Thursday, February 27, 2014

Suicide by Papercut

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

“Mr. Whitaker?” the receptionist called, her head poking out of the smoked glass partition that divided her working space from the pastel expanse of the waiting room.  “The doctor is ready for you now. Sorry for the wait; you know how he is.” I smiled back at her and stood, leaving behind the dog-eared copy of a biography on Marshall Ney that someone had left amidst the stack of stale magazines.  As always, the door jammed leading into the doctor’s office and I had to put my shoulder into it to force it open.  I paused at the threshold, letting my eyes adjust to the near-twilight ambiance of the room.  It took me a moment to locate the doctor.  His back was to me and he was kneeling in front of one of the many bookshelves that ringed his office. He appeared to be sorting several heavy volumes from one shelf to another.

I broke the silence. “Why don’t you get the bloody door fixed already?  Ever since I started coming here it’s been messed up.”

He chuckled, his back still turned towards me. “Oh…think of it as something of a metaphor.  The path towards gnosis is a many-periled thing.”

“Then shouldn’t it eventually get easier to open, if you were doing your job correctly?’

He finished sorting and turned his very familiar face towards me.  “Metaphors have their limits.  In any case, if the door stood open all willy-nilly I’d be out of a job.  Please,” he waved his palm towards a pair of worn leather chairs. “Have a seat.  I will be with you in just a moment.”   I took one as he walked to his desk and picked up a notepad and pen.  Returning to the other chair he frowned slightly and maneuvered his own seat a half inch or two to the left before sitting down.  Once there he very neatly folded one leg over the other and flattened the creases in his trousers.

“My god, you are so frigging OCD,” I remarked wanting to get in a few easy blows before the actual battle commenced.  Before responding he made a few more minute adjustments.

“Are we treating me now?  Very well: notions of propriety and organization are part of my function.  And, in any case, I have quite a bit of free time on my hands and sorting things soothe me.”

“Not a lot of customers, eh?”

He sighed.  “A sizeable portion of the populace believes that I do not even exist.”

“Yeah…uh…sorry about that.”

“Well, we know better, don’t we?  What seems to be the problem?  You sounded upset on the phone.”

“I’m on level 3 again,” I said trying to relax in the chair.

“Ah, is that why it’s so cold in here?”

“Afraid so.”

“And why I seem to be so hungry all the time?”


“And why…”

“Right, I get it, thanks.  I suck harder than a black hole; the tragedies of your existence make Antigone look like a petulant two year old; mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.  Moving on.”

“Convicting you of your mistakes is also a part of my function, you know.  In any case, sarcasm is located in the id, so if you’d prefer, I can arrange for you to have an appointment down there…” He trailed off, looking at me.  I looked down and eventually he nodded. “Good, why don’t you tell me what happened?”

“I’ve been having a problem with my neighbor for several months  now.  Well, technically this goes back over a year, but there was a break in there for a while when they dragged him down to level.”

“They placed him right next to you again?”

“Yeah.  The administration knows how he is.  He had a competency hearing awhile back where an officer testified that they house him next to inmates they don’t like to punish them.  They first put him next to me immediately after I filed my class action lawsuit against the state, and again recently when I filed my lethal injection challenge.” 

“Why do you think they would do that? It sounds a little paranoid on your part, you know?”

“Oh sure.  You can’t really appreciate the levels these people will descend to until you are in their care.  And they would act like this for many reasons, not the least of which is that they hate litigious inmates.  They prefer them ignorant and compliant.”

“Okay, so that is them.  The problem for you here is…”

“The problem is, he was making me lose my damned mind.  He watches to  see his neighbors’ sleeping schedules and then changes his own so that he is awake when you are asleep.  Once you get into bed and flip your light off, he begins to “preach”. He sings. He chants.  He slams heavy books down on the table.  I haven’t had more than a few hours sleep in months.”

“Is that why he went to level the last time?”

“Yeah, they caught him ‘creating a disturbance’.  But he just messed up that time.  Usually he is more clever.  He waits until the officers are on the other side of the pod before he does anything.  And even when he gets caught, most of the officers are too lazy to write him up because he didn’t do anything to one of theirs or because they think he is crazy.”

“Is he? 'Crazy,' I mean?”

“Oh, he’s not right, there’s no doubt about that.  But he’s not nuts the way he pretends to be.  Really, he’s just an asshole who uses mental illness as a shield.  There’s an irony here, Doc.  For years I defended him to other cons on the basis of his illness.  They just laughed at me and told me to live around him first before I diagnosed him.  They were right.”

“And I am guessing this eventually came to a boil?”

“Yeah.  When he wasn’t getting any response from me he started spraying the run near my door with urine mixed with mackerel juice.  He did this for weeks.  They knew he was doing it but their excuse for not doing anything was they couldn’t catch him in the act.  I tried to deal with this the right way, but there are limits to what you can say to a lawman.”

“Your vaunted ‘convict code’, yes?”


“The very code you claim doesn’t exist.  The one you say is an excuse for moral dyslexics to employ situational ethics to justify their bad actions or reactions.”

“Yeah.  That one.  It doesn’t exist ontologically but it definitely does socially.  You snitch, you enter into an entirely different world of problems, potentially far worse than any consequence the state can come up with.  So, anyways, I ignored him until that day.  He’s really religious in the old fire-and-brimstone manner, and he ‘baptized’ the run a few times that afternoon. It aggravated me.  It was like living in a latrine.  Then he said he was going to ‘fashion the spear of destiny’ and ‘do unto me what Longinus did to the Lord’”

The doctor smiled.  “Pretty cute, that.  Did you really think he would try to harpoon you?”

“I don’t know,” I said before pausing. “Look, probably not, okay?  But how would I really know?  I’ve seen so many spearings here over the years.  Just recently a guy got harpooned in the liver and nearly died.  Then, as he was recuperating, he had a brain aneurism and is at John Sealy hospital, totally brain-dead.  The family won’t turn the machines off because they are expecting a miracle.  So I take this stuff seriously.”

“So you reciprocated.”

“Yeah, you can’t let someone threaten you like that in here.  Before long everyone will be doing it.  Only when I did it, I didn’t spray the run.  I built a bottle with a curved spigot and nailed the side of his door.”


“I think I was basically tired of it all, and wanted to produce a situation where they had to move one of us.  I think on some level I knew he would go nuts, which he did.  He started cursing out everyone and kicking his door, and when the officers eventually came over he cursed them out, too.  Then the rank arrived, and he wouldn’t come out of his cell, so they took a look around and wrote him up for ‘refusing to obey a direct order: And off to level he went."

“Problem solved.”
“Not really. I mean, sort of, I guess, for a moment.  They took about a week to run their kangaroo court on him, found him guilty, all that jazz.  Then, the day afterwards, they wrote me up for the same exact case they had convicted him of, and now he and I are neighbors on F-Pod.”

He couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh, that is priceless.  So, you are mad that you are neighbors again.”

I let him finish chuckling before I responded.  “I’m glad to see that irony is located in the superego.”

“Oh Thomas, Thomas…irony is located everywhere, if you only know how to look for it.”

I shook my head. “Well, anyways, no, I found a peace in regards to him which was unavailable to me before.  I’m mad because I acted like a damned child.  I violated the codes I claim to believe in.  But at the same time, I don’t honestly know what I could have done differently.  I’m angry with myself for not seeing a third way between being a victim and being a bully.”

“I see. When you say your ‘code’, do you mean your Buddhist one, the Stoic one, or the absurdist one?”

“Take your pick.  They are mostly ethically adjacent and I bombed all three exams.”

He frowned.  “You are only able to say that because you blend the three carelessly.  I’ve noted before that you tend to see morality and ethics as being perfectly synonymous, a conflation that produces a problematic metaphysics.  In fact, I very much suspect that we are discussing this very flaw here, that your ethics have polluted your morality.”

“The first of the three ethics in Buddhism is the ethics of restraint; it’s about creating a grounding field where you harm no living creature so you have the space to consciously work on the ethics of virtue and altruism.  Hard to see how such a view is toxic, Doc.”

“I’m not talking about content here, but rather of structure.  You will permit me?”

I nodded.

“What you so often refer to as ethics is really morality, namely the duties, obligations, restraints, and parameters that apply in one’s relationships with others.  This is where one finds strictures on things like lying and spraying your neighbor’s door with mackerel juice in order to ‘put a key in his back’, as you so colorfully described such an action in a past discussion.  You violated the Kantian Categorical Imperative against treating people as objects, in this case an object to be moved geographically apart from you.  Your failure was therefore one of morality.  You follow?”

I yawned and stretched in the chair, checking my watch.  I did this often when he started to get pedantic.

“Ethics, on the other hand, is about ethos, about the kind of person one is and about the manner and character of one’s life and activity.  Morality is a central portion of this, of course, but ethics is a far larger matter.  It is about the achievement of intelligent human well being and well-doing, about the sort of people we should be, about character, and how to live a good life.  And you,” he paused for emphasis, “haven’t the slightest idea about what it means to live a good life.”

I mulled this over for a moment.  “That’s not really fair.  I live in a dungeon.  Most of the people who have power over me hate me.  I am, I think you will agree, somewhat constrained in my ability to live a good life.  I try to live a well-ordered existence according to values I believe in and…”

“No, no,” he interrupted. “What you have are fragments of control.  Even on the best of days you do not get to live as you wish save for brief, stolen instances.  The rest of the time you are just reacting.  As you say, you are constrained.  Tell me: What does it mean to be thirty three, or, I suppose, thirty-four, since your birthday is imminent.”

It seemed a simple question at first, but as I tried to frame an answer I quickly came to realize that I had none of the information needed to do so.  “I…don’t have any idea what it means to be thirty four.  If I had any friends of that age in the free world, I guess they would say things like mortgages, children, getting settled in professionally. PTO meetings. Receding hairlines.  I don’t know, doc, I’ve spent most of the last decade in solitary confinement. 401k’s.”

“Aside from the receding hairline bit, what do you really, practically know about any of those other things?”

“Nothing, I guess.”

“To carry the point a bit further, you committed your reprehensible crime at the age of twenty-three, an age to which you also had no sense of belonging."

“Well, yes, but I think I faked it better.  I really didn’t have any peers, but I was surrounded by patterns to copy.  Here I have a chronic masturbator on my right and a pseudo-schizophrenic  jerk on my left.  And, aside from the high achievers, I don’t think that anyone knows what it means to be twenty three while he is still twenty three.”

“Your disconnect is greater now, though.  You would agree with this.”

“Yes, but that is why existentialist philosophy has been such a boon to me.  It illustrated to me that my disconnect was a sign of our times, and showed me how to forge a coherent self even in the face of that self being shipwrecked by alienation and the seeming pointlessness of it all.  I didn’t have this crutch when I was twenty-three.  I knew about it, but I didn’t understand it.  I am now insulated from the absurdity.”

“You mean ‘absurdity’ in the Camusian sense, yes?  That the nihilistic void functions as a sort of inescapable generator of absurdity – that we feel our lives should have meaning even though objective analysis proves that they do not – which then undermines every human enterprise and thought by revealing its ultimate pointlessness?”

“Exactly,” I nodded. “Camus thought that the only defensible response to this paradox was through acts of rebellion that maximize available life and its intensity, even as the cosmic futility of these acts is kept firmly in your vision.  You have to see that things are hopeless and yet through willpower strive to make them otherwise.  F. Scott Fitzgerald said it well when he talked about balancing the futility of effort with the necessity to struggle and how this propels the ego like an arrow from nothingness to nothingness with such force that only gravity, Ie, death, can bring it down to earth at last.”

“This is the Sisyphus business.”

“Yes.  The universe tries to destroy you; it makes your efforts the equivalent of rolling a stone up a hill only to watch it roll down again.  Yet you rebel by creating provisional values such as honor, decency, stoical fortitude – one’s code.  This code helps to create an island of human dignity in the middle of a cosmic mess, even as one never loses sight of the certainty of that island ultimately being washed away.”

“Sounds depressing.”

“No, it’s like you have to keep a memento mori always in sight, because death is what gives life its value.  It’s the only thing that gives it value.”

“This is the root of the code you spoke about failing.”

“Yes, the one you said had corrupted my morality.”

“I didn’t say that.  The code is more or less fine, if you are strong enough to hold to it.  People have lived meaningful and moral lives by employing it.  The flaw is your application of it.  Two flaws, actually, if you want to be technical.”

“I’m not seeing it.”

“Of course not.  Like everyone else you are an idiot when it comes to self-analysis.  That is why you pay me the big bucks.”

“Point of fact, I don’t pay you at all.”

“I was being sarca…” his smile faded.  “Damn it, never mind.  This isn’t about me.  What would your buddies Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger say about hope?”

I thought about it for a moment.  “Nothing kind.”

“Don’t evade.  They would say that in the Christian paradigm, despair – not hoping – is a sin, because to despair is to assert that the deity has neither the ability nor the benevolence to assist you.  Since to them their god must be both omnipotent and benevolent – whispers of St. Anselm – despair can only be an illusion to be overcome via faith.  The absurdist inverts this and says that not hoping is a virtue.  He says that it’s the Christian negation of despair that is the damning illusion and argues that it is the affirmation of this despair that is the only way open to an authentic existence.  You have to see that it is all pointless before you can begin to rebel against the nihil and create meaning.

“So what? I understand all of that.”

“And yet you hope.  Which leads me to believe that you are less comfortable with the concept of pointlessness than you would like to admit.”

“Well,” I stammered, “No, not exactly becau-“

“Thomas, you cannot lie to me.  I live inside your head, remember? Your entire life is structured around hope.  You worship at her throne every time you daydream your way out of that box of yours.  Just because you are somewhat clumsy at your hoping doesn’t mean anything.  Don’t tell me you slogged through all three volumes of Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung without recognizing that you believe in the notion.”

“That’s different.  That’s hope for other people, humanity, not for me.”

“Your utopia, yes.  You deeply believe in this concept, despite all of the embarrassing proponents of it that you despise.  One might even say that it is the hub around which your entire life revolves.  Just last week in a letter you referenced Wilde’s quote, that everyone’s map should have a utopia somewhere on it.  Your entire literary career – such as it is – has been based on the hope of laying ­­­ one small stone in the pathway to that place before they kill us.  I hate to break it to you, but absurdists make awful utopians.”

I didn’t say anything, so he continued on.

“And yet.  And yet, this duality has started to have an effect.  You have lately in those most secret recesses of your own mind begun to question your take on utopia.”

“No, it’s just that it daily seems more likely that whenever our society finally gets its crap together and reaches a place where everyone is free to live lives of maximum meaning and minimum drudgery, that place will be owned by Google or the Koch brothers.”

“I don’t think that’s the problem.  That is just what you tell yourself to explain your nascent apostasy.  I think the real problem is that for at least a year now you have lost confidence in your ability to place that stone.”

A few minutes passed before I could look at him.  “Yes, that is true.”

“And if your pathway to utopia is denied you, if the flaming swords at the gates deem you to be too ineffectual to participate in the autopoietic process of its creation, then none of your suffering means anything.  It’s all pointless. And thus so your life is also meaningless.  And if you really believed in Camus, this wouldn’t matter, but you know it does.  You need for the evil visited upon you to be for something.”

Again I said nothing, merely staring at the carpet somewhere beneath the doctor’s feet.

“You somehow hold these two opposite views in your mind at the same time.  You cling to the utopian side the way most people cling to god.  Yes sometimes you – like them – have your dark moments where you realize the entire massive edifice of your belief structure is a fiction.  And in these moments – what have become daily occurrences – you have replaced the fuel of utopia with something else.  A stopgap, if you will.”

“And that is?”

“Guilt.  You replaced it with guilt.  You’ve been main-lining the stuff since you were a boy.  Only now because of the size of it, and because the same law of diminishing returns that governs all drug use applies equally well to guilt, it isn’t hitting you like it used to.  It now gives you very little relief.”

“It still works. Mostly.”

“Not really.  You think - some of the time, at any rate – that meaning comes from standing tall in a universe where suffering followed by oblivion is the constant.  But when your sense of participating in that meaning fades, you try to prime the pump and force meaning out of the process by increasing your level of suffering.  This isn’t an engine, Thomas.  Pouring guilt into the works and redlining the pain isn’t going to help you out of the labyrinth.  It won’t help you find your purpose.  The relationship doesn’t work on a one-to-one ratio like that.”

“Penance is the only way…sometimes I can’t even breathe for the weight of it all.  I am so flawed.  So flawed.  It’s like a pressure on my skin, behind my eyes.  I tried to wipe it out before but only added to it.  Pain releases some of that, enough at least to function for a day or a week.”

“Tell me something.  You are aware that the tenth anniversary of December the tenth – the time you tried to wipe out your guilt, is nearly upon us?”

“Of course.  I’ve been watching the calendar all year.”

“Then, I’m sure you also noticed that you created this incident with your neighbor – this very public event, after years of stoicism – exactly one month before this anniversary?”


“You don’t expect me to believe that this was a coincidence, that you would suddenly “snap” like that, and then be forced to spend the holidays in a frigid hell deprived of your few comforts?  Tell me, during those first few nights when they left you nearly naked in the cell, when you were forced to sleep on the concrete with newspapers stuffed into your shorts for warmth, how did you feel?  Was it worth it?”

I thought about it for a moment.  “Awful.  And also wonderful.”

“You felt justified.”

“A little.  A few chips of the boulder removed from my shoulders,” I paused. “I realized something else during those first days, or maybe I just reaffirmed something I’ve known for a while.  I like being on Level, the starkness of it.  It feels like  home, a sensation I’ve never really known before in this life.  It feels like the place I belong to.  I realized that I could do this forever, all the days of my life.  I’m strong enough, physically and mentally, to survive here in this cesspool that society uses to rid itself of its broken models.  At the same time I see clearly that this place is destroying me on a deeper level – I don’t know, call it the human or the spiritual realm.  Wherever the place is where you keep your values.  This place, it grinds you down and down and down until the shards can be poured neatly into the shape that they need you to be in order to treat you the way they do.  They get, finally, the monster they need you to be in order to hate you and see themselves as righteous.  I think that has become the underlying social purpose of prisons in America – to help distract us from the fact that our bullshit ways are killing the world, because, hey, we’re not the bad guys.  The bad guys are over there.  And they build these places in a way that can only produce one thing, the bogeymen they need.  Not for the first time I’ve thought that maybe the sanest thing one could do here is to destroy oneself before you get too warped to see it as anything other than evil.  Annihilation might be the only way to die a decent man. Suicide as first aid.

For the first time the doctor looked worried.  “That’s… disturbing.”  You couldn’t have failed to notice the central question in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.  He believed it to be the most important philosophical question of all.”

“Do I or do I not wish to commit suicide?”

“Yes, and if you say no, the reason or reasons you have for answering in that fashion are your meanings for living.  Your utopia was always your answer, both because of its transcendent value but also as something to be striven for.  If you no longer have faith in that radiant future, what is left?”

“I don’t know, okay?  Stubbornness, maybe.  Obligations that I need to fulfill.  The hope that my personal relationships will not always have to be conducted through bulletproof glass.  Sometimes I think even the best case scenarios aren’t even close to being good enough anymore.  Sometimes the nihil doesn’t seem like such an awful place any longer.”

“That is the point I’ve been aiming for since we began speaking today, Thomas.  Since your ethic is impregnated with this half-acknowledged wish to die, it cannot be focused on well being or living a good life; your morality is similarly going to be polluted.  Thus my earlier comment.  And thus your mood swings, from manic, nearly fanatical acolyte of progressive politics to failed Nietzschean.  You are going to have to decide which side of yourself you really believe in.  I’ve hinted at this before.  You will recall a few months ago I said that Plato believed that the individual good consisted in harmony between the different elements of the soul?  Your various elements get along like a house on fire.”

“You called that ataraxia, I think.”

“Inner peace is descended from that view, yes.  I know that you don’t care much for Plato, so perhaps Spinoza is more your speed.  He wrote that you can’t behave well – bene agere – or live well – bene vivere – if one doesn’t actually want to live.”

“I want to live.  Just not as me.”

“You don’t get that choice.  You think that you are the only person to have said that?  Everyone has thought that at one point or another.  You just have to figure out a way to stand yourself so that you can stop wasting time and effort better spent on your purpose, whatever that is.  You can’t bleed enough to atone.  Suffering can be didactic but what you are doing is just stupid.  It’s like you are trying to commit suicide by paper cut.  It’s a pointless endeavor.  I do think it is amusing that even your unbelief has a Christian structure to it, but that is an argument for another day.  For now you just need to see that if this “pain equals salvation” concept is what you are pinning your hopes on, you are doomed to failure.”

“What else am I supposed to do, then?  What else do I have?”

He put his notebook down on the table and took off his glasses.  He still had all of his hair, I noticed, but then he didn’t have my cares.  “I don’t know, Thomas.  My job is centered on reflection.  You call the shots.”

At that he clapped, and I looked up from my bed to see a guard with a flashlight standing in front of my door.  “Whitaker, you alright in there?”

“Yeah, why?”

“It sounded like you was talkin’ to yoself.”

“Oh …yeah.  I seem to do that more and more these days.  The shit that goes on in my head.  You wouldn’t believe one person could make up so much nonsense.”

“It’ll be alright so long as you ain’t answerin’ yoself.”

“You promise?”


“Nothing.  Goodnight.”

I settled back into bed and stared at the wall in front of me.  Years ago, someone had scrawled “Is you a Mexi-CAN or a Mexi-CAN’T?” onto the wall in dark ink.  I once believed I knew how to answer such a query.  Now I don’t even understand the question.

This is old news now, but earlier this fall I filed a lethal injection challenge in the U.S. District Court under 42 USC § 1983.  I did so because the State of Texas has been unable to procure their killing juice from reputable vendors and has thus been forced to rely upon unregulated compounding pharmacies, like this one in the Woodlands. This is a very strange development in the annals of state-sanctioned murder, but it gets even weirder when you see the types of people who operate these pharmacies.  I give you Mr. Jasper Lovioi, owner of the Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy. Note that Mr. Lovoi doesn’t actually care that his products are going to be used to end lives, only that he got outed and that this might affect his bottom line.  There are words for such people but I will refrain myself from mentioning them.  Please note that if this is how the TDCJ treats its business partners, you can probably estimate how poorly they treat those of us in white.  May I humbly suggest that if you happen to live in this corner of Houston and are in need of a compounding pharmacy, you find somewhere else to go?

Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston TX 77351


RainingBliss said...

I do not think one must be a literary scholar or psychoanalytical enthusiast to understand this piece. I would argue one would need to be in order to comment intelligently and meaningfully here. Perhaps this is why there are no comments.
Being able to participate in the internal process he publicizes here, disturbs me. Surely anyone reading this essay leaves feeling disturbed. Understand I am not necessarily coming from a dark place when I say disturbed, as any emotional agitation in the spectrum could be classified as such.
The dialogue is just brilliant. The interwoven concepts of psychology, philosophy, and literature are genius. I seriously wish someone with expertise would come behind me here and post a literary critique so I can fully appreciate the talent. It was an extremely intimate piece. I am in awe of the vulnerability here. I found his voice piercing. It penetrates the layers, or at least it definitely penetrated mine.

Carole said...

I’m angry with myself for not seeing a third way between being a victim and being a bully.”

Sometimes there is no third way. It is what it is.

Leave the self-righteousness to those of us on the outside, so we can feel good about ourselves as we bludgeon others.

If ethics and morality can't provide an answer to every occasion that pops up in solitary confinement, introducing the disease of self-righteousness will only suck up what little free air you have left. And then you really will be helpless. You have walked such an amazing path so far... please don't falter now.

Thanks, Carole

Joseph Muldoon said...

“What you so often refer to as ethics is really morality, namely the duties, obligations, restraints, and parameters that apply in one’s relationships with others.

“Ethics, on the other hand, is about ethos, about the kind of person one is and about the manner and character of one’s life and activity."

A semantic quibble: The distinction between ethics and morality described here is correct but they are mislabeled. Morality is usually understood as "the kind of person one is" whereas ethics has to do with the rules of society. Hence corporations will have a "code of ethics" but not a moral code. Ethics are rules of a society, morals are values of the individual. At least that is how the two are usually distinguished.

Great post Thomas. PEN Prize worthy.