Consent in Escape from Spiderhead

In Escape from Spiderhead, the administrators ask the subjects for consent before administering the mind altering drugs. Subjects will say “acknowledge” in response to being asked “drip on” by the administrator. This makes sense as the drugs can influence how one thinks and acts. However, when the subject refuses to give consent, the administrators are willing to forcibly make the subject agree to take the drugs. This is revealed near the end of the story. “…what’s the name of that one? The one where I give him an order and he obeys it?…What good’s an obedience drug if we need his permission to use it?” (75). If Abnesti is willing to bypass the requirement of consent, it’s almost pointless to ask in the first place. As Jeff continues to refuse to consent, Abnesti and Verlaine go through the procedure to obtain the waiver that allows them to give Jeff the obedience drug, Docilryde. During this time Jeff kills himself, but had he still been alive when they returned, they would have given him the Docilryde and continued the experiment without having gotten legitimate consent.

Another time consent is more or less forced is when Jeff meets Heather and Rachel. Considering they were put under the influence of ED556 which lowers shame level to the point where it’s almost non-existent and presumably also lowers inhibitions, consent was not legitimately obtained before they had sex. This is further evident by the fact that they both saw each other as “average” or “normal” before being drugged. Also judging by how determined Abnesti and Verlaine are to complete the experiments, it is clear that consent is not really their top priority.

Do Our Stories Accurately Represent Us?

An event that happened in your past can determine your future. It can shape and change how you present yourself to the world and your personality. But, do the stories of one’s past reveal a window into their true characteristics and more importantly their humanity. The George Saunders story, “Escape From Spiderhead”, provides insight on how our rhetoric and the stories we tell reflect on us.

George Saunders, in “Escape From Spiderhead”, creates a vivid world that explores power dynamics and how the backstories of characters are curated to feed into these dynamics. In the short story, Abnesti, a warden-like character, has drilled a handful of stories of his life into the mind of the protagonist, Jeff.

Jeff knows that Abnesti has children and he knows the names of his children. Abnesti provides these details to show the audience he is not a bad person. He even asks Jeff the rhetorical question, “Am I a monster?” (68). Abnesti has created a three dimensional portrayal of himself to Jeff. He is a good guy, a father, but this is his job.

While Abnesti has created a humane image of himself, he goes out of his way to selectively chose bad stories that he tells about the “criminals” in Spiderhead. An example of this is when he gives Jeff a file of Rachel’s criminal acts. These acts include going “to jail for drugs”(74) among other crimes. This strips Rachel of her humanity. The backstories used for Abnesti versus Rachel illuminate the power Abnesti holds over her and the other “criminals”. This causes Abnesti to seem like a real human while those under him aren’t. Backstories can lift up those in control while degrading the powerless.

The Map of Morality

George Saunders’ “Escape from Spiderhead” explores science, emotions, experiments, crime, freedom etc. The characters are divided into the scientists and the test subjects.

The scientists are in charge of the experiments and they test the emotions that the patients feel after each session. The role of the scientists resides in the characters Abnesti and Verlaine. Their goal is to prove that the medication called ED289/290 can bring love and then take it away. The scientists would use torture to prove their medication was fool-proof.

While it is undeniable that the actions of Abnesti and Verlaine are morally wrong, does it make them bad people?

Abnesti is willing to sacrifice a life to prove that his medication is real. But throughout the story he shows acts of care towards his patients. During a conversation with Jeff, Abnesti reminds, “Do I remember birthdays around here? When a certain individual got athlete’s foot on his groin on a Sunday, did a certain other individual drive over to Recall and pick up the cream, paying for it with his own personal money?” (pg. 68). While Abnesti toys with Jeff’s emotion he also supports him in different acts. He remembers Jeff’s birthday and provides him medicine. Saunder’s story writes a man who is devoted to a ethically evil job but some of Abnesti’s actions prove that morals do not completely coincide to good or evil.

Moral Struggles in Escape from Spiderhead

In “Escape from Spiderhead,” Jeff, the protagonist, faces internal struggles throughout the story. They ultimately drive him to commit suicide at the end. On page 67, the text states, “‘I don’t want you to Darkenfloxx Heather. . . I don’t want you to Darkenfloxx anybody. . . ” Abnesti asks Jeff to choose Darkenfloxx for either Heather or Rachel. Jeff isn’t in love with either of them but he respects them as humans and doesn’t want them to suffer. This is an example of mutual recognition, something that Abnesti doesn’t understand. Further on in the story, the text states, “Heather. . . dissasemble the chair while continuing to drive her head into the wall. . .” She is given the Darkenfloxx and feels the full affects of the lethal drug. As a result, Jeff is crying because he doesn’t want to see her suffer. And on page 80, Jeff lays his struggles to rest when he commits suicide. Internally, he says, “No, I thought, no thanks, I’ve had enough.” This is very tragic yet such an important moment. The whole story, Jeff had to do what Abnesti told him and this is his final act to go against the system. We don’t know if Rachel will be given Darkenfloxx but Jeff is freed from the oppression.


George Saunders is a master of writing stories with authentic details and relevant imagery, and tackling serious topics with a certain nod to humor. A striking example of which is his use of the rat tattoo. “Rogan had a tattoo of a rat on his neck, a rat that had just been knifed and was crying. But even through its tears it was knifing a smaller rat, who just looked surprised” (59). This small passage actually reflects the dynamic of the story quite well. If we were to assign characters to the different aspects of the tattoo, one could argue the larger rat is Jeff, and the smaller rat is Heather. Jeff knows what Darkenfloxx does to a person, he has had it done to himself before, yet he is willing to allow Heather to be Darkenfloxxed. At the same time, Heather has no idea what her fate is, and she is taken by just as much surprise as the smaller rat. One has to wonder who knifed the larger rat. Fitting within the metaphor, Abnesti would be the obvious culprit, but there’s no imagery to symbolize him. Perhaps the fact that the rats are present, while he is not, represents that through the pain, Jeff and the other victims still have humanity, while Abnesti has none.

How do you escape your past?

The title “Escape from Spiderhead” implies a physical escape from the research/prison complex where Jeff is held. Yet, in a physical form, he never leaves. His body remains in Spiderhead after his suicide- none of his fellow inmates escape either. Therefore, what exactly does Jeff escape? To answer this question, we must assess a) what Jeff wanted to escape and b) who (or what) was narrating the story during its last moments. In regards to the first problem, the answer appears simple: he wants to leave Spiderhead physically so that Rachel will not be Darkenfloxxed. However, will Rachel not just be Darkenfloxxed with Rogan or Keith narrating her experience on Veraluce instead of Jeff? With this in mind, it becomes clear that Jeff truly wishes to escape killing, both in his past and present. On page 76, Jeff describes, “It was like all I had to do to be a killer again was to sit there and wait.” He then regretfully recalls his first murder of Mike Appel in detail. In Jeff’s mind, even if he isn’t actively killing Rachel, his complacency will render him a murderer once again, just as he was when he actively killed Mike Appel. Though Rachel will be Darkenfloxxed with or without Jeff, he wants to escape his complacency in her death, and by extension, his violent past. This desire is confirmed when we assess who escapes Spiderhead and how they do it. After Jeff kills himself, he transcends his physical form and leaves Spiderhead, sailing “right through the roof.” Additionally, some benevolent figure asks him if he wants to go back into his body, to which he refuses, and he joins a flock of birds, and “flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them…”. All of these confirm that he does not have a physical human form and that his body was left behind in his death. However, the ending suggests that his body was not the only part of the narrator that remained in Spiderhead. Jeff implies that the murder in his past is “the ultimate, unwashable transgression”; there is no way for Jeff to escape his wrongdoing. This appears to contrast the ending, where the narrator articulates, “and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never will.” How could the narrator, Jeff, have escaped his past if murder is unescapable? The narrator at the end of the story is not Jeff at all. Notice that he never refers to Jeff at the end of the story; he states, “This is all me now”, implying that he and the Jeff that was in Spiderhead are now separate. The narrator not only leaves behind his physical form when Jeff dies- he ceases to exist as Jeff, and therefore absolves himself of Jeff’s past. In this way, the narrator has never killed and never will, because though Jeff never escapes, his conscious does.

The Human Connection and Poetry

One of the most prominent concepts I take away from this piece is the separation between romance, desire, platonic connection, and human empathy. Are these various connections that are defined under the umbrella of “love” independent from each other, or are they melanged in a blend of raw human emotion? In the end, Jeff sacrifices himself for – and cares deeply for Rachael. Not because he loves her romantically or sexually. But because beneath any criminal, beneath any monster there always seems to be an underlying current of love. Those who are most hardened by life are not forced to grapple with and reveal this tenderness until dire circumstances are imposed. Or sometimes they never have the chance at all …

An interesting detail I picked up on was the character of Verlaine. Last year I was rifling through the cabinets in the French classroom, and I took home this book of poetry. Verlaine’s work is synonymous with the beauty and elegance of words. His poems weave words together in a truly artistic way. Saunders’s must’ve intentionally known this when naming one of his characters Verlaine. The most prominent connect I draw is between Verlaine’s (the poet, not the character) poetry and the drug Verbaluce. In Escape from Spiderhead, the drug Verbaluce inflicted by Abnesti and Verlaine (the character, not the poet) causes its recipients to describe experiences in great poetic detail with vivid imagery. When Jeff is induced by Verbaluce his description and perception of a garden meanders from simplistic, mundane, and childlike to one of great detail and literary skill:

“The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral” (46).

Jeff continues these poetic descriptions when recalling his experiences with the girl’s he is artificially induced to love and desire. Every time they make love under the influence of Verbaluce, Jeff verbalizes the mental images of places he has never seen in great detail, “… a certain pine packed valley in high white mountains, a chalet-type house in a cul-de-sac, a yard of which was overgrown with wide, stunted Seussian trees” (50). These mental images appear regardless of the girl Jeff is with. This imagery reminds me of the way Verlaine composes his poems.

A view from my workspace of a book of Verlaine’s poetry
What kinds of unique books does the library have? Are there any handcrafted  books like the livre d'artiste? – Booked Solid
One of Verlaine’s poems in an illustrated edition of one of his books.Paul Verlaine, Parallèlement  Lithographs by Pierre Bonnard (Paris: Ambroise Vollard, 1900)
Considered to be the originator of the livre d’artiste, dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned Pierre Bonnard to create lithographs to illustrate Parallèlement, poems by Paul Verlaine. The work was published in Paris in 1900.

Breaking the Binary in Spiderhead

Of the many binaries in Escape from Spiderhead, the one that has the most impact on Jeff’s self-sacrifice at the end of the story is the experimenter/prisoner binary. This binary is already complicated since usually it is implied that the prisoners are bad people and scientists/law enforcement is good, but the roles of this other binary are already switched. Because of this, as a “good person”, Jeff does not want to flip the binary and become the one in power. For him to take over the role of dominator would make him a killer within the context of the present in Spiderhead, which he is terrified of doing. Therefore instead of feeding into the power structure, he breaks out of it completely through noble sacrifice. In his thought process of trying to figure out a way to “leave” Spiderhead, he comes to his conclusion: “How could I make it so I wouldn’t be here? I could leave. How could I leave?…. Some Darkenfloxx. Jesus. That was one way to leave” (78). Though his apprehension about death is evident, he decides on this because it is the only way he can think of to break free of the binary entirely.

Science vs. Abuse of Power

In George Saunders’ Escape from Spiderhead, the readers are introduced to the drug experimentation that certain criminals are subjected to. In his story, Saunders creates a justice system in which certain criminals are used as human test subjects for various new drugs. The main two proponents of this experimentation mentioned in the story are Abnesti and Verlaine. Abnesti constantly tries to justify his actions as for the common good and for scientific drug advancement. On page 67, Abnesti speaks regarding the original data from the first Darkenfloxx trial, stating “‘Well, that was good enough for me,’ he said. ‘But apparently not good enough for the Protocol Committee… we’re going to need to do a kind of Confirmation Trial.'” This affirms the notion the Abnesti is concerned with scientific advancement, but the mental torture he inflict upon Heather implies that he is more concerned with keeping his power.

Escape from ED289/290

The Escape from Spiderhead had multiple inspiring quotes, but there was one specific quote that stuck out to me. On page 64, it states, “It means that ED289/290 is the real deal. It can make love, it can take it away, I’m almost inclined to start the naming process.” This quotation stuck out to me because of how perfectly it is said. Some people search to find love all their life, yet Abnesti creates this drug that can create love and take away love. Humans crave love just like addicts crave drugs. Now that Abnesti created a drug that feeds humans craving, their will be more addicts attracted this new drug; love.

Jeff’s Priorities

“Do you want me to say that your Fridays are at risk?”(71).

When Jeff refuses to “Acknowledge” the Darkenfloxx drip and cause Heather to suffer, Abnesti threatens his skype sessions with his mother. His initial failed compliance is overturned after this threat because his time with his mom is highly treasured.

After Heather is given the Darkenfloxx drip and dies, Jeff shifts his priorities. He values Rachel’s life and does not want what happened to Heather to happen to Rachel. He decides to give himself the Darkenfloxx drip so that his actions are not responsible for Rachel’s death. He prioritizes her life over his.

Escape to Freedom

Throughout the story it can be seen that Abnesti and Verlaine have control over the main character, Jeff, and have power over his freedoms. One example is on page 68 when Abnesti states “‘Do you want me to say your Fridays are at risk? I can easily say that.’ Which was cheap. My Fridays meant a lot to me, and he knew that. Fridays I got to Skype my mom.” Prior to this moment, Jeff was resisting his reception of a certain chemical which prompts Abnesti’s threat to take away his freedom to Skype his mom. It’s clear that Abnesti dominates this relationship when he details how he can “easily” take Jeffs Skype privilege away. Since Jeff is in some form of a prison, its obvious his freedoms would be taken away but its interesting how he regains his freedoms in a way, through suicide.

“Escape from the Spiderhead” and Humanity

“Thus every human is worthy of love”
“That’s all just pretty much basic human feeling right there” (70).

“Escape from the Spiderhead” contains many themes, but among all those, is the grand theme of “What it means to be human?” As Jeff watches Heather struggle with her dose of Darkenfloxx, he monologues that every person is worthy of love, to which Verlaine replies that he believe that feeling is common among all people. Since Verlaine is a reputable scientist, it can be inferred that he is a knowledgeable source. Thus, all people feel that others are worthy of love. Therefore, George Saunders introduces the concept that despite all our flaws, people are inherently good.

This claim is then supported again in the final moments of the story as Jeff formulates his plan. Having witnessed Heather’s fate, Jeff seeks to save Rachel, which he does by killing himself (77-79). Though Jeff’s fate is grim, his suicide can be seen as more of a sacrifice than a surrender. This is ironic because Jeff is a convicted killer. Yet, he is willing to give his life to save another person. In addition, Rachel is also far from a “good person”; however, Jeff still sacrifices his life for her, believing the she is worthy of saving despite her flaws. Therefore, Saunders continues his assertion that people are inherently good, even if they have committed past mistakes. He also states that being a “bad person” does not necessarily mean that one is not worth saving.

Meanwhile, the scientists, Abnesti and Verlaine are presumed to be “good people” and they certainly believe themselves so. Yet, they administer the drugs that result in Heather’s and presumably others’ deaths. This indicates that the line between “good” and “bad” is far more blurred than one may believe and societal position has nothing to do with morality. For instance, a criminal may be more human than a brilliant scientist. However, even so, Abnesti and Verlaine do commit acts of kindness (though many are arguably for manipulative reasons) and presumably have lives outside of the Spiderhead with families. Thus, they are not entirely “bad” people either.

Therefore, Saunders asserts that to be human is to have empathy and care for others; people are inherently good. There is no societal position that determines humanity; a person is not any less human because of their crimes or flaws.

Humanity is determined not by society, but by each and every individual.

Abnesti’s Profanity

After reading Escape From Spiderhead, I was in awe with the complex characters that occupied the story. Each character was completely fleshed out, even though it was only a short story. One poignant example was Abnesti. I think that Abnesti is an incredibly intriguing character, mainly because, regardless of his undeniable monstrosity, he is convinced that he is a good person. To me, the most interesting portrayal of this dimension of his personality was his refusal to swear. His usage of appropriate terms of exasperation instead or profane ones showed that he is completely convinced of his own goodness. The ridiculous extent of his appropriate swears, for example, “‘Jeff, you’re totally doinking with our experimental design integrity'” (Saunders 63), expresses his self-image. He thinks of himself as a goofy, appropriate, good guy. He’s a family man, who buys his subjects cream from the store, who doesn’t swear, and does things in the name of science. His abhorrent actions, his murder of Heather, none of those mean that he is a bad person. He’s a good guy because he doesn’t say potty words.

Jeff’s Inner Conflict

“Basically, what I was feeling was: Every human is born of man and women. Every human, at birth, is, or at least has the potential to be, beloved of his/her mother/father. Thus every human is worthy of love.”- Jeff Pg 33

“I hated it. I’m a person. I have feelings. Still personal sadness aside, that was good. You did terrific overall. We all did terrific. Heather especially did terrific.”- Abnesti pg35

Jeff, a criminal, watching Heather going through the effects of the Darkenfloxx makes him feel that even though she has done horrible things in her past she is deserving of love. He sees the good that Abnesti is doing at that moment: that he is giving people that feel that they are not worthy of love, the love they deserve, with this new drug. But then it shifts, Jeff also sees the bad- that Abnesti is a monster for making Heather act this way and killing her. In that moment, Jeff is conflicted with Abnesti’s intentions. Throughout the story, Abnesti is constantly reasuring Jeff that he is a good person, but Jeff ultimately sees him differently, and commits suicide at the end. He doesn’t want to be associated with the act of killing anymore.

Jeff’s Stockholm Syndrome

In “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders there seems to be a sort of Stockholm Syndrome scenario between Jeff and Abnesti. Instead of going to “real Jail”, Jeff’s mother paid for Jeff to go to Spiderhead. However, this might not have been the best choice because Spiderhead is deceivingly an evil institution. Jeff seems to adopt a friendship with Abnesti and have a pleasant time at Spiderhead. Jeff knows that he is a prisoner, but he is manipulated by Abnesti without knowing. This can be seen when Abnesti tells Jeff, “You know me … how many kids do I have … what are their names” (68). At that moment Abnesti tries to persuade Jeff into hurting Heather by bringing up their “friendly” relationship. Abnesti attempts to build a connection so Jeff remains complicit. Another reasong Jeff falls for Abnesti’s tricks is because Abnesti creates a false sense of security by leaving the door to Spiderhead unlocked, remembering birthdays, and giving medicinal creams to Jeff. Abnesti tries to seem like a friend to Jeff but he sees Jeff as a criminal, like all of the other “participants”, and could never truly be friends with Jeff. Abnesti believes he is the outstanding citizen while Jeff is just another low life criminal.

Towards the end, Jeff starts to realize that Spiderhead and Abnesti are corrupt. When Verlaine mentions that he refreshed Jeff’s MobiPak, “While he was sleeping”, Jeff starts to understand that he his a prisoner and tries to break out of Abnesti’s hold (66). Jeff tries to be a good person but Abnesti refuses to let him. Abnesti manipulates Jeff into giving Heather Darkenfloxx but the results push Jeff to his limit. Jeff finally escapes from Abnesti’s evilness, when he kills himself on Darkenfloxx, not wanting to kill again.

Power vs Free-will

In Escape from Spiderhead, there is an inherent power dynamic in which the scientists have power over the inmates however, I found it interesting how the inmates always had some degree of free will and how the scientists tried to manipulate that. Whenever Abnesti performed an experiment he had to request permission to administer the drugs and the inmates had to say acknowledge to allow the scientist to administer the drugs.

Abnesti works hard to gain the inmates trust so they think of him as a good person and listen to him. Abnesti uses the goodwill he has garnered to try and persuade Jeff to allow him to administer the new round of drugs when Jeff originally refused to do so, by saying “do I remember birthdays around here? When a certain individual got athlete’s foot on his groin on a Sunday, did a certain other individual drive over to Recall and pick up the cream, paying for it with his own personal money?”(68). This shows us that the scientists aren’t all-powerful in the Spiderhead and Abnesti knows this so he manipulates the inmates including Jeff into thinking that he is good and the inmates are bad. Abnesti realizes that Jeff wants to be better so he uses the fact that he is supposedly “good” to his advantage when trying to manipulate Jeff.

Later in the story Jeff doesn’t acknowledge again only this time Abnesti asks Verlaine for the obedience drug, which oddly enough, needs permission for use. This reinforces the idea that even though the scientists have power over the inmates the inmates still have some degree of control and free will.

Escape from Punishment

This story is written in a specific way so the reader is not fully aware of what is going on in the beginning. There is talk about drugs, and euphoric sensations as a result, but the writer does not fully explain what is going on and why this is all happening. A couple of pages in, Saunders gives us a little information to why Jeff is going through what he is. The text states, “…as if trying to remind me that I was not here by choice but because I had done my crime and I was in the process of doing me crime.” (55) This is very interesting because the reader realizes that Jeff is stuck there and being administered drugs because he committed a crime. This crime is referred to as “the fateful night” in the story and it is later on revealed that Jeff is in Spiderhead because he killed a guy in a fight. I thought his was a very important part of the story because the reader is able to see that each character does not actually have the consent we thought they had before. Because they have to say “acknowledge before being given the drug, I thought they were in control, but this quote shows that they are not. This point is emphasized when Heather is given Darkenfloxx. While Heather says “acknowledge,” she ends up dying from this drug in less than 5 minutes, proving that she has no control. This terrible system, guilting Jeff and the others into believing they are terrible people and deserve to be given these drugs in exchange for their past faults, reminds me of the present day debate on whether or not prisoners should be tested on for different products or drugs. These are very similar situations, where there is a power hold from one side, and the other has little to no control. This power struggle is a very dangerous one and can lead to scary things, as shown in Spiderhead.

Escape From “Acknowledge”

In the short story, “Escape From Spiderhead” George Saunders creates a different point of view in punishment. While the prisoners are being experimented on with different drugs by Abnesti, the prisoners are supposed to give consent for the drug to be administered. Every time that a different drug was administered, Abnesti would ask “Drip on?” and the prisoner would need to give consent by responding with “Acknowledge”.

The word “Acknowledge” should be seen as the prisoners only power or freedom, because they must consent to the experiments being done. However, as the story goes on we see that the word “Acknowledge” is being much more forced and controlled by Abnesti than by the prisoners. When Rachel was about to receive the Darkenfloxx, Jeff “did not say “Acknowledge” ….. Abnesti said. “Verlaine, what’s the name of that one? The one where I give him an order and he obeys it?”(75). Since Abnesti is taking away the one piece of power that Jeff had during his punishment, this experiment is more of torture and cruelty. So Abnesti is not a kind person being forced to punish and experiment through the system, he is using the system as justification for torture.

Abnesti fake feelings

While Jeff is trying to process what just happened to Heather from Darkenfloxx, Abnesti attempts to comfort Jeff. Even though Jeff claimed he didn’t love Heather romantically he still cared for her and was very upset with what happened. Abnesti can see that Jeff is clearly saddened but says, “I hated it. I’m a person. I have feelings. Still, personal sadness aside, that was good” (72). Abnesti doesn’t offer a helping hand to Jeff in this hard time, instead Abnesti backs it up by saying he is a person and has feelings too, but yet doesn’t seem to be upset about what just happened. Even though Abnesti claims to ‘have feelings’ they don’t seem legit. The way Abnesti tries to comfort Jeff shows that he doesn’t really care for them the way he should, but still cares in some ways. Creating an environment that makes Jeff think of Abnesti as a good guy and doesn’t see through his fake feelings.