This seemed to sadden the men, I know not why. We’ll be out before we know it and will smell roses again.
Today, two of the barracks were moved into one. It’s crowded and dank but they say it’s only temporary. The supplies have been delayed again, there was only a potato a piece for the day, we pray the train will arrive soon. I don’t see how it could go on this way much longer. They must know we are suffering.
I was tied to the post in the middle of the yard for two days. My crime was stealing a loaf of bread from the kitchen to give to the men of our barracks. I told the guards as much and they said for my honesty I would suffer my shame as punishment and no other. I do not feel shame; they eat bread and give us nothing. Why should I be ashamed?
We are judged for digging through trash for scraps only to surrender the best of them to a man with no legs. They call us vermin, but there is more humanity within us than they could ever claim. They’re trying to beat the humanity from us, make us into them. Become civilized because we act like them, barbarity is civilized as long as civilization says so.
Three men were dragged away from another block across the yard and to the far side of the compound, this is the fourth group I have seen them enter the tent and never return. Like Schrödinger’s cat, they are neither dead nor alive to us. I read to the men from Kafka tonight. One broke down in tears when Gregor swung from the ceiling. He said he’d forgotten what it feels like to be free.
I’ve lost track of the date; I know it has been winter and know it’s just turned spring. The first crocuses broke ground today. I saw one on the edge of the yard and bend to touch it when a guard hit me across the back and hollered to keep moving. Like Gregor Samsa, we fight to awaken ourselves from the nightmare that our lives have become. All too aware of the clock that reminds us it is too late to go back. Did we ‘sleep peacefully through that noise which made the furniture shake?’ or did we know all along that to enter this place was to never leave?
The uniform is beginning to chafe, the pants droop further every day no matter how tightly we tie the ropes. It’s been over a week since they fed us, we’re never allowed to bathe anymore. The stench of filth, and death, never leaves our nostrils. The screams at night have grown louder and can no longer be ignored. We must tell ourselves that they aren’t real, that this isn’t happening. That lie is the only one we tell and it is the only thing keeping us sane.
I’ve told them my truth again and again but they want theirs. I cannot give it to them because it does not exist. They said if I told ‘the’ truth they’d set me free. I said what I thought they wanted to hear and yet I am still here. What is truth? It is said that one should never yell fire in a crowded theater but what happens if that theater is on fire? Does that truth change because the word became reality or because in the panic no one took to time to notice? Will the world notice when we’re gone?
A new guard arrived today. He freed an old man who’d been tied to the pole for three days and bandaged his wrists. He gave us all fresh water and a half loaf of dry bread. There is kindness in the world.
They beat Jenkins until he told them their truth. He collapsed just this side of the gate, the new guard shot him in the head, and we were ordered to throw him into the pit along with the others. They don’t want a truth; they want a reason to justify their actions. To beat an innocent man to death is evil, to kill a guilty man for his lies is justice.
The guards taunt us endlessly. They left the gate open for an hour today just to see if one of us would escape. No one even thought of it until after, sitting around the fire growing smaller every night. Is it that we are too afraid of the punishment or have we forgotten that freedom was ever a choice? They say they’ve never charged us so there is no record of our ever being here. We can be erased and no one will ever know. But how can this be? How can lives be reduced to ether due to lack of paperwork? I exist as surely as the pages and would without them. The world does not cease to exist when we stop looking.
We are no longer people, we are numbers and they are weapons of pain disguised as justice. I spoke with one of the other prisoners and he told me this, “They call it doing time but what you do is watch time. Watch the clock, watch the window. The seasons fade one into another until they’ve faded to a year or more, a decade locked in this place.” I wonder how long I’ll spend here. Now the fear is not that I’ll never escape, but rather that cease to desire freedom. Perhaps there is no reality outside these walls. This is the truth I’ve been searching for, to give a voice to suffering. Truth is reality and our reality is pain.
The guards dragged me to a tent at the far end of the compound, an elderly man was lying, naked, on the dirt floor. I was handed a bat and told to hit the man until he told the truth. I said I did not know what he had done. The guards laughed, grabbed the bat from me and beat the man until he confessed, I know not to what. I was lead back to my barracks and told that I would go without food until I learned to obey. They treat us like dogs, how is this humane?
Back to the tent at the edge of the compound, another man lay on the floor, this time younger. They handed me the bat, I was almost too weak to hold it. It’s been so long since I’ve eaten. They yelled that he was guilty, and I resisted. They threatened to put me in his place but I have already endured so much, I would give my life that he would not suffer. They offered me food and god help me, I cannot undo what I have done. I convinced myself that my feeble swings would not harm him much and the reward was worthwhile. Worse of all, after the first 10 swings, I did not feel a thing. It was just work and a full stomach does not protest.
The warren has given me a guard’s uniform, I was unsure at first but it is far more pleasing when it covers freshly bathed skin. I have been moved to new quarters at the other end of the fort. They are far more comfortable than the barracks and the food is better as well. This is the reward for good behavior. Why didn’t I see it before?
I noticed some of the prisoners scurrying back and forth between their barracks and the kitchen scrap pile, I’ll let it slide this time. I know how hungry we used to get.
I go to the tent every day now. Their faces are blurring into an unrecognizable mass. They look less human without them.
Number 34 confessed today. I always knew the filthy vermin was guilty. I allowed him to live, bruised and broken, as an example to the others. His life was my gift to him for his obedience. His rewards, though I felt them undeserved, were a hot meal and a clean bed for tonight. The other prisoners get no dinner tonight, they knew what he had done and did nothing. They’ve all guilty, the whole lot of them. I’ve learned to hear truth, its voice is harsh and broken beyond the web of lies. It is my job to find it. Work is honest, work is truth, the truth will set you free.
The detainee’s writings ended here but in the remains of the labor camp at Fort Pittswalk, researchers came across a letter in the same hand believed to have been written around the same time.
We will be together again soon. There is a community on the other side of the hill, it is protected from attack by a tall fence and watchtowers. As soon as I have met my monthly quota, I will send word for you to join me here. The town has many offices were you can find work as a secretary and there’s a good school for the children. In time, you will grow to like it here, as I have.
Your Loving Husband,
(The name was nothing more than a smudge, we may never know the identity of detainee number 52164)
About this Project:
I ended on the 92nd day because, as the detainee says in the first entry, he will only be a prisoner for 3 months. After that, he is a guard. I left it unclear as to his fate or why the letter was found at the camp because it does not really matter. We know that either way, he is only exchanging one confinement for another. I struggled with whether or not to add direct references and quotes through the story and decided that would take away from the story but I want to assure you that there are in fact elements from a number of this semester’s texts.
Nietzche: Day 48-Meaning of the words and how they can change based on the situation. Also, questions whether or not truth changes and if so, how?
Zimbardo: Day 3-The detainee becomes accustomed to his new life more quickly than one would expect. Day 7-The prisoners bond within their new lives and shared experiences. Day 52-The new guard has yet to fall into his role, he still sees people as we should. Day 63-Prisoners lose touch with the reality that they ever had the chance to leave. As the subjects did, the prisoners see no reality outside the gates. Day 68-Prisoners and guards are like two different types of being. Day 83-Still identifies with prisoners. Day 86-Prisoners are becoming less human.
Kafka: Day 23-The men are called vermin. Day 27-Direct reference to Metamorphosis. Day 34-Direct reference to Samsa and direct quote. Day 83-The prisoners “scurry” Day 92-Filthy “vermin”
Quantum mechanics: Day 27- Direct reference to Schrodinger’s Cat. Day 63-The world ceasing to exist without an observer.
Woolf: Day 3-Measuring of time. Day 7-Direct reference to, it is an example of the difference between their old way of life and the new.Day 34-Mention of time/change of seasons like repeated reference to big ben. Day 68-Another mention of time/clocks.
Coetzee: Day 3-Initial assurance that truth and justice will set him free. Day 23-Civilized vs. Barbarians Day 48-Losing faith in truth as the magistrate does with further detainment. Day 57-Comparision of truth and justice and how they can become blurred. Day 68-Finding truth in pain. Day 92- Can “hear truth”, it is his job to find the truth behind the lies.
Pollan: Day 77-Is shocked that he could stop feeling so quickly.