Issue 13

Nonfiction

Little Boxes

by Ravi Mangla

After five weeks in isolation, Michael Kerr was found unresponsive in his bunk. The fifty-four-year-old Kerr, an inmate at the Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, North Carolina, was loaded into the back of a van and shuttled two and a half hours to a prison hospital in Raleigh, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The postmortem report revealed the death was caused by acute dehydration. Kerr, a paranoid schizophrenic, had spent the previous five days in handcuffs, steeped in a pool of his own excrement. The prison captain in charge of his care maintained he was unaware of any existing medical condition.


The average solitary confinement cell measures between seventy-two and eighty square feet. Each unit contains a single bed, a sink, and a toilet. Few cells have windows and fewer have clocks. Lodgers are allowed out for one hour of exercise in a walled-in enclosure known as a “dog run.” Those held in isolation for extended periods of time are vulnerable to a range of conditions, including heart palpitations, confusion, dizziness, insomnia, depression, hallucinations, violent outbursts, and excessive perspiration.


For years I wouldn’t step foot in an elevator, plane, passenger train, or crowded economy car. Instead, I took the stairs or walked or drove alone. The first instance of panic manifested during a week-long trip to London, when the Underground’s Northern line stalled for ten interminable minutes between stations. In the months that followed, episodes occurred at shorter and shorter intervals until calm became the exception. This fear of confined spaces wouldn’t ease its iron grip for nearly a decade.


The term claustrophobia first appeared in an 1879 article by Dr. Benjamin Ball, a Swiss-English physician. Closely linked to cloister, the word derives from the Latin word claustrum, which can refer to either a lock or an enclosed space. Claustrum is also the name of the thin layer of gray matter beneath the neocortex in brains of mammals. The role of the claustrum has been compared to that of an orchestral conductor, synchronizing the various cortical functions into a harmonious whole.


The nuns of the Poor Clare Monastery pray for eight hours a day. Living quarters measure six feet by eight feet and possess a writing desk, chair, and single bed. Fairfax County building codes and standards prohibits designating these spaces as bedrooms, identifying them instead as “closets.” The nuns cannot leave the monastery to visit their families. Twice a year, they are permitted to receive guests, but must remain behind a protective screen.


According to Patty Hearst’s testimony, her kidnappers kept her in a locked closet with her hands tied and eyes blindfolded. She was sexually assaulted by her captors and let out only for meals and political dialogue. Two months later, she had joined their organization and assumed the name “Tania,” after a martyred revolutionary in Che Guevara’s guerrilla army.


I was given pills to take: small pink ones that promised easement from the dread but only seemed to taper my appetite. I visited therapists, acupuncturists, hypnotists, herbalists, and healers. A sound therapist with a bedraggled beard stood over me and thrummed an oversized gong, the vibrations breaking across my body like waves.


In 1849, Henry Brown was shipped from Richmond to Philadelphia in a packaging crate. Born into slavery, Brown received a prophetic vision with instructions for his escape: he was to conceal himself in a box and travel to the northern states via parcel post. Brown spent twenty-seven hours in the wooden crate, measuring no more than three feet on each side. The container was lined with a coarse woolen cloth and imprinted with the words “dry goods.” For his resourcefulness, he was given the nickname “Box” and toured the United States and abroad as a mesmerist and conjuror.


Six years earlier, in 1843, a Parisian street mime became trapped in an imaginary box and died of starvation. Or so the old joke goes.


Sadhu Haridas, an Indian mystic and fakir, was buried voluntarily in the presence of British military officers, European doctors, and Ranjit Singh, the Maharajah of the Punjab. He was covered with cerecloth, placed in a wooden case, and lowered into a brick vault below the imperial courtyard. The burial site was watched over day and night. After six weeks in the ground, he was exhumed and revived by the attending physicians. An unperturbed Haridas said his only fear was that he would be consumed by worms.


The folkloric tradition of vampires sleeping in coffins derives from the verbal accounts of undertakers and morticians who witnessed human corpses, beset with intestinal distress, rise up in their caskets.


When I was six, seven, eight, I would crawl into the cupboard under the stove, moving aside the assorted pots and pans. The cupboard offered temporary refuge from the distractions of the outside world. Flashlight in hand, I paged through comic books or solved word puzzles. Sometimes I imagined I was huddled inside of a tiny submersible, poised on the sea floor. It was only when my mother came over to prepare dinner that I was expelled from my underwater vessel.


Hong Kong, a city riddled with inequities, has taken to subdividing apartments into cubicle units as small as twenty-eight square feet. The Society for Community Organization, a human rights advocacy group, pegs the number of denizens living in partitioned units at 100,000 and counting.


In response to Manhattan housing shortages, mayor Michael Bloomberg challenged developers to come up with plans for a residential tower of microapartments. The city housing department was inundated with design entries. The building contract was awarded to Monadnock Development, who proposed a modular construction plan, with units ranging from 250 to 370 square feet. On the opposite coast, the city of Seattle outpaces their urban counterparts, thanks in no small measure to a long-standing zoning loophole. There are presently 3000 microapartments in the city, starting at just ninety square feet. Newly minted units rent within the hour.


Researchers at Oxford University studied the behavioral habits of animals in captivity. They determined that zoo enclosures are far too small for certain species. Larger mammals experience a shorter life span and elevated risk of infant mortality in captivity. Polar bears spend roughly a quarter of their day pacing back and forth or swimming in circles. A lack of adequate roaming space has led more and more zoos to close down their elephant exhibits.


In the summer of 1906, Ota Benga, a Congolese man of diminutive proportions, was the largest draw at the Bronx Zoo. Benga was encouraged by zoo workers to hang his hammock in the monkey cage, shoot arrows at a practice target for the crowds of spectators. Following ardent criticism from local clergy, Benga was released into the care of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn, before relocating to a tobacco plantation in Virginia in order to earn money for a ticket back to Africa. Passenger travel across the Atlantic was suspended during World War I, and Benga’s hopes of returning to his homeland slowly atrophied. Stranded in a foreign landscape, he stole a loaded pistol and fired a single round into his heart.


Zoo director and chief curator William Hornaday opined, in a letter to New York City Mayor George B. McClellan, “When the history of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing passage.”


Few memories from those years can be recalled with any kind of clarity. Most have been declawed, denied the full weight of their expression. Freud called it motivated forgetting—omission as a means of self-preservation. Me, I call it time lost.


For consorting with the Italian government, the poet Ezra Pound was charged with high treason and detained in an American military camp in Pisa. He spent twenty-five days interned in a six-by-six-foot metal cage. After two weeks in detention he suffered a mental breakdown and, judged to be of unsound mind, was placed in a Washington psychiatric hospital, where he would spend the next twelve and a half years. As Pound wrote of Odysseus in his Pisan Cantos, “That the wave crashed, whirling the raft, then / Tearing the oar from his hand, / broke mast and yard-arm / And he was drawn down under wave.”


One wonders how Clark Kent, broad shoulders and all, could undress comfortably within the confines of a common telephone booth. What would he do with his flannel suits?


In a small barge off the coast of Governors Island, Houdini attempted one of his most audacious escapes. With his arms and legs shackled, he was nailed in a shipping crate and lowered into New York Harbor. The crate was reinforced with iron strips and bound with ropes and chains. While the top of the box was bolted shut, the lower board featured a secret hinge that opened from the inside. Once free of his manacles, Houdini released the hidden catch that secured the board in place and guided his body through the narrow breach. Using the air holes as a fingerhold, he returned the door to its former position before letting go of the crate and floating upward to an improbable salvation. 

Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies (Outpost19). His work has appeared in Salon, The Atlantic, the Paris Review Daily, Mid-American Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Rochester, NY.

Illustration by Mai Ly Degnan

Issue 13