This weekend I will be traveling up to Newport, Rhode Island. But on the way, I will be stopping in Philadelphia to tour Eastern State Penitentiary. In Newport, my brother and I will tour the incredible mansion houses mostly built during New England’s “Golden Age,” when wealthy new business owners were keen to build the most lavish living quarters money could possibly buy in the late 1800’s. The architecture and decoration are borrowed from extravagant European design, including French Beaux-Arts and Italian Renaissance.
My interest in both Eastern State Penitentiary and Newport’s mansions are connected to writing. Recently I decided that I wanted to adjust this blog to include music, photography and writing on other subjects, in addition to an occasional movie essay. I decided I would like to have all of my “stuff” in one tidy place from which I can share what I want.
Anyway, quite a while ago I published my first short story in an Australian press called “The Penance of Mr. Shepherd.” I wrote it after reading about Eastern State Penitentiary, though the story has little to do with it. What I was interested in was the idea that absolute isolation and deprivation could “cleanse” a person’s soul and lead him out of sin into salvation through prayer and quiet reflection. The reality is that many men went insane in the harsh conditions of the penitentiary with no light, and deprived even of sound. For those who managed to break the jail’s rules or offend the guards in some way there was an even smaller cell, dug into the floor, where a person could sit for hours, days, or weeks at a time with barely enough room to turn around. This may seem like a distant bad memory, but the realty is that prisoners still spend a large amount of time in “solitary,” even today, despite evidence that the form of punishment can and does cause mental illness. In recent years, attention has been brought to this problem, though we still see skyrocketing rates of incarceration in the U.S. and continue to see men and women thrown into solitary confinement, I believe, because we simply don’t know what else to do. An article published by NPR in 2013 states that “As prisoners testify about suicidal depression, self-mutilation, lethargy, hallucinations and other ills, more attention is being paid to inmates who have lived through the extreme, often uncertain isolation.” (Read full article here.)
I’m interested in what happens to the mind when it has to endure under these conditions. Where does your mind go without outward stimulation? It seems there are only two choices: either make it up or shut down…perhaps a combination of both. If I try to put myself there, I begin to move around, directionless, touching the space I have around me, touching the walls, the floor, reaching high and low. You move just to feel the empty space around you. The subtle movement of air around your limbs becomes a soothing, self-regulating gesture that you repeat over and over again. Maybe it would be similar to how an autistic brain, overwhelmed with stimuli, repeats a movement over and over to brace him/herself against the chaos, only opposite; in the absence of stimuli, you start to move chaotically, without intent or mindfulness, just to feel the space that assures that you are still occupying it in real time. Keep this going and suddenly you are in the chaotic realm of dreams, where things happen and appear in your mind and manifest into the blackness surrounding you where everything can be. Now it has to be, because the alternative is unbearable. Those lucky enough to make this as a decision may be able to switch between realities, but I’m sure many minds go there because they are forced, like the mind comes to a fork in the road and must choose or shut completely off, which does not become possible until death.
Concerning Newport mansions, I want to see the area because of the story I am currently writing, which is set in Newport some years in the future. I intend to take a lot of pictures and these will be posted in the photos section as well as another feature post highlighting the trip. It’s a grueling 12-hour drive…the hunt for awesome podcasts to listen to is on. I’ve found a couple, but if you have some to suggest please let me know in the comments section!